JIM STILES: The Facebook West … Do you ‘Like’ it?
Free Press Columnist
The West was and is and should always be about silence and space. Lots of it. About endless landscapes that stretch to infinity, and unbroken skies that defy description, and moments of such incredible beauty and clarity that you think you’ll burst if you don’t share this extraordinary moment with someone right now.
And what makes the West so special is that you can’t.
The West has always been about remoteness and unimagined quiet and sometimes it made us crazy trying to decide if we loved it for its solitude or loathed it for its isolation. But it was the West’s unforgiving nature that also made us feel stronger. We chose to live here with all its emptiness and hardship and unforgiving space. Being able to survive the West, on its terms, gave us a leg up on the world.
Still the West made us mad with its contradictions. We’d stand on the summit of a favorite peak or canyon rim and we’d almost be giddy. And then the silence would sweep over us and we’d search for some sign that we aren’t as insignificant as we feel, and we couldn’t. And suddenly our laughter would sound like the hollow giggles of a mad man let loose in a coliseum. And we’d feel so alone and we’d want to tell someone. We’d want to hear a voice. But we couldn’t. Because this is The West — the breathtaking, heartbreaking, unrelenting, unforgiving American West. Or at least, it was…
This is fast becoming the “Facebook West.” Where you can bring the world to your favorite “lonely spot.” Or at least your “friends.” Even your “friends of friends.” Facebook is just a click away from the most remote places on Earth. For those of us who still suggest there is something more to be lost, our laments increasingly fall upon deaf ears. The truth is, most of us like the New West. Or to be more precise, we “LIKE” it….
A century and more ago, early travelers to the West disappeared for months or years. Friends and family waited for news and when it came, the letters were like cherished relics. Sometimes no news came at all. And legends began.
Today, a traveler to the West posts hourly updates…
Tonight’s sunset? It’s just too lovely not to “SHARE.”
You just got a sense of your own immortality? Please tell the world. We “LIKE” this.
The West’s icons — its landscapes and its heroes — are celebrated in the Facebook West. It makes the perfect gallery for photographs because, after all, the medium is more visual than thought-provoking.
Environmental heroes are honored by Facebook in its own inimitable way. The poet/conservationist John Muir can claim that 4,190 Facebook users “LIKE” him. Henry David Thoreau is embraced by 18,037 fans. Not bad for men who have been dead for decades or centuries. On a page “to promote and discuss the writings and life of Edward Abbey,” his role as a naturalist (one he loathed) usually trumps any serious discussion of Abbey’s more controversial positions like immigration and his membership in the NRA.
Occasionally, a contributor to the Abbey page asks the question no one wants to consider:
“What would Abbey think of Facebook?” The consensus is always that he would have hated it and then a swarm of Facebookers click the “LIKE” button. Even Cactus Ed’s assumed revulsion for the medium gets a “thumbs up” from its most ardent users and his most enthusiastic admirers.
Nobody seems to notice the contradiction.
In the end, the Facebook West is coming for us all. There is an inevitability about it now that I refused to consider even a few years ago. The banality that we’ve hoped to avoid is now perched on our shoulders and lulling us into submission.
A Facebooker recently chastised her “friends” for posting “inappropriate comments” on her wall. “Even if it doesn’t offend me,” she explained, “You never know who is in your audience.”
This is what Facebook is really about — we’ve become willing performers, playing to an “audience” full of “friends” who “LIKE” us. It explains our willingness to abandon the privacy we claim is so precious. We unwittingly give the world every detail of our private lives, manufacturing a persona for ourselves in the process. And while we voluntarily spew all the details, somebody out there is taking notes.
Then it occurs to me. I lament the loss of the empty West and its remote and lonely vistas. And then I think of millions upon millions of solitary little figures, all around the world, hunched over keyboards, wishing we were anywhere but where we are, typing our most private thoughts to whoever will listen, and hoping that somebody will reply — that somebody will “LIKE” us.
And I think, Damn, what could be lonelier than that?
Jim Stiles is publisher of the “Canyon Country Zephyr — Planet Earth Edition.” It ran for 20 years as a print publication and is now exclusively online. He is also the author of “Brave New West — Morphing Moab at the Speed of Greed.” Both can be found at http://www.canyoncountryzephyr.com. Stiles lives in Monticello, Utah and can be reached at email@example.com.
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