Blog Post

Facebook, _The Social Network_, and 'A Certain Degree of Isolation'

The local alt-weekly asked me to write a short piece about Facebook as part of their cover story on social media and The Social Network. Here's what I came up with. I write in the piece about what I call the "strange intimacies" of Facebook America, the ways in which the suburban desire for privacy and anonymity seems to be fundamentally at odds with a social networking technology that lets everyone look in, all the time:

But Facebook's massive transformative effect is much larger than just the fear that Mark Zuckerberg is right about how dumb we are to trust him. I don't think anyone has fully processed how fundamentally strange it is that I know what a person I didn't especially like when I was in fourth grade, who now lives on the other side of the world, had for breakfast this morning, as well as what they're watching on TV and whether or not they're currently attached. Or how strange it is for me to have a permanent open window into the lives not just of close friends but everyone, all the time, including the person I met once at a conference three years ago, my brother's ex, and the second cousin I don't like to see at weddings.

Of course, there's something wonderful about this digital network, but there's also something deeply terrible: Our lives have become a high-school reunion that never ends, and never even moves past that awkward "So, what are you doing now?" stage of catching up. It's a strange thing, knowing on a superficial level what everyone else is up to all the timeand sharing the same sorts of things yourself, without meaning to, without even really questioning if you want to or if you should.

For my former students and my younger cousins this all seems perfectly natural. There are media reports that for some high schoolers, Facebook works like AOL did back in the 1990s, as e-mail, as browser, as instant-message service and as search engine. That is, many younger people don't use Facebook on the Internet so much as they use the Internet on Facebook. My 16-year-old cousin has 513 friends, 33 more than me, and probably something close to every person she has ever met. Some days she posts deeply personal information about her boyfriend or parents or just her angst-y feelings about school that I feel embarrassed to admit I've read.

I wonder, in the end, if there isn't something to Google chief executive Eric Schmidt's half-serious idea that everyone be given a new name when they turn 18, to keep their youthful indiscretions youthful and discreet. But even that won't be much help when your mom, your former co-worker and your fifth-grade crush have been reading all along, can see just what sort of party you were at last night, just what you think about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," and each can leave a comment if they want. We've forgotten why we invented blinds for windows, why peepholes on doors look out, not in.

(In a paragraph I'm sorry my editor had to cut, I related this peculiar situation to the classic Seinfeld episode in which George becomes characteristically histrionic at the idea that his fiancee would become friends with his friends, that his separate worlds that make up his life might collide: It's just common sense. Anybody knows -- youve got to keep your worlds apart. The episodes still funny, but the idea is hopelessly quaint: Theres just one world now, Mark Zuckerbergs, and we all live in it.)

With my mind on Facebook and the social forms associated with it, I was very interested to find this come up in media reports surrounding the troubling incident this week at UT Austin:

"He never seemed weird or like he would end up doing that," said Devon Sepeda, a UT student who graduated from Austin's Crockett High School in 2009 with Tooley, who finished seventh in his class of 400.

High-achieving students can become dangerous if they are isolated and without balance in their lives, said James Alan Fox, a professor of criminology at Northeastern University known for his research on school shootings and other mass murders.

The fact that Tooley apparently didn't have a Facebook account "reflects a certain degree of isolation" that may be a clue to his behavior, he said.

"There are students for whom academics is not everything," Fox said. "They have friends. They have hobbies. They can put things in perspective. Not everyone can do that."

To lack a Facebook account is now actually dispositive: it tells us there's something off about you, something not quite right. This suggests that social networking technology -- and the privacy tradeoffs it entails -- are increasingly becoming something close to mandatory. Can not having Facebook -- to refuse to "like" this Panopticon, to want to retain that wall between your private life and your public face -- already quality as a red flag? I wonder how many of my young cousin's high school classmates are off-Facebook; I suspect there are very few, and that every day another holdout falls...


1 comment

I like this a lot, Gerry.  I think you are right that we've never seen a social situation where people you haven't seen in twenty years suddenly know what novel you are reading.   It's also recent in human history that (a) one would live in a world where most people wouldn't see the same people in their family, village, and/or tribe for all of their lives except in times of major social catastrophe such as starvation, war, environmental disaster, etc---so that disruption of the continuities of mundane social interaction as a common place of life is relatively recent; (b) that once physically removed (migration, labor arrangements, enslavement, prison), there were still technologies that in some situations allowed one to keep in touch (telegraph, telephone).   Social media seem to me to be an epistemic change in communications and interpersonal relations on that level.   We are only at the beginning of theorizing what it means.  I very much like the direction you are going in here.  Is this part of your dissertation work?  We really need serious analysis of networked interpersonalism.