Culture

Would Your Life Be Better Without Facebook?

After long and determined resistance, I was recently persuaded to open a Facebook account. I did so for two reasons: to see what the fuss was all about; and as a means of publicizing my books, articles and music. I have been on Facebook for a month or so and have come to regret my decision. It is a snare and a delusion, a pseudo-world we mistake for an actual community, and, for the most part, a waste of time. What’s more, for a brief period, it became a source of nuptial contention.

I rarely quarrel with my wife, but the other evening found us embroiled in a heated donnybrook about the value of Facebook. I had watched her growing increasingly more absorbed in an exchange with a shadowy and irritating figure by the name of Michael over the war between the West and an insurgent Islam. Neither could persuade the other. Janice’s argument was logical, evidence-based, and limpidly expressed, demonstrating that Islam was the scourge of the contemporary world. “Michael” fell back on the usual pabulum regarding Western colonial depredations and “root causes,” to the utter exclusion of historical fact and theological compulsion. There was nothing to be gained by this collision of intractables, but I could see post leading to counter-post leading to counter-counter-post ad vomitatum while the clock ticked on and evening darkened into night.

Janice is a scholar, teacher and writer with far more serious desiderata to attend to than devoting time to the fruitless commerce of incompatible ideas, while a host of flitting cyber-migrants weigh in with approvals and disapprovals. After yet another burst of keyboard clatter, I told her so. Why was she allowing an unknown acquaintance to invade our evening? What was he to us that he should monopolize our time with his all-too predictable blather? She contended that Facebook offered certain advantages, enabling one to connect with others in often useful relationships; and besides, she was honing her rhetorical skills—skills, be it said, which she already owned in abundance. (Some PJM readers may recall her lucid articles on the state of modern education.)

I responded that she was behaving like an Avon lady trying to justify a cosmetic lotion as a spiritual balm and could surely use her time more productively. Worse than that, Facebook involved an actual cheapening of discourse, a vulgarizing of the notion of debate or conversation that was detrimental both intellectually and personally. She thought my rhetoric inflated; I thought her incomprehension disconcerting. After some bickering that threatened to get out of hand, I eventually conceded, like an imperial but benevolent phallocrat, that she might spend a maximum of 15 minutes a day facing that benthic leviathan and matrimonial rival called Facebook. Sensibly, she agreed and domestic spats over Facebook are now a thing of the past. Let us not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.

In the course of our dispute, I was forced to articulate my objections. The following three seemed to me comprehensive:

First, Facebook is essentially a marketing instrument masking as a communal network. It is especially useful to authors and others who wish to promote their work to an ever-growing population of subscribers; in this function it clearly excels. But it does not comprise a genuine fellowship of individuals in a socially intimate relationship. It flatters us with the shared illusion of being part of an extended family, of keeping in touch with humanity at large, of participating in a great conversation with our fellow man. In reality, genuine intimacy is rare, occurring in personal encounters and privileged correspondence, and generally on a modest scale.

Facebook consists of a colony of lay pietists who exchange, in many if not most cases, mere trifles and ephemerae—photos of self or pets, jokes and videos, transient notions prior to evaporation, bulletins of recent events, plans for the future, and so on—in short, items of negligible significance. At a somewhat more elevated level, postulants engage in debate over the critical issues of the day or post articles or meditations dealing with cherished themes, on the assumption that a series of desultory posts will effect positive change in the world. In fact, though, Facebook’s community is not even skin deep and is far less influential than its communicants seem to think.

Facebook is an indulgence, the higher ham radio. Apart from klatching with acquaintances, for which email, texting and phone serve more discreetly, we come away with the conviction that something of importance has happened, bosom contact with a stranger, leaving us with the consoling impression that we are now members of a viable community when, in truth, we know next to nothing of each other. With every post, the concentric circle of confidential strangers ripples outward in Facebook-space, forming a society of interlopers and ghostly outriders relieving themselves of their infatuations and riding their hobby-horses. It operates rather in the manner of anonymous sex, with much excited congress yielding no abiding or meaningful bond.

Which brings me to my second reason for disliking Facebook. The hours poured into a spectral traffic of largely reciprocal inanities—or, at best, an open correspondence in which we insert ourselves into one another’s phantom lives as semiotic pseudopods and screenal projections—could be far more profitably invested in elaborating our ideas, to quote Milton’s Areopagitica, “in the still and quiet air of delightful studies,” that is, in real thought and disciplined practice with a view to their propagation in reputable outlets. Nor should we delude ourselves into believing that Facebook is only a pleasant diversion, a form of relaxation or entertainment requiring only a few minutes a day between household tasks and intellectual demands. Far from it. The hours accumulate like bad debts. Facebook resembles a giant kraken or monstrous squid out of Jules Verne, rising from the murky depths to grapple, crush and devour an unsuspecting frigate with somewhere else to go.

The third reason for my skepticism is the Facebook lexicon. Where is the “face” in Facebook, since an immediate affinity of persons is face to face and not to be found in fleeting affectations of proximity, of “faceness”? And where is the “book” in a concatenation of volatile posts? Again, to cite the Areopagitca, “A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on a purpose to a life beyond life.” A good book, to be sure, but a book nevertheless, for books “contain a potency of life in them [preserving] the living intellect that bred them.” Facebook’s book, however, is mainly a diary of expendable observations or, say, a Moleskine jotter that does not, tant pis, transform a tourist into a Hemingway or Chatwin.

Moreover, Facebook is literally crawling with “friends” who “like” one another, “like” various posts and utterances, and even invite one another to “like” their pages or organizations. This use of language is absurd, irresponsible and, indeed, misleading. In my experience, friends don’t come cheaply or often, and I use the word with great circumspection. Of course, one can employ the word as a phatic interjection, as when one writes “friend” or “my friend” in a line of text or a song, but this is intended as rhetorical packing to fill out a beat or cadence, or to convey a sense of poetic, discursive or ironic address. And turning the noun into a verb—“to friend” or “to unfriend”—is certainly an interesting quirk of grammar to which the English language is flexibly prone, which poet e.e. cummings famously exploited in developing his trademark syntax and diction. But to bandy the word about as if it meant something that it doesn’t, reminiscent of the character Jack Hodgins in the TV series Bones who enthusiastically celebrated his 500th “friend,” is both ludicrous and demeaning. “Friend” is a word we should use sparingly, just as a friend is someone we should honor.

Something similar applies to the word “like.” Obviously, as a conjunction or preposition, it runs through caverns measureless to man, in particular punctuating the speech of functional illiterates. But as a verb, it betokens an affection or considered endorsement or mark of esteem; as a mere click on a key to indicate reception of a message or an empty gesture of pro forma recognition, it is just plain silly. Indeed, social media on the whole trade in vacuous phraseology. What self-respecting person would want to be part of Twitter—is that where twits hang out?—  hunt for hashtags and chirp truncated “tweets” into the world, as if one were a pea-brained chickadee pecking at the feeder rather than a reflective human being in possession of a mind? (No offence intended to the chickadees on my deck, who are quite friendly and likeable.)

In summation, I dislike Facebook because it trades in false intimacy, is chronophagous, and is a serial perverter of language. Even 15 minutes a day can be excessive, leading by increments to a dangerous addiction. Its sporadic use for the purpose of cyber-marketing in a worthy cause cannot be entirely faulted, but on the whole: caveat internettor.

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