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In all the hullabaloo about Facebook, let’s not forget the big picture

September 28, 2011

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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  1. I love the word phatic. But besides that I wonder about the story telling aspect. When I was in college my professors accused me all the time of juxtaposing facts. In my creative writing classes this wasn’t as big of a problem. We naturally see two items (related or not) and we create some story there (true or not). I think this is what Facebook has done with their new “story” design. They’ve juxtaposed phatic moments of our lives and added time as context. Our brains naturally do the rest.

    Of course the challenge is when we fall for the narrative fallacy. When we think those stories are fact. I understand people’s concerns about the amount of data companies have on us. I’m less worried but mildly concerned. As for their arrogance, yes it’s there, but you can hardly fault them for presenting our own data back to us in a way that our brains naturally prefer it.

    • Thanks for the comment Tac. I’m a bit surprised that you are so amenable to Facebook’s ever-extending reach into our lives. I see what you are saying about them simply presenting the data back to us in the way our brains prefer; however, my reaction is primarily to the term “meaning-making.” As I said in the piece, meaning-making is the ultimate expression of humanity. Burke said man (humanity) is distinguished by the fact that he is a symbol-using animal. We are meta at our core, and the hard work of metacognition is something computers will never be able to emulate.

  2. Wow. I just started reading the article by Miller and can’t finish it right now, but the term “compulsive intimacy” really struck me.

    It reminds me of a book by a sociologist who proposes that much, or most, of what we call “mental illness” results from the lack of real intimacy, which has become increasingly difficult to find as our society technologizes itself. Have you read Shades of Loneliness, by Richard Stivers?

  3. As long as Facebook gives the option to opt out of certain services and meaning makers, I will stay on their grid. But, when they get so arrogant as to give me no choice but to submit to their meaning making apps… I’ m out and I suspect many would follow. Hence, the beauty of competition… now that the technology and usefulness of such an online community is deeply engrained in our psyches, it would be much easier (and cheaper) for a competing and more privacy respecting company to offer a libertarian alternative. Sorry, could not help myself. Of course, we are welcome to NOT USE Facebook at all, even to augment our real, face-to-face communications. Then we can learn again how to use some nice stationary and an expensive pen. Shoot, we might single-handedly save the US postal service, except that we might find we don’t have anything important enough to write down.

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