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Facebook holdouts

In a patronizing piece of pseudo-sage advice, Slate tech columnist Fahrad Manjoo tells us to get over ourselves and just join Facebook. Everybody's doing it, and the law of network effects demands that you follow through and get with the program.

Whenever network effects are invoked -- the more people who use something, the better it becomes for all users -- there always seems to be implied coercion. (I'm remembering my father and many others insisting that I must get a cell phone, since they all had them and expected me to be subject to the same perpetual availablility.) Often, as in Manjoo's piece, the coercion manifests as an accusation of snobbery and elitism.

I was reminded of a quote from an Onion story, "Area Man Constantly Mentioning He Doesn't Own a Television": "I'm not an elitist. It's just that I'd much rather sculpt or write in my journal or read Proust than sit there passively staring at some phosphorescent screen."

Friends—can I call you friends?—it's time to drop the attitude: There is no longer any good reason to avoid Facebook. The site has crossed a threshold—it is now so widely trafficked that it's fast becoming a routine aide to social interaction, like e-mail and antiperspirant.

Ordinary people use antiperspirant and Facebook, therefore you should too, unless you vainly think you are extraordinary. Just as, according to Manjoo, it is now "an affectation not to carry a mobile phone," it has become false and phony not to go along and get along, and maintain a Facebook account, where your self-constructed identity can be made more accessible and public domain, open to penetration by a variety of marketing efforts and data-collection initiatives. Of course, Manjoo insists that the "finely grained privacy controls" allow users to make of Facebook what they want, and insulate themselves as much as they find necessary. Somehow that network of controls, maintained ultimately by the company itself, is in Manjoo's estimation preferable to the ultimate control we can seize for ourselves by simple nonparticipation. But now Facebook is the "Wikipedia of people," (I thought Wikipedia already included people. Hmm) and failing to list ourselves is counterproductive to our own interests. And without "ambient awareness" of our friends, we will lose touch with them -- we'll cease to know them by the standards of friendship that Facebook has ushered in. Manjoo explains the New Friendship this way: "Just as you can sense his mood from the rhythm of his breathing, sighing, and swearing, you can get the broad outlines of his life from short updates, making for a deeper conversation the next time you do meet up."

But why bother meeting at all? Through the magic of ambient awareness, I can have friends on my time, while I'm multitasking. Rather than muster the concentration for a reciprocal exchange with a particular friend, I can blast out an update or a funny picture or my wry commentary on a link. (Kind of like I do on this blog -- hello, friends!) Ambient awareness seems a lot like selective attention, the ideal relationship mode for overcommitted, self-centered people. Facebook allows us to follow one another as though we are all celebrities, to be regarded admiringly from afar. Such admiration requires no direct interaction, just updating. The friend-friend relation is transformed into a celebrity-fan relation, and we flip-flop between those distinct fantasies, enjoying the vicariousness and the voyeurism on one hand, and the egomania on the other. As American Scene contributor Matt Frost puts it, "Facebook is like a breeder reactor of solipsistic fatuity."

Frost's analysis of the difference between blogging and updating Facebook is apropos:

A good blogger lives in constructive fear of two things: writing for everyone, and writing for no one. Recognizing that your boss, your kids, or even your future self will be able to read your work long after you’ve written it should impose some temperance and moderation, while the knowledge that every one of your readers could simply opt out should encourage selectivity and creativity. Facebook, however, smashes both of these healthy constraints to self-expression. The semi-captive audience of all those friends fosters the illusion that somebody cares what you had for breakfast, while the exclusivity of the network implies that your more ill-considered announcements will be charitably received. Reading the status updates of long-lost friends and acquaintances convinced me I’d like them better if they stayed lost for longer.

Ouch. But memory does a much better job of bringing to our minds what we want to think of people we have known than a Facebook page does. Facebook is an assault on memory.

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