The Horrors of Staying in Touch on Facebook

By Brin-Jonathan Butler

 

Mark Zuckerberg has done me, and plenty of people my age and younger, some considerable favors. For instance, I met my wife on Facebook. Zuckerberg basically tossed up an alley-oop, since both my wife and I have a thing for strangers. Facebook is made for people like us—people who have no problem spying and being spied upon by those you barely know. Maybe Zuckerberg is of the philosophy that while love is blind, stalkers often have an eye for detail. In the case of my own marriage, it all worked out. Thanks, Zuck.

But that miracle of turning a “friend” into a spouse is rare. Mostly, what Facebook is about isn’t making new connections but, as its login page says, “staying connected.” In other words, documenting every interaction we have, telling everyone we’ve ever met about everything we do. Did I actually go anywhere if I didn’t “share” it? Zuckerberg has also steered Facebook in a direction where this commodification of experience is used to make others jealous of how much fun your life is. Just got back from this incredible place, on my way to this great event, got this incredible job, love my career, my friends are so amazing, my book is being published, hooked up with her, this many people came to my party, my kids are so adorable, my marriage is going awesome, everything’s going OK! Most Facebook walls are essentially just affirmations: “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and, doggonit, 678 people like me!”

Negativity or criticism on Facebook is, for the most part, forbidden. “Abuse” is totally unacceptable and you can report it to the Facebook authorities if something makes you feel uncomfortable. You’re repeatedly encouraged to so. Report on anything that violates your sensibilities: photos, messages, links, comments, information, adds from strangers, etc. Compare this to Twitter, where fighting and insults are part of the discourse, or to real life, where there’s no one to complain to when you get offended.

There's also the glaring absence of being able to dislike anything people share. Not long ago, millions of users formed a group demanding a dislike button, which suggested that Facebook knows how hostile people feel about their “friends.” But disliking would mean disagreement, and that isn’t permitted. We can only attack our friends through our self-promotion. It’s something like a high school hallway where everyone’s loudly discussing how AMAZING their weekend was, just in case we didn’t feel bad enough already for not doing anything. But after all, who could fault you for enjoying your own life? If you can’t shut up about it, it must be that amazing it’s impossible to contain!

The fuck you in all this self-promotion and affirmation is silent, but there’s a lot of fuck yous being passed around.

Ostensibly I’m on Facebook to connect with “friends.” Yet in many cases we’re really adding friends so we can avoid seeing them in person. One of the great delights of a Facebook message here or there is knowing it saves me time in having to commit to coffee with people I’d otherwise feel obliged to see. In a lot of cases, I glean all I need of their lives through their self-promotion. In fact, people will share much more online than they might in person. I get to see most female “friends” in their bikinis on one of those mind-blowing vacations they’ve just come back from with friends who couldn’t be better friends etc. All the people I’d rather not commit non-virtual time to I can watch like exotic fish in an aquarium.

But the catch is that we’re not just gazing at fish in a tank, we’re fish in that same tank being gazed at. And the water inside the Facebook aquarium is saltwater, while we’re all freshwater fish. Instead of enjoying this new way to stay “connected,” we feel worse. More lonely, more disconnected, less sure of ourselves and who we are and if we’re doing OK with our lives. Just look at that job my eighth-grade lab partner got today, or the guy my dental hygienist married last week, or how happy that couple I knew in high school still looks.

The pressures to get Facebook are the same pressures that forced us to buy cell phones. What seemed to be the most important reasons to acquire a cellphone before you had one? Stay in touch! Family! Friends! Work! What if there’s an emergency? Save time! But a cell phone becomes a way to avoid friends and family. You never have to worry about standing anyone up ever again. You can always just call in with a bogus excuse and people are forbidden to challenge it. Or why call? Text. That’s far more efficient, and you don’t have to actually speak to anyone. (How many people have completely stopped using their phones to talk to each other?) No one will ever challenge your excuses for not showing up, because they use them themselves and want that buffer from committing to anything too.

At a certain point, cell phones went from being a convenience to being a requirement. Your phone is always on (imagine how you’d feel if someone asked you to turn it off for the hour you’re spending with them). You’ll interrupt nearly any occasion with a phone call. (MIGHT BE AN EMERGENCY after all, who can argue with that?)

We’re long past that point with Facebook now. Those who aren’t on the site are the weird ones. Why aren’t they on Facebook? How do they live? Is there something wrong with them to not be sucked in? Do they have more character than we do, or lessWhat are the dynamics of that resistance? Why does even broaching the topic with people immediately make them defensive? So many of us claim to hate Facebook, but it seems like the only thing worse than the site is the people who refuse its lure.

If public speaking is most people’s number one fear and death is number seven (Seinfeld said of this finding that it proved most would rather be in the coffin than the guy giving the eulogy), where does being connected fall on that list? And is the fear of being disconnected higher or lower? We’ve all decided—without really much thought—to adopt a mode of social interaction that, often, makes us more isolated and lonely. Who knows what the long-term effects on our generation will be?

The first time I ever “met” my wife was viewing her profile on Facebook. In the “About You” section she wrote that most of the time she enjoyed the walk to the boy’s house more than the boy himself. That’s a great line to include on Facebook, which is, after all, a place where you never have to actually encounter the boy, or anyone else. Slavoj Zizek once said that fantasy is for those who can’t cope with reality while reality is for those who can’t cope with their fantasies. When making Facebook, Zuckerberg bet that most people would rather build a social network fantasy than live in the real world. Seems like he won that wager.

Comments