Timeless Friends: Of Facebook and the Unconscious
Time, said Freud, is a construct of waking life. It plays no part in our dreams, where a childhood playmate we haven’t thought of in years might appear beside a long-dead professor, an army pal, an old college crush and a neighbor from thirty years ago. In waking life, we may never think of these people; we may have forgotten them completely. Yet they live on in our dreams, where they appear sporadically, ageless and unchanged, going about their business. Only in the timeless unconscious, according to Freud, could such a collection of characters come together. But then, Freud didn’t use Facebook.
A few weeks ago, a picture I posted on my Facebook page drew comments from six friends — Max, Morgan, Paul, Dave, Lukas, Beth and Laura. Max was a fellow student I knew briefly twenty years ago, when, working for our exams at Oxford, we used to sit at the same table in the Radcliffe Camera. Morgan was a student of mine ten years ago, when I was a visiting assistant professor at Indiana University. Paul was a schoolfellow in my class in Sheffield, England, where I grew up. Dave was my boyfriend when I was in grad school. Beth and Sue were my students fifteen years ago, when I was a lecturer at the University of East London.
I don’t post on Facebook very often, and when I do, my posts seldom invite response from such a diverse range of former friends and colleagues. What I found particularly intriguing about this discussion, however, was that each of these people — brought together because of a tangential connection to myself — were in dialogue with one another, responding to various comments and observations. It felt oddly surreal to see people from my past re-animated independently, as it were, and chatting to each other in this way, though I am sure similar dream-like experiences happen all the time to those younger and more popular than myself, which — on Facebook (and increasingly so in “real life”) seems to be almost everybody.
Only in the timeless unconscious, according to Freud, could such a collection of characters come together. But then, Freud didn’t use Facebook.
Interacting with this cast of characters from a personal past can make using Facebook feel very much like living in a dream, with the important difference that the characters in our dreams are generally frozen at the same age, and in the same relation to us, as when we first knew them. In the unconscious, childhood friends remain children, just as we remain children in relation to them, and as our parents and teachers continue to exert the kind of authority that, in waking life, they may have abdicated long ago. Facebook, however, exists in waking life, which, whether we like it or not, is governed by real Time, under whose auspices our old friends and students appear not as we knew them, but as they are now—often bald, wrinkled, and with families of their own.
Yet despite this evidence, something about the immediacy of Facebook tends to minimize the distance of the years. I recently addressed a post to an old schoolfriend, unthinkingly addressing him by the nickname by which everyone had known him in the classroom. A moment later, I recalled that my chubby playmate was now a dignified, middle-aged CEO and I immediately retracted the note. And this, of course, is the great advantage Facebook has over dreams. Comments can be recalled, posts deleted, and friends removed in a way that is never possible in the unconscious. We may consciously forget people, we may even deliberately cut them out of our lives, but they will return in our dreams, where we have no choice but to friend them all.