Thursday, December 9, 2010

On Facebook

I don't have a Facebook account.

I know, that's impossible, right?  I'm a technology-savvy, blog-friendly, twenty-something in 2010 (almost 2011) who doesn't use the biggest social networking site in the world?  And not just that, Facebook is the second most visited site on the entire Internet, behind only Google.  How is it possible that yours truly doesn't even have an account?

In some ways my refusal to join Facebook is merely stubbornness.  I didn't get one before, and I haven't had one yet, and I don't see any need to create one now.  In other words, it's just an irrational computation of habit, a perception that the barriers to entry - while undeniably low - are still too high to be worth the investment.  That is, I don't want to spend the half-hour or whatever to set the thing up.

That, however, is not the real reason.  Stubbornness is sufficient to prevent me from even raising the question most of the time, but it is not enough to really keep me away.  No, the real reason I don't have a Facebook account is because I don't believe that I would benefit from Facebook.  Far from it, I feel as though Facebook lowers, rather than raises, quality of life.  Now don't get me wrong.  I don't mean to insinuate the same is true for you or your 1,000 Facebook friends.  I mean that I, personally, would benefit very little from having a Facebook account.

It is true that I have few close friends, and that I don't tend to make many vague, Christmas Card acquaintances either.  I'm a natural introvert, and while I don't dislike people by any stretch, I don't have this burning need to stay in touch with everyone I meet.  Facebook, I believe, is designed to satisfy that very burning need, to excuse you for forgetting and ignoring people - which you would do anyway - simply because you are their "friend," and therefore you have "stayed in touch."  For my part - and I don't think I'm alone here - I don't see any benefit from having a network of 1,000 emigos (as Joe Posnanski calls them) that I am reminded of constantly, without any meaningful change in my actual relationships with those people.  It just sounds like extra work and stress.

Of course, there's more to Facebook than accumulating lists of friends.  There's the whole status update and wall posting.  That part is so successful that Twitter abstracted it, made it into its own service, and is now the 11th most visited site on the Internet.

This communication-focused part of Facebook I find more entertaining, but ultimately empty.  While there are many witty tweets, Facebook statuses, comments on pictures, and so on in the Facebook world, there are also plenty of the same in real conversations.  I don't feel as though I'm missing out on a vast trove of humor or wisdom by not following people on Twitter, or being linked in to their Facebook pages.  And, what's more, by the nature of the services, most Twitter users or Facebook users are intensely personal without even a hint of trying to bridge the paradox that makes good writing worth reading: being personal while still being impersonal and, perhaps, universal.

Is that too much to ask from a Tweet or from a Facebook wall post?  That it be a piece of good writing?  I think so.  It is probably impossible, in 140 characters (or, in the case of Facebook, in a few sentences of indeterminate length), to say much of anything really worth saying.  Oh, sure, you can be witty, and you can maybe even be profound, but what makes the great quotations of, for example, Ralph Waldo Emerson so great is not the quotations themselves, but the process of getting to them, the explanations and context that go with them.

Writing that does not explain itself leaves so much up to the reader that it encourages a kind of bland myopia.  Either we get it, and agree, or don't, and disagree and disregard.  Conversations die when there's no nuance in the exchange, no subtlety, no persuasion or explanation.  Facebook lets us retreat away from people we don't like so we can surround ourselves with groups of similar-thinking compatriots.  It lets us speak in sound bytes, in malformed or unformed thoughts that are reinforced by the agreement of the vast networks of friends we collect.

The result is conversation without purpose, without direction, without empathy.  Over the Internet, the kind of networking Facebook does may be practical, but it is not, it seems to me, human.  There is no substitute for sitting with your interlocutor and having a real conversation, because you have to acknowledge, when you speak in person, the other speaker's humanity.  You have to take them seriously, because they aren't just a vague collection of images and statuses.  You have to strive to understand, to agree.  Or, at least, you should do all of those things.  One of the problems with the cheapening of conversation that the Internet allows is that it might also cheapen our real-life interactions.

Don't get me wrong, though.  I love the Internet.  I believe that modern technology can improve quality of life immensely.  I just don't think that Facebook and Twitter really unlock the potential of a networked world.  Rather, they are just the same kind of stuff we've always engaged in as a society - backbiting, refusing to think critically, paying lip service to our "friends," general myopia - streamlined and made more efficient and widespread.  I believe, however, that there are also things the Internet can do that actually do connect people, that allow for real conversations where there never have been real conversations before, that encourage critical thinking and information sharing and so on.

It might very well be that Facebook and Twitter and social networks in general can be a gateway to that kind of thinking.  It might be that Joe South gets exposed to Mike Northwest via Facebook and they hash our their cultural differences.  But I don't think that happens very often.  Nevertheless, the model is not impossible, the question is how can the Internet really connect people, instead of just superficially connecting people?  I suspect the answer has something to do with understanding technology as an aide and not as life itself.

Which is why, above all, I don't use Facebook.  I've seen too many people let Facebook friendship stand in for real friendship, let a digital world replace a real world.  That's not what makes technology great, that's what makes it dangerous, and few people can resist the allure.  I don't use Facebook not because of the flaws in Facebook, but because of my own flaws, because I believe that I would lose touch with reality.  I only wish more people made the same decision.

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