Confession. I am a member of that billion member constituency made up of the emotionally retarded. I am on Facebook.
I will look at Facebook on an almost daily basis. I waste too much time chatting, posting and checking my status update and those of others. Yes, I want to look at photos of people’s sleeping cats. I want to be liked, poked and invited to events. I want to know who is single, in a relationship, straight, gay or any combination of the above. I want all the moral and political complexities of life to be summarised in ten words. Only when someone posts me that Tupac Shakur inspirational song lyric will I be able to get through a bad day in the Brentwood ghetto. I need to know the names of those people who think The Shawshank Redemption is the best film ever…I need to know so that I can keep away from them.
Andy Warhol was right when he said that in the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. Facebook is exactly like that except that the people on it are not famous and the fifteen minutes goes on forever and ever and ever…
This year’s Lent seemed an opportune time to practise some Facebook self-control. It also gave me an opportunity to think a little more deeply and seriously about my uneasiness about this form of social networking and my relationship to it. Was there any ethical substance to my Facebook anxiety?
For the forty days of Lent, this is what has been on my mind:
(i) Facebook and Profile Identity Fraud Facebook is largely populated by people who are constructs - social media fabrications. These are incomplete or airbrushed representations of a person. They are online identities or to use the Facebook jargon, profiles. In other words, they exist in closer relationship to the avatars of Second Life than to human beings of real life.
Because of the sheer size of Facebook and the possibility that anyone can view your profile, identity construction and self-representation become extremely important. Profiles, pictures and posts are manipulated in order to make a person appear interesting, smart, witty or in-the-know. There is no place for modesty on Facebook. Keeping up appearances is everything.
In his seminal article, The Brave New World of Digital Intimacy, the social scientist, Clive Thompson, uses the concept of “ambient awareness”, the idea of “being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does – body language, sighs, stray comments – out of the corner of your eye.” On Facebook, ambient awareness is heightened. Every movie or music preference allows people to feel like they can actually “see” you and “know” you. Every photo is chosen to influence how the viewer perceives you – is this person attractive, friendly, having a good time? There are not many photos on Facebook of people in distress or with tears in their eyes.
Unlike journals and diaries which were a personal and unedited view into a private world, Facebook is a public and manufactured view of an online image. The purpose of this image is to get oneself noticed. The Facebook user is advertising and selling a product to others and the product is a kind of fiction about who they are. And to be successful at this, knowing which details to reveal about yourself and which to edit and delete is essential if you are to become desirable in Facebook terms. Those who have not mastered this dark art become Facebook embarrassments.
The sophisticated Facebook user assembles cultural references and images to shape how others will see them. These may not be lies, but they are reductions and simplifications of who they are. Simplifications that they are then expected to conform to and those around them are expected to believe in. Only those who really know the person outside of Facebook are in a position to correct what has been altered and fill in what has been edited out.
The Facebook profile trivialises the true identity of a person. Online life consists of premeditated decisions that cosmetically determine the user’s identity. In the Facebook world, ambiguity, complexity and suffering are anathema. In the real world, these are the things that make us more than a profile and worth loving.
(ii) Facebook and Narcissism I came across a University of Georgia psychology study published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin which suggests that there is a strong correlation between the numbers of “friends” you have on Facebook and the “toxic” traits of “socially disruptive” narcissism. It gave me pause for thought.
“Simply put, narcissists are people who think they’re pretty great…They think they’re more attractive, more intelligent, more unique and entitled to special treatment,” writes Lauren Buffardi, lead author of the study, “They’re well-liked upon initial meetings, but have more difficulty maintaining warm and intimate relationships.”
The researchers focussed on two particular elements of narcissism:
(a) The Grandiose Exhibitionism aspect which includes “self-absorption, vanity, superiority and exhibitionistic tendencies.” People with this personality aspect are constantly seeking to be the centre of attention. They expend significant energy promoting themselves and making sure they get noticed.
(b) The Entitlement/Exploitativeness aspect which includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others.”
People who exhibit such traits find in Facebook a readymade vehicle with which they can self-promote. The “friends” they acquire are, more likely to be, affiliates, fans or awestruck followers who hope that some of the narcissistic glitter will rub off on them. But that doesn’t matter. They are an audience.
“Narcissists use Facebook and other social networking sites because they believe others are interested in what they are doing, and they want others to know what they are doing,” claims Buffardi. However, the research goes further than considering how narcissism finds expression online, it also suggests that it can have a detrimental effect on healthy and mature relationships offline.
Narcissism is often based on a fear of failure or weakness, a focus on one’s own self, an unhealthy drive to be seen as the best, and a deep-seated insecurity and underlying feeling of inadequacy. Wendy Behary, author of Disarming the Narcissist believes that Facebook allows narcissists to remain disconnected from true intimacy and accountability for their behaviour. She writes:
At the core of most people who are narcissistic, underneath they often feel inadequate, lonely and a sense of shame because they haven’t learned the skills to connect with someone in a real way. Facebook allows them to stay in hiding.
(iii) Facebook and Alone Together At Christmas, a friend gave me Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. It lay beside my bed. I decided to make it part of my Lenten reading. It is provocative and convincing because Turkle has no desire to romanticise an analogue age, but thinks we must rein in our digital excesses before they do us permanent emotional damage.
Her thesis is simple. Turkle argues that, more and more, we live our emotional lives through the technology at our fingertips. Technology has become the medium by which we shape our intimacies. So, for example, how often do you pick up the landline phone and have a conversation with someone? We will text, tweet, Facebook, but for most of us the phone exists to provide an internet connection for our digital technologies. Phoning another person has come to feel like an act of intrusion. We are less likely to communicate with each other in real time and face to face. Facebook allows us to process a response in our time and at a remove from the person we are communicating with. This is a form of communication but one achieved without intimacy and the vulnerability of revealing yourself to another in their presence. “Talking on a landline with no interruptions used to be an everyday thing,” writes Turkle, “Now it is exotic, the jewel in the crown.”
Perhaps, Facebook has made us less attentive to each other. I find myself asking some of my friends to turn off their mobiles when they are with me because I know, if I don’t, I will never have their attention. The opportunity to be present to each other, to talk to each other is eroded by the constant digital percussion tempting them to engage with their virtual relationships. I want them to talk to me, a real flesh and blood person, rather than to connect with me from the safe haven of the internet.
“Connectivity offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship,” Turkle claims. In other words, we think we can have companionship through the likes of Facebook but without any of the demands of intimacy. We conduct our “risk free” relationships as avatars on Second Life and confuse the skewed, scattershot postings on Facebook as authentic communication. In the desperate attempts to connect with others, whoever they are, the new technologies risk becoming a crucible for a new solitude. The engine that drives Facebook is an abysmal existential loneliness. Turkle writes:
The networked culture is very young. Attendant at its birth, we threw ourselves into its adventure. This is human. But these days, our problems with the Net are becoming too distracting to ignore. At the extreme, we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other…we expect more from technology and less from each other…We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us. The prospect of loving, or being loved by, a machine changes what love can be. We know that the young are tempted. They have been brought up to be. Those who have known lifetimes of love can surely offer them more.
Will I ever go back to Facebook? Probably. Doubt it. Though, I miss the sleeping cats and Michael's posts. Who knows? But maybe I need to relearn how to use the telephone, write a letter...be more human.
Alone Together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other, Sherry Turkle, Basic Books, New York, 2011