There was an essay last November by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books about the movie The Social Network and the book You Are Not a Gadget. It still gets a lot of traction regarding Facebook’s flaws, especially for this,
Or maybe the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous. For all these reasons I quit Facebook about two months after I’d joined it.
When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears.
When I read the essay at the time, I disagreed with her perspective on Facebook but I could not fully articulate why.
Now I can.
This is why.
In a 48-hour period during the past week, I’ve seen a flame war over New York legalizing Gay Marriage end in a de-friending, a discussion over whether women prefer “speed” or “stamina,” a number of people talking about their dogs, a plea to pass the DREAM act via someone whose Twitter feed is automatically posted on Facebook, a number of joyful comments about Blago being convicted, pictures of my niece on her third birthday, demands that everyone post the Pledge of Allegiance to demonstrate their patriotism, my sister pledging to run a 5K for charity (while pregnant), someone’s new headshot, a funny cartoon showing the difference between LCD TV and LSD TV, numerous comments about and even a video from the U2 concert here on Sunday, a picture of one of my nephews making “tri-colored wood peg stew,” someone asking where to find sumac or za’atar, someone wishing their mom and dad a happy anniversary, numerous condolences for a couple that had a miscarriage, and been invited to a meeting about recalling a Republican State Senator (I can’t attend).
I think that’s a pretty broad spectrum. I don’t think my Facebook news feed is anything unusual. None of that includes the variety of links shared, from news articles to essays to music videos to reviews to offbeat websites. I know many of these people offline, which means these short bursts of self don’t seem “reduced” to me. If anything, it tells me that, overall, the people to whom I am linked on Facebook perform and suffer the whole range of human behavior and have not lost their feelings, desires, or fears. Facebook doesn’t let you transcend anything other than, maybe, space with its ability to allow a certain kind of communication over the Internet.
If there’s one thing people should know by now, after thousands of years of recorded human history, it’s that technology doesn’t change what is essentially human. Virtues and vices have not changed. If anything, Facebook reinforces that on a daily basis, just as the news does. (There are websites dedicated to showing the strange, crazy, and embarrassing things people share about themselves on Facebook. How did I find such sites? On Facebook, where else?)
So what do I use Facebook for? Keeping in touch with family and friends. It’s easy to upload a photo of my kids on a hiking trail straight from my phone than it is to assemble a whole bunch of digital photos and burn it to a disc and mail it to interested family members. I also post links to my blog posts. WordPress makes it easy to do that, doing it automatically for me. That’s really about it…and the usual time-wasting I do just viewing status updates and comments and following links…
(Okay, there was that one time, just to be silly, when I spent an entire day Vaguebooking on purpose, even using some of the very same statuses I’d seen by others in my feed. Most people were not amused.)
One thing I rarely do is post anything political, since A) most people know my liberal politics and don’t need it reinforced, B) a number of my FB friends reside on a different part of the political spectrum and I don’t feel like arguing with them; as a semi-retired political blogger, I know plenty of place where I can go on the Internet for a political argument 🙂 , and C) I use Facebook to keep in touch with family and friends, not start arguments.
Maybe my perspective differs from Zadie Smith and others critical of social networks, because I used to work in the IT industry. When you’ve spent a dozen years documenting how to use all kinds of technology it’s difficult to look at a piece of software, no matter how powerful, like Facebook as anything but a tool. Tools do certain things well, based on their design and purpose.
I find Facebook to be great for sharing links and photos, and having short interactions with people about those things, and just generally seeing what people are up to. Yes, it is telling what people choose to disclose and hide on Facebook, which in itself is also very human behavior. But we make decisions about what to disclose and hide about ourselves when we meet people for the first time or 101st time, depending on circumstance and our relationships with such people.
Facebook can’t replace a face-to-face conversation anymore than a recording of a band can replace the experience of being at one of that band’s live concerts. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go waste some time on Facebook.