Facebook vs Friends: Losing Ourselves in the Info Age

17 02 2010

Excerpt from “The End of Solitude”, a paper by William Deresiewicz,  associate professor of English at Yale University.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C

With the social-networking sites of the new century—Friendster and MySpace were launched in 2003, Facebook in 2004—the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself. Facebook’s very premise—and promise—is that it makes our friendship circles visible. There they are, my friends, all in the same place. Except, of course, they’re not in the same place, or, rather, they’re not my friends. They’re simulacra of my friends, little dehydrated packets of images and information, no more my friends than a set of baseball cards is the New York Mets.

I remember realizing a few years ago that most of the members of what I thought of as my “circle” didn’t actually know one another. One I’d met in graduate school, another at a job, one in Boston, another in Brooklyn, one lived in Minneapolis now, another in Israel, so that I was ultimately able to enumerate some 14 people, none of whom had ever met any of the others. To imagine that they added up to a circle, an embracing and encircling structure, was a belief, I realized, that violated the laws of feeling as well as geometry. They were a set of points, and I was wandering somewhere among them. Facebook seduces us, however, into exactly that illusion, inviting us to believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group. Visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity. “It’s like they’re all having a conversation,” a woman I know once said about her Facebook page, full of posts and comments from friends and friends of friends. “Except they’re not.”

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling—from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. The same path was long ago trodden by community. As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience. And now friendship, which arose to its present importance as a replacement for community, is going the same way. We have “friends,” just as we belong to “communities.” Scanning my Facebook page gives me, precisely, a “sense” of connection. Not an actual connection, just a sense.

What purpose do all those wall posts and status updates serve? On the first beautiful weekend of spring this year, a friend posted this update from Central Park: “[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City.” The first question that comes to mind is, if you’re enjoying a beautiful day in the park, why don’t you give your iPhone a rest? But the more important one is, why did you need to tell us that? We have always shared our little private observations and moments of feeling—it’s part of what friendship’s about, part of the way we remain present in one another’s lives—but things are different now. Until a few years ago, you could share your thoughts with only one friend at a time (on the phone, say), or maybe with a small group, later, in person. And when you did, you were talking to specific people, and you tailored what you said, and how you said it, to who they were—their interests, their personalities, most of all, your degree of mutual intimacy. “Reach out and touch someone” meant someone in particular, someone you were actually thinking about. It meant having a conversation. Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

It’s amazing how fast things have changed. Not only don’t we have Wordsworth and Coleridge anymore, we don’t even have Jerry and George. Today, Ross and Chandler would be writing on each other’s walls. Carrie and the girls would be posting status updates, and if they did manage to find the time for lunch, they’d be too busy checking their BlackBerrys to have a real conversation. Sex and Friends went off the air just five years ago, and already we live in a different world. Friendship (like activism) has been smoothly integrated into our new electronic lifestyles. We’re too busy to spare our friends more time than it takes to send a text. We’re too busy, sending texts. And what happens when we do find the time to get together? I asked a woman I know whether her teenage daughters and their friends still have the kind of intense friendships that kids once did. Yes, she said, but they go about them differently. They still stay up talking in their rooms, but they’re also online with three other friends, and texting with another three. Video chatting is more intimate, in theory, than speaking on the phone, but not if you’re doing it with four people at once. And teenagers are just an early version of the rest of us. A study found that one American in four reported having no close confidants, up from one in 10 in 1985. The figures date from 2004, and there’s little doubt that Facebook and texting and all the rest of it have already exacerbated the situation. The more people we know, the lonelier we get.

The new group friendship, already vitiated itself, is cannibalizing our individual friendships as the boundaries between the two blur. The most disturbing thing about Facebook is the extent to which people are willing—are eager—to conduct their private lives in public. “hola cutie-pie! i’m in town on wednesday. lunch?” “Julie, I’m so glad we’re back in touch. xoxox.” “Sorry for not calling, am going through a tough time right now.” Have these people forgotten how to use e-mail, or do they actually prefer to stage the emotional equivalent of a public grope? I can understand “[So-and-so] is in the Park with the rest of the City,” but I am incapable of comprehending this kind of exhibitionism. Perhaps I need to surrender the idea that the value of friendship lies precisely in the space of privacy it creates: not the secrets that two people exchange so much as the unique and inviolate world they build up between them, the spider web of shared discovery they spin out, slowly and carefully, together. There’s something faintly obscene about performing that intimacy in front of everyone you know, as if its real purpose were to show what a deep person you are. Are we really so hungry for validation? So desperate to prove we have friends?

But surely Facebook has its benefits. Long-lost friends can reconnect, far-flung ones can stay in touch. I wonder, though. Having recently moved across the country, I thought that Facebook would help me feel connected to the friends I’d left behind. But now I find the opposite is true. Reading about the mundane details of their lives, a steady stream of trivia and ephemera, leaves me feeling both empty and unpleasantly full, as if I had just binged on junk food, and precisely because it reminds me of the real sustenance, the real knowledge, we exchange by e-mail or phone or face-to-face. And the whole theatrical quality of the business, the sense that my friends are doing their best to impersonate themselves, only makes it worse. The person I read about, I cannot help feeling, is not quite the person I know.

As for getting back in touch with old friends—yes, when they’re people you really love, it’s a miracle. But most of the time, they’re not. They’re someone you knew for a summer in camp, or a midlevel friend from high school. They don’t matter to you as individuals anymore, certainly not the individuals they are now, they matter because they made up the texture of your experience at a certain moment in your life, in conjunction with all the other people you knew. Tear them out of that texture—read about their brats, look at pictures of their vacation—and they mean nothing. Tear out enough of them and you ruin the texture itself, replace a matrix of feeling and memory, the deep subsoil of experience, with a spurious sense of familiarity. Your 16-year-old self knows them. Your 28-year-old self should not know them.

Facebook holds out a utopian possibility: What once was lost will now be found. But the heaven of the past is a promised land destroyed in the reaching. Facebook, here, becomes the anti-madeleine, an eraser of memory. Carlton Fisk has remarked that he’s watched the videotape of his famous World Series home run only a few times, lest it overwrite his own recollection of the event. Proust knew that memory is a skittish creature that peeks from its hole only when it isn’t being sought. Mementos, snapshots, reunions, and now this—all of them modes of amnesia, foes of true remembering. The past should stay in the heart, where it belongs.

Finally, the new social-networking Web sites have falsified our understanding of intimacy itself, and with it, our understanding of ourselves. The absurd idea, bruited about in the media, that a MySpace profile or “25 Random Things About Me” can tell us more about someone than even a good friend might be aware of is based on desiccated notions about what knowing another person means: First, that intimacy is confessional—an idea both peculiarly American and peculiarly young, perhaps because both types of people tend to travel among strangers, and so believe in the instant disgorging of the self as the quickest route to familiarity. Second, that identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade. Third, that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences. Forget that we’re all conducting market research on ourselves. Far worse is that Facebook amplifies our longstanding tendency to see ourselves (“I’m a Skin Bracer man!”) in just those terms. We wear T-shirts that proclaim our brand loyalty, pique ourselves on owning a Mac, and now put up lists of our favorite songs. “15 movies in 15 minutes. Rule: Don’t take too long to think about it.”

So information replaces experience, as it has throughout our culture. But when I think about my friends, what makes them who they are, and why I love them, it is not the names of their siblings that come to mind, or their fear of spiders. It is their qualities of character. This one’s emotional generosity, that one’s moral seriousness, the dark humor of a third. Yet even those are just descriptions, and no more specify the individuals uniquely than to say that one has red hair, another is tall. To understand what they really look like, you would have to see a picture. And to understand who they really are, you would have to hear about the things they’ve done. Character, revealed through action: the two eternal elements of narrative. In order to know people, you have to listen to their stories.

But that is precisely what the Facebook page does not leave room for, or 500 friends, time for. Literally does not leave room for. E-mail, with its rapid-fire etiquette and scrolling format, already trimmed the letter down to a certain acceptable maximum, perhaps a thousand words. Now, with Facebook, the box is shrinking even more, leaving perhaps a third of that length as the conventional limit for a message, far less for a comment. (And we all know the deal on Twitter.) The 10-page missive has gone the way of the buggy whip, soon to be followed, it seems, by the three-hour conversation. Each evolved as a space for telling stories, an act that cannot usefully be accomplished in much less. Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition. Exchanging stories is like making love: probing, questing, questioning, caressing. It is mutual. It is intimate. It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill—and it teaches them all, too.

They call them social-networking sites for a reason. Networking once meant something specific: climbing the jungle gym of professional contacts in order to advance your career. The truth is that Hume and Smith were not completely right. Commercial society did not eliminate the self-interested aspects of making friends and influencing people, it just changed the way we went about it. Now, in the age of the entrepreneurial self, even our closest relationships are being pressed onto this template. A recent book on the sociology of modern science describes a networking event at a West Coast university: “There do not seem to be any singletons—disconsolately lurking at the margins—nor do dyads appear, except fleetingly.” No solitude, no friendship, no space for refusal—the exact contemporary paradigm. At the same time, the author assures us, “face time” is valued in this “community” as a “high-bandwidth interaction,” offering “unusual capacity for interruption, repair, feedback and learning.” Actual human contact, rendered “unusual” and weighed by the values of a systems engineer. We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines. The face of friendship in the new century.

Excerpt from “The End of Solitude”, a paper by Socioligist William Deresiewicz.

Originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Washington, D.C.

Source http://chronicle.com/section/Opinion-Ideas/40/

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6 responses

17 02 2010
violetslife

“We have given our hearts to machines, and now we are turning into machines.”

Don’t you think the article above is a bit extreme? What about games like “World of Warcraft” of “Second Life” where people actually do lose themselves in the game. Facebook is a place to connect with friends, even distant ones. It allows us to keep in touch with people we may otherwise forget. Without this kind of technology, who is going to keep in touch with old highschool friends and such thousands of miles away? You can see how they are doing my chatting with them and viewing their pictures and current information.

You tag this under “Isolation” and “Loneliness”, when really it would be a lot more lonely NOT to have a Facebook and await the occasional handwritten letter that comes once a month at most, slowly losing contact with the ones we once loved.

22 02 2010
Quinton McCauley

Thanks for your thoughts – interesting. I do agree that Facebook is useful for keeping in touch with friends – especially distant ones. I use it myself for this purpose, and even RSVP to social events on it etc.

The point of this article however, was to challenge the assumption that communicating via a technology medium is as enriching, connecting and personal as a personal face to face (or voice) conversation with a friend. Facebook by its very nature encourages a public “broadcast yourself” approach to social connection, rather than that of private / intimate communication and connection. I believe it is for this reason that Facebook has experienced such astronomical growth – it does something that email does not do. A couple of points that struck me in the article were:

(1. A “list” of friends is not automatically a ‘circle’ of friends: “Facebook can make us believe that by assembling a list, we have conjured a group, because visual juxtaposition creates the mirage of emotional proximity.”

(2. “Friendship is devolving from a relationship people share to something we analyse and hug privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls.. Scanning my Facebook (“Checking Facebook”) gives me a “sense” of connection. Not an actual connection.” It’s easy to think you’re in touch with your friends because you’re up to date with their statuses. They on the other hand, haven’t heard from you in weeks.

(3. Facebook makes us think of our ‘friends’ as an indiscriminate mass, a kind of ‘audience’ rather than individuals.. we update our status and address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.. Group friendship is cannibalizing our individual friendships.” This aligns very much with the self-oriented, media-saturated consumer soceity of today – the age of publicity, advertising and PR, where we want to be KNOWN, recognized and acknowledged. We can’t ignore the media noise of promotional messages around us, so we opt (unconsciously) to compete with it and advertise ourselves. Maintaining our own PR network then ends up disrupting the quality time we need to share with friends to develop closer authentic relationships in person: “We’re too busy to spare our friends more time than it takes to send a text. We’re too busy – sending texts.”

(4. “A 2004 study found that one American in four reported having no close confidants, up from one in 10 in 1985.” Yet today we know and are in touch with more people than ever – loose contacts, people from our past, friends of friends.. the list goes on. So why is it that people are lonelier than ever? Perhaps Facebook doesn’t always help. Perhaps it encourages us to spread ourselves too thin and waste energy on advertising and broadcasting ourselves to a large quantity of loose / shallow acquaintances. Rather than invest that energy into quality – maintaining and growing a few close friendships. Someone I know who has several hundred Facebook friends, recently admitted to me that she feels very lonely. Makes you think.

(5. False notions about what knowing another person means: First, that intimacy is confessional… the idea that the instant disgorging of the self as the quickest route to familiarity. Second, that identity is reducible to information.” At the end of the day, if we reduce ourselves to statistics and information, human beings are not all that different. We can be surveyed (or survey ourselves), we can be classified (or classify ourselves), and we inevitably will fit somewhere on a big bell curve of statistical averages, probably within the standard deviation. Take Citizen John. Information such as what John had for breakfast, the music or movies he liked, his mood on Thursday afternoon, or how many friends he had, is certainly a part of who he is. But it doesn’t define him. What defines John are his innermost thoughts and the life experiences shared with those closest to him. The stories about him, how other people experienced him, and how he connected to others and made them feel. These are the things that people will talk about at John’s funeral one day. Because at the end of the day, John might like Casablanca, The Beatles, Mustangs and cocoa-pops.. but his next door neighbor might have exactly the same preferences. People are more than their preferences, and identity is more than information. Facebook makes it easy to forget this, and confuse the two.

Quinton

28 02 2010
Quinton McCauley

Sometimes the most powerful statements come not from intellectuals and their analytical arguments, but from the raw, real blurtings-out of a person expressing their experience and emotion. Found this comment after a news column about the columnist’s “addiction to Facebook” – it sums up everything I don’t like about Facebook:

“Facebook has made me feel so lonely and alone. I used to talk to my friends on the phone and visit them. I thought they were my friends. Now there is no communication. Just announcements. I have been told, anything I need to know is on their facebook or blog. What I need is not to know, but to communicate and interact with humans. What I need is to hear a voice, to be comforted, to comfort, to share a meal with people who love me. I will never get a facebook. It goes against my dignity and humanity. I am not an advertising gimmic, selling myself. These “friends” of mine aren’t even selling anything anymore. They have cut off access to each other. I know more about their lives than ever before, yet I no longer know them. That is lonely and it hurts deeply.”

26 03 2010
Johnny Boxer

Hey bro just some thoughts: Youve encouraged me with this article. I no longer feel like I’m abnormal for not having facebook and its great to know my older bro feels the same. I get pressure from my friends to get facebook , but most of the reasons above , are enough for me not to get it. Facebook makes me suspicious . I query its need in this day and age. Funny isn’t it how people who have it , get frustrated that i don’t have it. Maybe thats because they dont like not knowing EVERYTHING about me. Bring back the OO7 days! You know,” if I told you that id have to kill you” days. Get some mystery back in life! I want a phonecall to tell I’m invited to Jerry Beckhams birthday party not a group message! And as for,” Joe Bloggs is feelin chill while relaxing on the deck in the sun”,- if he feels strongly that I should know this c@#$ why doesn’t he tell me in person or grab his phone next to him and ring me! I dont mind talking c@#$ with a friend on the phone or in person but I will not waste my time reading it! Anyways with a bit of exaggeration and humor i felt the urge to tell you your not alone! Welcome to the real world of secrets and spys where to survive you use your perception and other incredible gadgets to interpret people , their motives , their actions, and their agendas. How exciting! Love you always your bro.Yarsoo

26 03 2010
Ian

Facebook reminds me of a never ending soap opera. A mass of exchanging of personal information in a public domain. What a paradox. There is actually nothing intimate and personal about it at all. I liked the phrase this article uses calling it a ‘stage’. You are the performer. I do not believe for a moment that Facebook is the saviour of lost friends. If you want to get in touch with a lost friend, give them a call, write them one of those old things called a letter, or hey alright, send them an e-mail….( note that all those options are private ).
We have never heard from some people for a number of years who were once among our closest friends. These are people we were in regular contact with.
Oh, we DID get Facebook invitations. However, It seems because we have no intention to ‘go public’ with our ‘personal’ profile, we are now among the ‘lost friends.’ So, even though it would cost only a few cents to call us, or zip to e-mail, we have not conformed, so personal contact is lost.I guess they are all just too busy now grooming their profiles for their friends????

4 01 2011
2010 in review « 1000 Diamonds

[…] Facebook vs Friends: Losing Ourselves in the Info Age February 2010 5 comments […]

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