In all the hullabaloo about Facebook, let’s not forget the big picture
There’s a lot of talk about the changes taking place with Facebook. An article that really got my attention yesterday was this one in The Atlantic by Alexis Madrigal, where he says “Internet users once stalked off into the cyber frontier looking for transcendence. The new Facebook wants you to understand your life from the comfort of its walled garden.” Madrigal points to a Facebook application called the Meaning Machine that takes all the data one provides to Facebook (directly or indirectly, or should I say consciously or unconsciously) and spits out “meaning that’s organized and designed.”
That offends me. The greatest privilege I have as a writing teacher is helping students do the very difficult work of making meaning out of their lives by scratching it out on a piece of paper or a computer screen. The implication that some genius’s algorithm can take over that work is arrogant & ignorant (you can be ignorant without being arrogant, but can you be arrogant without being ignorant? discuss). As anyone teaching memoir will tell you, the work of personal narrative is like clearing a piece of land for farming: you’ve got to cut down the trees (sometimes with nothing but your teeth), clear out the brush, till the soil, and pray for rain. No one can do it for you, though someone with experience can certainly help. It’s hard, hard, transformational work. As my new friend Bob Cowser says “The great thing about memoir is that you know things that you don’t know that you know.” Discovering the things that you don’t know that you know is a quintessential human endeavor.
Facebook’s audacity is irritating, but not surprising. Facebook has already stripped down the concept of friend and created a parody of self-disclosure that consists of posting handpicked pictures (my wife is constantly untagging photos of her that she doesn’t like), snippy sayings, and lists of likes, dislikes, interests, blah, blah, blah.
In an excellent Nov 2008 scholarly article “New Media, Networking and Phatic Culture,” Vincent Miller points to the increasingly phatic nature of our communications due to the influence of social media. According to Miller, we are seeing a “flattening of social bonds” due to a shift in social relations from a narrative to an informational or database orientation. Whereas the internet initially facilitated an explosion of personal narratives and in-depth conversations through blogging, newer forms of social networking encourage communication that is truncated and lacking in substantive, honest writing.
Even though I think Miller might have missed it on Twitter (as I did), I think he is spot on about Facebook. The fact that Zuckerberg and Co want to expand their influence over our lives makes me very uncomfortable.
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