On Facebook

And why had he never had a friend as Jorge O’Kelly had been for Prado--A friend with whom he could have talked about things like loyalty and love, and about death?
Pascal Mercier Night Train to Lisbon

I don’t understand Facebook or Twitter or really texting either. It’s not that I’m opposed to them. Rather, I simply don’t get their appeal. Of course, many explanations have been proposed and I’ve not found anything too objectionable in these accounts. But what I don’t understand is the purpose, the goal, the raison d’etre of communicating this way.

It is said that their goal is connection, to connect with one friends make new ones, find out what’s going on with them. What a strange way to make contact with another person, sometimes hundreds of persons, many of whom you’ve never met or spoken with, or have the slightest idea who they are.

In her essay Generation Why? in the New York Review of Books (November 2010) Zadie Smith also asks,

Why? Why Facebook? Why this format? Why do it like that? Why not do it another way? The striking thing about the real Zuckerberg, in video and in print, is the relative banality of his ideas concerning the “Why” of Facebook. He uses the word “connect” as believers use the word “Jesus,” as if it were sacred in and of itself: “So the idea is really that, um, the site helps everyone connect with people and share information with the people they want to stay connected with….”

Doesn’t anyone wonder about the nature of that connection, its quality, durability, the degree to which it is a genuine connection? Currently there are said to be over 750 million active users, half of whom log on to Facebook on any given day. The average user is said to have 130 friends, although a “friend” of mine has over 850 friends, and two members of my family have well over 800. What does it mean to have over 800 friends anyway? Is this some kind of a contest to see how many friends we can accumulate?

How can anyone have that many friends? Why are we not discussing the value of this kind of friendship?

I pose these questions not because I was raised during the letter-writing era, followed by the telephone and now e-mailing or that I’m simply an old grouch. I find some of these new communication techniques and the Internet itself a bit of a miracle.

Do Facebook members think much about the quality their connections? As far as I can tell the exchanges that occur on its website seem silly, rather superficial and scarcely the stuff of what we mean, or used to mean, by a friendship.

“Yes.” “Haha, that’s very funny.” “What a beautiful couple.” “Great photos.” “We're hard core: waited 2 hrs for screen door brunch. After a super grueling aerial class this morning I was so hungry! But the summer veggie hash was so worth the wait!” “New Job, new puppy, new car, new desk, new computer, new year since birth--same old guy.” There are an enormous number of Likes and X is now friends with Y and lots of Yeses.

Isn’t this slightly ridiculous?

In response I suppose devoted Facebookers could always quote Charles Lamb who in a letter to Coleridge wrote about his how he felt about his long suffering sister: “’Tis the privilege of friendship to talk nonsense, and to have her nonsense respected.”

Eventually Smith closed her account at Facebook and writes: “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,… 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.”


Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog. I also enjoyed your writing about commonplace books via Google reader.

Facebook, even internet forum boards, limit conversation (If one can call it that) to like minded people. Critical thinking and tolerance for alternative viewpoints exists in the shadows if at all. I share your questioning of the purpose and appeal of Twitter and Facebook. The only Facebook page I like to read is Jeff Nunokawa. His pages are more like an annotated commonplace pages with interesting additions from others. You need to friend Jeff to read his notes. I'm sure you read about him in The New Yorker, July 4th, 2011.

Richard Katzev said...

You are kind to write and I appreciate your comments. Yes, I read about Jeff in The New Yorker and, in fact, I am a "friend" of his. I miss real conversations, conversations with a purpose and direction in the interest of reciprocal learning. And Ideally constructive action. You are welcome to write to me (rkatzev@teleport.com) if you share this view.

Shelly said...

I like your comments anonymous, and this particular blog. However, I don't like the general tone of dismissiveness toward whatever it is Twitter, Facebook and other social media is providing people in society today.

Obviously, they are fulfilling a need, and generally we are seeing, with the possible exception of the British riots, positive actions from the Twittering social masses.

They are getting together online not to behead or to terrorize, but to bond in some simplistic human way. I hold nothing against them for doing this, despite believing this particular kind of bonding doesn't really suit me or you to sufficient depth.

Is it not basic to humans that we need to know where we fit in? To be affirmed? This happens on these sites, and I don't believe we should be dismissive of the importance of that.

Except, of course if Krishnamurti was correct in that, "It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society."

Richard Katzev said...

I welcome your comment and share you view that expressing yourself on these forums does fulfill a fundamental need. And I surely hold nothing against the social media sites. It is the nature of friendships that I was briefly discussing.