While the cinema-going world wonders whether The Social Network, the film about the founding of Facebook is really real or really not real, many people are wondering about Facebook itself. Does it really matter and is it really behind a slew of social things that are not working? I am not inclined to believe that social networking sites like Facebook are behind things that are not working in society. It may make them more visible or magnify them, but the root is somewhere else.
What has become a regular Friday morning activity, sharing coffee and discussion with a group of retirees, was very animated today. Social ills were high on the list of talking points, sparked in part by two very unpleasant stories: one about protesters at military funerals, the other was about Rutgers student, Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after filmed details of his sex life were streamed over the Internet by his college roommate and another student.
My own view is that Facebook and some of the rapid electronic communication represent many things that have been around for a long while, and the fact that they appear to make things visible to a wide group of people simultaneously does not change much the dynamic that is going on behind people’s interactions. For instance, long before the telephone or any form of electronic means of communication, stories could be shared just by word of mouth, or the distribution of printed material. In fact, some say that there is no weapon more powerful than the tongue. Shame and fame were there long before technology made them seem easier to attain. When your image was on a piece of paper that was being circulated by hand, was the fame or shame more or less then? Is shame worse if an unmarked brown envelope with embarrassing material is left on your boss’s desk or your front step than to have it streamed over YouTube? Is fame greater because you have a zillion so-called friends on Facebook than if you are really known as you walk along a street? Do these newer media offer more than make the spreading of supposed fame, possible shame, and mere banality something done by the pressing of a few buttons rather than by another means? Broadcasting and instantaneousness are there but do they make for better or worse? Have they changed the limits of the possible?
The delight that some people may get from a sense that their words are being absorbed by a wide audience is not something new. But, I ask you. If your Facebook friends do not read what you write or share, or if they do but do not react, are things any different than when people did not hang on your every word when you tried to tell stories around the school dining table or threw in the garbage whatever you passed them?
Facebook-fascination, for example, may be something that is about generations. I wonder what might have been its fate had Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, been in an old people’s home and wanted to get friendly with the crowd that is usually found in such places. It might have been called ‘Fogeybook’ for one thing. But, would it have developed along other lines, too, such as being more about actually allowing sound to pass between friends, using enhanced speaking or hearing devices? It might have still morphed, and been captured by teens, twenty- and thirty-somethings. But they would have been begging their aged parents and grandparents to be friends with them again–just like when they were little kids–so that they could understand what the ‘elderlies’ were up to.
People are right to be concerned but are they concerned about what is really amiss?