The recent uproar about fake ads on Facebook has shone a spotlight on how unreliable social media reports can be. But a couple of years ago, I learned this lesson firsthand — and in a very unexpected way.
My story actually starts back when I was in sixth grade and landed the title role in my class production of Mary Poppins. It was the high point of my elementary school career, and seemed a surefire sign that I was destined for Broadway stardom. I belted out the lyrics to Spoonful of Sugar while dramatically pouring pretend medicine onto a spoon. I smiled demurely as the boy who played Bert serenaded me with Jolly Holiday. Our performances drew seemingly endless standing ovations. For weeks, kindergartners would chase me down for my autograph.
Alas, my star turn was short lived. A string of disappointing auditions in junior high productions convinced me that a career before the footlights was not in my future. But I still had Mary. I would always have Mary.
Or so I thought.
A Surprising Revelation
Fast forward to the invention of Facebook and the rise of Throwback Thursday (#TBT) when everyone celebrates their past (or embarrasses their children and friends) by posting images from long ago. Long-neglected class pictures began showing up weekly on my Facebook news feed. So I wasn’t all that surprised one Thursday afternoon when a Facebook friend and one-time classmate — we’ll call her Karen M. — posted a photo of herself as the Bird Woman from that sixth-grade Mary Poppins production.
What did surprise me, however, was the comment Sarah B. posted: I was a chimney sweep. Jennifer K. was Mary Poppins… oh how I remember that!
My jaw dropped and my eyes nearly bugged out of my head as I took in the words on my computer screen. What? What? Jennifer K. wasn’t Mary Poppins! I was Mary Poppins!
I immediately went to correct the record, but my fingers stalled above the keys. It seemed kind of pathetic to jump in so quickly and remind others of my time in the spotlight. Better to let someone else do it, I thought. Surely some fellow graduate of Miss Schmitt’s class would want to give credit where credit was due.
I waited and refreshed the page. Nothing.
I went back to a work project, then returned and refreshed again. Now there were comments about how awfully cute Karen M. looked in her plaid fringed shawl. But as for Sarah B.’s statement? Not a word. Not then, and not when I checked 10 minutes later. Or a half-hour after that. Or the dozen or so additional times I went back that evening. What was going on?
Erased by Facebook?
It’s often said that browsing Facebook is the most humbling of experiences, and I couldn’t agree more. Everyone on Facebook looks happier than I am. Everyone takes more exotic vacations. Everyone’s Thanksgiving turkey is a prettier shade of golden brown. Everyone on Facebook is better than me. It’s OK. I’ve made peace with that.
But this was a whole new level of degradation. Facebook hadn’t merely diminished me. Now, it had actually erased me.
As far as Facebook was concerned, I was never Mary Poppins — and who was I to argue? I had no pictures of my own. All I had were my memories — and how conclusive were they when the Internet was around now? It was a 21st-century version of that unanswerable question: If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound? If something occurs but Facebook doesn’t acknowledge it… did it really happen?
The next morning, I went about my normal business, feeling anything but normal. Instead, I felt somewhat transparent, as though the cashier at the grocery store could put her hand right through me, the way people did to Patrick Swayze in the movie Ghost. Yes, it was ridiculous — it was just a sixth-grade play; it was only Facebook. But still, it was sad. How could nobody remember it was me up there on that stage?
Setting the Record Straight
And then, as I was getting into my car, an alert came up on my phone: Karen M. tagged you on Facebook. Holding my breath, hoping it was what I thought it was, I clicked through to Facebook. Sure enough, there was Karen M.’s comment, glorious in its simplicity:
I think Barbara S. was Mary Poppins.
Oh, happy day! If Mark Zuckerberg had been close, I’d have flung my arms around him. Before long, Sarah B. agreed that she’d been mistaken, and Jennifer K. piped up to say she’d actually played the little girl, Jane. Then Brad R., who played her little brother, Michael, summed everything up — with the word you say when there’s nothing else to say:
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, he wrote.
For me, that #TBT post and its aftermath was a game changer. It showed me that Facebook is a funhouse mirror, with our reflection formed not by what we do, but by what others make of us. No wonder people check their posts with such anticipation, hoping for an endless stream of “likes,” “loves,” and other positive emoticons.
While I still use it both professionally and personally, I’ve trained myself to look to the real world when I’m in need of acknowledgment or a reminder that I matter. As a source of emotional comfort, Facebook is a fickle friend.
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