August 1st, 2010 | 11 Comments »

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.

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