Old people Facebook disasters

Professionals over 30 have joined the networking site in droves, but with great convenience can come great embarrassment.

Published September 29, 2008 10:11AM (EDT)

The day that Kim Bowen accidentally sent a video of a woman shitting in a hot tub to 200 of her co-workers was the day she knew her relationship with Facebook would never be the same.

"It was horrible," says Bowen, a 30-something filmmaker, in the tremulous tones of a former bank hostage. "I'm a pretty wild person. I like a laugh. But not like that."

What happened was this: A friend (now former) posted a video on Bowen's Facebook wall. It depicts a bikini-clad woman sliding into a hot tub occupied by two other women and a man. Seconds later, she is overcome by a gastrointestinal issue that sends her tub mates scrambling for refuge. (The video, which originally appeared on the purported humor site ebaumsworld.com and today persists on YouTube, has been largely debunked as fake.)

This was cold comfort to Bowen, who uses her Facebook account mostly for professional networking. "It was disgusting," she says. "I thought, 'I don't want that on my wall.' So I went to delete it. Then an on-screen message popped up: 'Your video has been forwarded.' And I thought -- what? Who has it been forwarded to?"

In her haste, Bowen had clicked "Forward" instead of "Delete." Facebook automatically selected all her contacts, e-mailing the video to "clients, agents, studios, everyone," says Bowen. "A famous producer I'd 'friended' but never contacted -- my face showed up on his Facebook page next to a Jacuzzi diarrhea video."

Fortunately for Bowen, Facebook allows wall postings to be deleted by the poster, so she spent three hours in triage, visiting page after page to excise the offensive snippet. But several people had already watched it, and Bowen immediately found herself frozen out of polite online society, a seemingly scat-obsessed Lily Bart. "Some people I used to work with, the only message they received from me in the last year was that video. I have not heard from any of them since," she says. "I posted a status update that said, 'Kim is very traumatized by the video she forwarded by mistake.' And nobody replied! I would have loved somebody to say, 'Wow, hey, what's going on with you? Or, 'Uh, is this what you're into now?' But there was ... total ... silence." She shudders.

The events of that day, random as they may seem, point to a dubious trend. For years, college students have been opting out of future employment via boobie-flashing, obscene status updates and the pictorial remembrances of keg stands past on their social-networking pages -- "Ladettes glorify their shameful drunken antics!" screamed one typically British headline in the U.K.'s Daily Mail -- but now, the voices of reason, the beacons in the online wilderness, the adults who once clucked their tongues over the follies of youth, are lining up to humiliate themselves on Facebook.

Although the site exploded into public consciousness as a college network, now it's for everyone. (Literally everyone: From cheese enthusiasts to fans of the '80s robot-girl sitcom "Small Wonder.") More people over 30 are adopting Facebook as a networking tool, and this was the year the old people swarmed the pool party. (By the way, when we talk about "old people," we don't mean old people. We mean "old people in Facebook years" -- so anyone on the northern side of 30 is a winner.) There are seven interest groups for people in their 40s, and one for people born in the 40s. The spunkily titled group "Over 30 -- Not Over the Hill!" began in May and already has 823 members. There is, inevitably, a Cougar Club. "Since this summer, Facebook use has exploded among my age group and older," says Linda Keenan, a 37-year-old mother who wrote a Huffington Post blog entry in July describing herself as an "aging Facebook whore." "You should look at the group 'Creepy Old Guys on Facebook' -- it's awesome."

But romping through the kids' playground can result in stress fractures. "The funny thing in general about Facebook is that you're there with your colleagues and your friends," says Laura Bell, a 40-something New York magazine writer [most names and identifying features have been changed at the subjects' request, to spare them further mental anguish], "and the next thing you know you've forgotten that your status update is all about how hung over you are."

Social tragedies involving CC:, BCC: and Reply All are as old as the Internet itself, but Facebook's applications -- the seemingly cute survey and quiz tools that allow you to rank, rate and refer friends -- have added a new level of peril to online interaction. Recently, Bell was killing time with the Compare Friends app, which selects five random members of your Friends list and asks you to rate them according to ephemeral criteria. In this case, the question was, "Who smells better?" One of the five contestants was Bell's boss, whom Facebook notified of her low rank. She then e-mailed Bell to express her dismay.

"If you look at how it's set up, you have to manually opt out of it notifying your friends of your choices. Which is rather sadistic when you think about it," says Bell, who laughed off the snafu but has not indulged in the Compare Friends app since.

When Karen Price, a 50-year-old writer, joined Facebook, she was immediately friended by a prominent D.C. media critic. Soon she learned he had been comparing her attractiveness and datability with that of other women. "I'm sure he has no idea I was e-mailed that by the Compare People app folks," says Price, who was thoroughly weirded out. "I wondered why he was comparing me with another woman in media," she says. "And then why he found me prettier but another woman more datable. I told myself I shouldn't wonder about any of this silliness, but ... I wondered. It was like finding out your name had been written on the boys' room wall in high school. I mean, we live in different cities. He's married. It's not really about socializing or thinking about dating people, it's just -- wow, after all this time, when none of that stuff is realistically in question ... um, it's in question?"

As a vehicle for working through your delayed adolescence, Facebook's potential is nearly limitless. "In my case, 55 percent of my graduating class are on it, and I really want to show them that I'm having a better life than any of them: I've been to more places, I've fucked more people," says David Taylor, a 32-year-old novelist. "It's sort of a surreptitious way to brag about your life, and there are applications that help you do that. You can chart all the countries you've been to, ask people to vote on what celebrities you look like. The pro is that you get to rub everyone's faces in your life. The con is you look like a twat."

But photographic bragging rights come with a price. "The 'tagging photos' option [in which people label you in their photos and link to your profile] is a danger," continues Taylor. "I've heard of people claiming not to be at an event, and then it shows up on Facebook -- they're there, three sheets to the wind, with a hooker's tit in their mouth and their name splashed over the photo."

In the rush to accumulate friends, relationships get tangled. "You superpoke everyone, including your ex-boss, and I fell prey to that 'Who has a crush on you' thing," says Keenan. "It's about the colliding circles on Facebook and forgetting who you've friended. After the Palin-daughter-is-preggers story, I said in a status update that I 'feel less of a woman that I have never slept with a Levi or a hockey player' and then realized my 13-year-old nephew was probably reading it."

Younger people are blasé about such humiliations. But to older people who aren't used to making themselves vulnerable online, even minor goofs can be painful and lingering, akin to getting caught naked in an unfamiliar place in front of a crowd. And it used to be worse: Before Facebook modified the default options for what was visible on your wall, every change you made to your profile information was broadcast to your network in real time: "You used to be able to see 'Linda added the Cure to her favorite music.'" says Keenan. (Now Facebook simply indicates what category of your profile you've changed, and you can turn off that option.) "I watched a few friends wrestle with their self-representation, minute by minute. So you'd see, 'So-and-so has added bossa nova to her favorite music.' Then two minutes later, 'So-and-so has removed bossa nova from her favorite music.' Then a minute later, bossa nova is back. Then people struggling to figure out the books: Ian McEwan is on, then off, then on again. It's full of pathos." And doubly embarrassing to be exposed as unfamiliar with the technology, unaware your private identity struggle was being broadcast. "After my initial selection of books, movies and music, I have been loath to add anything for fear of looking so vulnerable," says Keenan.

Further evidence that Facebook is not a friendly tool for older people can be found in the presidential campaign. While Barack Obama has adeptly harnessed the power of social networking (specifically, a Facebook co-founder: 24-year-old Chris Hughes was hired as his "online organizing guru" in March 2007), John McCain has stumbled. A report released by the Pew Research Center this month indicated that Obama had 1.7 million Facebook supporters and 510,000 MySpace friends; McCain has 309,000 and 88,000 respectively. (The report did not mention that the Facebook group 'I Have More Foreign Policy Experience than Sarah Palin' has nearly 122,000 members.) McCain's highest visibility via Facebook came in July, when he was busted by the New York Times for the GOP's creation of a fake Facebook page for Obama. (The Internet is, after all, not Ohio -- the manipulation of technology isn't so easily concealed.) The Pew report praised Obama's early adoption of social networking, and concluded that McCain had been too slow to the table.

Further proof that you can be too old to use Facebook successfully but that it's never too late to make an ass of yourself. What's going on? It's not (entirely) the rise of the new Luddite: People interviewed for this article include a prominent online-media executive and a digital filmmaker. In fact, the ubiquity of technology in our lives may be partly responsible. Call it the BlackBerry effect.

"We're used to navigating fast on the Web," says Bowen. "We're constantly pushing buttons. When you're online, if you make a wrong move, you can just click back. Facebook pages look like any other Web page, but your moves can't be reversed. I admit: I click too fast. I don't think I can blame Facebook for that. I can blame them for a lot of things, but not that."

A more psychic view: Starved of the sociosexual drama of their teens and 20s, people over 30 are eager to join the confessional zeitgeist and thus become careless. "Older people are definitely sillier and more open to admitting things they like that they may not have admitted before," says Keenan. "We are so much more bored than young people, and I think we yearn for high-school-style communication."

To that end: This month, Mara Jensen, a 32-year-old New York City design firm executive, was shocked to discover that her 33-year-old friend -- another creative exec -- was posting Facebook status updates that announced her desire for a booty call and the beginning of her involvement in an adulterous affair. To Jensen, who considers her friend sexually confident even on a bad day, it seemed a bit mental. "I mean, she's got to know everyone can see that," says Jensen. "Right? Or maybe she doesn't. But I don't know how to broach it with her." Which raises an etiquette issue never addressed by Dear Abby: How do you gently tell a friend their entire social network can see up their skirt? And in an era in which Twitter et al. narrow the definition of oversharing on a seemingly daily basis, when does a practical stance become prudish?

There is also the accidents-never-happen theory. "I know a lot of people who use Facebook in an intentionally self-limiting way," says Brian Battjer, a New York City Web developer with a background in social-networking software. "It's a full disclosure. A lot of people who put themselves out there use it as a litmus test for how much they're willing to sell out for the Man. 'If I can't represent who I am in real life, and in the face of my potential co-workers, I'm in the wrong job. I'm good at what I do, and anyone who'll Google me and fire me for that -- fuck it.' The advantage is that you never have to work a job and worry about when the hammer's going to fall because of who you are."

As the lines between public and private behavior continue to blur, we find ourselves living in a time of sublime cultural confusion. Consciously or unconsciously, we're playing out that struggle on the pages of Facebook. "I think the era of having truly separate work, life and relationship realms is dying," says Bell. "It all just bleeds over into each other. There's too much information out there to pretend otherwise."

For now, it's too much to hope that Facebook will be made foolproof. Battjer, the Web developer, says that for all its privacy functions -- you can largely choose which of your friends sees what, what media is displayed on your wall and whether the general public can view your profile or find you by e-mail search, should you have the time and the savvy to set the preferences -- Facebook is still a broadcasting venue. Eventually, social networking will evolve into a more peer-to-peer model, a more direct method of transmission where you can pinpoint exactly who can see what information in certain categories, but that may be decades off. "If I choose to disclose a bit of information about myself, there should be all kinds of custom distribution lists I can broadcast that to," says Battjer. "And until someone comes up with a system to let you tailor your broadcasting more, the current system is going to exist. As people are putting more and more information online, there will there be a demand for people to solve the problem. But for now, to most people, the benefits of social networking outweigh the risks."

Bowen, the accidental purveyor of the hot-tub video, took a short break from Facebook. But just when she thought she was out, its convenience pulled her back in: She missed being able to keep tabs on far-flung friends. And she has noticed that the default option that led to her embarrassment appears to have been changed. Now, you must individually select contacts to whom you want to forward messages. "What happened to me must have happened to other people," she says.

Still, "to this day, whenever I watch a video," she says, "my heart is pounding."

By Michael Martin

Michael Martin is a freelance journalist living in New York City.

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