The Banality of Facebook (or, Why your deep thoughts on it… aren’t)
I finally saw The Social Network this past weekend. Believe the hype: it is a truly thrilling piece of popular art, and an amber-encased chunk of Aughts zeitgeist to boot. But not because of what it says about Facebook, or us — because of what it says about us when we talk about Facebook. Which we do endlessly. And, increasingly, silly-ly.
What is it about Zuckerberg’s brainchild that compels otherwise-smart writers to make pretentious asses of themselves when “analyzing” the subject? First we heard that Facebook’s “Hide” function was some dark new harbinger of the Impending PhonyFriendpocalypse, when actually it’s just a digital version of what humans have already been doing since time immemorial. Now Zadie Smith has written an essay-review about The Social Network in which she makes New-York-editor-dazzling leaps of critical thought that, to anyone who actually uses Facebook, come off more like the stumbles of someone who accidentally tied her shoelaces together.
I realize I may be succumbing to the same ill-conceived urge that these other writers have, simply by writing this. But what the hell.
First, it’s important to say unambiguously that I enjoyed Smith’s essay — it was a delightful experience, just like The Social Network was. But it says pretty much zilch about Facebook, or “us” vis-a-vis its ubiquitous presence. It says a lot about Zadie Smith, and it’s not all flattering. (See? Delightful!) Like the constant spew of status updates she Thinks So Hard About, her own essay merely paints a pointillistic image of Smith’s own mundane hangups and self-absorptions. They’re fun to get glimpses of, but they don’t have anything to do with “us,” and — despite being published in the Weekly Bulletin of the Pointyheads — they’re not all that deep, either.
Smith tips her hand pretty much immediately, drawing an intellectual/generational distinction between “2.0 people” (Facebook users; her students; people not much younger than her but somehow different enough to induce a vague existential agita that is great for plumbing at length in the NYRB) and “1.0 people” (herself, the middle-aged filmmakers behind The Social Network, you the NYRB reader, perhaps, who has used Facebook, but only “for a time” or “because I have to”). She has always felt distant from the 2.0′s. The two groups “have different ideas about things. Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be.”
I submit that this is not actually true. If there is a difference, it’s that 2.0 People are simply those of us for whom it has not yet become an occupation to constantly ponder what it is, or should be, to be ourselves. But to Smith, for whom it is an occupation, it follows that they (the 2.0-ers) are a generation shaped by software that is “unworthy of them” — and obliviously so. I dunno, isn’t this just a long, annoying way of saying they’re young and, therefore, have more concrete concerns than existing as self-conscious avatars of their 1.0 counterparts’ inchoate cultural anxieties? Every “2.0″ group or generation takes what was new to their forebears for granted. It’s just there. The very act of distinguishing 1.0 from 2.0 is itself, to a member of the latter group, as banal and faintly pathetic as marveling that magnets work. (If not more so: at least Insane Clown Posse doesn’t strike a pose of fashionably befuddled angst toward the fact that stuff, like, exists.)
What would Smith make of an older person who waxed philosophical about how the phone book was subtly warping society? She’d probably find it fascinating, but then again we all would: atavistic weirdos, especially the articulate ones, are kinda fascinating. In the meantime she’d continue using the phone book without a whit of existential dread. And that’s exactly how I, as a member (I guess) of this group of “2.0 people” that actually comprises just plain “people,” engaged with her essay.
And it was all fine and dandy until she coughed up this pseudo-intellectual cud near the end:
I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX
When I read something like that, I have a little argument with myself: “It’s only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don’t have the language to express it.” But another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive?
Simple: no. Followup: are you fucking retarded? (Sorry, my coarse 2.0-person argot got the better of me there.)
This not-even-thinly veiled condescension tricked up as “critical thought” is why people in the Real World™ often want to beat people who, like Smith, went to Hahhhvahd (and teach there, and write there, etc) with a lead pipe. Set aside the fact that Smith would never make such a boneheaded remark about people who leave flowers on gravesites or tag walls where their friends have been gunned down, or anyone who has ever felt the urge to memorialize someone’s death using a physical offering or raw communique. But because Facebook is digital, and everywhere, and the people who use it “have different ideas about what a person is,” why, they must be pitiful wretches too illiterate to adequately express their lamentations, or superstitious fools who literally believe the deceased person will hear them.
Does it take an Ivy League education to become this offensively dense, or is that just part of being 1.0 and proud? Actually, neither. At this point I think that Facebook is so ubiquitously, opaqely banal that it drives public intellectuals temporarily insane to behold, like Cthulhu in reverse. Smith apprehends the “just plain fact” of Facebook — and, crucially, the fact that 500 million people somehow manage to use it in wildly varying ways without morphing into zombies or Morlocks — and simply cannot abide the semantic shrug-worthiness of it all. Isn’t there some there there for me? is the silent shriek of these writers, scrabbling for something to unpack or deconstruct about Facebook, no matter how ridiculous. The phantoms they invent or project in order to fill the void — whether it’s Rob Walker‘s suffocating miasma of phony relationships, or an entire generation rendered shallow and un-selfconscious per Smith, or simply the idea that Facebook could not possibly have been invented by someone who wasn’t a titan of Shakespearean hubris, as the writer of The Social Network apparently believes — are all much more illuminating about their authors than they are about the blank, rather boring fact of Facebook itself.
Facebook is important. It is interesting that 500 million people are now engaging with a system originally (key word, that) built to simulate undergraduate social norms as they were understood by a rather odd young man. Zuckerberg chose blue as Facebook’s color because he’s colorblind? Interesting! But these are tweets, not deeply trenchant observations that illuminate a culture. I’m not sure, at this point, that Facebook’s “thereness” supports any deeply trenchant observations about the culture. It’s the new normal, and normal changes. It’s where and how 500 million people do stuff, in 500 million ways. Some odd, some strange, some scary, some silly, but mostly, much the same as they always have. Smith perceptively points out that 2.0 People, especially programmers, “build worlds,” which is qualitatively different than writing novels or making music. But you don’t attract half a billion people into your hand-built world if it’s not a lot like the world we already know and live in, with a few tweaks that people find — above all else — useful. Which is different than perfect. That’s pretty much the long and short of it, and it doesn’t take a megamind to point out or understand.
Yes, it’s a Facebook world. And Zadie Smith spends a lot of energy trying to pretend like it’s the end of the world as she knows it. But I have a hunch that deep down, much like the rest of us, she actually feels fine.
Filed under: This Digital Life, Thoughts | 7 Comments