Last night, out of the blue, my phone made a sound like someone punching a squirrel full of nickels in the stomach. This is the notification tone for Facebook Messenger, better known as that app the powers-that-be insisted you get even though there was no need for it (what was wrong with getting messages IN Facebook?), and which for some inexplicable reason makes it appear as if you’re always online, even—especially, it sometimes seems—if you’re not. Whether I’m asleep, underwater, or dead, Messenger cares not a whit. I’M HERE, it proclaims, ALWAYS! And when people see that toxic-waste-colored M&M next to your name telling them you’re desperately in need of attention, they do the natural thing and send you a message.
Sometimes, this is a very cool thing indeed. Through Messenger. I have reconnected with people I haven’t spoken to in years, made some new friends, and even conducted some pretty cool book-related beeswax.
Mostly, I fucking hate it with the fiery passion of a dozen dirty football helmets full of sunspots.
Why? Because 26% of the people who use it to contact me are people I don’t know or want to hear from, people who, despite never having said a word to me over the past thousand years, decide on a (usually drunken) whim to reach out and touch somebody. And unfortunately, the somebody getting touched is me and I’m sitting there pants-less with my baby balloons swinging in the wind.
Take last night for example. I’m watching the series finale of Frasier and getting a little misty-eyed in the process. The dog is curled up at my feet and trying her unconscious best to smoke me out of the room with Pedigree Chum-scented mustard gas, when I get the familiar beating-on-a-money-squirrel tone. Curious as to who might be trying to initiate a convo at 11.55 p.m., I pick up the phone and check the app. I don’t recognize the name, which I shall protect for his sake. Let’s call him C.D. Montelban. What’s confusing is that I seem to have wandered into the middle of a conversation he’s having with himself. It goes thusly:
Did you move here?
I know you. It’s cool.
My parents are from Brazil, but only my sister knows.
Reading your book. Is it good? How did you write it, or no?
I stare at the phone for about five minutes, my finger hovering over the reply button, if only to ask Montelban what in the gastronomical fuck he’s waffling on about, when another burst of messages barfs onto my screen:
Sorry about that.
Went to Ireland once.
Are you from there?
Yeah. You are.
I’m not from there.
You like clowns, or nah?
Another problem with Messenger, aside from it lying to everyone and telling them you want to hear from them during sex, is the shitty little check-mark that pops up to show the other person you’ve seen their message. I can smell your perfume, Clarice, that check mark says, and all it really does is get the other person’s hopes up that you’ll reply, and make you feel like a shitpigeon because you have no intention of it. It’s like when your well-meaning relatives try to set you up with someone they think is perfect for you and she has no head, so you run away screaming like Kermit the Frog and nobody ever mentions it again.
It’s a situation best avoided, but Messenger robs you of the wonderful basic human right to ignore people by making them aware in real-time that you’re reading their words. I picture them on the opposite side of the screen wearing pajamas made of cats and colanders on their heads, going “A-HA! YOU’RE THERE!” And once that cat’s out of the bag, it’s hard to not be.
Which leaves you two options, neither of which are always very appealing. You can reply and do your best to muddle your way through a conversation you don’t really want to be having, like “Why doesn’t your penis work anymore?” or “Whose skin is this?” and just tap out after a while knowing you played along for the sake of the other person’s feelings, or, you can delete the message and pretend it didn’t happen. The problem with this last option is that it’s the same as ignoring them. You’re just committing to NEVER respond to that person and that’s harsh. It’s also though, completely understandable. Life is fraught with awkward moments you’d rather—and often, cannot—avoid. Why then should a frigging smartphone app keep making it worse? If I don’t want to talk to someone, I shouldn’t have to..
And I know, I know, I’m avoiding the question: “If you don’t want to talk to this person, why have them on your Facebook in the first place?”
I accept friend requests all the time from people I don’t know unless we have less than thirty mutual friends in common, which is the requisite number of cohorts you need to have to convince me you’re not some Bolivian gangster who sells coked-up killer penguins from the back of an army truck. It’s not a foolproof method. Sometimes these people rack up writer friends and then spam the hell out of us all. Other times, they’re just really, really good frauds. Most often, they’re either fellow writers or readers. But I still don’t know them very well. Thus, when one of them decides to message me near-midnight with some kind of bizarre David Lynch-like soliloquy, I can hardly be blamed for finding it unexpected and unwelcome.
And yes, yes, I’m aware that you can tap a button and turn the whole thing off so you actually are offline, but that kind of defeats the purpose of the app. Plus, I frequently forget that, operating on the naïve assumption that if the app is closed, so too is my availability. Besides, I want people to know I’m online so they can contact me. I just want the people I want to contact me to be the only ones who do. Capisce? And I also know you can mess with it and filter preferred contacts into groups and yadda, yadda. That’s too much work and there’s too much of a risk that you’ll leave somebody out, or worse, leave somebody in and then it all gets very messy.
Besides, it’s not that I don’t want to talk to them.
It’s just that I don’t want them to talk to me.
Because if I wanted to get in touch, I would do it the right way and Facebook fucking Messenger them at 11.57 p.m. when they least expect it.