Facebooking You

A few months ago, after much halfhearted resistance and some full-hearted reluctance, I took a deep breath, crossed my fingers and made the plunge. I joined Facebook, the increasingly ubiquitous online social networking Web site. Since then, I have bonded with friends, rekindled acquaintanceships and made some new connections, like any user on the site. Less typically, perhaps, I’ve felt the ethical compunctions of a critic within a living scene, grasping a freshly opened can of worms. My initial reservations about joining Facebook had reflected concerns that I was about to authorize a new source of time-suck in my life.

But there soon came a greater danger, and a subtler one. “Nate is figuring out how to work this thing,” I wrote in the first of many status updates linked to my profile. This was the stone cold truth, in more than one sense.

Facebook has over 100 million active users worldwide, including a fast-increasing swath of the jazz citizenry. Name a youngish musician featured in the pages of this magazine, and there’s a decent chance he or she has either a self-maintained profile or a fan-created tribute page. (One example of the latter would be a group called Ari Hoenig Rocks My Socks Off, with 64 members as of this writing.) In a trademark feature of the service, common interests serve nearly as great a purpose as common backgrounds, so that anyone who claims, say, Kid Ory as a favorite musician can instantly find others who did the same. The Miles Davis page boasts somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 pledged fans; John Coltrane has more than 15,000. Through an outside source—Facebook allows amateur developers to run free with unofficial add-ons—there’s even an application called I Love Jazz, which allows members to “send” jazz musicians to one another. The app, created by a woman in Indonesia, has more than 12,000 monthly users. (Somehow, no one has yet thought to lob a digital David Sanborn in my direction.)

But even more than MySpace, its arch competitor, Facebook harnesses the energy of relationships: whom you know, and who knows you, and how you know each other. In this sense the network suggests a loose parallel to the global jazz community, if on a larger scale. And the perils of real-world interaction are mirrored there, especially for someone whose public life involves a series of aesthetic judgments. Before signing on for the first time, I set a clear policy: no “friendships” with any musician I might be called upon to cover. This was tested immediately. No sooner had I created my profile than Facebook roguishly suggested a handful of People I Might Know, most of them jazz musicians. Because I hadn’t yet specified a profession or any interests, I’m guessing their names popped up because each had posted a press quote of mine. Whatever the case, it gave me the heebie-jeebies.

To be a critic, of course, is to face a perpetual crisis of impartiality. And with no way to prove it, I’d suggest that this is especially true in jazz, where the scene is small, the cause is noble and the struggle is often great. There are some jazz critics who would flee a room to avoid social interaction with a musician, and there are many others (too many) who routinely allow that interaction to flourish past the point of prudence. Good relationships are an asset in this profession, but cozy ones are a liability, and it’s not always easy to discern the middle. Which is why strict guidelines are essential, and why Facebook presented such a quandary. Within days of joining the network, I received at least a dozen friend requests from jazz musicians, and was faced with two blunt options: accept or ignore. Stoically, I chose to ignore them all, though this made me feel uneasy and neglectful. (I’m not a flee-the-room type, though I take pains to avoid being chummy.)

So after about a week of feeling like a bad boyfriend, I decided to try out another strategy. Facebook enables a message to be sent along with any confirmation or denial, so I began sending brief disclaimers. For the most part, these were received kindly: Jazz musicians aren’t dummies, and can certainly fathom conflict of interest. But a few people responded with the equivalent of a cocked eyebrow. “Sorry about your trepidation, with hopes that you are not as strange as this makes you appear,” wrote one drummer who has recorded for a major label. “Hopefully, your non-cyber relationships are not also distorted by this inflated sense of purpose.” (If only he knew how I behave in restaurants.) A trumpeter quipped: “Now you don’t have to wonder if you’re really my friend or I’m just kissing your ass!!!” (In fact, I had plans to review him the following week, and who’s to say whether “friendship” might have affected the tone of the review?)

Again, this strikes me as a situation peculiar to jazz: I seriously doubt that David Fricke at Rolling Stone spends much time turning down friend requests from U2’s Bono. (I could be wrong on this point; Bono seems needy. But you get the picture.) And I have no intention of suggesting that I’ve found the answer, where critics and Facebook are concerned. By not befriending these musicians, I stand to miss out on a certain kind of passing exposure to their semipublic lives. Social scientists call this “ambient awareness,” and it has to do with the status updates and news feeds built into the Facebook experience. My “friends” on Facebook constantly update their profiles with photos, posted links and all manner of commentary. I imagine most Facebook-savvy jazz musicians do the same, and their output is surely fascinating.

But I’m fine with the present situation: It’s surprisingly refreshing to be Facebook friends with people whose lives don’t necessarily revolve around jazz. A handful of people in my network—faraway, long-lost high school pals—have only the slightest idea about my (ahem) inflated sense of purpose. And I have to say, their kids are awfully cute.

Originally published in November 2008

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