The break-up graph, the new profile, and why I hate Facebook's new See Friendship button
Facebook ruins everything. Did you see that mother in Florida who shook her baby to death after its crying interrupted her Facebook time? Or that graph of when break-ups occur? Hint: Mostly not Christmas.
"One breakup is a tragedy," Stalin said. "Ten thousand breakups on Facebook is a fun data set." Or something like that.
If that wasn't bad enough, Facebook is even volunteering to "show" us our friendships. With the profile redesign, this feature has become increasingly prominent. Friend a new acquaintance and a click will reveal everything Facebook thinks matters about your connection -- events you've attended, wall posts, mutual friends, and shared "Likes."
This is bad.
Facebook show me my friendship? That's like hiring a prostitute to explain to you how relationships work, or hiring a robot to teach you how to relate to people emotionally, or hiring Mark Zuckerberg to teach you how to relate to people emotionally. But I repeat myself.
I think Facebook is getting too big for whatever the Facebook equivalent of shoes is. It's fine that it's supplanted all my real-world relationships and forced me to wander around saying "Alexandra Petri Likes this" in response to compliments or announcements. It's fine that, according to an article I read recently in Psychology Today, all this online interaction is actually causing us to become more awkward as a species by robbing us of the ability to use our rich evolutionary vocabulary of non-verbal cues. Since reading this, I have started throwing rich, non-verbal cues into all my gchats, usually by inserting lots of emoticons -- :-P (goofy!) 8:-) (left glasses on head) :-O (Fay Wray) 3:-) (Justin Bieber) E:-( (Justin Bieber, but sad, because his hair is doing something weird).
The French used to have something called "l'esprit de l'escalier," where you think of a great retort just as you've left and are mounting the stairs. Facebook eliminates the need for that. Rapier wit? Try wit war of attrition. I literally went a full year without posting on someone's wall because I couldn't come up with a good enough follow-up to the word "TURDUCKEN."
There is no old-world analogy to posting on someone's Facebook wall. Amphibious letters crawled up out of the ocean and became telegraphs, then faxes, and, now, e-mails. Smoke signals and banging certain rocks with certain other specified sticks became talking, which became telephone calls, which became texts and instant messages and gchats. But even in the Victorian era, when people frequently did bizarre things, you never saw anyone dashing over to write on your wall, except to draw ominous dancing stick figures that caused you to be shot from outside your window.
Oscar Wilde once said that married couples flirting was the equivalent of washing one's clean laundry in public. I think "washing one's clean laundry in public," is the closest anyone has come to describing the sort of thing that goes on on Facebook walls. You may enjoy communicating with someone, and he may enjoy communicating back. But it's not coincidental that this exchange is public. It's conversation writ large. It's Friendship with a capital F. Carolyn Hax once defined social climbing as hanging out with people because doing so conveyed status rather than providing company. Posting on Facebook walls -- while not quite on that level -- gives an added valence of publicity to friendship. You know the old saying -- well, not old, but you know what I mean -- that relationship isn't official until it's on Facebook? Well, if two people become best friends in the forest without Facebook access, does it even make a sound?
That's what irks me so much about the new See Friendship button. It's reification -- a word I did not expect to use again after finishing my high school religion class. It's making the intangible speciously tangible. It's saying that the visible outward manifestations of friendship are indistinguishable from the thing itself. The Facebook blog lauds it. Wayne Kao writes:
It gives me a fun and meaningful glimpse of the friendship between two people I know.
I realized that a ...magical experience was possible if all of the photos and posts between two friends were brought together. You'd remember that first Wall post with your best friend or the funny photo from a night out. You may even see that moment when your favorite couple met at a party you all attended.
There's a group opposing this. It doesn't mention reification, though. Its reason for objecting is simply that it facilitates Facebook stalking -- the process of trying to gauge relationships and histories from Facebook trails alone. Facebook stalking has a value in the initial stages of any acquaintanceship -- which, incidentally, is also where Facebook's primary value lies. Lose a friend's number? Check Facebook. Want to reconnect with someone from high school? Use Facebook. Meet someone at a party? Use Facebook!
But the role of Facebook in longer-standing relationships is more insidious. To me, the whole point of relationships -- friendly or more than -- is that they create a common history and connection that isn't shared with the world at large. If it is, what's the point? If the man on the street can access everything that you two have shared, can't he just sub in? ("And that's why my Relationship status is still listed as Single," I explained to the person I'd been dating for several months.)
But seriously, when in human history has anyone remarked: "You can tell they're in love, on account of their frequent public communication!" or "Look, they are best friends! They attended many events together!" In fact, on glancing through my Facebook record, I was struck by how little some of my closest friends and I had communicated there. To believe Facebook's narrative, most of us would have stopped being friends around mid-July of 2007. But in reality, we've been talking, e-mailing, visiting, building up the kind of memories that don't make it onto the Internet.
At least, in most cases. For a wrenching few, my public online communications had taken the place of the elements of friendship that actually make all the difference. That's where Facebook can be deceptive. Sure, Judas "liked" Jesus's status "Casting Out The Moneylenders," and they both attended "Surprise Last Supper," but the frame misses the picture.
The Social Network suggests something like this -- an almost autistic, socially awkward boy genius crafting a parallel online reality to supplant an unsatisfying real one. The movie's real tragedy is that what he creates is hollow -- it has all the hallmarks of friendship, except actual friendship. It's impossible to replicate the messy innards of real human interactions in a neat interface. There's no substitute for connection, as E. M. Forster or someone without WiFi would tell you. Without these, Facebook reduces friendship to a kind of calibrated performance. Are you a three-pokes-a-year friend? Or are you a creates-a-tribute-video-and-posts-it-on-a-wall friend? Or better yet, are you the kind of friend who picks up the phone and calls, or even drops by?
I hear you're missing out on a lot of rich non-verbal cues.
| December 9, 2010; 11:34 AM ET
Categories: Only on the Internet, Petri, Worst Things Ever | Tags: Facebook, justin bieber
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