Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Facebook Machine

After three years of not having the internet at home - what? It's possible - last month I caved and, thanks to a fancy new netbook, got the blasted internet connection hooked up again. The netbook, which I think of as "the Facebook machine," is a cute little toy that zips gleeful little circles around my previous computer, a hulking laptop produced by those idiots at Dell who think that a 12-pound machine that can melt through a fleece blanket is something I want on my lap. No, thanks.

In any case, now I spend way, way more time on the internet. Before, when I wanted to troll around and watch the latest episode of Glee, I would have to trundle down to the library (speaking of hulking monstrosities) and spend time on one of their machines. Which, truthfully, I didn't resent all that much, because it meant that internet time was set aside. It was a discrete, scheduled, monotasked part of my daily schedule. Now that I have the internet at home, however, the flaky compulsion to check my email/Facebook forty-five times a day is back with a vengeance.

When I was in DC over the holidays, we went to a Smithsonian exhibit called "America On The Move," which was a paean to the car (and RV and camper van and truck) in all its diesel-belching glory. In 1900, there were 500,000 cars on the road; in 1920, there were 23 million of them. That is what's known as a sea-change, and the internet was ours. That kind of overwhelming, what-did-we-do-before kind of transformation has altered the way we do damn near everything: from the comfort of our own homes, we can look up information (and edit it when what we find displeases us), find a mate, shop for books and groceries, consume pornography and listen to music, and communicate. Remember card catalogues? Those long, skinny drawers full of precise and uncontextualized snippets of information about the books housed in libraries? Gone. Those cards are being used for scrap paper. They are literally garbage in the face of digital media.

Is that sad? I don't know. I think part of me misses the time before the internet, because it meant things like phone calls instead of chat windows, and musty, thin-papered reference books instead of Wikipedia. I'm wary of fetishizing the past simply for the it's-old-that's-cool factor, but there was, at one point, space for a variety of ways of existing.

I read an article in the most recent Harper's that summed up the reductive nature of technology. In order to make the machines work for us, with Facebook or standarized testing or Myspace or whatever, human beings have to design a system that is a series of pre-defined choices. You can have a huge variety of choices, but they're not infinite. Facebook asks people for things like their relationship status, and we get to choose from a list: single, in a relationship, engaged, married, it's complicated, in an open relationship, or widowed. There's nothing else. You can leave the space blank, but that doesn't really capture the nuance of someone who is sleeping with a couple people but desperately in love with one of them, or the person who doesn't want a relationship but is down with amiable companionship, or the user who is involved in a passionate and torrid love triangle where the ostensible purpose is to choose a lover, but the thrilling agony inherent in having to make the unchooseable choice is the backbone of the whole experiment. I mean, I guess "It's complicated" covers that, but it doesn't have legs.

Facebook, the article argues, is reductive: it lowers peoples' expectations for self-definition. Thanks to social networking sites, we've come to expect that we'll be asked about ourselves in very specific ways. What kinds of movies and music we like, for example, which, in a vacuum, can come to stand as a way to define yourself. "I like Radiohead and Arcade Fire, so I'm edgy, while you like Britney and Lady Gaga, so you're a minion of the corporate hegemony. I disdain you," etc. While the internet is often touted as a colorful tapestry of self-expression, sites like those actually restrict how you perceive others, and how you are perceived yourself.

Which wouldn't be a problem, but we all spend so much time on sites like Facebook and Myspace. It drains the colour out of a personality: the internet can tell you that your friend is in a relationship, but when it comes to conveying the strange, intimate tics of a person, it lacks heft. Which is fine - Facebook friends aren't really "real" friends, after all, even though it's possible to be both internet buds and real-life amigos - but we think of them that way. And the more time we spend chatting with our "friends" online, or getting to know them by browsing their profiles, the less time we're devoting to actually becoming their real-life friend.

Maybe it has to do with consumption: the internet is mainly useful for people to consume stuff, whether it's online shopping, music, porn, information, whatever. It's not so useful when we're trying to create bonds, because I believe the only way to really get to know someone is by spending time with them. We can't peruse a series of checked boxes and pre-defined categories and really come to know a person; we only think we can, because we've built ourselves an elaborate ruse that says just that.


  1. often I don't know how to reply to your posts, but I want you to know that I love them all. You are a very talented and diverse lady my love.

  2. Does anyone pay you to write, Kaitlyn? Because they should.