A few weeks ago, I came to a decision. I had been thinking about it for awhile. I decided to delete my various social media profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and OKCupid.
I felt like a bit of a hypocrite about having them in the first place. I’m old fashioned when it comes to technologies — I prefere my phones dumb, my books on paper, and my sense of direction non-reliant on Google Maps. I still memorize phone numbers. I believe, perhaps naïvely, that this age of gadgets and social networking is a fad that has more in common with pet rocks than with Guttenberg’s invention of the printing press. Twitter fell tremendously flat with me. I felt like my attention span was too long to follow its brief posts. I longed for more depth in the conversations on Facebook too, but ever since I lost the house I shared with a number of friends two and a half years ago, I felt like my social circle had fractured and Facebook was the only thing holding it together. I’ve felt for a while that I don’t want to be part of Facebook, but the risk of losing touch with friends was too great for me to quit. To put it melodramatically, my friends belonged to Facebook now, and it was using them to hold me hostage.
So, what have I got against social networking sites? Well, first of all, social networking tries to make us poor users feel like we’re the clients, but the truth is, we’re the product. Facebook exists to invade our privacy, and to turn the information that we pour into it to the advantage of people who want to sell us things. It creates the illusion that we’re putting in information for ourselves and our friends, but what we’re really doing is supplying information about what kind of person we want to be seen as, information that will allow Facebook and its real clients — corporate advertisers — to manipulate our self-image in order to sell us things.
Second, using Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites encourages a change in our real world behavior. A simple activity like hanging out with friends becomes an online performance opportunity. We spend our time narrating our lives with banal, single-sentence updates. We interrupt activies in progress to document them with photographs and videos. The way we have fun becomes fake and narcissistic, mere appearance instead of something genuinely experienced. We watch everything we do out of the corner of our eye in a virtual mirror. Everything our friends do too. It’s gotten to the point where we can’t even wait until we’re at a computer to share — we are compelled to update from smart phones and other mobile devices. We endlessly check the latest updates so we won’t miss the latest photo of the cupcake a friend ate at lunch, or the latest funny update from Mister Sulu.
Third, the entire structure of social networking, by design, stiffles individual creativity and self-expression by emphasizing group behavior. Jaron Lanier, one of the creators of virtual reality, wrote a wonderful book a few years ago about this topic, called You Are Not a Gadget. Lanier basically says that the Internet, drawing from the “wisdom of the market” dogma of free market capitalism, is built around the assumption that decisions are best made by groups, and it is designed around this principal — over the last ten years, the web has become a story trending topics, Likes, and group-authored Wiki articles. Whatever link people most often click on in a Google search is automatically judged to be the best. Similarly, social networking amplifies simply expressed, group accepted ideas by displaying “Liked” items more prominently. Unpopular ideas are discouraged through the commenting process. The design refuses to consider the importance of new ideas of from creative individuals in the public discourse. There is no incentive to be original, to express yourself in depth. The incentives are to repost the latest LOL Cat meme.
Fourth, social networking takes a huge amount of time.
Now, I might be criticizing the Internet right now, but I live in the early 21st century too and I use the Web just like everyone else. In fact, I’m using the Web to blog about this. I’m part of what I’m criticizing, so my criticism is completely worthless and compromised. Right? Well, no. If that were true, anyone who questions anything about their own society, be it consumerism, environmental indifference, or political dogma, would be making an invalid argument just because they can’t speak from a place of neutrality. No one would be qualified to criticize social changes that affect everyone — they would be completely unassailable. So, I believe my criticisms aren’t less valid because I’m a hypocrite who uses the Internet as he criticizes it.
I would have continued criticizing and continued using social media except for an experience that I had a few weeks ago. I was upset that the New York Marathon had been canceled after Hurricane Sandy even though no one could exactly explain why holding it would affect hurricane relief efforts. (Bloomberg didn’t seem to think it would, and he’s a pretty practical guy.) The option of rerouting the few parts of the race in affected areas, a reasonable compromise, wasn’t even discussed. It seemed to me like people weren’t really offending by supposed interference with hurricane recovery, they were offended that other people were daring to have fun just a week after the storm. I live in Queens, an area relatively untouched by the hurricane, and on a daily basis I listened to people complaining melodramatically about things they had no right to complain about, like the inconvenience of delays on their already-restored subway lines, or the supposedly apocalyptic conditions on the highways to and from the city that kept them from going to their upstate weekend house. It seemed to me like people were more concerned about standing in line for the new iPad Mini than about disaster relief, and then they were using their new device to scold runners online. To me, a marathon — a test of endurance — seemed like the perfect way to show resilence after the storm. “We endure extreme physical hardship for the sheer fun of it,” it seemed to say. “What’s a storm to us?” I found myself in the pro-marathon camp. (If I had known it was an option, I would have been in favor of what actually happened: a shadow marathon called Run Anyway in Central Park, where ten thousand runners and a thousand fans held the race anyway after the cancellation. I went to the finish line with my dad, who was visiting New York. It was a fantastic New York Moment, like a non-political Occupy Wall Street, and it didn’t go near affected areas or use any city resources.)
I posted about it on Facebook. I was in a hurry, and I flubbed it. It wasn’t clear which New Yorkers I was accusing of complaining needlessly. The format didn’t encourage me to make a nuanced argument, and I didn’t bother to. I used the word “bullshit.” I used the word “whining.” It was bad. My friends let me know it. I tried to explain. They told me they “don’t know” me. They told me to “go fuck yourself.” Their comments hurt a lot.
Up to that point, I had hung on to my Facebook with white knuckles, in spite of objections, because I didn’t want to lose contact with friends. But this incident made me think: What’s the point of communicating with my friends on this level? The format encourages ill-considered, quickly-written, inarticulate posts that make people angry — things that, if I said them face to face, my friends might disagree with but would understand weren’t coming from a vicious place — certainly not intended as a personal attack. This post was an extreme case, but the same thing clearly happen in smaller ways with other posts. I felt like it must. So I decided it was finally time to pull the plug. I shut down my accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and OKCupid.
In the last two weeks, I’ve been communicating with people by e-mail. It’s nice to open my inbox every morning to see two or three long, substantative e-mails from friends. For the last six months, it’s been mostly junk mail from Center for Fiction and the Obama campaign. Nonetheless, I’ve decided I miss having a public presence online. I didn’t intend this to be a renunciation of the Internet, like the time I didn’t use the Web for the entire month of July 2009. So I’ve decided to rejuvinate this blog, which I haven’t used much lately. I think the format encourages better behavior. It encourages me to talk about topics in depth, to construct careful arguments. It discourages narcissistic performance of the type we do on Facebook, since it’s totally public and in my real name. I have to think about strangers — maybe potential future employers — reading what I write here. It’s going to encourage me to write about ideas I have. It’s going to encourage me to talk about my ideas about writing and other arts. Hopefully, friends and strangers will read it, and the format will encourage them to leave thoughtful comments instead of just pressing “Like.”
Because for all my criticism, you misunderstand if you think I believe the Internet isn’t a good forum to discuss ideas. Everyone just needs to find the format that best fits the way that they express themselves. For a while, I’ve thought that blogging might be mine. I hope you’ll join me here for some deep and not-so-deep thoughts, from time to time.