They tell me I’m better on the Internet. Funnier on Facebook, more oomph than “IRL.” I’m not sure how to feel about this. I suppose my avatar is something of an improvement, a jovially connected version of myself, my greatest hits, quickest comebacks, and most “likeable” observations. Version 2.0 as Zadie Smith says in her controversial essay, “Generation Why?”
Smith is one of many writers who have taken to “struggling against” Facebook lately, worrying how a generation whose umbilical cords are on display in their parents’ profile pictures will fare over time. Not to spoil the surprise, but she isn’t terribly enthusiastic about their future. Unwilling to go gentle into Smith’s dark night, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal followed with a considerably more optimistic, less end-times approach, defending social media while targeting the motives of literary writers who moonlight as Facebook critics. Most recently, Jonathan Franzen explored the limitations of Facebook in his New York Times essay, citing technology as an impediment to love and an enabler of narcissism.
Franzen’s essay, excerpted from a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College, details his transformation from BlackBerry devotee to birder as if describing a path to redemption. Jesus in the form of a rufous-sided towhee. It’s a brilliant piece – as are all three of these – and his celebration of hard earned love is undeniably admirable, if a tad easy. In making his point, Franzen designates technology (special mention goes to Facebook) as the bogeyman to his more authentic, love-filled existence.
“The ultimate goal of technology,” Franzen writes, “is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes…with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.” In other words, the idea that Facebook and its software kin have allowed us to abandon the real world to escape into a world of our own design, and thus our own vanity. Our solipsism is Franzen’s constant refrain. “Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface.”
He’s right. Our online personas are carefully curated. We post flattering pictures of ourselves, weeding out double chins and belly bulges. Yet doesn’t this process of self editing – which, in its attempt to project certain qualities, has always been a part of the history of photography – happen long before our pictures make their way into the Facebook newsfeed? When was the last time any of us saw a bad photograph from someone’s vacation? We’ve all become professional photographers. Our cameras are designed to find and correct our red eyes and center our faces. If vanity is built into the machine, it’s because it is built into us. If we are as vain as Franzen suggests, it isn’t because Facebook encourages or enables us to think we are somehow better or more beautiful, but rather because we carry that vanity wherever we go, into art, literature, and the Internet. To suggest otherwise abnegates our responsibility to confront vanity in ourselves.
I’m not convinced that Facebook (and certainly not technology, in its many forms) is simply a hothouse for our basest instincts. With regard to Franzen’s indifferent world – from which we’ve allegedly fled into the consoling, vain-sexy domain of Mark Zuckerberg – I can’t scroll far at all without meeting that natural world, in the form of concern and fundraising for earthquake victims, outrage about environmental catastrophes and domestic abuse, and, individually, detailed accounts of friends’ travails. Dead pets, sick grandmothers, struggles with divorce and disease, all of these tragedies unfold each day, often each hour, in my newsfeed. Facebook and Twitter were key in Egypt’s ousting of Hosni Mubarak and continue to serve the youth of the Arab Spring, yet Franzen focuses on profile pics of girls making that horrible kissy face, thereby choosing to ignore the ways in which Facebook informs us, in its own uniquely personal way, about the wider world.
None of this is to say that we don’t use Facebook, as Franzen asserts, to make our lives look more interesting, touting new infants, new jobs, and new books. But it goes both ways. We also confess to watching bad reality television, to eating our weight in potato chips, to trading crops on Farmville when we should be grading papers. We fight in whole paragraphs about politics and religion. We post pictures of our dogs sleeping, of our messy apartments, of our feet. More often than not, there is a complete picture there, a real-time history of living. Facebook has less replaced the real world than it has compressed it, collecting the messy stuff of our existence into photos, links, and status updates. As Alexis Madrigal writes in response to Zadie Smith’s Facebook critique, “While some things can be shaped by the tool itself, by the software, others are burned in by the much longer game of being alive in the world.”
It seems rather ungenerous for Franzen to seize upon Facebook as the perpetual enabler to our collective cultural narcissism. What better tool for narcissists, he wonders, than technology, which can be used to manipulate other people into liking, or “liking,” them? But how exactly do we manipulate? By hitting a button to “like” someone’s activity that doesn’t particularly interest us? Sure some of us do that, some of the time, just as some of us pretend to enjoy listening to our friends’ dreams, making small talk in elevators, kissing up to a boss, or looking at pictures of someone’s baby. Facebook isn’t breaking new ground in social lubrication. And, by the way, if we are narcissists for having the impulse to share our personal information with others, then we have been, all along, since we first drew public pictures in Chauvet Cave.
As with Smith, Franzen’s paramount concerns are about the nature of a Facebook friendship: “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.” Vanity. Friend me, be a part of my audience. To consider some Facebook relationships true friendships, he suggests, is self-deception. “There is no such thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie.” Like with gusto, with the purest form of liking, sayeth Franzen, or risk being a fraud. He has the rulebook, and, it seems, sole access to a Like-A-Tron 3000.
Beyond the legitimacy of friendship, though, Franzen does make a very important point: “To love a specific person and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of yourself.” Indeed. Love and surrender. Yet I can’t think of a more poignant example of such love than when a friend, bound simultaneously to her television and computer late one night, shared a running Facebook commentary about each of the Chilean miners as he was pulled from the ground. Or when a friend in the midst of the adoption process waited alone in a hotel room to hear if she would be able to bring home her child (she wouldn’t). She shared her grief via status updates, in real time, and everyone rallied to her side. Those nights, I promise you, there was room for love and surrender in the Facebook headlines.
Franzen concludes by celebrating the sacrifices of real love. He talks about his years of dabbling in, and eventually abandoning, environmentalism before finally falling hard for birds: “Whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love… Now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again.” Can one love a “specific part” of nature? I’ll take these bears and those fish, but not the flies? Perhaps I’m being ungenerous now – and admittedly I’m not fond of ticks – but this specific loving feels an awful lot like creating a world of our wishes, “an extension of self,” as Franzen said of technology.
Who needs a BlackBerry Bold when one can chart a “life list” in a notebook? Putting aside the somewhat troubling idea that one might care for the woods only because they’re the home of his chosen species, I’m glad that Franzen fell in love with birds. Birds need every advocate possible, especially eloquent advocates. But is birding in this sense – comparing which birds you’ve spotted with other birders – that different from comparing which iteration of smart phone you currently brandish? Loving birds by keeping a tally for comparison, one could argue, might be its own form of vanity.
I understand exactly what Franzen means to look at an animal with a surfeit of love, but obviously his love in itself means nothing to the animal. I am reminded of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, during which Herzog examines Timothy Treadwell’s misperception that Alaskan brown bears were his friends. Treadwell had assigned names and personalities to the animals that would ultimately kill him and his girlfriend. In the film, in dramatic fashion, Herzog provides his own interpretation of Ursus arctos: “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
Franzen’s indifferent, natural world. But there is a difference, isn’t there, between what we can make and understand of the animal world and what we can make and understand of the technological world? All too often in our obsession with animals, we’re really projecting ourselves on a creature that would be better off if we didn’t exist. It’s a one-sided conversation, a “private hall of flattering mirrors.” With social media, we have the power to make our online relationships, to love and surrender, to work at sustaining a reciprocal and ongoing conversation.
In her piece on Facebook for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith steers clear of animals and true love and begins instead with The Social Network. Early on, however, her review transmogrifies into an eerily detailed surgical deconstruction of Mark Zuckerberg, right down to his physiognomy, (“Real Zuckerberg is Greek sculpture, noble, featureless, a little like the Doryphorus. Fake Mark looks Roman, with all the precise facial detail filled in”) before culminating in an impassioned plea for a world without Facebook. At certain points in her essay, it seems as if Smith herself is making a Facebook movie, telling the story of her own fake (and far more interesting) Zuckerberg. It’s constructive to criticize Zuckerberg’s business philosophies and his wanton privacy violations, but do we get anywhere by psychoanalyzing him, by trying to read something into his color blindness? I’m not so sure.
Of course, Smith isn’t the only one to go ad hominem. In his response in The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal stridently challenges Smith’s technophobia, but he tellingly descends into similarly personal (and vampiric!) territory when discussing her: “In person, she seemed almost evanescent. I would brush past her in the English department and by the time I could think of something to say, she’d be gone, a whispering in the curtains, a scent… Smith was detached and aloof. It made her almost impossibly attractive to the undergraduate population, male and female alike. It is not surprising that she has to remain a mystery, lest the world drain her blood looking for her essence. We would shamble towards her — online or off — to feed.”
Is it hot in here?
Ultimately Madrigal suggests that Smith’s literary celebrity has prevented her from properly using social media, and that her chief bias against Facebook – because she’s a literary writer – is its truncation and perversion of language. “When professional writers see horrifically bad writing online, they recoil. All their training about the value of diverse societies and the equality of classes goes flying out the window… This is how the masses of people talk. This is how the masses of people write. Not the 20 million NPR listeners. But the other 300 million people trying to LOL their way through boring days at office jobs or in Iraq.” Madrigal injects an unsavory taste of class warfare – Smith in her ivory tower, or at her ivory desk – that seems entirely unnecessary. Many (indeed most) literary writers use social media, despite 140 character restrictions, so an accusation that “professional writers” are inherently technophobic makes no sense. Smith is forthright about what she doesn’t like about Facebook, and she doesn’t mention language at all, except insofar as she finds messages on the Facebook walls of the dead offensive. Why should we believe that Smith, who is anything but coy, has a secret agenda? Suggesting her issues with social media are merely the personal hang-ups of an aloof, quasi-celebrity seems as reductive as Smith’s obsession with Zuckerberg’s dorky walk.
While we’re at it, why are we talking so much about Zuckerberg? Certainly he’s the (Greek) face behind the curtain, but hasn’t Facebook itself, as an entity 500 million strong, moved somewhat beyond him? Invoking Malcolm Gladwell (and echoing Franzen) Smith writes: “That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other, and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem never to have occurred to [Zuckerberg].” Once again the idea of the authenticity and legitimacy of connections. But who is defining authenticity? Is there a blood test for friendship? Don’t we have superficial friends and acquaintances in “meatworld” too?
“What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet,” Smith writes, “is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose.”
In the same way that Franzen’s personal Facebook experience is incomparable to mine, so too is Smith’s. I don’t know anyone who became “un-gay” on Facebook, who took down their party photos, and I certainly haven’t stopped choking on the smoke of political firebrands. I do, however, know many friends, especially those living in rural towns, who can’t out themselves “in real life” as gay or liberal or atheist because of the reactions of their families, but who have, somehow, found the courage to do this on Facebook. Facebook is no social panacea, but it does quite often provide the kind of distance necessary for people to declare their beliefs and orientations publicly. Facebook has indeed become a shorthand, a way for people to know information about their friends that they might not feel comfortable asking about. I certainly long for the kind of “real life” for everyone that Smith talks about it, one in which we can be anyone we want with anyone we want; I’m just not sure we’re all there yet.
Ultimately Smith’s great fear is a homogenized world, with social media leading the way, wanting us all to like and buy the same things. But the truth is that Facebook does not compel us to like everything, and we don’t in fact like everything. Hence the debate over the possibility of a dislike button.
Interestingly, Smith talks about Facebook the way some people talk about “The Media,” in effect homogenizing an array of disparate parts for rhetorical convenience. Surely there’s a difference between the ubiquitous monster that is Facebook and the kid who designed it seven years ago, between the Facebook ads and the basic “friend” connections. If we attack Facebook for featuring ads and trying to sell us things, then we should extend this outrage to our email, which reminds us of the IKEA chair we once clicked on, and to numerous companies’ “If you liked this, try this” method of consumer coercion. Whatever else it might be guilty of, Facebook holds no monopoly on the world of advertising.
Smith notes that Facebook has tried to sell her her own books, which cozies up to her idea (and Franzen’s) that Facebook makes of us “falsely jolly, slickly disingenuous” self-promoters. While I have no interest in going after her Madrigal-style for being a literary celebrity, surely she would grant that any author without a built-in audience must use social media to promote her work. Even a bricks-and-mortar book tour is rooted in self-promotion and requires us to be falsely jolly on occasion and maybe even disingenuous. In the end, whether it’s art or a ShamWow, you’re still selling something.
“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook,” Smith writes, “he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships.” I don’t see it that way, but perhaps that is because I believe that the breadth of what I post, my own writing, music, in-jokes, political and social interests, are pretty representative of me, if not wholly so. I don’t water myself down, and I don’t expect others to sanitize themselves for the sake of friendship. Through Facebook, I am connected to people with whom I had lost touch, and I now enjoy deeper relationships with them than I did before. I no longer wonder what happened to all the ghosts from my past, or who I was when I was with them. My Facebook persona is an unfinished history, a brief summary of intersections, continuous meetings of the mind and heart.
“If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out,” Smith writes. But that isn’t the aim. I’ve been de-friended by the fiercely political; my in-laws have lobbed Bible quotes at me in their best attempts to sand down my rough edges. When the fire burns down, go to my page – it’s still me. The “aim” of this experiment is no more nefarious than what we do when we strike up a conversation with someone we suspect might be a kindred spirit. Every relationship born of this spark might not prove substantial – in the same way that every real life conversation won’t result in BFFs – but I am grateful for each one that is. Each makes my life, and me, better. And yes, sometimes Facebook is what keeps a friendship alive, no matter how great the physical distance.
But Smith is quick to anticipate that thought: “The last defense of every Facebook addict is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too, and they have the added advantage of not forcing you to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg—but, well, you know. If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would. What we actually want to do is the bare minimum, just like any nineteen-year-old college boy who’d rather be doing something else, or nothing.”
I still write letters to a few friends, many of whom are also my Facebook friends between missives. But letters, email, and Skype don’t work with my non-English speaking relatives. You’d be surprised how easy it is to bond by seeing (and liking) photographs and links. When I like a picture of my Iranian cousins dancing, embracing their friends, I don’t think about interfacing with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg. I think how lucky I am to have contact with them, everyday, across a world that doesn’t always allow for connectedness. I approach Facebook as ecologist Madhusudan Katti does, “not to constrain my social interactions, but to winnow them in ways that allow more space for deeper conversations and connections to sprout where they may never have between friends caught up in separate busy lives.” I use it to supplement other forms of communication. And for those for whom Facebook communication is the bare minimum: Isn’t something better than nothing?
Why are we so worried about future generations, especially when each generation has had its doom spelled out by its forbears? Why are we so quick the ring the death knell? Most teenagers don’t even use Facebook. They’d rather text or use FourSquare to communicate, and faster than we can send a friend request to them, they’ll be using something use. Social media should be the least of our worries.
Hell, if you haven’t heard, soon we’ll all have computers in our eyes.