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As Facebook turns 20, I have something to confess

Facebook turns 20 years old today, and if you don’t like it, I’m sure you have your reasons. The numerous scandals. The loss of privacy. The time it drains away from other, better activities. And on and on.

But I’ve been thinking about the role Facebook has played in my life, and I’ve come to a realization. I hesitate to share this status update, this decidedly uncool confession, but I’m going to, eventually. Just let me work up to it.

Last Friday I found myself scrolling down toward the beginning of my timeline. It took a long time to get there, even though I joined the party relatively late. On September 23, 2007, a friend wrote on my wall, “Welcome to Facebook. Finally.”

By then some of the youngsters had already left, but it all felt new and exciting to me. I was 27, and I remember the strange thrill of tagging your friends in a picture. Or better yet, being tagged. There was a lot of work involved, with the digital camera and the unwieldy cable and the uploading and whatnot, but eventually I posted the pictures from that one epic Halloween party. I dressed as Jonathan the YouTube Zombie, which confused some of my early Facebook friends.

“I like turtles,” I wrote, by way of explanation.

As hundreds of millions of others joined, Facebook began to change the world, for better and worse. My future boss wrote a viral story titled “The 12 most annoying Facebookers.” I was probably several of them at one time or another: mysteriously “waiting for a sign,” or “pondering the meaning of Donnie Darko,” or shamelessly promoting the stories I’d written.

But my list of friends grew. In 2009, roughly 40 of them wrote on my wall to wish me happy birthday. About the same number congratulated me later that year, when I told Facebook I was going to be a dad.

As I got older and had children, the tenor of my posts evolved

Now the posts shifted away from concerts and parties, and toward the ramblings of the domesticated. I loaded the dishwasher twice in one evening. I wandered the grocery store, “too hungry and confused to know what to buy.” My daughter was born, and one afternoon I somehow changed two diapers in the span of two minutes.

That year, 2010, more than 50 people wished me happy birthday. This, it turned out, was Peak Happy Birthday. Such greetings became less common on Facebook after that, at least for me. Maybe the novelty wore off. We were all tired of something. On September 23, 2011, I wrote this status update: Groggy wife, referring to my persistent alarm clock: “I’ll throw it in the river. I don’t know what river, but I’ll find one.”

Courtesy Thomas Lake
Courtesy Thomas Lake

Another child was born. My children began talking, which led to my new favorite genre of Facebook post: Cute Thing My Kid Said. My daughter strung together her first five-word sentence. “I need more too, Mama.” She was talking about a doughnut. Other random kids said cute things, too, and these also became Facebook posts. At the park, a seven-year-old girl started talking to me about my daughter.

“What kind of girl will she be?” this outgoing youngster asked me. “Sports? Lazy? I’m sports. Fashionable? Playing girl, which not sports? Running girl? There are different types of girls.”

The next year only six people wrote on my timeline for my birthday. One was my wife’s sister, Jill:

Happy Birthday, Bro-in-Law! Hope it’s GREAT! :)

Another son was born. I memorialized his arrival in a Facebook post but did not say he was fighting for his life in intensive care. He got well and came home, but 2015 was still a hard year. One day I posted some Bruce Springsteen lyrics:

Everything dies

Baby, that’s a fact

But maybe everything that dies

Someday comes back

I posted this mysterious status update, firmly in the role of the annoying Facebooker known as The Obscurist, but I was too ashamed to tell the story behind it: I’d just lost my job at Sports Illustrated, and my confidence was so shaken that I didn’t know if I’d be able to write again. Eventually I landed at CNN, following the presidential campaign. In 2016, as we planned a family trip to Disney World, Jill was one of a handful of people who wrote on my wall:

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, BRO-IN-LAW!!!!!! I shall buy you a Mickey ice cream bar soon!!!!!! :)

Juliana Elliott
Juliana Elliott

A decade into the Facebook experiment, I was posting less and less. Memories began popping up automatically, old pictures from years past, and I resurfaced them with new comments and new hearts. In 2019 only one person wrote on my timeline for my birthday. I heard a song by the Goo Goo Dolls in the grocery store, which led to a rare status update:

what if you wrote a song that said “a tired song keeps playing on a tired radio” and then 25 years later your song became the tired song that keeps playing on the tired radio

The coronavirus pandemic brought an upsurge in Facebook activity as we huddled in our homes and wondered what was happening out there. We sent out encouragement to the brave healthcare workers and paid tribute to departed musicians with virtual concerts on Facebook Live. That July I had my 40th birthday. Jill did not write on my wall. She had died two days earlier, at age 39, after an illness that led to a pulmonary embolism.

As its best, Facebook is a digital museum

As I write this in early February, I have yet to post anything on Facebook in 2024. I don’t know why, exactly. Too busy, perhaps, or too lazy. But this is my confession about Facebook: If given the chance, I would join all over again.

Yes, I am grateful for Facebook.

I’ve never consistently kept a journal, so Facebook is one of the closest things I have to a contemporaneous record of my life. And in some ways it’s better than a journal, because it has pictures and videos and annotations from my friends.

A mural decorates one of the many open work areas at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. - Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images
A mural decorates one of the many open work areas at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California. - Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

At its best, Facebook is a digital museum, a repository for the milestones of life. It has made party invitations a lot easier — and helped me find some good Ultimate Frisbee games. It has connected me with old friends and classmates and relatives who otherwise might have remained disconnected. It has helped preserve my memories of several very dear people who, like Jill, have since passed away.

Facebook friendship is no substitute for real-life friendship, and someone else’s Facebook pictures are no substitute for your own experience. But at times, Facebook has helped me appreciate real life more deeply. On November 9, 2021, as new coronavirus variants forced us back into isolation, I asked my friends, “What’s a small thing that makes you happy?’”

The post got 85 comments. People gave thanks for cozy blankets and a fire, hideous fuzzy socks, the smell of leather boots, an empty dishwasher, a cup of hot chocolate, a cold beer after a good run, autumn leaves at golden hour, reading books in the evening before bed.

“The excited way my dog looks at me in the morning,” my neighbor Cheryl wrote. “‘Oh boy! We get to do this all over again?”

It was an outpouring of gratitude, a celebration of life. Online, yes, but real, and satisfying. Like an orange sunrise. A frosted windowpane. A silent alarm clock on a Sunday morning.

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