Fake friends

William Deresiewicz has an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education that provides a broad-stroke picture of the history of friendship in the Western world before zeroing in on a favorite Marginal Utility topic, how social networking is the opposite of friendship. The critique feels a little dated, since the plague of social networking has been with us for a few years now, but Deresiewicz adds a few new variations to the familiar theme.

1. I like how Deresiewicz puts friendship on a continuum with community and suggests that we are slowly peeling away layers of the social onion, and will continue until we are totally isolated by communication technology.

As the traditional face-to-face community disappeared, we held on to what we had lost—the closeness, the rootedness—by clinging to the word, no matter how much we had to water down its meaning. Now we speak of the Jewish “community” and the medical “community” and the “community” of readers, even though none of them actually is one. What we have, instead of community, is, if we’re lucky, a “sense” of community—the feeling without the structure; a private emotion, not a collective experience. And now friendship, which arose to its present importance as a replacement for community, is going the same way. We have “friends,” just as we belong to “communities.” Scanning my Facebook page gives me, precisely, a “sense” of connection. Not an actual connection, just a sense.

“Connection” has been flattened, become something that can be signified rather than necessarily experienced. If someone adds us as friend, “connection” is signified, even if the parties involved haven’t had any direct contact at all. It has become a “sense,” a derivative of itself. Real connection is not necessary to the signified “connection.”

2. I often make the point that social networking is like ham radio, that it is broadcasting. Deresiewicz comes to the same conclusion and emphasizes how this reduces our friends to an audience.

Now we’re just broadcasting our stream of consciousness, live from Central Park, to all 500 of our friends at once, hoping that someone, anyone, will confirm our existence by answering back. We haven’t just stopped talking to our friends as individuals, at such moments, we have stopped thinking of them as individuals. We have turned them into an indiscriminate mass, a kind of audience or faceless public. We address ourselves not to a circle, but to a cloud.

Our desire for the unmediated reciprocity of friendship is being edged out by a new possibility — quantifiable attention that delimits our public notoriety. Recognition gets commoditized through social networks, becomes something tradeable as opposed to something that emerges as a by-product of time spent with another person. We simply announce our identity using the new media tools and wait for anyone to notice and validate it. It no longer matters if that proclaimed identity matches how we actually behave over stretches of time.

3. Friendship, commodified by being mediated, presents the same problems as the superfluity of consumer goods. We have access to more goods then ever, but have never felt so bereft. It’s never been easier to be “in contact” with other people, but we are lonilier than ever. A paradox sets in: “The more people we know, the lonelier we get.”

4.Our online presence must conform to the social networking medium, which distorts who we are and who our friends appear to be in the medium. Trying to use Facebook, Deresiewicz laments

the whole theatrical quality of the business, the sense that my friends are doing their best to impersonate themselves, only makes it worse. The person I read about, I cannot help feeling, is not quite the person I know.

Social networking lets us focus entirely on self-fashioning and identity-mongering as species of human capital, as productive immaterial labor. We have to keep reinventing ourselves, to keep identity signifers circulating to enhance their value. The developing real-time components of social networks accommodate this serial publishing of new editions of ourselves. Seen from the outside, Facebook is an alienation machine, forcing us to make ourselves repeatedly strange in the effort to capture some new catchy essence of ourselves to market.

5. Deresiewicz says this of those odd random people who come out of the past to friend us out of the blue:

They don’t matter to you as individuals anymore, certainly not the individuals they are now, they matter because they made up the texture of your experience at a certain moment in your life, in conjunction with all the other people you knew. Tear them out of that texture—read about their brats, look at pictures of their vacation—and they mean nothing. Tear out enough of them and you ruin the texture itself, replace a matrix of feeling and memory, the deep subsoil of experience, with a spurious sense of familiarity. Your 18-year-old self knows them. Your 40-year-old self should not know them.

Facebook holds out a utopian possibility: What once was lost will now be found. But the heaven of the past is a promised land destroyed in the reaching. Facebook, here, becomes the anti-madeleine, an eraser of memory.

Facebook is a false utopia, based on the idea that we never outgrown anyone, that friendships never really end but can be relived and consumed again like old TV shows. Inthat fase fantasy, friendships are not reciprocal but something we engage in passively. Chasing that dream flattens out memory, indulges nostalgia until everything once precious becomes trivia.

6. The crux of social networking is naturalizing the idea that identity is nothing more than consumer preferences. Then it entices us to elaborate ourselves in those terms, enhancing the value of various brands and commercial services. Social networks encourage us to think that

identity is reducible to information: the name of your cat, your favorite Beatle, the stupid thing you did in seventh grade…. that it is reducible, in particular, to the kind of information that social-networking Web sites are most interested in eliciting, consumer preferences. Forget that we’re all conducting market research on ourselves. Far worse is that Facebook amplifies our longstanding tendency to see ourselves (“I’m a Skin Bracer man!”) in just those terms.

Baudrillard foresaw this in the early 1970s, extrapolating from the consumer society’s “system of objects” the inevitability that we would reduce ourselves to the code of signifiers. AT that point every attempt to escape is just another signifying gesture of neutralized rebellion.

7. The contrast between mediated “friendship” and the sort of friendship that is disappearing:

Posting information is like pornography, a slick, impersonal exhibition. Exchanging stories is like making love: probing, questing, questioning, caressing. It is mutual. It is intimate. It takes patience, devotion, sensitivity, subtlety, skill—and it teaches them all, too.

Consuming the personal information is liek consuming pornography as well — done alone in front of a screen, an indulgence of idle curiosity on one’s own terms entirely, with no emotional investment. This is how friendship is sacrificed to the god of convenience.