Accessibility links

Breaking News

Zadie Smith And The Facebook Generation

Zadie Smith had a long and thoughtful piece in the latest edition of “The New York Review of Books” looking at Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network” and what she calls Generation Facebook.

Smith’s central argument is that our Facebook selves are mere reductions, approximations of our true selves:

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.

She quotes Jason Lanier’s “You Are Not A Gadget,” who has argued how “information underrepresents reality.” As Smith writes, “In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a “person.” In life, we all profess to know this, but when we get online it becomes easy to forget.”

Or maybe the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous.

I have never understood this critique of social networking. Of course it can be "fake-friendly." As can be standing in a crowded room at a cocktail party, eagerly hand-shaking, descending into platitudes, and wishing you were home. (When you’re a celebrity with a Facebook profile, you probably get a bit more “fake-friendly” than the rest of us.)

Smith’s concern is that the endless “likes” of friends, the buzz on social networks about a particular product/TV show leads to the homogenization of culture:

What kind of [online] life? 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.

Does that mean I’m not “somebody” because I watch “Bride Wars” and tell my friends about it? I have a couple of friends on Facebook -- one I know well, the other not so well -- who constantly recommend good music, TV shows, interesting articles. Their tastes gel with mine and their recommendations enrich my life. Are those friend-powered recommendations really a malign form of homogenization? Should we value them less because they arrive through Facebook rather than through tea at an independent bookstore?

As Alexis Madrigal in “The Atlantic” writes:

To put a finer point on it: I would just ask, is Facebook the engine of homogenization? Do we live in an era where everyone reads, watches, and listens to the same things? Of course not! We live in the time of the hyperniche. All this liking and information spreading has led us to build more paths that are all less taken. Consider that you could capture a majority of the households in the United States on a given night by advertising on the Big 3 networks. And Facebook is to blame for a culture in which everyone watches the same thing?

Smith taps the same vaguely elitist vein later:

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?

She added the caveat -- the “ashamed of noticing” -- but Smith seems to make the mistake of many tech-backlash stories in that by attempting to diminish the value of the technology, she actually ends up fetishizing it and ascribing it too much power. Even with Marshall McLuhan's theory in mind that the medium can embed itself in the message, this isn't really about Facebook. I remember reading messages taped to the flowers placed at the scenes of traffic accidents before most of us were online. Pre-text messaging, bad grammar, poor spelling, only without the LOLs. Instead of focusing on the education, the semantics of discourse, she wrongly focuses on the technology.

And what else is a teenager, educated or not, expected to write when faced with the death of a friend? Rather than being creepy, isn’t the idea of keeping a friend’s Facebook page alive a touching memorial, a homage to the idea that their body may have passed but the soul and memories are still very much alive? Does the mother who leaves her dead son’s bedroom untouched for years -- still full of football pendants and old toys -- actually still believe her son is alive? Those "LOLs" are loaded with meaning: a stubborn refusal to let go, a touching reminder of happy times. Punctuation and correct spelling don’t make a sentiment more genuine.

Smith asks, “Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?”

It doesn’t, actually. It looks like a bunch of links I have shared with people, mostly of stupid things that we find funny. Then we might talk about them in the pub afterwards. Yes, Facebook is an approximation of my life, yes it’s a reduction, but so are emails sent to colleagues, so are the conversations I have with people I don’t know so well. So is my telephone voice. So are love letters written with quill and ink. And of course Smith misses the biggest irony: her public persona as a writer is an approximation of her true self, not driven by code, but by culture. Our public lives have always been approximations of our real lives, online or offline.

Smith also seems to believe that these days people live online. This has always sounded to me like a misplaced baby-boomer idea or a form of intellectual snobbery. Speak to a Millennial, a digital native, about living online and (mostly) they will laugh. (I know I’m painting with a super broad brush here.) For the most part they don’t obsess about where the Internet is taking us, or worry about what has become of their selves or their souls. It’s just, like, the internet. You chat, you shop, you Skype, you go out and meet friends.

They don’t see the Internet as a technology -- something to be intellectualized about, or to be grappled with. It is technology in the sense that a chair was once. It would be a bit like arguing that the personality of a 1980s teenager has been reduced because she chats with her friends on a telephone with an unfeasibly long cord.

Cyberspace was once a separate space, which transcended geography and the physical world. Perhaps, then, in the early days, the Internet to some degree transcended ourselves: we were people we weren’t. But while our online personas are still approximations of ourselves, now our online worlds and physical worlds are much more closely entwined. Madrigal’s ending to his piece is profound and beautiful and worth quoting in full:

I'm now in a long-distance relationship. Part of our thing is to trade photos we take. They silently arrive, pulled from our pockets when we feel the vibration. I got one the other day from Oakland. It showed two goats, one a tiny baby, standing on a set of stairs next to some bright white birds. An urban farm.

Perhaps I should have been thinking about all the technology that went into sending me that photo. The charged-couple device that could capture the light, the wireless networks, the way the device I was using was turning me into a bumbling idiot absorbed with the virtual instead of the REAL WORLD.

But I didn't. I thought about the hands that took the photo, fingers and the fingernails, then wrists and arms running up to shoulders and along the ridge there to the face hiding under a bonnet of curly locks. I saw her looking at farm animals and thinking of a home.

Like everything she does, Smith's critique is beautifully written, but ultimately just the nostalgia of an aesthete who is too out of touch with the way the rest of us communicate.