I fear something terrible has happened.
I was up late last night (and in the middle of the night) checking in on friends and team-mates participating in Ironman Arizona. Those who have done an Ironman or have supported someone who has knows that it can be an emotionally wrenching experience for all concerned. For the athlete, obviously, but if you are part of the support crew and your athlete ends up not having a good day, it can be wrenching to watch them suffer. So I knew that when I was hearing about people finishing, watching their online results gradually update throughout the day, seeing photos, that there would be a lot of emotions: exhilaration, sympathy, empathy, painful cringes, and so on. What I didn’t expect was that it would lead to an overwhelming sense of loss.
Flashback for a moment to a grassy knoll. Dallas. November 22, 1963.
Sorry, just kidding.
Let’s try Lake Placid, New York. July 26, 2009. Mary had just completed her first Ironman and we were sitting with my uncle and cousin on the grassy embankment above the IM USA finish line. It was at that moment that I began to understand, to really understand, how new communications technologies were changing the way we were experiencing the world. We each had our smart phones and were able to check our mail (ooh!). As people crossed the finish line, the Team Z e-mail group would light up with posts from everyone who was monitoring the race via the live Ironman feed, back in the DC area. “I just saw X finish!” “According to the race tracker Y is 6 miles out and running a good pace.” “Does anyone have any information on Z?” Every new post would produce a cavalcade of responses; the list was flooded with congratulations for individual athletes, comments on the event itself, etc.
I was to see this same pattern replicated in other Ironman races in next couple of years and it became one of the things I kind of looked forward to: when we couldn’t be there, we would still be there to support our team-mates and meet, albeit virtually, to share the event as a team. The same thing happened last year for my Ironman in Wisconsin; the e-mail group was once again jumping. I was expecting the same thing for IM Arizona. In fact, so sure of this was I that I made sure to post a brief comment on that day’s ride well in advance of when the first results were coming in so as not to steal the thunder from any of our athletes or distract those wanting to celebrate their accomplishments.
The hours passed. The e-mail list stayed silent. When I went to bed around midnight, with still two hours to go, there was still virtually nothing from the e-mail group. I put it down to yet another screw up by Yahoo mail (they have the flakiest e-mail client imaginable and sometimes it will just arbitrarily not deliver mail and then produce it hours or days later). I got up this morning expecting a flood of mail from the list.
Now of course all this celebrating was happening. Over on Facebook. All night long I was swamped by feeds related to IM Arizona: images, finishing line video, automated race-tracker updates from various athletes, and so on. There was celebration, commiseration. . .a veritable blast from the virtual Team Z vuvuzela.
Or so it seemed. If people were celebrating, and participating virtually in the triumphs and tragedies of their friends, what does it matter where they were doing it?
Just this: it is all dependent upon who your friends are. People who have been following my other blog have noticed that I’ve been having more and more doubts about the way in which Facebook has (re)defined our notion of what friendship means. In essence, it has taken what used to be a very private set of relationships–friendships–and transformed them into a kind of compulsory performance of friendship. In the process it is gradually diminishing our sense of what private space means but also our sense of what real public space and public groupings mean. Why bother meeting up in RL when you can FB? All in the name of profit. But of course there wouldn’t be any profit if a truly massive number of people (800 million) weren’t in fact voting with their IP addresses that this diminished, efficient form of friendship was what they wanted.
Blah blah blah I hear you say. Really, what’s the harm. The harm is the loss of a sense of Team celebration. Sure, it is theoretically possible that someone could be friends on FB with the whole of Team Z. But even the saddest friend collector would find that a challenge and I don’t think anyone except our coach even comes remotely close to that. I could keep up with most of our team, but there are a few people who were racing who I don’t know on FB, or who hadn’t signed up for a race feed, or who didn’t have friends and family updating their account for them (something Mary and I have each done for the other in our respective Ironman races). Those people were a black hole in terms of race information and results. Not to mention the fact (shocking, I know) that there are still some people that aren’t on FB or that don’t use it at all regularly.
If you were new to our team and hadn’t yet formed many of those FB connections you would have missed much of the drama of last night (and there was drama, with some amazing, inspiring, just-under-the-wire finishes). In previous years, I’ve heard people comment about how the flood of e-mails surrounding the Ironman events inspired them, made them feel that such a thing might just be possible one day. Even if it merely confirmed in some people (as it would in most rational human beings) that this was an utterly insane activity in which to be engaged, the performance of team interest and commitment and support itself spoke volumes about the team and its members, its goals and methods.
What we have with FB, however, is simply a number of discrete groupings of people, some of which may temporarily overlap to form something like the impression of a team. And it is true that you also gain an expanded public in one sense, access to friends and families who haven’t yet (or who never intend to) drink the Ironman Kool-Aid. I tried to persuade myself this morning that that was a worthy recompense for the feeling of loss that I was experiencing.
Nevertheless, I would argue that you lose more than you gain. FB friends who aren’t triathletes may get that you are disappointed at not finishing an Ironman. But no one who hasn’t trained for a year for something like this can have any sense of what a DNF really means. Moreover, to those people who aren’t doing an Ironman, who have just joined your team, seeing how you handle the devastation of that DNF can be a life lesson.
See, where FB has been so seductive is in its ability to, in essence, rewrite our understanding of history and culture. Hey, it says, all your friendships are basically the same, all public spaces are essentially performing the same function, so why not pull them all under the same roof where we can all be the same together? But we have had (and still have, just) different public spaces that serve different publics in different ways for different reasons. The public that exists down at the grocery store is different from the public for whom I write when I blog, which is different from the kind of public that a sports team is, which is different (or should be) from the public that FB is.
As I read over this I realize that none of this is really getting at what I’m trying to explain, the feeling. Back in July of 2009 I had the unmistakable feeling that new communications technologies and methods had changed things for the better, broadened our ability to participate and share meaningfully in events we couldn’t personally witness. Last night, I had the sense that things had definitely changed for the worse.