Last weekend I was idly cruising Facebook and felt prompted to post something, even though I don’t fully understand the urge to post so many private thoughts online. Even if something truly apocalyptic was happening, such as earth being invaded by giant flesh-eating monsters from space, would anyone really go to Facebook to see what YOU thought about it? “Stajich says on FB that we should all be thankful for each day we’re not eaten by something from beyond our galaxy. I’m so glad I got online and found that…”
In the universe of over-crowded social sites bursting with pictures of cats in Valentine hats and favorite clips from “I Dream of Jeannie” I made a kind of dumb joke. What I wrote on Facebook last weekend was essentially a statement that spoofed how everybody was moody over Whitney Houston’s passing. Without repeating it, I’ll just say that I pretended to be inching toward a comment about Houston and then revealed that the “voice” I missed deeply was that of Muppet creator Jim Henson.
About an hour after posting that, I felt remorse. Not a lot, but enough that I went back and apologized online. So we might look at two questions: Why I made a snappish and seemingly insensitive joke in the first place, and why I thought I had to apologize online as though people would even notice.
Last question first: It turns out people do notice things on social sites. You already know that Facebook isn’t your friend unless you consider “friends” people who track everything you say in casual conversation and then sell that information to companies who want you to buy stuff. And then they get filthy rich for having done that. In his Feb. 12 article “The Age of Big Data” New York Times technology reporter Steve Lohr says that the mountain of information to be gleaned from our musings on Facebook and other sites is growing at 50 percent a year or doubling every two years, and that new sources of data such as sensors in automobiles, industrial equipment and shipping crates is yielding even more about our activities on this planet.
But it was all the recent warnings about how employers are surfing the net to find out more about potential job candidates that actually gave me pause. I don’t think I’ll be interviewing for anything soon, but I now accept that I can say something idiotic but funny online in the morning and somebody else can use it as evidence that I’m mostly idiotic by that afternoon.
So not wanting to be judged harshly by one badly-timed joke, I went back to Facebook to apologize. Now… why did I react to Whitney Houston’s death with a wisecrack in the first place?
You need to know that most of my Facebook friends are former fellow stand-up comics. I dare say that my Facebook home page is one of the wittiest social pages in cyberspace and the temptation to one-up and top other jokes is strong. Still, Houston had just died. Why do we sometimes make a joke first before we’ve even processed what the news means to us?
Certainly trying to be funny can work as a defense against exposing deeper feelings. I think the deeper feelings I might have been trying to cover could have included anger from suspecting that a number of people around Houston knew she was capable of self-destructive behavior and that maybe they didn’t act with vigilance. Something akin to shouting “Where were the damn parents?” at the TV when you hear that once again a child has died in some sort of stupid accident. We may learn that Houston’s death was in fact a stupid accident, but still… did those around her put the same energy into protecting her as they may have channeled into such things as harvesting another reality show from Houston’s life?
As the Grammy Awards clearly proved again, show business is business. That Bon Iver came close to rejecting his award, saying that he never got into music to win awards and dressing like a substitute teacher to further advance his ambivalence, tells you that even the winners wonder what the Grammys are about. Of course they know: It’s the numbers. Huge numbers. Of units moved and sold. Our household loves Adele and her powerful hit song. But if she hadn’t pushed all those discs out the door of Best Buy, would she be getting six Grammys? During the Grammy show’s three hours a song for Etta James went about a minute and a half; there were multiple tributes to Houston during the show. Compare sales figures of both artists and the heartfelt emotions tend to follow a path.
Is that being cynical? Certainly my joke was cynical, but I’m pleading temporary insanity by way of duress caused by hearing of too many deaths at a young age of talented artists that might have been better cared for by those around them. I do feel bad about Whitney Houston. But I think I feel worse that something that possibly didn’t have to happen… has once again happened.