There's a famous Edward Hopper painting called "Nighthawks" that depicts three customers and a counterman in a harshly-lit all night diner in Greenwich Village in the 40s.
The diner isn't especially warm or welcoming. It's too bright. The walls are bare. There's nothing to eat. It's just two big coffee urns, those three people hunched over their java, and that counterman.
Still, it looks like a place to go if you couldn't sleep and got up and went out for a walk--a place for people to be alone together.
I thought of "Nighthawks" around 3:30 the other morning. I couldn't sleep, so I got up, walked over to the computer and got on Facebook.
Facebook shows which of your friends are on line, and there they were--three people I'd friended--hunched over their keyboards--alone in this too-brightly-lit corner of the Internet.
There was my wife's cousin's wife-- a grandma--alone in the night out in South Dakota. And a grumpy old Norwegian posting right wing political links from his condo down by Lake Calhoun. And one of my brothers, up and jittery about business. He's been jittery about business for twenty years.
The Internet goes full-tilt 24 hours a day. But it takes on a different ambience that time of night. No email pinging in. No tweets. None of the chatter that makes it all-but-impossible to think during the day.
It's just you and the dark streets of Cyberspace. All that's missing is a bluesy saxophone solo and the sound of lonely footsteps on the digital concrete.
In Hopper's painting, light spills out onto the sidewalk, leaving you feeling conflicted as you look at it. Part of you wants to push into the diner, sit down and be alone with those people. Part of you wants to cross to the dark side of the street and hurry by.
You face the same conflict on Facebook at 3:30 in the morning. Do you join your friends in being alone together? Or cross the street and slip off into the cyber night?
I crossed the street. I logged out, did some work, and went back to bed. I slept well, too. My friends and I had been alone together. It was reassuring to know that, this time at least, I hadn't been the only nighthawk out there on the web.