Notes from the Library

04 Jun 2011

Sat, 04 Jun 2011

I watched The Social Network last night (gratuitous mention of Emacs!) and then re-read Zadie Smith’s review of it that prompted me to find myself a copy of the film. While she talks about Zuckerberg’s character traits with a deplorable vagueness at times, her expansion of Jaron Lanier’s thoughts in You Are Not a Gadget is really good. The problem with Facebook for him is that it proceeds on the premise—or, it ends up being used like this for many (the majority?) of the relationships we have—that a computer is capable of capturing a person, and representing them as part of a social network. His contention is that computers are nowhere near enough advanced to be able to do this; I add that for them to become so would involve significant advances in our theoretical analysis of personhood in order that we might be able to express this information to be outputted to the user, even if we were already able to capture it in bits and bytes. No-one’s pretending that computing and computer science won’t eventually get to the point where we can do this; it’s not a relevant question for this debate over the early 21st century phenomenon of social networking. Smith talks about the character of Zuckerberg and about how his conceptions of social relationships feed straight into the design of Facebook, which the film emphasises, and for Smith these are wrong. The important things in constructing one’s profile are writing up lists of interests and favourite things, noting one’s relationship status (in the film the thing that completes the first version of the site for Zuckerberg is the realisation that this is the important stat for college students) and then adding a photo or two. And this is what people are reduced to. People seem to want to move their lives online for better or for worse, which is a separate discussion perhaps, but the problem is that what they’re moving them into is something so basic and simplistic and under-representative of their individuality. The political message that comes out of this is that it’s reducing oneself into even more of a consumer but now one is a consumer in one’s social relations as well as one’s relations with the corporations, but while I’d probably agree with this view it’s not something I’m interested in discussing today.

These thoughts have led me to the belief that I should scrap all the pages I have on my website that just concern myself (this is all of one very short page, really, but I’ve never felt so against it as I do now) because this view that computers can’t capture people is compelling, and my site is no better than Facebook if it’s a list of top tens or whatever. I contend that there is something fundamentally different about this blog compared with social networking. What I’m doing here is sharing things I’ve written, or interesting things I’ve found elsewhere. The latter is non-problematic, because it’s an example of the web at its best: sharing things over long distances. But what I want to do with those things is chatter to my friends about them in real life, or, if that’s not possible, something real like instant messaging—that is, I want to converse. This is not what happens with things like comments or ‘like’ buttons, where commenting is out of boredom. Essentially I have this idea that writing things is only for things that matter, and talking is for things that matter and things that don’t matter, because our non-serious relationships with others are degraded when we try and do it online whereas our intellectual relationships are not. This is why I don’t have much of a problem with social media—such as a site like reddit—because the engagement there is intellectual, and that’s what the Internet does really, really well.1 But it doesn’t do personal relationships well, a component of which is laughing over something interesting online together; that fails to be captured in a comment or a ‘like’, even if the incisive comment on how this or that meme has developed is.

In this vein do I defend writing this blog. Here I share things of interest, but the personal discussion happens elsewhere, but on matters of some weight on which I try to write something, the Internet allows the best of engagement. Why do academics, teachers etc. of older generations write e-mails and share pieces of writing on thoughtful topics, but have no interest in chatting online? Because they recognise what the Internet is best at—a step forward from the journal and the book—rather than any kind of replacement for actual social interaction. SMS, phones, and—gosh—meeting for coffee or just to chat, have never yet been superseded.

What I’ve done so far is provide an argument for narrowing our use of the Internet, to go back to bulletin boards and usenet news-type discussions—only nostalgia makes me care about the technical protocol, nothing more—but I haven’t said much about how the likes of Facebook are actually harmful. I do not maintain that Facebook has meant that none of us have close personal friendships anymore; obviously, this isn’t true. But it encourages us to have a great number of extra friendships that we don’t care about, encourages us to ‘network’ and ‘connect’ (in terms which start to sound dangerously like networking and connecting for the purposes of our careers). It also encourages us to compartmentalise people with the reduction I described earlier, and this makes us even worse at the bad habits of stereotyping and judging. These extra ‘friendships’ do not contribute to our lives, and the effect of this diversion of our social energy on our actual friendships is bad for us; this is my claim as to the disadvantages. Sure Facebook is handy for organising events and sending messages to large groups and as an alternative to e-mail, but, er, e-mail does that just as well if you take the time to learn how to use it, and it’s neutral, under one’s control and not filled with ads. I do not buy into the degrading effect of a life with Facebook in exchange for not having access to a tool that I can replace with something else with a little effort. Sounds pretty good to me. It is also important to realise how little Facebook contributes to the relationships that do matter to us: our impressions of someone online can be so very different, and they don’t advance the relationship in any serious way. You might know that they like a particular band or something that you didn’t know before, but this isn’t important.

In addition to the response that Facebook is damn useful, there is the thought that these extra relationships of which I speak are valuable. It keeps us more connected with those around us in our communities; this can be no bad thing, it is said. But it is important to distinguish the value of respect and interest in those around you from the false value of a superficial connection. It’s the kind of connection a certain group of Facebook overlords think is useful, but it’s not related at all to a general spirit of community one can choose to hold towards others in, say, one’s university. I’m interested in the latter, and I’m interested in actual relationships with people. The reduced relationships of Facebook are bad for us, and detract from our investment in the former two things.

It’s good to have written out something more concrete against our Facebook culture. The problem is that this can leave me very isolated at times, because I’m in such a small minority on this one. While I am lucky that most things go out on e-mail around here, I still miss things that only go up on Facebook. Ironically a fellow no-Facebook friend of mine recently got someone else to publicise an event she was organising, via Facebook on her behalf, so I ended up missing out. But what I do know is that I continue to have quality relationships with those around me without it, and I’m not going to risk anything about those by going back.

Footnotes

1 I appreciate that I glorify social media way beyond what most of it consists of here!

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