Facebook has failed. I joined the site in 2004, my freshman year of college and it was the thing to do. Facebook offered a platform through which you could stay in touch with hundreds of people at a glance–status updates, relationships, links, and so on. It also offered game and applications. This was–and, according to many people, still is–the wave of the future. This medium epitomizes the information age. An age that, for better and for worse, is the one we live in. And the promise is this: the world comes closer together, information passes nearly instantaneously and there is a constant stream of data.1
The information are is wireless, too. Today, before writing this, I took a walk in Central Park and saw multiple people sitting in groups with their Macbooks out. I am hardly exempt–hardly would I let three minutes go by without pulling out my cellphone to see if new texts had arrived in one of a half-dozen ongoing conversations. Now, though, I am sitting at a bar called Earl’s,2 writing with pen and paper about and for the internet.
One of the primary concerns in this internet, information age is privacy, and this has been true with Facebook since its inception. This, however, is not my primary concern with social networking. In fact, I consider this a fundamental trade off of the internet. I am somewhat selected about what and where I post and comment, but neither am I going to stop using my gmail, google search, or any of the sites that hold contact and personal information about me. In order for me to use the internet, I feel that I have to sacrifice something and put my information into the hands of anonymous entities which–I hope–have more interest in keeping that information secure than in selling it.3 This is an entirely rational trade off and (though this might be naive) not something that I can envision an alternative to. Thus, the privacy concerns are not where I believe that Facebook has failed.
The failure of Facebook–and, by extension, all social media–is that in the pursuit of bringing the world closer together, it has actually served to dehumanize socialization.4
Before launching into my critique, allow me to eulogize social networking. Social Networking sites do provide an excellent database of personal and contact information and since they have wide visitation, they are a wonderful platform for event planning. Likewise they provide an excellent place to share and spread links because the sites are designed such that anything posted is streamed in front of the networks without requiring anyone else to actively search for it. Lastly, the sites do serve to provide a quick-form update about people chosen as “friends,” that does not actually require any interaction with that friend.
Therein lies the crux of the problem. Social networking websites provide an avalanche of (mostly trivial) information, updates from applications and games. There is some valuable information and (occasionally) stimulating discussion, but most of the time it is merely white noise. I do not mean to demean anyone by calling their posts white noise, but more often than not, that is what it is.5 Most of the people with whom I am friends on Facebook I have not talked to or heard from in any other medium in years. Sometimes this has been a choice, other times there has been an incident that prompted the distance, but most of the time it is because that person and I would never have really been in touch at all except for the social networking site.
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with this and, in some situations, I am genuinely glad to reconnect and catch up. But more frequently, the reconnection is superficial and exists only on an online list. I bear none of these people any malice, but I also believe that social networking sites (and particularly Facebook) are having a negative impact on genuine interpersonal relationships. Thus, in the words of Bilbo Baggins:
“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve…this is the end! I am going. I am leaving now. Goodbye!”
1 Another epitomes of the age is the 24-hour news network.
2 1297 Park Street, New York, Highly recommended.
3 I prefer to have assurances that they do not sell it, though.
4 See, for example, what Yiayia believes about internet communication: You marry machine?.
5 I can only assume how my posts appear to other people.