Facebook, like FarmVille, is basically pornography. If you look at hunter-gatherers from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, here’s what you see: pack hunting mammals who engage in light gardening for additional sustenance, with a short list of things they cannot help but be interested in.
Gossiping, boasting and blaming
The Internet, apart from being a useful tool, is bloated with opportunities to experience effortless ersatz gratification of all these needs, though I think the pleasures of chasing game by proxy, also known as “sports” are probably better enjoyed through television than through the Internet. Sex by proxy is not new to the Internet; it’s older than the hills. What’s really surprising, however, is the illusion of gardening (FarmVille) and the illusion of having a tribe (Facebook).
I remember when I first started using Facebook. It posed something of a dilemma for me, because most of my real-world social networks were defined by various sorts of bitter antagonisms toward each other. As an academic, most of my professional friends were dogmatic atheists and political progressives. As a Baha’i, my “church” network consisted of theological liberals (non-literalists) and disengaged progressives (the Baha’i Faith sternly prohibits political involvement, but as I read the signals most of my Baha’i friends would’ve been progressives if they had been allowed to be anything). As a Republican, my political network consisted of both religious conservatives and atheist libertarians, most of whom would’ve agreed if asked that academics are, on the whole, elitist devils. Before the Internet, I Zeliged my way through these contexts and kept my own counsel (which, given these influences, was usually complex and deeply ambivalent). After the Internet but before Facebook, I took to the “on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog” phenomenon with enormous gusto, constructing fictitious identities for myself that for once allowed me to say what I really thought about things without creating conflict or risking rejection: I simply partitioned my discussions so that whatever the topic, I was always among friends. The first sign of trouble came when an academic colleague who I think it is fair to say is significantly further to the Left than most academics, discovered one of my identities in which I expressed anger about some Islamofascist outrage to conservative friends and confronted me. This began a process of reflection, both about how identity-partitioning and in-group high-fiving could lead, not to the freedom to be yourself, but many selves, each of them on steroids, shouting in an echo chamber. Chastened and troubled, I withdrew from those sorts of fora.
Then came Facebook. Now I do not wish to be overly critical of Facebook, for it proved to be an important learning experience as well. The first issue was dealing with the identity-partitioning. Fictitious persona seem to not fly on Facebook the way they used to on Usenet, so tentatively, I started to come out of the closet in which I hid my complexity. I chose my “friends” very very carefully, with an eye to who I could trust the most to tolerate the extent to which these complexities would deviate from the norms of my various mini-communities. Academics started to discover my libertarian and religious sides. Conservatives started to discover my moments of aesthetic elitism, sympathy for gay rights, and intellectual reservations about oversimple and self-righteous political understandings. Co-religionists started to discover, well, everything. Though I tried to craft my friends list (I called it “social ichibana”) to maximize both freedom and disclosure, I started to have to make choices; one of them was that the Bahai’s would have to go, since they managed to disapprove of the greatest number of my passions and commitments, including the one indispensable one: philosophy. So I give Facebook some credit for helping with this integration/disclosure process. I probably no longer fit in anywhere, but I know who I am.
I also give Facebook credit for giving me the experience of what it is like to feel oneself an accepted member of a tribe. As a terrible introvert, I had experienced a fair amount of social isolation in my life, and I had not fully grasped the magnitude of the distorting effect isolation has on one until it was gone. This, however, was what I am calling Facebook’s pornographic effect, akin to an illusion of sexual satisfaction. Still, it was nice to discover that what I had thought were shortcomings in myself were nothing but symptoms of not getting out much, and it taught me how very important it is to have friends and make time for them.
But like Usenet, Facebook has its own partitioning effect. However much we strive for openness and inclusion, through some mysterious social physics, one’s friends list is gradually purged of people with whom one disagrees, and willy-nilly, the echo chamber is reborn. This tendency was at odds with the integration/disclosure process I mentioned above. As I became more openly complex, the complex network I was in became more and more composed of hysterical dogmatists of left and right. And though I chose my friends as wisely as I could, unfortunately, my friends tended not to do the same, perhaps because they did not confront the same dilemma. A day wouldn’t go by when I didn’t see some obnoxious, ignorant comment expressing hatred for some group I was also associated with, by a total stranger. I finally jumped ship, put my expressive efforts into this blog, and kept the friendships to email, the telephone and, horrors, in person interaction.
But this has made it rather difficult to maintain frequent contact with people whose social lives have largely migrated to Facebook, like trying to have a social life without a telephone in 1960. Over a period of some months the memory of the unpleasantness of unchosen friends of friends sounding off and circulating political propaganda started to fade. One day, one of my dearest friends was going through the hassle of modifying his privacy settings momentarily just so that I could view his family photos which were only on Facebook, and I said to myself “screw it, how bad can it be?” I came back. It lasted twenty-four hours, give or take.
The first day I assembled my friends list, this time with an eye toward genuine affection rather than networking, and instead of sixty friends, I chose ten. Within a few hours, I saw my first “Obama as Manchurian Candidate” propaganda. Response: hiding. A few hours later, a friend of a friend weighs in on the malevolent parasitism of Wisconsin public sector unions (he is unemployed and lives with his parents; I work my tail off at a public institution and renounced my pension out of public-spiritedness). Response: blocked. A few hours later, an academic friend thoughtlessly passes on some MoveOn propaganda about an alleged “Republican War On Women” and, forgetting the vital role MoveOn had played in turning me from a Clinton Democrat to a Bush Republican, I foolishly fact-check its ten claims, five of which prove to be malicious lies. I waste over an hour drafting and redrafting a response for him, all the while knowing that this is not how one is supposed to respond to this sort of thing: one is supposed to high-five it, or pick different friends. I end up deleting all my responses.
Then late last night, my wife’s Facebook page churns up photos of one of her friends’ new-born infant. This pushes her into a crying jag that goes on for much of the rest of the night. Careful readers of this space will know that we tried to raise one of my sons from a prior marriage together, but he committed suicide in our house, and we never had the heart to love a child again after that.
I slept on it and returned to the fray, but there it all still was: tribes huddled together for warmth hurling lies at and about other tribes to reaffirm their identities. I went to my profile page and tried to change my “Current Location” to “Planet of the Apes” but Facebook wouldn’t let me. Then I de-activated the account and resumed my distinctively human life of peace and silence, tinged with loneliness.
[Update: Honesty compels me to add that I did subsequently re-activate.]