Just a Face in a Book

It started with an email from a friend of a friend in Paris. No, that’s not right – the two of them had only a mixture of contempt and indifference for each other. Call it light mutual scorn. But they knew each other, and each had their site with the high-resolution Paris photographs, one with carefully composed art shots and the other with casual slice-of life shots which were essentially journalistic. Of course they mildly despised each other. The one seemed to think the other guy wasn’t a serious photographer, and the other thought the first guy was a pretentious bully, another Atget wannabe. They were not friends. They just knew each other.

But the email said there were some new shots of Paris – cool stuff, take a look. And when you miss the days when it was off to Paris every December for a few weeks alone there, and miss the place on the first day of summer with all the music, you do have to take a look. Sure you can go to Google and click on Maps and pull down the little Street View icon and walk down Rue de la Harpe and see the seedy bistro where you got pie-eyed with some of the locals, but that’s rather crude – the same low-resolution pan that never changes. You want more.

But the problem was that the new shots were on Facebook. The only way to see them was to sign up. And that takes you into the world of social networking, somewhere that someone in their sixties, retired and reclusive, never expected to go. But what the heck – getting set up was easy enough, and it was free, and there were the shots of Paris. And they were cool.

Facebook was the problem. You start out saying a few things about yourself, for reference, and find yourself filling in little categories – political preference, religious affiliation (if any), where you went to school, where you ended up, favorite books or music or whatever, whether you’re married or in a relationship or on the prowl or indifferent and out of the game now, and so on and so forth. Unless you stop yourself you’re soon writing a done-well-and-you-should-be-impressed autobiography – Advertisements for Myself and all that. But you don’t feel like Norman Mailer. You feel a little guilty, like you’re padding your résumé to get that job for which you aren’t really qualified. You know you’re trying to make yourself look good. And if you have to try, well, then you’re not exactly what you say you are, are you?

And then there are the Facebook Friends. You have one – you’re looking at his Paris photographs. But the others some follow. You’ve gone public. Facebook has more than three hundred fifty million active users and half of these users log onto Facebook on any given day, and more than thirty-five million users update their status each day, adding detail to their advertisements for themselves – had a great workout this morning, little Johnny said the cutest thing, check out these photos of the cat today, this makes me mad, this makes me happy, it’s raining here. All this is done in bursts of no more than three hundred fifty words.

And that’s a lot of people out there doing these things. So someone you know, or once knew, or who knows someone who knows you, will send a Friend Request.

You’re curious. You say yes. You want to know what ever happened to so-and-so, and they become your Facebook Friend. And you look at their pictures and read their profile, trying to figure out what to believe, and what is, perhaps, slightly exaggerated, or absurd. And you now see their new postings, sometimes many an hour. There’s a lot of did-this, went-here, saw-this, ate-this, heard-this stuff – all casual running observations from someone you knew once, long ago. It’s very odd, and as one person knows another person who knows another person, your list of Facebook Friends grows. The average user has a hundred thirty of them. But are they friends, in any way that term was previously used?

When you pull up Facebook now you see a long river of casual observations from your own hundred of so – and it’s very puzzling. Why are you reading this? To stay connected? That hardly seems the reason. These people are not a part of your life now, and probably for good reason. And none of this is directed at you. It’s just out there, sitting there. You may have tossed your own offerings on the surface of that river, but you know that wasn’t directed at anyone in particular. You just said something, or pointed at something, or posted a few pictures. And your reason for doing so is the same as everyone else’s. Will someone notice that you exist?

There may be no more to it than that. Sure, sometimes a few people comment on a posting, but no dialog continues for more than few entries, and only in short bursts, as there’s that severe word limit. And really, the whole thing is just not set up to facilitate any sort of extended exchange of ideas between two parties or in a group. Facebook works a different way. Here I am. Yes, there you are. That’s about it. If you actually have something to say to someone in particular you write them an email, or use that antique technology, the telephone (using the part that’s not for taking pictures or surfing the web or using GPS to find the nearest Starbucks). You might even go see them – meet for lunch or something. You don’t use Facebook.

No, Facebook – and MySpace and Twitter and the rest – seems to exist to counter existential absurdist despair, a place to resolve the dilemma of being and nothingness. You can affirm your being, leaving something for all to see that you are not just nothing at all, like the guy in the Camus novel waiting to be hanged and okay with that, as it doesn’t really matter that much. And it exists as a promotional tool – the Los Angeles Times made Dan Neil, the Pulitzer Prize winning guy who writes about cars, get on Facebook, and Slate has their political star, John Dickerson, on Facebook too. All the on-air talent at CNN is on Facebook and most of them on Twitter too. Sure, what they post is just like what everyone else posts – snippets of transitory nothing much. But the idea is to be out there – for people to sign up as Friends or Fans Of. It’s marketing. You want to reach at least some of those three hundred fifty million users. That’s a big market.

But you can’t take it too seriously. This river is wide and long – amazingly so – but it’s less than a millimeter deep, far less. And it’s not the ancient Greek agora – the open marketplace of ideas. There’s no room for those, and not much interest in them anyway. At best it’s a place for poseurs, claiming to have ideas. It’s a great medium or making that claim, as no one will call you on your ideas – no room for that, structurally. Cool – you never have to explain the details.

This is probably why Sarah Palin as this is written has 1,101,227 Facebook Friends, which on her site are relabeled as Supporters. She finds this medium just right for communicating with America, and uses it almost exclusively to do just that. The posts are short and no one much comments on them. And she’s in the habit now of saying things in Facebook style, as with this comment on Obama’s Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech:

I liked what he said. In fact, I thumbed through my book quickly this morning, saying, “Wow, that really sounded familiar.” I talked in my book, too, about the fallen nature of man and why war is necessary at times, and history’s lessons when it comes to knowing when it is when we engage in warfare. A lot of Americans right now are getting to read my take on when war is necessary.

Gee, Obama read her book and stole her deep thoughts, claiming they were his own. Who knew? But that’s a Facebook kind of off-the-cuff throw-away. Others don’t see it that way – if anything, Obama was doing a complex and subtle riff on the key ideas of that theologian-philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, and Andrew Sullivan put it this way:

It’s a remarkable address – Niebuhr made manifest. What strikes me about it most of all – and I do not mean this in any way as a sectarian or non-ecumenical statement – is that it was an address by a deeply serious Christian.

Facebook is where you say hey, I’m a deeply serious Christian too, and thought these thoughts long before Obama or Reinhold Niebuhr, whoever he is. And you just say it. And that’s that.

But there’s more to Facebook than its structural enforcement of absolute and utter self-promotional shallowness. There is also something odd about how it redefines friendship, as a concept.

In the Chronicle Review (yes, from the Chronicle of Higher Education), William Deresiewicz explores this in Faux Friendship – a lengthy history of the whole concept of friendship and how it has changed. Deresiewicz is the literary critic who was an associate professor of English at Yale and wrote that book Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets – “an elegant case for the idea that Jane Austen’s encounter with the Romantic poets revolutionized her understanding of human existence.” You know, the “complexity and wisdom of her late novels spring from a new conception of time, marginality, and loss that is thoroughly Romantic.” Yep, she’d have a character say something like this – “I do not want people to be agreeable, as it saves me the trouble of liking them.” And another, in Northanger Abbey, say this – “Friendship is certainly the finest balm for the pangs of disappointed love.” Deresiewicz is on friendly ground when he writes about friendship.

And Deresiewicz opens with this:

We live at a time when friendship has become both all and nothing at all. Already the characteristically modern relationship, it has in recent decades become the universal one: the form of connection in terms of which all others are understood, against which they are all measured, into which they have all dissolved. Romantic partners refer to each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. Spouses boast that they are each other’s best friends. Parents urge their young children and beg their teenage ones to think of them as friends. Adult siblings, released from competition for parental resources that in traditional society made them anything but friends (think of Jacob and Esau), now treat one another in exactly those terms. Teachers, clergymen, and even bosses seek to mitigate and legitimate their authority by asking those they oversee to regard them as friends. We’re all on a first-name basis, and when we vote for president, we ask ourselves whom we’d rather have a beer with. As the anthropologist Robert Brain has put it, we’re friends with everyone now.

And Facebook and its like are only making this worse, as this is not like friendship in the ancient world – “In a world ordered by relations of kin and kingdom, its elective affinities were exceptional, even subversive, cutting across established lines of allegiance.” Think of Damon and Pythias and that sort of thing.

And it’s not like the Christian age that followed:

Christian thought discouraged intense personal bonds, for the heart should be turned to God. Within monastic communities, particular attachments were seen as threats to group cohesion. In medieval society, friendship entailed specific expectations and obligations, often formalized in oaths.

And it’s not like the Renaissance:

Truth and virtue, again, above all: “Those who venture to criticize us perform a remarkable act of friendship,” wrote Montaigne, “for to undertake to wound and offend a man for his own good is to have a healthy love for him.” His bond with Étienne, he avowed, stood higher not only than marriage and erotic attachment, but also than filial, fraternal, and homosexual love. “So many coincidences are needed to build up such a friendship, that it is a lot if fortune can do it once in three centuries.” The highly structured and, as it were, economic nature of medieval friendship explains why true friendship was held to be so rare in classical and neoclassical thought: precisely because relations in traditional societies were dominated by interest. Thus the “true friend” stood against the self-interested “flatterer” or “false friend,” as Shakespeare sets Horatio – “more an antique Roman than a Dane” – against Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Sancho Panza begins as Don Quixote’s dependent and ends as his friend; by the close of their journey, he has come to understand that friendship itself has become the reward he was always seeking.

And it’s not like what followed:

…the growth of commercial society was shifting the very grounds of personal life toward the conditions essential for the emergence of modern friendship. Capitalism, said Hume and Smith, by making economic relations impersonal, allowed for private relationships based on nothing other than affection and affinity. We don’t know the people who make the things we buy and don’t need to know the people who sell them. The ones we do know – neighbors, fellow parishioners, people we knew in high school or college, parents of our children’s friends – have no bearing on our economic life. One teaches at a school in the suburbs, another works for a business across town, a third lives on the opposite side of the country. We are nothing to one another but what we choose to become, and we can un-become it whenever we want.

And the growth of democracy change things too:

We are citizens now, not subjects, bound together directly rather than through allegiance to a monarch. But what is to bind us emotionally, make us something more than an aggregate of political monads? One answer was nationalism, but another grew out of the 18th-century notion of social sympathy: friendship, or at least, friendliness, as the affective substructure of modern society. It is no accident that “fraternity” made a third with liberty and equality as the watchwords of the French Revolution. Wordsworth in Britain and Whitman in America made visions of universal friendship central to their democratic vistas. For Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of feminism, friendship was to be the key term of a renegotiated sexual contract, a new domestic democracy.

So we get this:

Modernity believes in equality, and friendships, unlike traditional relationships, are egalitarian. Modernity believes in individualism. Friendships serve no public purpose and exist independent of all other bonds. Modernity believes in choice. Friendships, unlike blood ties, are elective; indeed, the rise of friendship coincided with the shift away from arranged marriage. Modernity believes in self-expression. Friends, because we choose them, give us back an image of ourselves. Modernity believes in freedom. Even modern marriage entails contractual obligations, but friendship involves no fixed commitments. The modern temper runs toward unrestricted fluidity and flexibility, the endless play of possibility, and so is perfectly suited to the informal, improvisational nature of friendship. We can be friends with whomever we want, however we want, for as long as we want.

But we also get this:

You graduate from college, move to New York or L.A., and assemble the gang that takes you through your 20s. Only it’s not just your 20s anymore. The transformations of family life over the last few decades have made friendship more important still. Between the rise of divorce and the growth of single parenthood, adults in contemporary households often no longer have spouses, let alone a traditional extended family, to turn to for support. Children, let loose by the weakening of parental authority and supervision, spin out of orbit at ever-earlier ages. Both look to friends to replace the older structures. Friends may be “the family we choose,” as the modern proverb has it, but for many of us there is no choice but to make our friends our family, since our other families – the ones we come from or the ones we try to start – have fallen apart. When all the marriages are over, friends are the people we come back to.

But the whole idea is that now “the image of the one true friend, a soul mate rare to find but dearly beloved, has completely disappeared from our culture.” And we don’t expect much:

We have ceased to believe that a friend’s highest purpose is to summon us to the good by offering moral advice and correction. We practice, instead, the nonjudgmental friendship of unconditional acceptance and support – “therapeutic” friendship…

There’s much more, and what he says about the sixties is cool, but the real issue is Facebook, where “the friendship circle has expanded to engulf the whole of the social world, and in so doing, destroyed both its own nature and that of the individual friendship itself.” As in this:

Friendship is devolving, in other words, from a relationship to a feeling – from something people share to something each of us hugs privately to ourselves in the loneliness of our electronic caves, rearranging the tokens of connection like a lonely child playing with dolls. …

Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals; at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud. …

As for getting back in touch with old friends – yes, when they’re people you really love, it’s a miracle. But most of the time, they’re not. They’re someone you knew for a summer in camp, or a midlevel friend from high school. They don’t matter to you as individuals anymore, certainly not the individuals they are now, they matter because they made up the texture of your experience at a certain moment in your life, in conjunction with all the other people you knew. Tear them out of that texture – read about their brats, look at pictures of their vacation – and they mean nothing. Tear out enough of them and you ruin the texture itself, replace a matrix of feeling and memory, the deep subsoil of experience, with a spurious sense of familiarity. Your 18-year-old self knows them. Your 40-year-old self should not know them.

And now “identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade.” And it is also “reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences.” (What kind of car do you drive these days?)

And this seems about right:

They call them social-networking sites for a reason. Networking once meant something specific: climbing the jungle gym of professional contacts in order to advance your career. The truth is that Hume and Smith were not completely right. Commercial society did not eliminate the self-interested aspects of making friends and influencing people, it just changed the way we went about it. Now, in the age of the entrepreneurial self, even our closest relationships are being pressed onto this template.

That’s why some of us, after a few days on Facebook, just don’t go there anymore. The friends aren’t friends, or if they are, they’ll be friends in contexts that seem a bit more real. And really, it’s become a place for Sarah Palin to run a political campaign and CNN and the rest to troll for viewers. And with all that marketing it’s just sad to see people you once knew and distant relatives you’d forgotten and students you once taught, or someone you knew at summer camp when you were twelve, or so they have told you, marketing themselves just like the big boys.

They’re just faces now, surrounded by promotional material. And everyone knows their real friends.

But the pictures of Paris were cool.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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