August 1st, 2010

My trouble began in Slovenia. (Query to self: Would this be a good beginning for a story? His troubles began, as they always did, in Slovenia. But where to go with it after that? Save idea. File.)

From the top, then. My trouble began in Slovenia. In Ljubljana, to be exact, in the airport. I love airports with free wifi! Props to you, Ljubljana Jože Pučnik Airport! I had a few hours between flights, so I cleared out the email from a few accounts and then checked my Facebook.

But what’s this? Blocked? A security check? Facebook tells me I’m trying to log in from a location they are “not familiar with” (even though last time I checked, Slovenia was on the map). I had to first type in some odd words—no problem—and then my birthdate—also no problem—and my account was “restored.” Thank you.

Ah, but then I checked my Sharazade account. Same problem: Facebook still couldn’t find Slovenia (even though I had just logged in from there, providing them with a valuable clue). Again with the random words. But as I was hoping I’d put in my correct birthday and date, I got a different security test! This one wanted me to identify photos of my Facebook friends. Seven friends, and I could make no mistakes (although I was allowed to skip two). The first photo came up, with a choice of seven names… and I had no idea who it was.

Well, of course I had no idea who it was! Of the seven names listed for me, I hadn’t a clue what any of them looked like. In fact, of the 70 or so friends listed as friends on my account there, I’ve only met two of them in person, and I haven’t seen one of them since 1983. I backed out of the test, terrified of guessing and getting a person wrong, at which point my account would… I don’t know, dissolve into a million pixels. Or arrest me. Something bad, anyway.

When I returned home, I tried again—but I was still locked out, and was still being offered the photos test (not the easier birthdate test). I looked, and looked, and looked all over Facebook for an email or phone number to report the problem and ask help. There is nothing! Seriously! Nothing! There are only FAQs and “Help” topics, and they don’t address this problem. There was one that directly referenced the “I can’t recognize the photos in that test” problem, and you could submit a report, which I did (in detail)… but it didn’t go to a person. It went to a mailbox dump, and sent back the message


Thank you for submitting this bug report and taking time to help us
improve the site. Unfortunately, we are unable to respond to every bug
report individually, but we are reading them.

Yeah, thanks. I’m holding my breath here.

Now I had to ask myself, how much did I want my Sharazade account back? Well, a lot. Most of my friends there are writers and publishers and erotic businesses. I read their announcements and calls for submission and contests and offers of review copies of books. I announce there when I have a book release or I’ve updated my blog. I use that account, in other words, and I wanted it!

I devised a plan. I emailed someone who was linked as a friend on that account. He opened his Facebook account and clicked on my friends list. I opened my account to begin my test, and we opened our gmail chat. So the photo would come up, and seven names to choose from. I sent him the list of names and described the photos, like He’s a man in his late 40’s, perhaps, short gray hair and glasses, and he’s sitting with a large orange and white cat, and my friend would scroll through the photos of the seven names listed as choices and try to identify the person. If you’ve spent any time on Facebook, you know that people post photos from, oh, their third grade class group shot, or a Halloween costume party, or trying out a wacky new hairstyle. Even worse, the photos didn’t just come from ones that person had selected himself, but also from photos posted by other people in which he’d been tagged. Even posts that weren’t photos at all, but book covers or concert posters or whatever.

The good news was that we answered all the questions correctly. The bad news was that we took too long, and were still locked out because of that! And seven new names were offered up. Fine. We tried again, making a concerted effort to go faster. Again we were successful in identifying the photos, and again we took too long. Seven new names. Well, at this point, it was time to give up. We clearly weren’t up to the task, and I was just a bit worried that continuing was going to cost me this friend!

Next, I got another friend to compile a list of all my friends’ names. With her help and what I could find with my own searching, I made myself a study guide with the names and 1-3 identifying photos. It was 22 pages long, and would have been longer if I’d been able to get photos for everyone, which I wasn’t. (I do hope this is beginning to sound as frustrating and absurd to you as it did to me.) And I studied that thing like I was going for my first driver’s license. When I felt ready, I sat down to take my test yet again. This time, though, after I typed my random words, there was only the message, Someone attempted to access this account from: Slovenia. Do you recognize this location? I clicked “yes,” and, three weeks after I’d left the Ljubljana airport, I was in.

Now, someone posited that all this was to “protect” me and my account. From what? And why is someone hacking into my account from Slovenia more dangerous than someone hacking in from, say, three blocks from my house? Why is this picture thing considered a way to prove my identity—since clearly it’s possible to learn the photos of the friends associated with the account, even when I couldn’t log in? Why is there no way to contact Facebook directly and report a problem such as this?

Those are all rhetorical questions, and I ask them just to vent a bit. But here’s the question, nearly a thousand words later, that I actually want to answer. Why does Facebook think that a friend must be someone whose face I recognize? What, in other words, is a “friend”?

Writing is a solitary business. It can even be a lonely business. I’m entirely self-employed and write from my home office or the occasional coffeeshop. Networking with other writers is companionable and enjoyable. It’s also extremely useful. We share tips and leads; we critique one another’s work; we provide encouragement and commiseration; we exchange advice on contracts and taxes and marketing strategies. There are various lists and bulletin boards and similar online homes for writers… and there is Facebook.

There are all kinds of friends—those who will water your plants while you’re on vacation, those who will nurse you through an illness or injury, those who will assure you that for heaven’s sake, you are not fat!, those who will watch your children; and those who will positively impact your career.

Do I need to know what all of those friends look like? No, I don’t think I do. Recognizing a person from a photo might be one type of a test of one kind of friend, but I maintain that it is a very poor test of a writer’s friend. A good writer’s friend is more someone who checks (and answers) his/her email and shares useful information and provides encouragement and inspiration. The glory of the Internet is that writers now can make friends outside their geographical community. I notice that the Oxford English Dictionary has expanded their entry for the word friend to include this new sense: a contact associated with a social networking website. Yes. Thank you!

I can’t kid myself that anyone from Facebook is reading this post. But it will make me feel better anyway if I can toss my bottled message into the ocean and say to them: Please. Support our online friendships. And let us travel!

My Facebook page is here. I’m happy to accept new friends, whether you post photos or not. And I still have no idea who that guy with the orange and white cat was.

counter on tumblr

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 1st, 2010 at 3:50 pm and is filed under • Who Are a Writer's Friends?. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

11 Responses to “Who are a writer’s friends?”

K D Grace Says:

Have had a few run-ins with FB myself, and hell, I’m not even sure I’d recognize my own FB photo is I had to. But you are so right about writer friends. I’m afraid left to my own devices I’d probably be a hermit — just me and my computer, writing the next story… I find it very comforting to be connected in a non-invasive sort of way with other writer-hermits who are out there doing the same thing — in spite of FB foibles!

Shar Says:

And what about those people with, say, 4000 friends? Are they just not allowed to ever travel? It’s crazy. LinkedIn will let me travel. But those are a different set of contacts.

I think most writers enjoy the hermit aspect to some extent. It’s just nice to be able to leave that sometimes, even if just virtually. Plus with friends that you interact with online, you’re getting more writing in when you connect with them. I do think that any type of writing, at least in some limited way, helps all types of writing.

Jeremy Edwards Says:

I do think that any type of writing, at least in some limited way, helps all types of writing.

E-mail has definitely helped make me a better writer. Though I’d been a reasonably active longhand letter writer, e-mail made correspondence a daily part of my life rather than something I merely dabbled in every couple of weeks. And whereas the longhand form had discouraged much in the way of revising, the advent of e-mail enabled me to indulge my nutty desire to hone and revise even casual writing that might only be glanced at for a few seconds before being discarded.

Shar Says:

@Jeremy: You never know… some of us might be saving all your bon mots so that we can publish a whole collection!

Writing isn’t quite a “use it or lose it” proposition, but… I do think the constant practice makes a difference.

Fulani Says:

I know what you mean – though trying to choose 5 friends to recognise on FB would pretty much exhaust my friends list – I haven’t ever really used FB to its full potential or indeed bothered with a ‘Fulani’ profile there. I think if I wanted to set one up I’d probably go with Myspace instead. I find it much easier to work with, and many more of my real friends are on there.

I’ve also just set up a page on Flork – strange setup they have, presenting you with random profiles and options to contact that person or see another profile – and am thinking about Diaspora.

Shar Says:

@Fulani: I have to admit I’ve never used MySpace. I got turned off by seeing very visually busy pages from other people. Which I know is their choice and wouldn’t have to be mine. But at the end of the day, I can only be in so many places. I have two Facebook pages, both of which are professionally active, and one kind of dead LinkedIn account, and a FetLife profile, and then this blog, and a dozen lists or so, and email…. and here you go mentioning to new things I haven’t even heard of. Flork? Do I want to know?

I liked Facebook because a lot of erotica authors seemed to be there, and also publishers. That’s why I’d think it would be in Facebook’s interest to keep their site user-friendly–obviously there are other places the critical mass could go, if Facebook got too unfriendly.

Willsin Rowe Says:

Some of the most amazing people are those I’ve only e-met. For someone like me (not exactly a hermit like KD claims above, but at least a reticent social animal) the removal of the physical part of the friendship is actually a huge help. It means you don’t feel you have to say “So here we all are then!” or “Weather’s nice today” or “How about them [insert sporting team here]”. And I find it makes for wonderfully intense friendships.

Shar Says:

@Willsin: I find that email friendships are more focused, often. That is, in face-to-face life (I can’t call it “real” life, because I think the electronic stuff is real too), even if I have a friend who is mainly connected to me by writing, when we meet, we also ask after health, families, etc. Force of habit? Culture? Who knows. But I can write to people for years and have only a vague awareness of their family members or health (unless there’s some specific reason to discuss it, like we’re sharing tips on avoiding carpal tunnel syndrome from over-typing). Instead, we cut more directly to the heart of the matter. I can’t say one type of friendship is better than the other–but then, we don’t have to choose, do we? We can have both.

@a_bad_influence: As usual, you see the the underlying issue: The absurdities would be manageable if there were actual customer support. As a final taunt, Facebook sent me this 2 days ago:

Hi Shar,

This problem should now be resolved. Sorry for any inconvenience, and enjoy the site. If you have any further questions, please visit our Help Center at the following address:

Thanks for contacting Facebook,

User Operations

Ooooh, is that a secret Help Center address? My personal connection to Bekir in User Operations? No. It’s the link to the Facebook collection of FAQs, just where I’d been before. A collection of questions and answers, with no way to contact a person if your question isn’t asked, or if the answer doesn’t solve your problem. If there even is a Bekir, I’ll eat my panties.

a_bad_influence Says:

Shar, apparently people with 4000 Facebook friends are not permitted to travel to Slovenia. Not that I’m going to Slovenia any time soon, nor do I have 4000 friends, but the lack of customer support is yet another justification for my continued avoidance of Facebook. I am relieved that you do not have to identify your friends’ faces in order to email them from Slovenia. (p.s. Just in case, mine isn’t a face at all, only a pair of hands in a shiny pair of handcuffs.)

a_bad_influence Says:

Shar, I hope there is a Bekir, because I rather look forward to seeing you eat your panties.

Shar Says:

Oh, like I wouldn’t have thought of these?

  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Twitter