Friday, February 06, 2009

In which I pick sides between New and Old Media

I have some very, very serious reservations about the "social networking" site Facebook. Mostly, these revolve around the fact that Facebook (much like, um, blogger, which I am using now) is a commercial website that actively extracts information from its users for the benefit of advertisers. That makes it a fairly pernicious form of surveillance, leading to the very real possibility of the commodification of yet more of our existences, yet more opportunities for capital to take our lives away and sell them back to us.

Yet still, I have to admit, Facebook users have managed to build a fairly compelling social space within this sort of virtual shopping mall. That is what makes the danger of surveillance and commodification so dangerous. All that said, I thinl criticisms of the social habits of Facebookers like this one are badly off the mark.

This author sets out to criticize facebook's "25 Things" meme, which I had myself been annoyed with and had parodied a bit here. I had thought "25 Things" to be worth critique because it invited people to share facts about themselves in this environment of surveillance. And, I admit, sometimes I found people's facts a bit boring.

The author of the article I link to above, however, seems to take offense at the very notion that the proles might dare to write about themselves in this crass new medium made of tubes "the internets." First of all, it distracts them from their proper task of working their assigned jobs within the system! "Assuming it takes someone 10 minutes to come up with their list," she writes,"this recent bout of viral narcissism has sent roughly 800,000 hours of worktime productivity down the drain." Oh noes! Its not like our society is currently undergoing a "crisis of demand" where we can't come up with consumers for all our precious productivity! No, no... back to work proles! We see you slacking on your facebooks! Your role in life is to toil, never to write.

Her other critique is that Average people Suck and should not be permitted to express themselves. You think I'm being too hard on her. Here is what she says in her own words: "Most people aren't funny, they aren't insightful, and they share way too much. Facebook is a loose social network; a "friend" on Facebook might translate to someone you'd barely recognize in real life. I don't care that my college roommate's sister is anemic or that my stepcousin's boyfriend gets nervous around old people (apparently he's afraid they're going to die)." Hear that average people, you aren't funny or insightful! You must SHUT UP now and permit your duly appointed scribbling class the honor of expressing things for you. You couldn't possibly have anything to contribute.

You know, I'll admit it, I'm not always entertained by the things folks share on Facebook. Sometimes I'm even annoyed by what I see as clumsy language or cliched expressions. But listen, Time magazine writer person, shouldn't that make us wonder what is wrong with us, rather than them. People everywhere are clearly desperate to express themselves, to share something of their lives with a larger community, even through imperfect electronic means. There are important reasons to criticize the means, to try to make them better, but I don't think there is any reason to be so condescending to the people who are using them. Maybe, instead, we should take the time to listen, to get to know our fellow human beings, rather than insisting our knowledge of humanity come pre-packaged in pithy prose by writers who have been approved by the proper social elites and commercial enterprises.


cscannella said...

The best explanation, or commentary, I've seen regarding the issue you raise is from Clay Shirky, from "Here Comes Everybody."

It's brilliant in it's concise clarity:

"It's simple. They're not talking to you."

What he's saying is, these seemingly inane and trivial conversations that happen in places such as Facebook, such as these 25 Things lists, are meaningful for the very small audience to which they're directed. He compares it to groups of kids in a food court in a mall -- if you listened in on their conversations, they would seem silly and trivial.

Expressing ourselves in "networked publics" conflates our public and private lives, but diminishing the meaning these 25 Things lists carry for the people who create them, and their friends who read them, is, exactly as you say -- condescending.

And exposes the author here as not a "critic," but really just ignorant of the phenomenon she is attempting to describe.

Gavin said...

Like I give a shit if some stupid freelance writer from Nashville has to push away the darkness of her own trivial existence (ooh, writing puff pieces for the most middlebrow publication in America! the romantic life of a freelancer!) by shitting on Facebook.

Here are some of her page-turning exposes for you:

She is right that most of those things are boring: for as many smart and interesting people I'm "friends" with most of them were disappointing. But, hey, your employer or your ex or that guy you are "friends" with but actually hate might read it, so better just talk about your extra toes or whatever instead of being molested by your uncle or the time you and your frat beat the shit out of a homeless guy or your paralyzing Islamophobia. Surveillance ain't just The Man you know!