Tip Top Daily Market proprietor Jason Michel saw me as soon as I pushed open the door of his establishment on The Plaza. He left the conversation he was having, came around the bar, and enveloped me in a big bear hug. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Thank you,” I replied. It felt so good.
I didn’t have to tell Jason that my brother Stephan had recently died from a sudden heart attack, didn’t have to put those hard words together yet one more time. Jason already knew.
Decades ago, in a much smaller Charlotte, encounters like this took place all the time. When Thereasa Elder was growing up in the Greenville community, for example, church bells conveyed the news of loss.
“Every church had their bell, and when that bell toned, you knew that whoever was very sick in that church had died, and you would know where to go to carry the food,” she once explained. “You would know that would be Nazarene bell, or that would be Second Calvary’s bell or that would be Brandon, whatever church.”
Word of my brother’s passing spread by more modern means. Jason knew because I had posted it on Facebook.
It had taken a while for that to happen. A week before my brother passed, I had been hacked out of my Facebook account. I wouldn’t get back in for almost a month. I was a bit surprised by how much the loss of Facebook affected me, especially when I had real news to share. In part to distract myself, I wrote a piece for Queen City Nerve about the Facebook hack, and about my Kafkaesque struggle to get back into my account.
After the piece appeared, a couple of readers suggested that perhaps my exile was a kind of blessing. For something as serious as a death, wasn’t it better to reach out in person?
Not for me.
I’m a writer. I love combining words and images in vignettes that evoke emotion. Facebook was great for that. Of course I reached out directly to family and to my closest friends. But thanks in part to my Facebook account I’m in touch with a wide circle of other friends and acquaintances, scattered around the country and the world. I would never have gotten around to all of them.
As soon as I got back into my account, I posted a picture of Stephan and a short description of his rich, remarkable life. It did the trick. Friends sent condolences from around the world. Several remarked how much he looked like me. And when I walked through the door at Tip Top, Jason and I didn’t have to fumble for sad, awkward words. He hugged me. It was just what I needed.
The way back in
I wrote my original essay with multiple agendas. It was an announcement, a distraction, and a shameless effort to get someone at Facebook to notice.
“Facebook does employ people, concealed somewhere beyond the swirl of pages, links and auto-sent e-mails,” I wrote. “They could fix this in minutes if they chose to. Kafka’s protagonists had no recourse to social media, and their tormentors cared little about reputation. Perhaps these more modern incarnations might.”
It worked. After the piece was published, I asked a few people to post it on their own Facebook pages. Turned out that one of them had a friend who had a friend. A few short hours after we connected, the account was mine once more.
As I said in the piece, the enforcers of the opaque rules that torture Kafka’s protagonists are generally careless, petty and cruel. With Facebook, not so much. The people I dealt with were friendly, competent and ready to help. But it took connections – the friend of a friend of a friend – to reach them. I could never have done it from the outside.
Facebook provides no address to email, no number to call. Ironically, the only contact information found in the messages I received during my ordeal was a physical address: Facebook, Inc., Attention Community Support, 1 Facebook Way, Menlo Park, CA 94025.
Bureaucratic structures and controls often exist for good reason. Cyberthieves lurk everywhere, seeking identities, data, access. But as anyone who has ever dealt with these systems knows, they require human judgment to work well. In the absence of such assistance, those of us stranded in cyberpurgatory must turn to the kindness of strangers, joining the multitude of exiles who scour online forums, FAQ sheets and discussion threads in search of the strategies and codes that might open the enchanted gates.
It is a sad existence, though at least not a lonely one.
I wonder what happens if you mail a letter.
When my Facebook account was hacked, I feared it was being used to spread hate, or porn, or anti-vaccine propaganda. But when I got back in, I found only one change. On the day of the hack a video had been posted to a page I manage. It showed a farm in Asia that apparently grew some sort of tropical fruit.
Facebook’s translation of the caption offered the following: “Da Pineapple … Super Fruit Super Powerful … Only 30k / Tree Buy 5 Trees Free Shipping … Buy 10 Trees Get 2 Trees Free Shipping … Order please leave your phone number + address” followed by a “Hotline” number.
A search of the phone number revealed that the same post had been added to at least one other hacked Facebook page, this one for a foster dog ranch in Kentucky. I checked in with a Vietnamese-speaking friend, who confirmed that it was in fact just an ad for fruit trees. Had the purveyors of Super Powerful Fruit Trees purchased access from the hackers, seeking to use the power of Facebook to build their fortunes? The world holds so much more than meets the eye.