Thursday, March 28, 2013

Unsocial Media: or “Why is every criminal in town trying to be my ‘Friend’?”

Nearly everyone who attended my seventh birthday party ended up in jail.

Little did I know looking around the room past the streamers and balloons that many of the smiling, pre-teen faces gathered round me would one day grace the mug shot collection down at the local police department. No doubt these future drinkers, dealers, dopers and delinquents were even then casing the pile of gifts in the living room or calculating how much the family’s silver might fetch at the local pawn shop.

I was lucky: I got away. My family’s gypsy-like existence meant we soon relocated to another town, far from the bad element that on that afternoon, at least, showed up in their Sunday suits bearing innocent smiles and gift-wrapped Monkees records.

Years later, when I was in high school, we moved back to that town of infamy. Gone were some of those early neighborhood friends. My first guess was juvenile hall, or the kind of reform school my father was always threatening to send me to if I didn’t clean my room. Others, out on probation or awaiting sentencing, prowled the same school hallways as me. They were now grown big and over-muscled, with hard looks having long ago replaced those birthday party smiles, and each with a rap sheet stretching from one end of a stolen Buick to the other.

I glimpsed these old acquaintances as I passed the smoking pit and the detention bench. One of them, maybe forgetting our old alliance, came up behind me on “hat day” and punched me in the sombrero. Another, perhaps remembering me all too well, gave me a wedgie and hung me on a telephone pole by the back of my underpants.
Now, decades later, I see these former fugitives on Facebook. They want to be my “Friends.” I am torn. For, as Proust says, “We can sometimes find a person again, but we cannot abolish time.” Nor forget the simple fact they didtime. Ultimately, the question becomes, do I really want to be Facebook-ed by people who have been booked repeatedly on a wide range of state and, possibly, federal charges?

I imagine chat boxes popping up asking if I have a “safe room,” or inquiring how familiar I am with the state’s extradition laws. And what if I should accidentally click on a link one of these new “Friends” forwards to my page? Will I start getting unsolicited solicitations from bail bondsmen or places that buy and sell gold out of the trunks of cars? Who knows where it might end? One day I might find myself hitting “Like” for the likes of Thin Lizzy or Steve’s Switchblades Inc.

Other Friend requests would surely follow from guys named Mugsy, Legs, Louie, Bernard and Icepick. They’d send me invites to meet at racetracks or in dark backrooms where I’d be asked to hold paper bags filled with money or still-warm thumbs.

Pondering all this during a sleepless night or two, I decided what is needed in this all-too-social world are more layers of protection. In daily life, we use rumor, innuendo, stereotypes, prejudices, background checks and Google searches to judge people and decide whether or not we want to cozy up to them. Why not provide the same kind of critical information in the virtual world? After all, not every criminal psychopath wears a Charles Manson T-shirt in his profile picture.

Here are some ways to separate the felons from the true friends in the virtual world.
Everyone who’s ever had their likeness hanging in the local post office should have to use that exact image as their profile photo. You get a friend request from someone you knew in high school who’s been captured red-eyed and with Nick Nolte-hair, twitching and tweaking before a police camera, it pretty much makes for an open and shut case. Reject. Or you get a message from an old pal who’d made it big on Wall Street and his photo features him in front of a bank of microphones testifying before Congress.

Again, easy. Reject twice, just to make sure.

I, for one, would be happy if every Friend request were accompanied by a link to the criminal record of the requester. This way, one could easily draw the line: misdemeanors and below, accept; arrest for minor possession, party invitation; major felonies and multi-state killing sprees, decline.

The criminal background check could also help after you’ve accepted a troubled friend into your personal Facebook fold. For instance, say “Joey” wants a reference for a job as a housesitter but you see a string of B&Es dotting his police file. Easy one, reject. “Buster” wants to meet you Saturday morning at the local farmstand, but you notice in his record a disconcerting note from his parole officer about some past funny business with a pair of unwilling goats. Accept. And bring camera.

On the flip side, say you need to get your pregnant wife to the hospital in a hurry. A quick check of your Friends page reveals that “Mikey” did time for his role as the getaway driver in a bank heist. A quick instant message and five minutes later you’re pulling up to the emergency room with a bag full of loot for the copay as a bonus.

Also on the bright side, say you’re bored on a Friday night. Invite some of your law-abiding friends over to play Virtual Police Line Up. Log on to your Friends page and have your guests try to pick out the ones with records. The one who correctly selects the most wins.

The moral? Bad people on your Facebook page can be a good thing.

However, I know myself. In the real world my life is dotted with disasters, almost always, self-inflicted. I don’t need the help of the lawless to get into trouble. It finds me well enough on its own.

So, in the end, I decided against“Friending” any of my troubled childhood mates. All too often, Facebook is glad to remind us that we have a past. It is a world crawling with ex-wives, fired employees, unpaid hookers, disgruntled neighbors and the occasional felon. It was bad enough when I used a photo of my dog for my profile picture and several women with whom I’d gone to high school posted that I hadn’t changed a bit.

Insults I can take. Five to ten I can’t.

-30-

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