As Christians, if we truly believe that each human is a precious being—that, as C.S. Lewis put it, “there is no mere mortal… Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses”—then shouldn’t we be seeking to truly know others rather than to simply “keep tabs on” them through short updates, photo albums, and wall posts?
But almost everything in our digitized, cut-and-paste world these days has a tenuous relationship to reality. Perhaps that’s why these dubiously “true” films are nevertheless enjoyed and embraced, particularly by younger audiences. The idea of black and white, “true or untrue” doesn’t make much sense to a generation who has grown up with a steady stream of mediated half-truths, advertising, made-for-TV reflections on the news, The Real World, etc. It goes without saying that something can be enjoyable, moving, resonant, but completely fabricated. Even if it touts itself, with a wink, as “real."
The Social Network is more than just a Fincher film. It's a time-capsule for our time—a document of a curious revolution in social communication, economics, and the shifting notion of "status" in a world where roots, tradition, and familial privilege are less important than the ability to navigate media and manipulate tech-enabled perceptions of one's digital self.
In the end, very little knowledge in this world is ironclad. Very little is absolutely proved or exhaustively understood. Vast mystery inheres in every moment of our lives, in all the minutia. But that doesn't debilitate us; we have faith in the functioning of the world. Faith is inescapable, even if we don't often recognize it as such.
We Live in Public is an insightful but ridiculous film. It correctly theorizes that the Internet is pushing culture in the direction of vast openness and away from old notions of privacy. But, ridiculously, it assumes this will be some sort of jarring, fascist, unwelcome surprise, or that we won't all gleefully collude in the erosion of privacy. We will, and we are.
Without a doubt, Facebook was this year’s Youtube. That is: a novel new Internet fad that in one year hit an explosive tipping point of ubiquity. Over the past few weeks it’s really became clear to me just how obsessive the Facebook craze is. Most of the people I know (between the ages of 10 and 30) are constantly on Facebook: checking their feed dozens of times a day, updating statuses, poking various people, seeking out new “friends,” and stalking persons they seek more information about.
This last use of Facebook—“stalking”—is perhaps the most disturbing function of the whole thing. Whenever anyone meets someone else or wants some more information about them (as a friend, significant other, employee, etc), Facebook is the perfect place to do a little surveillance. Who are this person’s friends? What activities and groups are they a part of? What kinds of pictures are they tagged in?
The problems with this sort of information-gathering on Facebook are obvious. The “person” represented on a Facebook profile is a highly constructed, constantly tweaked avatar. It is a painstakingly composed projection of a person, but not a person. But perhaps more problematic is the way that Facebook has come to stand in for traditional forms of interpersonal relationships. “Peeling away the onion” in relationship formation was formerly a delicate, imperfect, rocky road of physically present social penetration. With Facebook it has become an impersonal, easily-confused, mechanistic process with efficiency—not humanity—at its heart.
I recently took my Facebook disdain public in a year-end article for Relevant magazine in which I characterized Facebook as part of a disastrous digital-era trend toward meaningless, mechanistic communication. This is was I wrote:
At a time when our culture needs a primer on meaningful communication, new tech wonders and digital “advances” increasingly led us in the opposite direction (what I call “superfluous communication”) this year. Things like iPhones and the latest hands-free gadgets have created millions of meaningless “let me talk to someone via this fun device because I CAN” conversations worldwide in 2008. Add to this the irrevocable damage Facebook and its various counterparts have done to meaningful communication, and 2007 was a banner year for the tech-driven trivialization of communication.
Predictably, reactions in the comments section singled out my criticisms of Facebook (and yes, “irrevocable damage” is a harsh phrase). “Bryan” had this to say:
Facebook is not the problem. People who spend so much time on it are the ones with the problem. It's the people with the problem. Your argument is like someone claiming that they can't stop looking at porn due to the fact that it exists on the net. Don't wanna spend so much time on there? Then don't spend so much time on there.
What Bryan does here is frame my position on Facebook in terms of technological determinism—the notion that the nature of technology determines the human uses of it. I am not necessarily trying to argue this. What I am suggesting is that the consequences of Facebook—whether the fault is with the technology or the user—are serious… And seriously changing our very basic understandings of how humans relate to and connect with one another. Rather than blast Facebook as inherently evil, I simply want to raise a warning flag—because with every technological or cultural trend that rises and spreads so quickly, some caution is certainly warranted.