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Generation Why?

Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.

But the pack mentality is precisely what Open Graph, a Facebook innovation of 2008, is designed to encourage. Open Graph allows you to see everything your friends are reading, watching, eating, so that you might read and watch and eat as they do. In his New Yorker profile, Zuckerberg made his personal “philosophy” clear:

Most of the information that we care about is things that are in our heads, right? And that’s not out there to be indexed, right?… It’s like hardwired into us in a deeper way: you really want to know what’s going on with the people around you.

Is that really the best we can do online? In the film, Sean Parker, during one of his coke-fueled “Sean-athon monologues,” delivers what is intended as a generation-defining line: “We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we’re gonna live on the internet.” To this idea Lanier, one of the Internet’s original visionaries, can have no profound objection. But his skeptical interrogation of the “Nerd reductionism” of Web 2.0 prompts us to ask a question: What kind of life?3 Surely not this one, where 500 million connected people all decide to watch the reality-TV show Bride Wars because their friends are? “You have to be somebody,” Lanier writes, “before you can share yourself.” But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.

Personally I don’t think Final Clubs were ever the point; I don’t think exclusivity was ever the point; nor even money. E Pluribus Unum—that’s the point. Here’s my guess: he wants to be like everybody else. He wants to be liked. Those 1.0 people who couldn’t understand Zuckerberg’s apparently ham-fisted PR move of giving the school system of Newark $100 million on the very day the movie came out—they just don’t get it. For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment. He didn’t need to just get out “in front” of the story. He had to get right on top of it and try to stop it breathing. Two weeks later, he went to a screening. Why? Because everybody liked the movie.

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.

With Facebook, Zuckerberg seems to be trying to create something like a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make “choices” (which means, finally, purchases). If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos, and it also happens that we sometimes buy things. This latter fact is an incidental matter, to us. However, the advertising money that will rain down on Facebook—if and when Zuckerberg succeeds in encouraging 500 million people to take their Facebook identities onto the Internet at large—this money thinks of us the other way around. To the advertisers, we are our capacity to buy, attached to a few personal, irrelevant photos.

Is it possible that we have begun to think of ourselves that way? It seemed significant to me that on the way to the movie theater, while doing a small mental calculation (how old I was when at Harvard; how old I am now), I had a Person 1.0 panic attack. Soon I will be forty, then fifty, then soon after dead; I broke out in a Zuckerberg sweat, my heart went crazy, I had to stop and lean against a trashcan. Can you have that feeling, on Facebook? 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? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?4

Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees. Fiction reduces humans, too, but bad fiction does it more than good fiction, and we have the option to read good fiction. Jaron Lanier’s point is that Web 2.0 “lock-in” happens soon; is happening; has to some degree already happened. And what has been “locked in”? It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a “life”? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)

But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.

Of course, Zuckerberg insists selves simply do this by themselves and the technology he and others have created has no influence upon the process. That is for techies and philosophers to debate (ideally techie-philosophers, like Jaron Lanier). Whichever direction the change is coming from, though, it’s absolutely clear to me that the students I teach now are not like the student I once was or even the students I taught seven short years ago at Harvard. Right now I am teaching my students a book called The Bathroom by the Belgian experimentalist Jean-Philippe Toussaint—at least I used to think he was an experimentalist. It’s a book about a man who decides to pass most of his time in his bathroom, yet to my students this novel feels perfectly realistic; an accurate portrait of their own denuded selfhood, or, to put it neutrally, a close analogue of the undeniable boredom of urban twenty-first-century existence.

In the most famous scene, the unnamed protagonist, in one of the few moments of “action,” throws a dart into his girlfriend’s forehead. Later, in the hospital they reunite with a kiss and no explanation. “It’s just between them,” said one student, and looked happy. To a reader of my generation, Toussaint’s characters seemed, at first glance, to have no interiority—in fact theirs is not an absence but a refusal, and an ethical one. What’s inside of me is none of your business. To my students, The Bathroom is a true romance.

Toussaint was writing in 1985, in France. In France philosophy seems to come before technology; here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves. Finally, it’s the idea of Facebook that disappoints. If it were a genuinely interesting interface, built for these genuinely different 2.0 kids to live in, well, that would be something. It’s not that. It’s the wild west of the Internet tamed to fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul. Lanier:

These designs came together very recently, and there’s a haphazard, accidental quality to them. Resist the easy grooves they guide you into. If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?

The last defense of every Facebook addict is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too, and they have the added advantage of not forcing you to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg—but, well, you know. We all know. If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would. What we actually want to do is the bare minimum, just like any nineteen-year-old college boy who’d rather be doing something else, or nothing.

At my screening, when a character in the film mentioned the early blog platform LiveJournal (still popular in Russia), the audience laughed. I can’t imagine life without files but I can just about imagine a time when Facebook will seem as comically obsolete as LiveJournal. In this sense, The Social Network is not a cruel portrait of any particular real-world person called “Mark Zuckerberg.” It’s a cruel portrait of us: 500 million sentient people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore.


The Social Network’ December 23, 2010

  1. 3

    Lanier: “Individual web pages as they first appeared in the early 1990s had the flavor of personhood. MySpace preserved some of that flavor, though a process of regularized formatting had begun. Facebook went further, organizing people into multiple-choice identities, while Wikipedia seeks to erase point of view entirely.” 

  2. 4

    Perhaps the reason why there has not been more resistance to social networking among older people is because 1.0 people do not use Web 2.0 software in the way 2.0 people do. An analogous situation can be found in the way the two generations use cell phones. For me, text messaging is simply a new medium for an old form of communication: I write to my friends in heavily punctuated, fully expressive, standard English sentences—and they write back to me in the same way. Text-speak is unknown between us. Our relationship with the English language predates our relationships with our phones. 

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