In the days before Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, it was possible to run into Jimmy Page in a village in the interior of Bahia, have dinner with Jimmy and Jimena, do it again the next day when you found them sitting at the table with the friends you’d planned to meet, because they ran into him, too, and no one would be the wiser. The children of friends could stub their toes and not worry that, years later, a potential employer would mention it during an interview. Moreover, in the interim, I need not ponder ooze and pus over breakfast. Yes, it was a different world. A more immediate world. A private one. Lest you fear that I plan to wax nostalgic or go Luddite on you, stop right there. I celebrate Skype because I tend to ramble about, and when it’s impossible to pop over for a visit, Skype enables me to have tea with those whom I love and miss. I appreciate Facebook for connecting me with artists whom I admire and introducing me to many more, for creating and illustrating an interesting news zeitgeist, and for justifying my paycheck. As for Twitter, even the name and associated rhetoric are silly, and I’m all for silly. No, I do not glorify the 80s and 90s in any way, nor do I wish to return there or anywhere else behind us, but I do find contemporary social media inflected anomie disturbing. Dishonest even because we fail to recognize it for what it is—the byproducts of marketing. This is one reason I love living in Warsaw.
“How are you?” in Warsaw does not result in an obligatory “Very well, thanks. And you?” People tell you the truth. “Oh, thanks. Yes, my dog is beautiful, but he’s the reason my girlfriend left me. So, I must find a new home for him. I want her back…” and more emerged from the mouth of a perfect stranger with a silver Great Dane, whom I encountered walking Janie the Dog. “Horrible. Oh, my god. I drank so much vodka last night, and I haven’t prepared my work for the week, and I’m worried about so much…” from a friend I meet for lunch. “Eh, not so good,” from the director of the language school where I study Polish. “Oh yes, I do look good today. Thanks! It’s a new dress,” from an acquaintance at brunch.
My other brunch companion explained to me that such truths help Poles feel connected to each other because they can acknowledge and share what’s real and then move on to the moment at hand. So, I tried it. I was Skyping with a friend in the US when a message flew across my screen that ticked me off royally. Heartfelt expletives followed. Unburdened, I felt great. Ready to tackle the problem sans unproductive emotional backwash. My friend, however, looked horrified. Personally attacked even. Experiment only mildly successful. Note to self: restrict honesty to conversations with Poles. Or, perhaps more appropriately, restrict honesty to face-to-face interaction with Poles, where the ambient air, a tasty cup of tea, or a beer, and sincere commiseration can help to clear the toxic off-load.
“Face-to-face” interaction in Warsaw is clearly distinguished from non-”face-to-face,” and notably from social media, interaction. My Polish FB friends do not use FB the way most of my North American and Western European friends do. No, my Polish friends and acquaintances do not traffic in high-fives, announcements of milestones and successes, and cries for help—I once had to hide a lovely new friend’s feed because every time I turned on my computer, it sounded like he was on the verge of offing himself, but after checking in plus six months of feed monitoring, I determined that this was merely his FB persona, one, however, that I’d rather not encounter with breakfast. My Polish FB friends, by contrast, rarely announce their relationship status, updates about said status, or a disappointing lack of status. They set up FB profiles for their dogs, who then have followings of their own, if it seems that their dogs need that much airtime. Their children remain mostly private and make oblique, unnamed appearances. They neither court, nor create the opportunity for, the anomie-inducing voyeurism that I find so prevalently cultivated, and so distressing, in the social media of my homeland.
So, dog pages aside, do Poles actually use FB? Yes, they are all over it. For Poles, however, social media does not seem to serve as a substitute for community, like it does in the West, as so many have asserted, and I think, rightly so. Personal anecdotes combine with these oft-cited U-M study findings to convince me. Nor does it serve as a marketing channel. Unlike Western Facebook users, my Polish FB friends aren’t using their profiles to market an aspirational brand, in this case, a way of life that many aspire to and few achieve (despite their carefully crafted FB personas). Rather, Facebook is a new tool in the box for cultivating a common vocabulary that enriches face-to-face interaction. And, the tenor is generally fun. Optimism may not be the first trait that comes to mind when one considers the Polish personality writ large, but at least in my small, but growing, sample of Warsovian FB friends, fun and a sense of play are not conflated with, nor do they require, optimism. They occupy, however, a prominent position in the personality quiver, and Facebook offers a key arena for expressing them.
To wit, here are three delightful moments offered up by Polish FB friends in the last week. The first case is the trailer for Wes Anderson’s new film, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Though fairly self-explanatory, the added layer of intertextuality and delight, here in Warsaw, is provided by Budapest’s proximity. The second case is a music video by Russian singer and composer, Peter Nalitch, singing lyrics that include, “I have never been lonely, cause me so cool.” What must be pointed out, lest it be missed, is that this self-reflexive satire is contemporary and cosmopolitan, which is not lost on my Polish FB friends. Finally, from two different FB sources, I was treated to this clip of Polish pop singer, Patty, performing a song called “Cry” on a local “good morning” television show. Outrageous attire conspires with beauty and an apparent unfamiliarity with the instruments the women purportedly play to create a joke that is additionally funny to me because it sends me back to Robert Palmer’s 1985 music video, “Addicted to Love.”
Given my provenance, I am not immune from cooking up anomie stew in my social media channels. Moreover, I have become by sometimes-profession an experienced marketer. My own FB “friends” profile and “public” page are littered with efforts at taste-making, “I did that,” and even, occasionally, the overt cry for help. You will no doubt have noted that I kicked this piece off with eating Jimmy Page’s fries in Bahia and not Joe Shmo’s in Peoria. As I consider my own practices, I begin to wonder whether these moves aren’t all cries for help, not just in my own case, but also generally in the commodified, market- and marketing-saturated West. Notice me. Support me. Love me.These misplaced efforts to connect are carved enthusiastically and sometimes desperately from the dearth of options offered by a cultural context that relegates honesty to marketing, which it to say, largely omits the option for its expression in any significant way.
The Poles have had a lot of opportunity to cultivate honesty. Hundreds of years of grisly events make optimism a foolish stance and, “Very well, thanks,” absurd in all but the truest of instances. By my reckoning, however, life ain’t so ducky in the land of the free and the home of the brave. My daily dose of FB and the ensuing anomie it catalyzes convinces me. Perhaps, then, the brave thing to do would be to traffic in more face-to-face honesty, more online play, and less marketing overall. Forget the aspirational brand. What’s life really like? For you. For real? The truth may set you free. For my initial contribution to said freedom project, I offer you 7th graders in Oakland, Californiatelling like it is, goats on rocks doing what they do, and a Smiths/Charlie Brown mash-up because “life is very long when you’re lonely.” Na zdrowie!
Photo credit: Jimmy Page and Jimena Gomez-Paratcha Page, allstarpics.net
originally published in Michigan Quarterly Review on October 23, 2013