Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Facing up to Facebook

On the St. Austin Review Ink Desk, Sophia Mason has written an post in which she both pans and praises Facebook. How I empathize with Sophia!

As regular readers know, Facebook and I have had a tumultuous relationship. She and I have split a few times after ugly public shouting matches, she pushed me down the stairs once, I have accused her of infidelity, her algorithm had originally sized me up as a loser and drug abuser simply because I was an actor, and so forth.

But we’ve settled into something rather permanent of late. Facebook and I are not exactly “married”, nor “single”, we are “in a relationship” and “it’s complicated”.

So I do indeed empathize with Ms. Mason over her tendency to love / hate this thing called Facebook.

But how much is Facebook as a mode of communication to blame for Facebook’s shortcomings? As the internet blogger Dr. Thursday pointed out to me once, “Objecting to the internet is like objecting to a road or a highway. The internet is simply a pathway to a variety of destinations.” This is true, but certain kinds of roads encourage certain kinds of traffic and it’s easier to take some roads to particular destinations than it is to take others.

For example, when men had to take a physical road to find a pornographic book store or a strip club, they had to risk the dangers of going into a seedy neighborhood and risk the shame of being seen doing so. But if someone can instead take a virtual highway across cables linking computers to one another, so that pornography can be viewed in the safety and privacy of one’s own home, then naturally the use of pornography will mushroom and men will indulge their lust far more so than had such technology not been around.

Likewise, in the early days of printed books, reading and writing were more careful and more deliberate. With the advent of the dissemination and popularization of the printing press, you begin to see such things as magazines, newspapers and pamphlets, which by their nature allow for more immediacy in communication, which leads both to the use of printing for political agitation and for capitalizing on sensationalism.

And thus we see that new developments in technology lead to the cultivation of new kinds of behaviors. Even in the development of literature, we see that when the technology available to Drama was the stage only, scripts tended to be less intimate and sensational than they became when written for the new technology of film. Likewise, when the new (or “novel”) technology enabled “novels” to appear, we find the beginnings of a kind of fiction that is detailed, complex, and intensely psychological. And yet the novels that first appeared in serial form in periodicals, such as the novels of Dickens, have a different structure and feel than novels written to be read from start to finish all at once.

So technology, itself a development of culture, does indeed impact the further development of culture. Roadways are not neutral. Different kinds of paths are conducive to different kinds of traffic and different kinds of purpose. You can’t safely ride your bike on the freeway, for instance; nor can a rutted gravel road in the country allow for the development of a fancy new suburb in that area.

Likewise the technology of Facebook makes certain kinds of behaviors easier than others. The emphasis on pictures and the brief space allowed for “status updates” encourage a trivializing of relationships. But the ability of users to post links to articles and blogs that interest them means that if you have a variety of friends who read good things, you will be treated to a variety of posts linking to some very good stuff. And while “threads” of discussion can be compelling, the nature of comboxes seems to draw out a kind of defensive argumentation that makes it hard to develop points formally and carefully.

All in all, however, the benefits of Facebook for me have outweighed the drawbacks. It still remains the best technology out there for photo sharing and for keeping up with friends who otherwise I would not keep up with.

Still, I don’t completely trust the gal. She’s a bit of a tramp. So, yes we’re back together, but “it’s complicated”.

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