A week or so ago I finally gave in and allowed my friends to convince me that I really, really needed to go on Facebook. It has been fun – I’ve gotten back in touch with some old friends I’d lost track of; I’ve enjoyed reading tidbits about the daily goings-on of my friends’ lives; I’ve tried to figure out what the heck L’il Green Patch is all about.
Yet it also seems to me, in some ways, like a nightmare. With email, I log on, read messages, respond, delete, I’m done. With blogging, I log on, write a blog post, post it, check comments to see if anything is languishing in moderation, I’m done. Facebook, however, seems like an endless enterprise. There’s always something you could be doing or reading or checking or updating or commenting on. All your friends are there, posting their pictures, typing in their updates, leaving comments on this and that – it seems rude to turn away, to stop reading and interacting. It’s like being a bee in the hive and saying, “hey, I need my space!”
So I guess it was perfect timing when this week’s Chronicle showed up, with an essay in the Chronicle Review titled The End of Solitude by William Deresiewicz.
What does the contemporary self want? The camera has created a culture of celebrity; the computer is creating a culture of connectivity. As the two technologies converge — broadband tipping the Web from text to image, social-networking sites spreading the mesh of interconnection ever wider — the two cultures betray a common impulse. Celebrity and connectivity are both ways of becoming known. This is what the contemporary self wants. It wants to be recognized, wants to be connected: It wants to be visible. If not to the millions, on Survivor or Oprah, then to the hundreds, on Twitter or Facebook. This is the quality that validates us, this is how we become real to ourselves — by being seen by others. The great contemporary terror is anonymity. If Lionel Trilling was right, if the property that grounded the self, in Romanticism, was sincerity, and in modernism it was authenticity, then in postmodernism it is visibility.
So we live exclusively in relation to others, and what disappears from our lives is solitude…
…The goal now, it seems, is simply to become known, to turn oneself into a sort of miniature celebrity. How many friends do I have on Facebook? How many people are reading my blog? How many Google hits does my name generate? Visibility secures our self-esteem, becoming a substitute, twice removed, for genuine connection. Not long ago, it was easy to feel lonely. Now, it is impossible to be alone.
Once I joined Facebook, I became giddy with delight as my friends list expanded (even as I realized I don’t even come close to the mega-friends lists of the real pros). I kept reporting my latest friends count to Mr. Z, who kept asking “But what’s it for?” I have struggled in the past to not pay too much attention to the Google Analytics made available to me by ScienceBlogs; it’s too easy to obsess over how many people are, or are not, reading my blog. What does it matter how many Facebook friends I have, or whether my blog is read more or less than some other blog?
Deresiewicz talks about boredom and loneliness. He says that “the great age of boredom” began with television. Having nothing to do isn’t necessarily a bad thing; boredom is the “negative experience of that state”. Television helps keep us from learning how to use and enjoy our lack of occupation. We thus become terrified of being bored, so we turn on the television to keep from being bored.
Similarly, solitude is not necessarily a bad thing; loneliness, Deresiewicz says, is our grief over the absence of company, and
the Internet is as powerful a machine for the production of loneliness as television is for the manufacture of boredom. If six hours of television a day creates the aptitude for boredom, the inability to sit still, a hundred text messages a day creates the aptitude for loneliness, the inability to be by yourself. Some degree of boredom and loneliness is to be expected, especially among young people, given the way our human environment has been attenuated. But technology amplifies those tendencies. You could call your schoolmates when I was a teenager, but you couldn’t call them 100 times a day. You could get together with your friends when I was in college, but you couldn’t always get together with them when you wanted to, for the simple reason that you couldn’t always find them. If boredom is the great emotion of the TV generation, loneliness is the great emotion of the Web generation. We lost the ability to be still, our capacity for idleness. They have lost the ability to be alone, their capacity for solitude.
This is a bad thing, because we need solitude for inward journeys, to explore ourselves, to maintain our integrity. You can’t go on a vision quest while chatting with your 367 friends on Facebook. Can you really form a solid idea of your own views and opinions while you’re Twittering and texting?
Deresiewicz is not saying (and neither am I) that social networking is an inherently bad thing. Obviously it enables people to connect who might not otherwise. And for someone like me, without a formal work environment, social networks provided by things like blogging and Facebook help keep me in touch with things that really matter to me, keep me from being really isolated.
But when I sit here in my little attic study, surrounded by my books, with the sunlight pouring through the windows and the cats sleeping contentedly on the floor, do I really need to keep Facebook and the forums and my email and three other browser windows open so that I can constantly be checking in with…someone…to see if…something…is going on? Perhaps part of the trouble I’ve had with writing blog posts lately isn’t all due to my preoccupation with worries about my mother. Perhaps it’s that I can’t disengage my mind from the web long enough to think in a sustained manner about what I want to say.