Life by the Book

  • By Dan Pastan

Volume XXXV, Issue 2, March 8, 2013


I believe that humans are fundamentally rational beings, which is really just to say that we have reasons for our decisions. Whether or not our reasoning demonstrates reasonability is another question altogether. Here's an example: Facebook has roughly one billion users. I have no doubt that each of those billion users has a reason for having a Facebook. I would very much like to think that Facebook's ubiquity is directly related to its universal social utility, which strikes me as both a rational and reasonable premise for having a Facebook. Call me a cynic—I won't deny your accusation—I'm just not sure I've seen sufficient evidence to support the claim that a majority of Facebook's billion users have actively considered the reasonability of their rationalizations. I'm not even sure that a majority of Facebook's billion users have rationalized their decision. I'm not even sure that a majority of Facebook's billion users have even made a decision. It seems to me that many Facebook users have never seriously considered not having a Facebook.This might explain why, following the numerous conversations I've had regarding my Facebooklessness, I've found myself left with the distinct impression that I've made some exceptional or exceptionally difficult choice that others either cannot or do not want to make. This puzzles me. The reality, I think, is just that I've made a choice.

I feel the need to offer a few prefatory remarks. I'm compelled to assure you that I have not decided to write this piece to flaunt my social, moral, or rational superiority, which I can all but assure you does not exist anyway. I do not intend to persuade you to delete your Facebook. These are but my own observations, and I share them with you hoping that you'll consider, or perhaps reconsider, the reasoning process that allowed you to arrive at your decision. It is my sincere hope that you have made a decision as opposed to having succumbed to the powerful tides of non-decision. In fact, I urge you to make a decision, whether or not it corresponds with my semi-luddite inclinations.

In essence, we spend startling amounts of time using Facebook and much less time really thinking about Facebook. And when we do think about Facebook, we rarely do so analytically. Apart from the phenomenological recitations that stem from being a Facebook user (e.g., "Did you see the link Jeremiah posted on my wall?"), it seems that we mostly joke about Facebook at an unsettlingly ironic distance. We joke about how addictive it is, about how time consuming it is, about how we “Like” real world objects in a Facebookean manner. Please don't misunderstand me; I take no issue with jokes—I actually know a pretty good one about Chewbacca crashing the Millennium Falcon into Dagobah. But when it feels to me like our joking has become a surrogate for more substantial forms of engagement and criticism, I start to wonder: What are we avoiding?

Facebook was designed to mediate social experiences, which mediation, I'll argue, is only fulfilled by Facebook’s normativeness. I'm taking for granted the premise that Facebook is currently used as a normative means of interaction. I contend that our social experience is thus actively, non-negligibly mediated by Facebook. Think about it: event planning, birthday wishing, idea sharing, network building, friend acquiring, social screening, persona forming—all social processes that are now filtered through Facebook. I'm not trying to argue that these filtered modes of interaction are necessarily sinister or inherently inferior, but rather that our seemingly ignorant willingness to allow for such a pervasive mediation of social interaction implies a level of disengagement with our personal social experiences. This disengagement troubles me. Wishing a friend a happy birthday has become a perfunctory e-gesture; intimate social interactions have become publicized and subjected to the 'Likes' and comments of others. These might seem like two minor examples, but considering that roughly a billion people are interacting with each other in this prescribed manner, I cannot understate their impact.

We're essentially interacting with each other on terms and via structures that are not our own. Let's not forget that Facebook Inc is an Inc. It needs our business, and it will only survive with our persistently tacit acceptance of the decisions it makes on our behalf. Why should we think that Facebook could mediate our community's interactions better than our community can mediate its own interactions? We must not forget that Facebook intends to facilitate interactions, not necessarily to improve them. And, as history has continuously demonstrated, facilitation rarely implies improvement—it rather serves to commodify and cheapen. Bizarrely, this is not a complaint that goes unspoken or unrecognized by Facebook users themselves. And yet they remain faithful. Why are we so willing to mindlessly allow for the corporate determination of global social experiences? Perhaps more aptly, considering its scope and impact, how is it possible that we're so minimally critical of Facebook? Why is the critical discourse surrounding Facebook so frivolously ironic, simultaneously acknowledging and disavowing its nearly hegemonic power? I genuinely believe that if more people entered into a deliberately rational, reasonable decision-making process about whether or not to use Facebook, fewer people would use Facebook. Something is afoot.

There's no easy way to explain Facebook's rampant popularity or fully understand its social impacts. What I know is what I see and what I've experienced. I see people checking their Facebook while in class, or in the middle of conversations with professors, friends, grandparents, loved ones. I see people struggling to pay attention to the world that surrounds them. I see passionate complacency in non-decision. I've experienced the odd sensation of having semi-unconsciously logged into Facebook while attempting to complete a totally disparate task. I've experienced the disappointment of having no new notifications, and the thrill of having received two new wall posts. My decision to delete my Facebook grew out of an ever-increasing discomfort with these experiences, which came to feel increasingly distracting and dishonest and superficial. Again, I do not believe that Facebook is inherently evil or should be eradicated. However, Facebook is an extremely powerful social facilitator that I think promises an improved quality of life that it cannot provide. Theodor Adorno once wrote that "Estrangement shows itself precisely in the elimination of distance between people." His assertion is one I’ve come to take very seriously. I've been without Facebook for over a year, and I've never once looked back. Not even on my birthday. So: Why do you have a Facebook?

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