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Weight Of Words, What A Novelist Won't Give Away To Facebook

Everyone's watching
Everyone's watching
Betina González

BUENOS AIRES — Facebook irritates me, entertains, consoles, bores and infuriates me, moves and depresses me — but above all, it exhausts me.

Rewind to 2008, and I am in Pittsburgh working in a migrant help center. My Belgian friend Marie enters the office with her laptop and shows me a new platform where you can share pictures and texts. A kind of personal, daily diary, but public, she says: "You can find all your old acquaintances, even your primary school classmates," she explains with delight.

I had buried myself in a corner of the United States to escape the nerve-wracking publicity that followed my winning a literary prize. So I smile and explain that being found is precisely the last thing I was looking for. Each person has his or her phobias, and at the time, mine was my parents' phone ringing at all hours. It might be either (the late journalist) Bernardo Neustadt inviting me to breakfast or a schoolfriend whose father had worked with the military junta, wanting to congratulate me, no doubt after digging up my number in some notebook, like we were close friends.

No, I don't need Facebook, I tell Marie. Nursed by my phobias, I resisted another year.

It is 2010, and I am having lunch with a former boss on a visit to Buenos Aires. A consummate seducer, he is more than 20 years older than me but he now does online what he used to do at work or in the street (eyeing girls' backsides and competing with colleagues). Only now he does it shamelessly — "touch and go" — as online networking permits. "I don't know why your generation is resisting Facebook," he says rather patronizingly, between mouthfuls. "It's like a bar. You go in, if you meet someone you want to talk to, you chat, say hello and carry on," he says.

The author — Photo: Blogspot

I wanted to tell him that for me, entering a bar and bumping into somebody disagreeable is tantamount to a calamity. Why would I want to expose myself to that possibility every day of my life? Admittedly such occasions are rare, so I merely criticize the precarious, childish and self-indulgent language of Facebook, where all you had then was the "like." Obviously there is no sense asking for "not like" (or anything else) from a medium that reflects the American version of friendship as personal reinforcement, a pat on the back or the "contact-less' kiss on the cheek.

With this and other reasonings, I abstain 18 months longer.

Now it is 2011 and the reproaches of friends who have events and must invite me by other means are becoming frequent. The distant ones insist that it's easier sharing news this way than having to write e-mails. I also discover that not having a profile does not keep you safe: I am seen in pictures of house parties and events uploaded by friends and institutions. I can see comments and references about me, and my Wikipedia profile (with all its inaccuracies and mistakes), which Facebook imported, Lord knows when.

So I decide to create a profile if only to know what is happening, though right at the start I take the healthy decision not to include anything about my emotional life. As a last gesture of defiance, I lie about my birthday, putting my age down as over 70. I immediately start getting adverts for disposable nappies, facial yoga and travel discounts for grandparents.

The first years, I tolerated as far as possible the harassment of males trying to pick up girls, the hypocrisy of people who pretend to know me, misunderstandings, peer pressure and the general cheekiness of people who want me to watch, comment, like, read and applaud things that left me entirely indifferent. The opposite is also true though: there are and have been events and protests that online networking manages to expand, if not not actually launch. For me the most positive effect is dialogue with readers who write to say how they felt after reading my books, or contacts with colleagues who recommend essays, films and exhibitions. There is also the communication from people who have had children, won scholarships or started businesses.

The words were burning in my head.

In 2015, I start to get sick of the whole thing. This came with the strained electoral atmosphere and complemented my boredom with the programmed narcissism the site imposes on you. I suspend my account for a few months. After a holiday, I restored it but decide not to install it in my smartphone.

Still, restricted usage still does not protect me enough. It is 2018: the police have just shot an 11-year-old boy in the back in Tucumán. People are shocked: Someone shares on the site a letter by the boy's grandmother. I read it and have to get up from the computer, leave the house and take a breath. I go for a walk with the words burning in my head. When I return, the letter has been shared so many times it has become meaningless. It's just there, alongside pictures of chocolate cakes, the latest concert, a selfie with some celebrity, the beach in Miami, and so on... An audiovisual porridge with the woman's grief mixed in. I close the computer and try to hang onto the grief and indignation.

Some may know more about it and trust in the power of users to subvert the platform's premises, but not me. Facebook is a frivolous medium and deserves nothing but my frivolity (not that frivolity is inherently reproachable. Far from it, but you must know the game you are playing). So I shall not even devote time here to the trolls, privacy violations or fake news, because these are big problems affecting the entire Internet. I am concerned with words, the ones we toss around. Instead of deleting my profile now, I take care: I sign the card but will not stay for the photo. I'll go on the march, but post nothing about it. I am incensed a thousand times over about violations of our rights but keep from stating my indignation on Facebook. Because my feminism or my defense of free, public education are not ornaments to some personal profile, but parts of who I am in this world and how I write, teach and resist. Say Basta!, in other words, but say it in the right place and time.

At the end of the day, words are all we have. They are potent, even fierce, but also fragile. And the words that matter and move me most inside, are never found online.

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As a father myself, I'm now better able to understand the pressures my own dad faced. It's helped me face my own internal demands to constantly be more productive and do better.

Photo of a father with a son on his shoulders

Father and son in the streets of Madrid, Spain

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When I was a child — I must have been around eight or so — whenever we headed with my mom and grandma to my aunt's country house in Don Torcuato, outside of Buenos Aires, there was the joy of summer plans. Spending the day outdoors, playing soccer in the field, being in the swimming pool and eating delicious food.

But when I focus on the moment, something like a painful thorn appears in the background: from the back window of the car I see my dad standing on the sidewalk waving us goodbye. Sometimes he would stay at home. “I have to work” was the line he used.

Maybe one of my older siblings would also stay behind with him, but I'm sure there were no children left around because we were all enthusiastic about going to my aunt’s. For a long time in his life, for my old man, those summer days must have been the closest he came to being alone, in silence (which he liked so much) and in calm, considering that he was the father of seven. But I can only see this and say it out loud today.

Over the years, the scene repeated itself: the destination changed — it could be a birthday or a family reunion. The thorn was no longer invisible but began to be uncomfortable as, being older, my interpretation of the events changed. When words were absent, I started to guess what might be happening — and we know how random guessing can be.

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