I’m sitting in a hip local coffee house, staring at the dust-coated screen of my PowerBook G4. I’m sitting alone. Browsing photos. Posting on walls. Chatting.
About a minute ago, I got a Facebook message from my mom in New York.
“xoxo,” it said.
The most pervasive critique of Facebook – made implicitly by Aaron Sorkin (age 49) in his screenplay for The Social Network and explicitly by several important observers of our age – is that it replaces meaningful human communication with shallow online interaction. In other words, the so-called Social Network is in fact an insidious medium for anti-social behavior. To highlight this irony, Sorkin and director David Fincher (48) have forged a creation myth for Facebook that portrays Mark Zuckerberg as an Asperger’s-afflicted social outcast who, despite making a million online friends, can’t sustain a single personal relationship in real life. It hardly matters that people who’ve actually interacted with the real Zuckerberg, both personally and professionally, refute this portrait as complete hooey. Sorkin’s assessment of Facebook’s creators – “a group of, in one way or another, socially dysfunctional people who created the world’s great social-networking site” – gives critics who don’t understand Facebook themselves a perfectly packaged talking point upon which to construct their requisite 800 words.
Perhaps fearing that Facebook’s inherent irony was not being parsed with sufficient intellectual rigor, Malcolm Gladwell (47) has entered the fray. Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker accusing online networking sites of not living up to the legacy of social organizing that spurred the Civil Rights Movement. Facebook and its ilk, he argues, are premised on weak social ties – removed, remote connections. Affecting real, MLK-level social change requires physical sacrifice, and that only comes from strong ties – personal, meaningful relationships. Gladwell’s concern is that popularity online creates the illusion of power – power to make a difference, to affect people and events – yet that popularity, that sense of connectedness, is itself an illusion.
The disdain for Facebook underlying both Sorkin’s film and Gladwell’s article stems from a familiar quadragenarian gripe: the good ol’ days are gone. Sorkin recently quipped, “I’ve heard of Facebook, in the same way I’ve heard of a carburetor… if I opened the hood of my car I wouldn’t know how to find it.” It’s a classic conservative stance. It’s also an understandable one – even to us progressive youngsters for whom Facebook is a discernible, useful entity. The truth is, nobody likes having to rely on the Internet to get in touch. My cousin is 14 years old. She’s never known a world without instantaneous online communication. She’s on Google Buzz constantly, ferociously – it’s terrifying. And yet when I finally “comment” on a particular buzz, her reply – from 1,000 miles away – says: “miss u, unc! when you coming to visit? wish u were here.”
These feelings of longing indicate what’s really afoot: online social networking isn’t replacing human interaction; it’s attempting rather earnestly to fill a deep void in personal connections with a cruelly inadequate substitute.
Social ties in America have been weakening since long before Facebook. It’s been fifteen years since Robert Putnam (author of Bowling Alone) first argued that social participation in America was on the decline. Examining data dating back to the 1960s, Putnam illustrated a consistent trend in our daily lives: from political organizations to fraternities, from religious groups to bowling leagues, Americans were consistently engaging in less formalized social interactions than their predecessors.
One could argue that Facebook and Twitter are hastening this decline – though I haven’t seen any pundits pointing to empirical evidence to make the case. Yet it seems more likely that Facebook isn’t simply a cause of weak social ties but, more disturbingly, a symptom of them. We don’t chat online instead of seeing our friends at the local coffee shop; we chat online because when we go to the hip local coffee shop, nobody there knows our name.
Gladwell writes that Facebook couldn’t have helped facilitate the events in Montgomery in 1955: “of what use would a digital communication tool be in a town where ninety-eight per cent of the black community could be reached every Sunday morning at church?” Which is exactly right: in that scenario, Facebook would be of no use at all. But the vast majority of Americans today don’t live in that scenario. We haven’t lived in that scenario for some time. We live in a world where many of the people we love are far away, not close; where community is amorphous and ephemeral. And yes, Facebook can’t replicate or replace the ties that bind us when we smell and taste and feel each other. But it’s not Facebook’s fault I don’t live in the same city as my mom. And sometimes I miss her, and I’m glad she owns a computer.