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My Facebook page, myself

I was calm, at first, when I saw that Facebook had locked me out of my account this week.

I figured I would just need to change my password, or answer a security question, and the whole thing would be cleared up in a minute.

Besides, how important was my Facebook account anyway?

Then I read the screen more closely – Facebook wanted me to upload a copy of a government-issued identification, like a driver's license or passport, to prove that I was, in fact, myself.

A panicky feeling clenched my chest as I fumbled in my purse. "That sounds sort of scammy," my co-worker said, looking at the screen over my shoulder.

I did a quick search and saw that Facebook had been requiring users to send in photos of their IDs to verify their identities for at least a year.

Without thinking, I picked up my phone to write a Facebook post to see if this had happened to anyone else. But, of course, I couldn't use Facebook on my phone either. I tried to enter my password and the little wheel spun futilely. This was serious.

So, I did what anyone else would do when locked out of Facebook: I posted on Twitter.

It turned out that at least five people I knew through Twitter were locked out of their Facebook accounts Tuesday. Some were thoroughly creeped out that Facebook would demand a copy of their IDs. Some decided this was their cue to shut their accounts once and for all.

Without thinking, my finger twitched over the Facebook app on my phone again. It felt like a breakup, when all you want to do is call your ex for comfort, but that is, of course, the one person you can't call.

What if my Facebook account was never restored? What would happen to the seven years of my life that I had documented – without ever really planning to – in status updates, photo albums, comments and captions?

I haven't kept a diary since the days I used to lock it with a heart-shaped key. The last time I routinely pasted photos in an album I was in college.

There are years of my life – really interesting years when I lived abroad and had my heart broken – which are preserved in only in yellowed letters and stuck-together photos buried in plastic bins scattered around our house.

But the last seven years of my life were different. They were filed neatly in Facebook albums, labeled and dated.

In the early photos, I was almost always with a crowd of friends from work, laughing and raising a toast. Or I was traveling, goofing off with friends in New Orleans or New York in Miami. Or posing for fake album covers with my friend Emmett, with whom I used to have a pretend band called "Steve and Estelle." (You have to see the Facebook albums to understand.)

And then, about two and a half years ago, everything changed. I met the most honest, smartest, kindest man, kissed him in a hurricane, and fell madly in love. He proposed. We got married. And, in March, we became parents of a sweet, funny little boy.

All of these events – the most momentous days of my life— are preserved in Facebook posts. The first photo of my now-husband Chris and me, snuggled together in a booth at Brewer's Art, which was snapped by a drag queen. The announcements of our engagement, our new home and my pregnancy.

Photos of us beaming on our wedding day and gazing bleary-eyed at our newborn son. Videos of our baby's first laughs, his newborn crying jags, and, his newest skill – waving his hand, which he does with such enthusiasm his whole body shakes.

We haven't updated our son's baby book in months, but we chronicle his every milestone on Facebook – the day he pulled himself to standing in the crib, the time he smeared sweet potatoes on his face.

What if all of that were gone? Friends said my Facebook page had simply vanished, as if I had never existed. I felt hollow, disoriented. I tried to open Facebook again and saw the same message. What was happening on Facebook without me? I felt like everybody was at the same party but me.

I don't think of myself as a tech-addicted person. As a little girl, I always imagined I'd live in a cabin the woods when I grew up, churning my own butter, Laura Ingalls Wilder-style. I love kale and farmer's markets and gardening and books and puppies – real life, not some virtual imitation of it.

How had I let a website, one run by a for-profit, private company, play such a huge role in my life?

People asked if I had backed up my photos, and I did have copies of most of the more recent ones, especially baby pictures, but what about the captions? How would I remember whether I took the picture of his chubby tummy in May or June? When did he first ride in the baby swing at the park?

And what about the hundreds of likes and the comments from friends?

Much has been written about the public personas we craft on Facebook, the online selves that we polish until they are infinitely more glamorous and gleaming than the flesh-and-blood reality.

But do any records we keep truly preserve the messiness of life, the morning breath and coffee rings, scuffed boots and chapped knuckles? Diaries, memoirs, letters, each of these are records we fashion according to our liking, fictions we base on life's immense complexities.

Is Facebook any more or less accurate than these records?

It's become my virtual Rolodex, an eloquent solution to life's little curiosities. How lovely is it to be able to keep up with old classmates' lives and loves, even if you don't particularly feel the need to speak to them. And, for those with whom you do wish to keep in touch, Facebook makes it easy to send a quick note and make plans to meet up. I rarely send friends emails anymore – I just jot a Facebook message.

And, let's be honest, the "likes" are pleasantly – if meaninglessly – validating.

I do have a good excuse for using Facebook so often. It's a useful tool for journalists. Just in the past few weeks, I've used it to reach out to relatives of people who died tragically. I've found subjects for stories, friends of friends who are transgender, or who are planning to merge their celebrations of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

In fact, I was in the middle of writing a blog post about a Facebook photo of a cat – what else? – when my account was suspended.

So I didn't hesitate when Facebook told me to upload my ID. The bland white box of instructions advised me to cover up private information on my identification, but make sure that my birthdate, photo and full name were visible. The photo of my ID would be destroyed as soon as it was reviewed, the message said.

I taped over my address on my license, uploaded the photo and waited. And waited. I searched through Facebook's links for a help line, but there was no number to call. There wasn't even an email address to turn to for help. There was no way to appeal this decision.

I crunched through a bag of crackers. I tweeted. I tried entering my Facebook password at least five times. And then, finally, it worked. There it was again: Julie's Facebook page. I was back.

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/juliemore

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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