December 11, 2013

Facebook lockout spurs reflection

I was calm, at first, when I saw that Facebook had recently locked me out of my account.

I was calm, at first, when I saw that Facebook had recently locked me out of my account.

I figured I would just need to change my password, or answer a security question, and the whole thing would be cleared up in a minute.

Then I read the screen more closely – Facebook wanted me to upload a copy of a government-issued identification, such as a driver’s license or passport, to prove that I was, in fact, myself.

A panicky feeling clenched my chest as I fumbled in my purse. “That sounds sort of scammy,” a co-worker said, looking at the screen over my shoulder.

I did a quick search and saw that Facebook had been requiring users to send in photos of their IDs to verify their identities for at least a year.

Without thinking, I picked up my phone to write a Facebook post to see if this had happened to anyone else. But, of course, I couldn’t use Facebook on my phone either. I tried to enter my password, and the little wheel spun futilely. This was serious.

So, I did what anyone else would do when locked out of Facebook: I posted on Twitter.

It turned out that at least five people I knew through Twitter were locked out of their Facebook accounts the same day. Some were thoroughly creeped out that Facebook would demand a copy of their IDs. Some decided this was their cue to shut their accounts once and for all.

Without thinking, my finger twitched over the Facebook app on my phone again. It felt like a breakup, when all you want to do is call your ex for comfort, but that is, of course, the one person you can’t call.

What if my Facebook account was never restored? What would happen to the seven years of my life that I had documented – without ever really planning to – in status updates, photo albums, comments and captions?

I haven’t kept a diary since the days I used to lock it with a heart-shaped key. The last time I routinely pasted photos in an album I was in college.

There are years of my life – really interesting years when I lived abroad and had my heart broken – that are preserved in only in yellowed letters and stuck-together photos buried in plastic bins scattered around our house.

But the last seven years of my life were different. They were filed neatly in Facebook albums, labeled and dated.

In the early photos, I was almost always with a crowd of friends from work, laughing and raising a toast. Or I was traveling, goofing off with friends in New Orleans, New York or Miami.

And then, about two and a half years ago, everything changed. I met the most honest, smartest, kindest man, kissed him in a hurricane, and fell madly in love. He proposed. We got married. And, in March, we became parents of a sweet, funny little boy.

All of these events – the most momentous days of my life – are preserved in Facebook posts.

Photos of us beaming on our wedding day and gazing bleary-eyed at our newborn son. Videos of our baby’s first laughs, his newborn crying jags, and, his newest skill – waving his hand, which he does with such enthusiasm his whole body shakes.

We haven’t updated our son’s baby book in months, but we chronicle his every milestone on Facebook – the day he pulled himself to standing in the crib, the time he smeared sweet potatoes on his face.

What if all of that were gone? Friends said my Facebook page had simply vanished, as if I had never existed. I felt hollow, disoriented. What was happening on Facebook without me? I felt like everybody was at the same party but me.

I don’t think of myself as a tech-addicted person. As a little girl, I always imagined I’d live in a cabin in the woods when I grew up, churning my own butter, Laura Ingalls Wilder-style. I love kale and farmers markets and gardening and books and puppies – real life, not some virtual imitation of it.

How had I let a website play such a huge role in my life?

People asked if I had backed up my photos, and I did have copies of most of the more recent ones, especially baby pictures, but what about the captions? How would I remember whether I took the picture of his chubby tummy in May or June? When did he first ride in the baby swing at the park?

And what about the hundreds of likes and the comments from friends?

Facebook has become my virtual Rolodex, an eloquent solution to life’s little curiosities. How lovely it is to be able to keep up with old classmates’ lives and loves, even if you don’t particularly feel the need to speak to them. And, for those with whom you do wish to keep in touch, Facebook makes it easy to send a quick note and make plans to meet up. I rarely send friends e-mails anymore – I just jot a Facebook message.

And, let’s be honest, the “likes” are pleasantly validating.

Facebook is also a tool for journalists. Just in the past few weeks, I’ve used it to reach out to relatives of people who died tragically. I’ve found subjects for stories – friends of friends who are transgender, and people who were planning to merge their celebrations of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

In fact, I was in the middle of writing a blog post about a Facebook photo of a cat when my account was suspended.

So I didn’t hesitate when Facebook told me to upload my ID. The bland white box of instructions advised me to cover up private information on my identification but make sure that my birth date, photo and full name were visible. The photo of my ID would be destroyed as soon as it was reviewed, the message said.

I taped over my address on my license, uploaded the photo and waited. And waited. I searched through Facebook’s links for a help line, but there was no number to call. There wasn’t even an e-mail address to turn to for help. There was no way to appeal this decision.

I crunched through a bag of crackers. I tweeted. I tried entering my Facebook password at least five times. And then, finally, it worked. There it was again: Julie’s Facebook page. I was back.

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