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Searching for Connection

Opinion | October 7, 2013

My Profile

“I hate Facebook”: this was my motto in seventh grade. While my classmates were eagerly creating Facebook accounts, I looked the other direction and laughed. The origin of this stance is a little muddled in my mind—a rebellious teenage stage was certainly part of it. In retrospect, I think I saw the social network as a forum for ego-building, a place that pandered to the lowest in human thought and capability. I remember the drama and the catty fights, the profile pictures of girls staring wide-eyed into the camera, the blue screen reflecting palely on their faces and their crimson-glossed lips. In my middle school mind I always imagined Facebook as a sinister spider, with each little person pinned to its web connected by sticky, gossamer threads.

Since then, my relationship with the website has been rocky at best. During my senior year of high school I finally made a profile, despite my militant anti-Facebook streak. I justified my 180-degree turn with a dose of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” I promptly deleted my account two months later. I revived it again freshman year of college, then deactivated it. It’s now nearing a year later, and I’m back on Facebook again.

The reasons behind this off-and-on behavior have been many—some easily identified: the superficiality, the popularity contest, the feigned cheeriness and kindness. But some causes were less clear. By college, my middle school rebel-with-a-cause phase had somewhat faded. In its place was introspection—why were so many people on this social network? What value was it bringing to our lives?

If we were to use economic terms, we’d say that Facebook, as a social networking service, has utility. It gives something in return to its users—namely connection, communication, reputation, and status. My paradox was that I wasn’t feeling I was getting much value. For a while I was tempted to simplify the matter by calling myself a Luddite, as many of my friends did with slightly amused smiles. That would have been an easy answer, but it didn’t quite pinpoint my exact feelings.

The Economics of IT

Humans are going through another period of flux. After the preceding “ages” of hunting and gathering, then agriculture, then manufacturing, we’re now entering the information age. With the dawn of the information age comes the information economy. This nebulous and encompassing term is difficult to define. In layman’s terms, the information economy is one in which knowledge has acquired value and is traded. Information technology (IT) is used to disperse, receive and store this information and knowledge. One of the greatest and most powerful aspects of this new age is that much of this information is free. Many associate this freedom with egalitarianism, as undermining the typical hierarchical structures of government and business by giving everyone access to information.

Freedom. Democracy. Equality. Capitalism. Since I was a child, these have been the words I’ve associated with everything American, and thus everything that is good and right. The dominant social networking sites—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and others—seem to embody all of these characteristics.

I asked several kids around the Tufts campus if they thought it was a good thing that Facebook was free. The answer was always an unequivocal and resounding yes. I agreed, until I discovered Jaron Lanier, an American computer scientist with a boyish voice and thick head of dreadlocks. I listened to several of his interviews and found he was a wealth of information—articulately and prolifically delivered, sometimes at breakneck speed, and at times so technical and obscure that I had to rewind the videos or reread the words to truly comprehend his points. In the simplest of terms, he argues that Facebook and other social networking sites are hurting our economy more than they are helping it.

Jaron Lanier argues that free isn’t always good. The world of information is what many say is now controlling, powering, and influencing our global economy. But because a lot of that information isn’t monetized, it isn’t actually part of the economy. Lanier calls this relationship between free information and economy an “epiphenomenon,” or a secondary phenomenon that occurs parallel or in conjunction with another. In Lanier’s world, the “technologists,” like Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, or David Karp, founder of Tumblr, have become the elite. Don’t let their flip-flopped, hipster-plaid-shirt demeanors fool you into thinking they’re for freedom and equality. They’re the kings. Behind these social networking sites are “siren servers,” a term Lanier coined. These supercomputers are gathering vast amounts of our information from us for nothing at all. Because on social media this information isn’t monetized, the economy is actually shrinking, which concentrates power around the lucky few who have the largest and the smartest supercomputers.

Lanier argues that we need to monetize more. Right now, our information economy operates through what Lanier calls “one-way links”; someone can simply look for and take your information without referring to you. We give up our information to these “siren servers” willingly, sometimes without even scanning the terms and conditions, but Lanier says we should value that information more. Giving it up so freely creates an asymmetrical power balance, and we, the users, are subordinate. He argues that establishing a “two-way link,” or an agreed exchange between information provider and information-taker, would shift the power distribution in a more symmetrical direction. Otherwise, the economy and the middle class will continue to shrink.

Although Lanier sees the information economy veering in a negative direction, he remains an optimist. He believes that we can still remedy the situation and set the information economy back on the right track. While most of the information economy is not monetized today, he believes that as we move farther from this tumultuous period, we’ll begin to do so. “Originally the American West was viewed as a place where land was free,” he said in an interview with the Wharton School. “It bears some similarity to the situation today, and there was a similar romance about it. Everyone ultimately became content that we moved away from free land and monopolized railroads to more of a real economy where more people function as first-class citizens in transactions with each other.”

I’m not going to veer off into a Cyber Punk, dystopian vision of the world à la Bladerunner, but I can say with certainty that a company of Facebook’s size contains vast amounts of people’s information. Facebook legally owns your photos. They know what you post, where you live, and who your friends are (or at least who your Facebook friends are). Why has no one protested? All of the students that I interviewed raised some issues they had with Facebook, but for them, those issues were negligible, a minor mosquito bite or a blister. No one was impassioned enough to call for a change, nor was anyone alarmed by the possibility that they could later be manipulated by this collected information. Many raised eyebrows at me. Their communication: this is already a reality.

The Antisocial Network

Many contend that it is even easier to socialize with people—whether near or far—thanks to the technology that is now traveling around in our pockets and backpacks. With Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, forums, and more, everyone is talking and writing and sharing. But more and more I find when I’m chatting with someone face-to-face, they pull up their smartphone in the middle of my sentence and start typing some desperately important thing that has to be communicated. I’ve felt a twinge of irritation on one or two occasions, and asked myself when this became the norm. Today, people sit in groups with people and type to other people who are also in groups typing to other people. Friends used to duel on each others’ behalf. Now, friends text next to each other.

To put it plainly: I don’t think social networks are connecting us meaningfully. In fact, social networks can be isolating. Social ability no longer lies in tête-à-têtes, facial expressions, hand motions, body language, tone of voice, or laughter. These things have crumpled into crippled, formulated language: “lol,” “omg,” or the dreaded Facebook “like” button, in all its lukewarm blah-ness. “Lol” cannot replace the crinkling of eyes and the burst of laughter you experience when with an actual human being, but Facebook’s 1.15 billion users are willing to make this sacrifice, this trade-off, for the sake of what? Convenience? Practicality?

And, above all, why did I, with all of my objections, still feel the need to have a Facebook presence? I’ve heard various answers to this question along the same vein: I can keep in contact with my camp friends or high school sports team. I can see photos of my baby cousin. It’s easy to organize real-life events or find out what is going on next Saturday night. I think ultimately it comes down to the fact that we all want to be recognized and acknowledged, and to have access to the ease of social networking communication. The group of sophomores I talked to agreed. The light banter of “Hey, what’s up?” or “How have you been?” or the use of the “like” button (which is peppered all over Facebook) is what one girl called the equivalent of “small talk.” Nobody wants to be left out or lonely, and Facebook offers what appears to be an alluring solution.

This is where I began to identify my feeling of emptiness after Facebook—I don’t want small talk. Yes, on Facebook I can stay connected with some middle school friend from summer camp circa the early 2000s, but it’s a feathery, cosmetic connection. The exchange of happy “How are you?”s and “You’re so pretty!”s left me exhausted. I wondered, is a superficial connection really better than no connection at all? Maybe I’d prefer to forget that particular friend’s birthday, middle name, or haircut so that one day I could bump into them on a corner on a rainy Tuesday and have a euphoric moment of double-take, then reconnection. The dribble of Facebook fluff would dilute the power of that moment.

I think we have to seriously examine whether we’re socializing with our friends on Facebook or socializing with Facebook friends. These are two utterly different universes. When you’re interacting with a Facebook friend, the feeling of the presence, their voice, a certain something, is altered. Facebook profiles are not genuine. I’m calling myself on this too—everything on Facebook is sugarcoated. Facebook pictures can be painfully staged, with crisp, white smiles, with the riotous merriment of the-party-you-definitely-missed simultaneously frozen and blurred in the frame. Nobody is their Facebook self. Where’s the picture with spinach stuck in your teeth? Your eyes half-closed? Wearing your least favorite pair of pants? One of my friends once joked that she had 876 Facebook friends, but just three real friends.

Most troubling of all, for me, is that people are no longer looking at the world. Instead we’re opting to look at a screen with colored lights. When I visited family in Taiwan this past summer, they informed me that there is a new word for this phenomenon: 低头组, or the “lowered head group,” referring to the bowed angle of the head when people are looking down at their phones.

I asked several Tufts students when they decide to go on Facebook. Their responses: while “standing in line,” for “two minutes” at a time when they’re bored, or as a “time buster.” Social networks like Facebook are not only helping us to block out the world more than ever, but are beginning to fill up those in-between bits of time in life: the 10-minute walk between classes, the 30-minute subway commute, or served as a side with a morning bowl of cereal. The question is at what point does this social networking communication stop being useful and start becoming filler?

Here’s my point: I don’t want filler. I want empty space. I want silent walks and commutes where I can stare dreamily out the window. Those moments of alone are good. There is very little time now that is simply vacant. So often we’re plugged-in, signed-on, or tuned-in, and in the end there’s not enough time for your brain to simply get a rest. You think you’re resting with your iPod plugged in? Nope. You’re still injecting stuff into yourself to fill up empty space.

Let’s Disconnect

Being around technology all the time wears me out. Sometimes I don’t feel like Facebook-ing, texting, e-mailing, Skype-ing, tweeting, Morse code messaging, or smoke signaling with anyone. The problem is that I’m obligated to for pretty much the rest of my life. Why? Because I have a cell phone, a Skype account, an e-mail, a Morse code transmitter and a giant pyre of wood stacked on top of my house next to a flaming torch. Another reason is that I am a supposedly responsible young adult at a particular age in a particular age where I should be able to communicate with other human beings. I should be able to keep up good relations with people, to stay in touch, to organize meetings and give cheery call-backs and say “See you soon,” and “Can’t wait,” and “Sorry, I can’t,” on various call storage systems. But sometimes I would love to be unresponsive. I’d like to receive an e-mail and ignore it. I’d love to end my internal bickering over whether to choose “regards,” or “warm regards,” as my e-mail sign-off.

I’ve seesawed with Facebook over the years. I can say that my year away from Facebook was refreshing (though not Eat, Pray, Love life-changing), and my time with Facebook was at times all-consuming and time-sucking. Now that I’m back on Facebook, I’m still “meh.”  I still wonder if I’ve capitulated in a way, if my switch back to Facebook was a failure of willpower. I think this doubt will be something that will forever bother me. Again, I looked to Ralph Waldo Emerson for advice and found this quote: “It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.” After living at both ends of the spectrum, I’m still searching for that balance.