Necessary awkwardness

[8 April 2009]

By Rob Horning

Vanessa Grigoriadis’s carefully balanced article in New York magazine about Facebook basically boils down to this: The social networking thing is neat for people in their 30s because they get to find lost loves, etc., but then it gets kind of boring and/or creepy. As I was reading it, I had a strong impulse to destroy the Facebook profile I have. I don’t really use it for anything. It’s more of a post-office box I check now and then to see if anyone surprising has thought about me. Am I using it wrong?

I’m not sure if it makes more sense to not log in very much or not have a profile altogether; I don’t want to be invisible to the people who might try to find me on the site, but I don’t want to be responsible for updating it, nor do I want it to fall out of date altogether. But the idea of “sharing” on it—well described by Grigoriadis as “the most important Newspeak word in the Facebook lexicon, an infantilizing phrase whose far less cozy synonym is ‘uploading data’ ”—is pretty off-putting to me. My writing here, though I sometimes draw on personal details, is ultimately meant to be impersonal. At least, I hope it’s interesting to people who don’t know anything about me. But if I were updating Facebook, I would feel as though I was rubbing people’s noses in the glory of my life, such as it is. Perhaps I would rather share time with people than information—or would rather that the information shared emerged from a reciprocal, real-time exchange, not from a mediated broadcast.

I can’t say I derive much voyeuristic pleasure from Facebook either, the sort that Grigoriadis describes. It all makes me feel uncomfortable. Information that is thrown at me without context, with Twitter-like brevity, doesn’t feel like “ambient presence”; it seems like irritating static. And it has tended to diminish my memories of the people, who before Facebook’s advent, I used to wonder about. Now that I can find out what they have been doing, I already sort of know, and it’s dull. They are living their lives without reference to me, of course, but they are seeming to force me to know about it, and the only way I can fight back is with broadcasts of my own. But then I’d just be perpetuating the spiral. I guess I’m selfish like that. I want messages tailored to me personally; I don’t want the every-hour equivalent of the mass-mailing Christmas card.

It’s a bit like being trapped at an elementary school talent show (though that might be the most patronizing thing I have ever written). People seem to be trying to hard, or are entirely unaware that they should be trying, or—like me—they have just frozen up there on the stage. Or to use a slightly different metaphor, Facebook is like being at one of those theatrical performances in which there is surprise audience participation. I find this incredibly embarrassing, no matter who is induced to participate.

But what really bothers me about social networking is something that Grigoriadis celebrates (though maybe it’s just a rhetorical strategy to achieve that balance): the way it trivializes intimacy.

This is part of the magic of Facebook, where many actions that take on weight in the real world simply don’t pack the same punch: You can reconnect with long-lost friends without a gooey, uncomfortable e-mail about why you grew apart; you can forget to return Facebook e-mail and nobody minds; you can click obsessively on someone’s profile and there’s no way for him to know it.

But maybe we shouldn’t blow off the attempts people make to communicate with us or have a service to make us feel okay about it. If it’s okay if someone doesn’t respond when we try to reach them, than that communication is taking place within a vacuum; it’s not meant as communication at all but is instead a posture, a pose. Look at me, reaching out to you. And also, without the gooey emails Grigoriadis spits on here, the reconnection between old “friends” is merely nominal; it’s a pretense, a fantasy, insignificant. And sadly, it precludes the possibility that the gooey email will ever be written. Without such communication, the world—the “social graph,” as Facebook’s executives like to call it—is diminished. Yet Facebook seems to exist precisely to obviate awkward discourse.

But awkwardness is inescapably necessary. It’s an almost physiological signal that something emotionally significant is taking place. If Facebook eradicates such feelings by giving us such granular privacy controls that we prevent the possibility of embarrassment, then our lives become poorer, emotionally. The people we connect with through the site seem less than real people; they seem like shadows of the real people we thought we knew—the reality of these “friends” remains offline and even more inaccessible. In the place of intimacy, we have the more convenient alternative of user friendliness, the triumph of a new, corporate-mediated politesse.

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