Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Subverting the Facebook Monster

On June 4th, I had finally had enough. I was sick of feeling compelled to log onto Facebook all the time, sick of the inane comments, and sick of the whole business of sharing details about my very boring life with on-line friends. So I decided to write the following:

“The line must be drawn irrevocably. The Facebook monster must be terminated. Tomorrow I will delete my account forever! Maybe I'm just too damned old, but I simply don't get it.

Today I pruned the bushes and went for a run and interacted with real human beings....Things you can't do on Facebook. I choose to live in the world, not escape from it in some godless cyber-soul-sucking realm. That doesn't mean I don't care. It just means I don't care enough to log on to this idiotic account every day.

Join me in my quest to overthrown the machine!!! Goodbye Facebook!”

I was actually quite surprised by the stridency of the comments that I received after leaving the post. It was almost as though I was committing an act of sacrilege by quitting Facebook. When I mentioned this to my students, they reacted as though there was something psychologically wrong with me for thinking that I could even survive without constantly posting the minutia of my daily life.

Was I missing something?

It struck me, as I wrote my Facebook farewell, that we who are living at the dawn of the 21st century, are probably more alienated from our fellow human beings than we ever have been at any other point in our human history. We wake up from a fitful night’s sleep, knock down a stiff jolt of caffeine to jump-start our sluggish minds, and then immediately rush to our computers to check our emails, Facebook and Twitter messages, and see who cares enough to bother to communicate with us electronically.

We spend the rest of our day, whether at home or work, constantly checking on-line or on our ever-smarter cell phones to see what we’re missing out of life. Who’s doing what, who's buying what, who's breaking up with whom. The irony is that all this time we spend trying to connect electronically takes us about as far away as we can get from what human beings really need in life—tangible, intimate, interpersonal interaction with flesh-and-blood human beings.

In the ancient days before Facebook—about 15 years ago—interpersonal communication mainly involved having a conversation with someone. That conversation would ideally take place at some dank old man’s bar over beer, and would probably involve some passionate debate over the issues of the day with lots of foul language and nasty invective being thrown around joyfully by all the parties involved. Or it might take the form of a more intimate conversation over coffee about the kinds of deep personal issues that we really only care to share with our closest friends.

I wonder if the amount of time we are spending emailing, text-messaging, twittering, facebooking, and the like, far from facilitating the kinds of face-to-face interaction that helps people to grow as human beings, is actually subverting that more significant form of interaction. After all, it’s much easier to send short, clever bursts of information across an electronic network than it is to have to deal with actual human beings with all their foibles and emotional baggage. When our friends get annoying on-line, we can always just log off. You can’t just log off, however, when you are sitting opposite someone who is bearing his soul to you about some seriously nasty shit that he is going through. That’s when you have to do what only members of the human species can do: shut your mouth, listen attentively to what he has to say, and try to show just a little bit of empathy.

In short, I think that our fixation with social networking programs like Facebook and the like are turning us into socially retarded, emotional empathy, narcissistic twits, who no longer are able to relate in any kind of meaningful way with our fellow human beings. Some might consider this an awfully big problem. I sure as hell do.

Yes, you might say, but how is that any different than what you are doing right now on this blog? Isn’t blogging exactly the same thing as text-messaging, twittering, or facebooking?

Well, not exactly. When you blog properly you are engaged in a purely intellectual exercise. You develop an idea or position, put it in some kind of coherent written form, and attempt to engage public opinion. It’s exactly the same thing that Seneca, Montesquieu, and Emerson did hundreds of years ago. If everyone wrote essays or blogged, they’d probably be much better off for it—intellectually, at least. On the other hand, even blogging can become addictive and can be used as an excuse to separate oneself from the rest of humanity. In that sense, I’d agree that all electronic forms of communication are inherently problematic from an inter-personal perspective.

Now back to the Facebook monster.

When I posted the above message on my Facebook page, I was sincerely planning to hit the delete button the next day and be completely done with the damned program. Mark Zuckerberg probably would have been slightly disappointed in me, but everyone else would have gotten on just fine without my monthly sarcastic postings.

But then it hit me that bailing on Facebook might have been emotionally freeing for me, but it wouldn’t be solving the real problem—namely, the alienating and superficial nature of our modern technological forms of communication.

I wondered to myself if Facebook, in fact, could actually be used to shock, provoke or amuse people into real human interaction? Could it be transformed into a tool that might actually stimulate deeper thought about the world in which we live, our role within it, and the ultimate meaning and purpose of a human life?

And I reflected further on this: How would someone like Socrates, I wondered, deal with the Facebook monster if he was around today? He certainly wouldn’t run away from it, any more than he ran away from his fellow reactionary Athenian citizens or the shallow Sophists with whom he was always debating. No, he’d be using this new technology to engage as many people as he could and to promote his own, more moral, vision of the Good.

At the very same time I was struggling with these issues, I became caught up in the whole Occupy Wall Street Movement. From the first moment I landed in Zuccotti Park, I recognized just how important the work was that these young activists were doing. But I also knew that the corporate-owned media had been systematically demeaning or demonizing this movement and its supporters. Even my own students thought that Occupy Wall Street was just an excuse for a bunch of lazy hippy-wannabes to party and have free sex.

Could Facebook be used, I wondered, in conjunction with other popular on-line media, like Youtube, Blogger, Twitter, on-line forums, etc., to actually bring people into a deeper discussion of vitally important issues like wealth inequality, consumerism, and ecological degradation? Or would the level of discussion by the very nature of the media being used be necessarily superficial.

And was there any hope at all that programs like Facebook, when used in this kind of social responsible way, could create an environment that might lead people to more meaningful interpersonal relationships with one another? Or, once again, would the very nature of programs like Facebook conspire to reinforce shallow, self-absorbed, interactions.

I don’t have any answers to the questions just yet. For the present time, I plan to keep my Facebook account active, and limit my activity on it, as I had in the past, to once or twice a month. But, when I go onto Facebook, my agenda now will be clear. There will be no idle chit-chat about how the family is doing, or about how wonderful my recent vacation was, or about how prodigious the latest bowel movement I just had was. No, Facebook and the people who have friended me over the years will have to deal with me on my own terms. These terms will involve dealing with regular tirades that are going to be wantonly provoking, snarky, and frequently pedantic….But that, I’m afraid, is the price you have to pay for being foolish enough for having someone as existentially annoying as I am as a friend.

If you want shallow and glib, next time try friending Snookie!

6 comments:

  1. Your students are right. There is something psychologically wrong with you for wanting to delete your facebook account. Get with the 21st century, man!!!!!!

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  2. You left out one imporant issue about facebook: privacy concerns. These fuckers are spying on everything you post and selling the data they collect about you to other companies that can profit off this information. Why the fuck would I want to help Facebook make a profit off of my life and my interest? Anyone who uses facebook is a complete and total sucker.

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  3. I was shocked to begin with that you even HAD a Facebook account! I am not narcissitic for having one simply because I feel the need to let everyone in my life know everything I am doing at all times and restlessly wait ti see if they like it or post something. HA! 21st century tools may not amuse you, but that is why you have a PhD in Philosophy, right?

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  4. Use Facebook for up to date comments regarding my interests (knitting, cooking etc.) only. No friends or friends I have not actually met on my page.
    Trying to limit my "time" on the Internet period.
    One has to choose how they want to spend their time you know ...

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  5. Mike. The problem with Facebook is that all human life is there. And there's more of the ignorant arse-hole types in the world than there is of the intelligent and educated, albeit occasionally wantonly provoking, snarky and frequently pedantic characters. That's why we need to join up and form "Brainbook", a sort of Facebook only for people with brains, wot can fink and speek wel gud an nt rite evrytng sif wer txtng - rite?. I for one am with you, if you feel like starting the movement. And just in case you are up for it, in preparation I just deleted my Facebook account. And I wrote all about it here... http://www.socialstrategy.co.uk/deleted-facebook-account.html so you can read my blog too.

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    1. I'll definitely check out both Brainbook and your site. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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