OPINION: He shuffled towards my table, all rags and beard. I feigned an interest in my burger and fries, but I could sense him just standing there with the patience of poverty.
I looked up. Inevitably he was holding out a battered device.
"Buddy," he said, "can you spare a dime?"
Sighing, I drew my own device from my jacket pocket, held its sleekness in front of me for iris recognition, waited for it to flash its greeting.
"Bump," I said to the screen, "five bucks."
Briefly the beggar and I touched devices, as if chinking glasses to toast a success.
"Bump completed," said both screens and I waited for him to go. That was the deal. You paid so as not to hear the hard luck story. There were so many of them these days.
"It wasn't always like this," he said. "I used to be rich."
"Yeah, and I was the Queen of Sheba," I said, but he didn't seem to hear me.
"Remember Facebook?" he said. "It was mine."
"You wrote a book?"
"No mate, more's the pity. There's money in books these days. Facebook was a website in the early days of the internet, a social networking website, before the war."
I had no idea what he was talking about. I took a bite of my burger. Sauce glooped out the far side, splattering on the plastic table.
"Mind if I sit down? They turf me out if I'm on my own. But if I'm with you . . ."
And without waiting for a reply he sat heavily on the plastic stool beside me. This guy was clearly going nowhere.
"Go on then, " I said with a ten-ton heart, "tell me about Facebook."
"It got big," he said, "huge. You had a page, see, and you could write stuff about yourself and paste photos and, well, I guess it was a sort of self-promotion thing, and whenever you felt like it you could update your status and if people . . ."
"Yeah, I mean if you went shopping you could put 'Gone shopping' on your page and people could press a little button to say that they liked your status. And they could push another button to friend you. People had thousands of friends on Facebook, hundreds of thousands, though of course if a friend did something you didn't like you could unfriend them."
"So this was for kids?"
"No, buddy, you're not listening. I tell you it was huge.
"People got addicted to it, grown-up people. It cost them nothing and it gave them a feeling of connection, of constant human contact. The nub of it was identity, I suppose, the illusion of being known. We all want to be known.
"People treated it almost like a diary. It was personal and yet without consequences. There was no flesh or blood involved, just the opportunity to spread a version of yourself into every corner of the globe.
"It was astonishing the stuff people would post on it. And that was the point of it, see, the personal information they simply put into my hands. The corporations were crawling over each other to get at it. It meant they could target punters as easy as picking apples off a tree. The business model was beautiful. I couldn't go wrong. But then . . . "
The man fell silent and dropped his head to the table, distressingly close to what was left of my burger.
His shoulders heaved. From deep in the beard came a choking sob and the gurgle of spittle. I made to lay a hand on his filthy sleeve, then thought better of it.
"And?" I said gently.
He looked up.
"I sold shares. Oh the money poured in. I was a billionaire. I chatted with presidents. I was cock of the walk. But then, I don't know, something happened. Maybe people sensed that Facebook wasn't quite the innocent thing they thought it was.
"Maybe they felt the hollowness of having 100,000 friends. Maybe they just tired of one game and went in search of another, like kids in a playground. Whatever it was, the share price stalled. Then it started to inch down.
"I tipped all my money back in, of course, but you know how it is when you pull the plug on a bath. To start with the water level barely lowers. But then a vortex forms over the plug hole and there's that fierce sucking noise and suddenly, whoa, empty bath. And that's how it was. The people had gone. Facebook was dead."
"I'm so sorry," I said, though I didn't believe a word of it.
- © Fairfax NZ News