If Facebook Didn’t Exist, It Would Be Necessary to Invent It

Zadie Smith’s insightful, gorgeously written essay on Facebook offers so many cogent thoughts on this phenomenon (and David Fincher’s recent fictionalization of it) that all I can do is nitpick and change the subject in response. And surely I will do both. But first, an example of what she does well:

I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.

[...]

Watching this movie, even though you know Sorkin wants your disapproval, you can’t help feel a little swell of pride in this 2.0 generation. They’ve spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics. Turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They’ve been making a world.

World makers, social network makers, ask one question first: How can I do it? Zuckerberg solved that one in about three weeks. The other question, the ethical question, he came to later: 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….” Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important.

This is as sympathetic and nonjudgmental a description of Facebook’s fundamental social implications as I’ve ever read. Very often, as in Malcolm Gladwell’s recent New Yorker piece on Twitter, an offensive (and offended) stance is all but assumed when discussing the past decade’s spate of social networking software. But Smith really seems to get just how banal a thing like Facebook is to those of us in its “Generation.” Not only because it lacks a governing philosophy or organizing principle, but precisely because it’s one dude’s show:

It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)

[...]

Finally, it’s the idea of Facebook that disappoints. If it were a genuinely interesting interface, built for these genuinely different 2.0 kids to live in, well, that would be something. It’s not that. It’s the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul.

This last passage just about knocked the wind out of me. But if I’m allowed to nitpick, I must ask why Smith grants Facebook so much credit if it is indeed so benign. She writes, “If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out,” but does she truly believe that so many people now live a life in pursuit of being “liked”? To a lesser degree, she makes Gladwell’s mistake of assuming that newfangled social media is designed to be radical or revolutionary. But these things are just platforms. Twitter, MySpace, Tumblr, et al would rust and moss-over if and when the patrons ever go away. People–typically older people–who stare at these odd new tools with bemused skepticism grant them too much power. You might as well look for meaning in a newly designed baseball glove.

Smith mentions the popular canard that Facebook users drag out to convince the skeptical: “But it helps me keep in touch with people who are far away!” I suspect that even this minimal guise is dying out. Facebook is for sharing, and for seeing what other people share. You can make more of this act if you’d like, but I’m not convinced many people bother anymore. Rather than reinventing themselves or chasing ever-elusive genuine intimacy, most Facebook users seem content to post pictures of their friends and kids, share a link, and comment on each other’s passing observations. If there’s a danger in this kind of thing, it’s the danger of succumbing to a mentality where “connectedness” is one’s most prized personal quality. But at most, Facebook seems merely symptomatic of a culture with dozens of “connection” options. Take this new ad for a forthcoming Windows all-in-one digital doodad:

As this spot makes plain, we’re aware that the “connectedness” is an illusion, so much so that the very companies who sell it are openly in on the joke. Let that one sink in. We’re moving towards a culture where everyone will handle all their communication from a single box, and when that happens we will have finally lassoed these stray yearnings–to have “friends” as well as friends; to be perpetually within arms’ reach of gossip as well as real knowledge–into a single gesture. And rather than turning us into half-sentient screen addicts, I suspect this will allow us to move on with our actual lives.

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One Comment

  1. Pete
    Posted November 15, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Zadie Smith’s essay should be essential reading for any thoughtful Facebook user. (I am especially interested in reading the Lanier book as well.)
    Of course, the open question is how many Facebook users are in fact thoughtful, whether Harvard educated or not.

    That’s another way of saying I think I agree with your identification of the crux of the whole issue here: is Facebook making people more banal, or is Facebook making the long-recognized banality of most people more available and accessible? Zadie Smith admits to checking out herself, and anecdotally I know you and I both have low-wattage Facebook accounts.

    The most captivating part of the piece is her call to reflect on the nature of the product so many people our age have integrated into our lives. In a time when so much of our identities are connected to what we consume, I think we tend to conceptualize our consumption in binaries. (And yes, that is a purposeful programming pun.) We either use Facebook or we do not, and that is an input into the type of person we are. We either consume a certain type of music or we do not, a certain type of car or not, &c. Smith is asking us not to simply reject or accept Facebook, but to understand why we either accept or reject it, and to imagine alternative forms that we might more enthusiastically reject or accept. However, that kind of thinking is by definition not banal, and therefore hard, and therefore rare.

    But almost as certainly as Facebook has tapped into the banal sophomoric (again the pun!) interests of millions, someone capable of precisely the kind of difficult, imaginative critical thinking implied by Smith will discover a more perceptive version of social networking. That, at least, is why I find this to be most optimistic line in the article: ” I can just about imagine a time when Facebook will seem as comically obsolete as LiveJournal.”

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  1. By We, the Business-Minded on November 22, 2010 at 9:39 am

    [...] insanely entertaining for a film that essentially chronicles the rise of a startup business. And as I’ve said before, this is the part of Facebook I find most interesting, and the part I presume will be the most [...]

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