They tell me I’m better on the Internet. Funnier on Facebook, more oomph than “IRL.” I’m not sure how to feel about this. I suppose my avatar is something of an improvement, a jovially connected version of myself, my greatest hits, quickest comebacks, and most “likeable” observations. Version 2.0 as Zadie Smith says in her controversial essay, “Generation Why?”

Smith is one of many writers who have taken to “struggling against” Facebook lately, worrying how a generation whose umbilical cords are on display in their parents’ profile pictures will fare over time. Not to spoil the surprise, but she isn’t terribly enthusiastic about their future. Unwilling to go gentle into Smith’s dark night, The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal followed with a considerably more optimistic, less end-times approach, defending social media while targeting the motives of literary writers who moonlight as Facebook critics. Most recently, Jonathan Franzen explored the limitations of Facebook in his New York Times essay, citing technology as an impediment to love and an enabler of narcissism.

Franzen’s essay, excerpted from a commencement speech he delivered at Kenyon College, details his transformation from BlackBerry devotee to birder as if describing a path to redemption.Jesus in the form of a rufous-sided towhee.It’s a brilliant piece – as are all three of these – and his celebration of hard earned love is undeniably admirable, if a tad easy.In making his point, Franzen designates technology (special mention goes to Facebook) as the bogeyman to his more authentic, love-filled existence.

“The ultimate goal of technology,” Franzen writes, “is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes…with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”In other words, the idea that Facebook and its software kin have allowed us to abandon the real world to escape into a world of our own design, and thus our own vanity. Our solipsism is Franzen’s constant refrain. “Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface.”

He’s right. Our online personas are carefully curated.We post flattering pictures of ourselves, weeding out double chins and belly bulges. Yet doesn’t this process of self editing – which, in its attempt to project certain qualities, has always been a part of the history of photography – happen long before our pictures make their way into the Facebook newsfeed?When was the last time any of us saw a bad photograph from someone’s vacation?We’ve all become professional photographers. Our cameras are designed to find and correct our red eyes and center our faces.If vanity is built into the machine, it’s because it is built into us. If we are as vain as Franzen suggests, it isn’t because Facebook encourages or enables us to think we are somehow better or more beautiful, but rather because we carry that vanity wherever we go, into art, literature, and the Internet.To suggest otherwise abnegates our responsibility to confront vanity in ourselves.

I’m not convinced that Facebook (and certainly not technology, in its many forms) is simply a hothouse for our basest instincts. With regard to Franzen’s indifferent world – from which we’ve allegedly fled into the consoling, vain-sexy domain of Mark Zuckerberg – I can’t scroll far at all without meeting that natural world, in the form of concern and fundraising for earthquake victims, outrage about environmental catastrophes and domestic abuse, and, individually, detailed accounts of friends’ travails. Dead pets, sick grandmothers, struggles with divorce and disease, all of these tragedies unfold each day, often each hour, in my newsfeed.Facebook and Twitter were key in Egypt’s ousting of Hosni Mubarak and continue to serve the youth of the Arab Spring, yet Franzen focuses on profile pics of girls making that horrible kissy face, thereby choosing to ignore the ways in which Facebook informs us, in its own uniquely personal way, about the wider world.

None of this is to say that we don’t use Facebook, as Franzen asserts, to make our lives look more interesting, touting new infants, new jobs, and new books.But it goes both ways. We also confess to watching bad reality television, to eating our weight in potato chips, to trading crops on Farmville when we should be grading papers. We fight in whole paragraphs about politics and religion. We post pictures of our dogs sleeping, of our messy apartments, of our feet. More often than not, there is a complete picture there, a real-time history of living. Facebook has less replaced the real world than it has compressed it, collecting the messy stuff of our existence into photos, links, and status updates. As Alexis Madrigal writes in response to Zadie Smith’s Facebook critique, “While some things can be shaped by the tool itself, by the software, others are burned in by the much longer game of being alive in the world.”

It seems rather ungenerous for Franzen to seize upon Facebook as the perpetual enabler to our collective cultural narcissism. What better tool for narcissists, he wonders, than technology, which can be used to manipulate other people into liking, or “liking,” them? But how exactly do we manipulate? By hitting a button to “like” someone’s activity that doesn’t particularly interest us?Sure some of us do that, some of the time, just as some of us pretend to enjoy listening to our friends’ dreams, making small talk in elevators, kissing up to a boss, or looking at pictures of someone’s baby. Facebook isn’t breaking new ground in social lubrication. And, by the way, if we are narcissists for having the impulse to share our personal information with others, then we have been, all along, since we first drew public pictures in Chauvet Cave.

As with Smith, Franzen’s paramount concerns are about the nature of a Facebook friendship: “To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.” Vanity. Friend me, be a part of my audience. To consider some Facebook relationships true friendships, he suggests, is self-deception. “There is no such thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie.” Like with gusto, with the purest form of liking, sayeth Franzen, or risk being a fraud.He has the rulebook, and, it seems, sole access to a Like-A-Tron 3000.

Beyond the legitimacy of friendship, though, Franzen does make a very important point: “To love a specific person and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of yourself.”Indeed.Love and surrender. Yet I can’t think of a more poignant example of such love than when a friend, bound simultaneously to her television and computer late one night, shared a running Facebook commentary about each of the Chilean miners as he was pulled from the ground.Or when a friend in the midst of the adoption process waited alone in a hotel room to hear if she would be able to bring home her child (she wouldn’t).She shared her grief via status updates, in real time, and everyone rallied to her side.Those nights, I promise you, there was room for love and surrender in the Facebook headlines.

Franzen concludes by celebrating the sacrifices of real love. He talks about his years of dabbling in, and eventually abandoning, environmentalism before finally falling hard for birds: “Whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love… Now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again.”Can one love a “specific part” of nature?I’ll take these bears and those fish, but not the flies?Perhaps I’m being ungenerous now – and admittedly I’m not fond of ticks – but this specific loving feels an awful lot like creating a world of our wishes, “an extension of self,” as Franzen said of technology.

Who needs a BlackBerry Bold when one can chart a “life list” in a notebook?Putting aside the somewhat troubling idea that one might care for the woods only because they’re the home of his chosen species, I’m glad that Franzen fell in love with birds.Birds need every advocate possible, especially eloquent advocates.But is birding in this sense – comparing which birds you’ve spotted with other birders – that different from comparing which iteration of smart phone you currently brandish? Loving birds by keeping a tally for comparison, one could argue, might be its own form of vanity.

I understand exactly what Franzen means to look at an animal with a surfeit of love, but obviously his love in itself means nothing to the animal.I am reminded of Werner Herzog’s documentary Grizzly Man, during which Herzog examines Timothy Treadwell’s misperception that Alaskan brown bears were his friends. Treadwell had assigned names and personalities to the animals that would ultimately kill him and his girlfriend. In the film, in dramatic fashion, Herzog provides his own interpretation of Ursus arctos: “I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”

Franzen’s indifferent, natural world.But there is a difference, isn’t there, between what we can make and understand of the animal world and what we can make and understand of the technological world?All too often in our obsession with animals, we’re really projecting ourselves on a creature that would be better off if we didn’t exist.It’s a one-sided conversation, a “private hall of flattering mirrors.” With social media, we have the power to make our online relationships, to love and surrender, to work at sustaining a reciprocal and ongoing conversation.

In her piece on Facebook for the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith steers clear of animals and true love and begins instead with The Social Network.Early on, however, her review transmogrifies into an eerily detailed surgical deconstruction of Mark Zuckerberg, right down to his physiognomy, (“Real Zuckerberg is Greek sculpture, noble, featureless, a little like the Doryphorus. Fake Mark looks Roman, with all the precise facial detail filled in”) before culminating in an impassioned plea for a world without Facebook. At certain points in her essay, it seems as if Smith herself is making a Facebook movie, telling the story of her own fake (and far more interesting) Zuckerberg. It’s constructive to criticize Zuckerberg’s business philosophies and his wanton privacy violations, but do we get anywhere by psychoanalyzing him, by trying to read something into his color blindness?I’m not so sure.

Of course, Smith isn’t the only one to go ad hominem. In his response in The Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal stridently challenges Smith’s technophobia, but he tellingly descends into similarly personal (and vampiric!) territory when discussing her: “In person, she seemed almost evanescent. I would brush past her in the English department and by the time I could think of something to say, she’d be gone, a whispering in the curtains, a scent… Smith was detached and aloof. It made her almost impossibly attractive to the undergraduate population, male and female alike. It is not surprising that she has to remain a mystery, lest the world drain her blood looking for her essence. We would shamble towards her — online or off — to feed.”

Is it hot in here?

Ultimately Madrigal suggests that Smith’s literary celebrity has prevented her from properly using social media, and that her chief bias against Facebook – because she’s a literary writer – is its truncation and perversion of language. “When professional writers see horrifically bad writing online, they recoil. All their training about the value of diverse societies and the equality of classes goes flying out the window… This is how the masses of people talk. This is how the masses of people write. Not the 20 million NPR listeners. But the other 300 million people trying to LOL their way through boring days at office jobs or in Iraq.”Madrigal injects an unsavory taste of class warfare – Smith in her ivory tower, or at her ivory desk – that seems entirely unnecessary. Many (indeed most) literary writers use social media, despite 140 character restrictions, so an accusation that “professional writers” are inherently technophobic makes no sense.Smith is forthright about what she doesn’t like about Facebook, and she doesn’t mention language at all, except insofar as she finds messages on the Facebook walls of the dead offensive.Why should we believe that Smith, who is anything but coy, has a secret agenda?Suggesting her issues with social media are merely the personal hang-ups of an aloof, quasi-celebrity seems as reductive as Smith’s obsession with Zuckerberg’s dorky walk.

While we’re at it, why are we talking so much about Zuckerberg?Certainly he’s the (Greek) face behind the curtain, but hasn’t Facebook itself, as an entity 500 million strong, moved somewhat beyond him?Invoking Malcolm Gladwell (and echoing Franzen) Smith writes: “That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other, and that this might not be an entirely positive thing, seem never to have occurred to [Zuckerberg].”Once again the idea of the authenticity and legitimacy of connections.But who is defining authenticity?Is there a blood test for friendship?Don’t we have superficial friends and acquaintances in “meatworld” too?

“What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet,” Smith writes, “is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose.”

In the same way that Franzen’s personal Facebook experience is incomparable to mine, so too is Smith’s.I don’t know anyone who became “un-gay” on Facebook, who took down their party photos, and I certainly haven’t stopped choking on the smoke of political firebrands.I do, however, know many friends, especially those living in rural towns, who can’t out themselves “in real life” as gay or liberal or atheist because of the reactions of their families, but who have, somehow, found the courage to do this on Facebook. Facebook is no social panacea, but it does quite often provide the kind of distance necessary for people to declare their beliefs and orientations publicly.Facebook has indeed become a shorthand, a way for people to know information about their friends that they might not feel comfortable asking about. I certainly long for the kind of “real life” for everyone that Smith talks about it, one in which we can be anyone we want with anyone we want; I’m just not sure we’re all there yet.

Ultimately Smith’s great fear is a homogenized world, with social media leading the way, wanting us all to like and buy the same things.But the truth is that Facebook does not compel us to like everything, and we don’t in fact like everything.Hence the debate over the possibility of a dislike button.

Interestingly, Smith talks about Facebook the way some people talk about “The Media,” in effect homogenizing an array of disparate parts for rhetorical convenience.Surely there’s a difference between the ubiquitous monster that is Facebook and the kid who designed it seven years ago, between the Facebook ads and the basic “friend” connections.If we attack Facebook for featuring ads and trying to sell us things, then we should extend this outrage to our email, which reminds us of the IKEA chair we once clicked on, and to numerous companies’ “If you liked this, try this” method of consumer coercion. Whatever else it might be guilty of, Facebook holds no monopoly on the world of advertising.

Smith notes that Facebook has tried to sell her her own books, which cozies up to her idea (and Franzen’s) that Facebook makes of us “falsely jolly, slickly disingenuous” self-promoters. While I have no interest in going after her Madrigal-style for being a literary celebrity, surely she would grant that any author without a built-in audience must use social media to promote her work.Even a bricks-and-mortar book tour is rooted in self-promotion and requires us to be falsely jolly on occasion and maybe even disingenuous. In the end, whether it’s art or a ShamWow, you’re still selling something.

“When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook,” Smith writes, “he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships.”I don’t see it that way, but perhaps that is because I believe that the breadth of what I post, my own writing, music, in-jokes, political and social interests, are pretty representative of me, if not wholly so. I don’t water myself down, and I don’t expect others to sanitize themselves for the sake of friendship. Through Facebook, I am connected to people with whom I had lost touch, and I now enjoy deeper relationships with them than I did before. I no longer wonder what happened to all the ghosts from my past, or who I was when I was with them.My Facebook persona is an unfinished history, a brief summary of intersections, continuous meetings of the mind and heart.

“If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out,” Smith writes. But that isn’t the aim. I’ve been de-friended by the fiercely political; my in-laws have lobbed Bible quotes at me in their best attempts to sand down my rough edges. When the fire burns down, go to my page – it’s still me.The “aim” of this experiment is no more nefarious than what we do when we strike up a conversation with someone we suspect might be a kindred spirit. Every relationship born of this spark might not prove substantial – in the same way that every real life conversation won’t result in BFFs – but I am grateful for each one that is. Each makes my life, and me, better.And yes, sometimes Facebook is what keeps a friendship alive, no matter how great the physical distance.

But Smith is quick to anticipate that thought: “The last defense of every Facebook addict is: but it helps me keep in contact with people who are far away! Well, e-mail and Skype do that, too, and they have the added advantage of not forcing you to interface with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg—but, well, you know. If we really wanted to write to these faraway people, or see them, we would. What we actually want to do is the bare minimum, just like any nineteen-year-old college boy who’d rather be doing something else, or nothing.”

I still write letters to a few friends, many of whom are also my Facebook friends between missives. But letters, email, and Skype don’t work with my non-English speaking relatives. You’d be surprised how easy it is to bond by seeing (and liking) photographs and links. When I like a picture of my Iranian cousins dancing, embracing their friends, I don’t think about interfacing with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg.I think how lucky I am to have contact with them, everyday, across a world that doesn’t always allow for connectedness. I approach Facebook as ecologist Madhusudan Katti does, “not to constrain my social interactions, but to winnow them in ways that allow more space for deeper conversations and connections to sprout where they may never have between friends caught up in separate busy lives.” I use it to supplement other forms of communication. And for those for whom Facebook communication is the bare minimum: Isn’t something better than nothing?

Why are we so worried about future generations, especially when each generation has had its doom spelled out by its forbears?Why are we so quick the ring the death knell?Most teenagers don’t even use Facebook.They’d rather text or use FourSquare to communicate, and faster than we can send a friend request to them, they’ll be using something use. Social media should be the least of our worries.

Hell, if you haven’t heard, soon we’ll all have computers in our eyes.

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Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus). Her work has appeared in over a dozen journals, including G.W. Review, Minnesota Review, Crab Orchard Review, Matador Travel, and The Millions. She’s currently at work on a collection of short stories and a second novel. You can visit her website at www.elizabetheslami.com

73 responses to “Love and Surrender in a 
Likeable World”

  1. Nathaniel Missildine says:

    Excellent essay. You balance the horrors and wonders of social media well and very thoroughly. I think you come close to the way I finally feel about Facebook when you say “My Facebook persona is an unfinished history, a brief summary of intersections, continuous meetings of the mind and heart.”

    As much as I might also see the narcissism and the loneliness, the still undeniable fact remains that Facebook for me, as for you, has sustained more friendships that otherwise would have simply fallen away with the passing years.

    Meanwhile, I expected this kind of harrumphing from Franzen, with his assumption that he’s got the rulebook and sole access, but I’m disappointed to hear Zadie Smith sounding so whiny about technology and the future. Hasn’t anyone informed these people that a digital lifestyle doesn’t have to be an all or nothing bargain?

    • Elizabeth says:

      “Hasn’t anyone informed these people that a digital lifestyle doesn’t have to be an all or nothing bargain?” Exactly. I love Smith, but she seems nearly hysterical towards the end of her essay, as if it really might be the end of the world as we know it. And I can’t understand that. Why, for instance, are both Franzen and Smith comfortable with having cell phones, with texting? Where’s the line here? Who makes the rules? I have trouble imagining either one living off the grid in a remote cabin in Alaska, after all. If they go to the dentist, if they travel by air, if they’re alive and in the world right now, they’re enmeshed in technology, some good, some bad, but mostly inescapable and largely helpful.

      Thanks, Nathaniel, as always, for reading and commenting.

  2. Very grounded, insightful piece. I have a friend with whom I discuss the social media issue all the time. He hates everything about it, but maintains an internet presence because he feels like he’ll be dead to the world as a writer if he doesn’t. I usually end up arguing for its perks (the biggest one being that he gets to hear about ME ME ME all the time). Heh. But I like the way you explore the pros and cons here, and I have to agree that it’s not the downfall of anything. Mostly because I’ll sound old and curmudgeony if I don’t.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Cynthia! I have to give Franzen credit for acknowledging that he too might sound curmudgeony in his piece. By the way, if your friend ever decides to forsake the world of social media, let me know how he fares. Personally, I agree with him, but I’d love to know if there are successful writers out there who happily abstain without losing part of their audience. Franzen and Smith don’t count. 🙂

  3. Art Edwards says:

    Great piece, Elizabeth. Very even-handed. You stay within yourself nicely while dealing with these biggies.

    Funny, and slightly off-topic, but I read *more* book-books because of the internet and Facebook. I simply wouldn’t know about these books otherwise. The web certainly hasn’t made me read any less.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Ooh, yay! I’m so glad you brought that up, Art. It was something I mentioned in an earlier draft but ultimately ended up cutting in my attempt to shave a few pages off this behemoth. More books and more books by smaller presses and debut authors. Certainly one of the bright spots of social media. Plus, a greater opportunity to write and share reviews through these venues now that the major newspapers review fewer (and often the same) books.

      • Art Edwards says:

        That’s the best part. I’m supporting debut and fledgling authors, small presses, indie bookstores, places like TNB, and being entertained in the process. Every book doesn’t fully crank my chimes, but most have something to offer, and worst case scenario little or no money goes to The Man. Sounds like the way to nurture a community to me, and it’s all possible because of the Net and its orderly little brother Facebook.

  4. Greg Olear says:

    Terrific, terrific piece.

    A few thoughts:

    1. I have FB, and your generous use of it, to thank for my teaching gig. That’s something quite valuable, seems to me.

    2. I seem to recall that photo of Franzen on the cover of TIME magazine, retouched almost as much as the poster for “Sex in the City II.” He should really shut the fuck up about vanity.

    3. You hit on this, too, but having a wealthy literary bigwig like Franzen tell a writer struggling to find his audience that FB is somehow nefarious — as if technology can be inherently bad! — is sort of like the billionaire hedgefund manager complaining that people could get out of debt if they just saved more.

    4. Birding? Really?

    5. I think it’s healthy to take a break from FB and social media from time to time, just as it’s healthy to take a vacation from work. But railing against social media, at this point, is like railing against the electric light. It’s here to stay.

    • Elizabeth says:

      1. Thank you, but you have your writing, your teaching skills, and your badass cigar smoker’s cache to thank for your teaching gig. I was just the messenger.

      2. I may have ruptured my spleen laughing at this. Am now picturing Franzen in SATC III, as Carrie’s celebrity writer boyfriend. They will fight over the bathroom mirror while comparing their fluffy coiffure.

      3. Yep.

      4. I really would respect the birding thing if he was, you know, shadowing biologists and taking blood samples and whatnot. As opposed to measuring his own heart-love-flow samples.

      Okay, that was just mean.

      5. Agreed. Hey, wait a minute. Weren’t you supposed to be taking a break from social media, Greg Olear?

      • Greg Olear says:

        It’s like taking a break from electric light. The nights are very dark otherwise, especially when you have a long bear of a freelance assignment due…

        • James D. Irwin says:

          facebook is horrifically addictive. I’m ridiculously proud of not just quitting, but staying off.

        • Elizabeth says:

          James, you are the few, the proud, the strong. I can’t even limit myself to checking the damn thing on weekends. You have some serious willpower.

  5. John Holley says:

    Nice essay, well thought out and expressed. As were Franzen’s and Smith’s, though if choosing who carved nearest ‘absolute truth’ I’d give you the nod. And really, their’s felt uncomfortably like my father’s tirades four decades ago concerning my haircut and musical tastes, as well as my mirrored opinions of his. Like the argument between my father and I, the very limitations of the differences available to our perceptions will be seem remarkably quaint down the street a piece. Better or worse today? I’d say worse, or maybe I just know more about the world. But I’m certain the music and our coiffure weren’t the ‘why’, simply a symptom. We’re fish in strange waters, adapting independently but changing as a school, and the implications on the aquatic whole are unpredictable. That cultural change will occur with the technology is inevitable, good or bad depends on which flounder ends up eating well and it’s access to a podium. Heck, even what the podium will look like. When I get warm & fuzzy over the people I’ve reconnected to on FB it’s rooted in the way I knew them, real world. There’s another generation that sees them far differently than that, has friends for whom ‘real world’ reflects the FB friend, and I can’t get what they feel. I do fear Neil Postman’s take on things may well be the correct one, though I hope not.

    “When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.” ~Neil Postman

    Best, John

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting, John. “We’re fish in strange waters, adapting independently but changing as a school, and the implications on the aquatic whole are unpredictable.” I like that. And you know, unpredictable is okay. Unpredictable is not “doomed.” Honestly, I don’t think the greatest writers among us – Franzen and Smith included – can even imagine what that ocean is going to look like. But in the meantime, I’m just going to keep swimming and be grateful for a few pleasant fish with whom to share the tank.

      What else can we do, right?

      • John Holley says:

        What else, indeed. Perhaps the only universal is failure when predicting assorted doomsdays, though it must be a pleasant pursuit as the sky’s been falling a long long time. As another Montanan taught me, it’s only a journey if it’s unpredictable and peopled with friends you do not know, yet, and if it’s not a journey why bother. That from a Sovietologist/occasional novelist who washed up quite happily on the shores of Flathead. I do wish he’d find his way to FB. I’m good with unpredictable, and am pretty okay with FB, and whatever comes next.

  6. admin says:


  7. Beth Hoffman says:

    This is a fabulous essay, Liz. And in three words –YOU NAILED IT.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Beth, you’re just the kind of true friend (and great writer) I might never have known without Twitter and Facebook. That’s why I don’t have to work hard to defend social media. I just think of you and your words.

  8. J.M. Blaine says:

    When I saw this
    title I knew it would be
    good & it was…

    Also: you have a lovely neck.

    Oh, don’t tell me.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Funny you should say that. It’s actually Franzen’s neck, painstakingly merged with my head by a team of tireless, techno-savvy towhees at Industrial Light & Magic. Damn, they’re good.

  9. nicole says:

    Great essay; I agree with almost all your points, and the ones I disagree with are only because of my own generally disappointing Facebook experience. I don’t personally feel like I get a lot out of the site, but I have zero motivation to pass a value judgment on others’ use—I just don’t find it fun. But I started re-analyzing why that might be, at least in part, when I got to this line:

    I don’t water myself down, and I don’t expect others to sanitize themselves for the sake of friendship.

    The fact that Facebook (and most other social media) relationships are totally “flat” seems to put a strain on friendship for this very reason. As Franzen says, “There is no such thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.” My boyfriend lives with me, and I accept his real self for hours every day because I love 99.99% of him. My best friend lives across the country, and I accept her real self for significantly less, but still a lot of time, because I love 75% of her, and for the most part we don’t really interact around the things we don’t like about each other. A friend I have from blogging, say, I interact with only around a specific set of interests that we have in common, but I never talk to her about politics or religion because it would be unpleasant and unproductive, and because that’s just not the kind of relationship we have.

    But on Facebook, I still see those posts. Yes, you can control your outgoing privacy, but you can’t say, “I only want to see Lindsay’s posts about fashion, and never the ones bragging about her new baby.” Our interests and commonalities are not compartmentalized, it is all or nothing. I find it can make me dislike people more—if I have to choose all or nothing, and you’re coming in below 50%, I’m going to unfriend you for that next baby post, and I will be annoying with you for encroaching on the boundaries we set for our relationship. There are only a very few people I want to share a significant chunk of my life with. Who can put up with more?

    Now, I’m not at all saying this is a flaw of Facebook rather than myself. But I do feel that on some level we need these social boundaries. Or again, maybe just I do. But I do!

    • Elizabeth says:

      You make a fascinating point about the need for social boundaries that I hadn’t considered. This kind of over-stimulation — too much of and about our friends — is why I don’t see Facebook relationships as “flat,” unless I’m misunderstanding what you mean by that word. You’re right that Facebook bombards us with details about our friends that we might like to ignore (or even tell ourselves aren’t present), which often leads to strife and is probably why they’ll never integrate the dislike button. (I can, on the other hand, see something down the line like what you’re talking about, some setting that allows us to hide all baby pictures or political comments in order to keep the peace.)

      I guess where I part company with you is that it seems to me there’s no way to ignore these differences in real life either. Especially in real life. You might avoid talking politics with some friends, but you know perfectly well where they stand about those issues or you wouldn’t be avoiding the subject. And maybe it’s just my experience, but those little differences always bubble to the surface somehow, in what people say and the stories they tell. I just don’t know that you can get away from it.

      That said, I completely get how Facebook holds a magnifying glass up to those differences, forces you regularly to confront them. On a good day, maybe you tell yourself it’s a matter of being honest about who you (and they) are. The rest of the time, it’s just plain annoying.

      Anyway, thanks so much for the great comment.

      • nicole says:

        By “flat” I meant that all friendships on Facebook are equal. They are making some steps to change that, and there are ways to group friends for privacy purposes, but for most practical purposes, there is not really a hierarchy of friendships.

        I do think you’re right about real life, but the magnifying glass is what always strikes me. You could almost use this to turn Franzen’s point on its head: in fact, you have to do a lot more work to love your Facebook friends.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Thanks for clearing that up. That grouping thing, should it end up becoming a hierarchy (and it would seem to lend itself to that) feels disingenuous somehow, that we would cherry-pick certain friends and keep up with their news while jettisoning the rest. I guess in a way we can do that now with the “hiding” option, but it seems grouping might take it to a whole new level. Like a “genetic engineering” version of friendship. I hope FB doesn’t go there. I mean, sure, my super religious in-laws bug the hell out of me, but I feel like I’m cheating if I make them “disappear.” I feel like a bad or lazy friend (or that I’m getting too insular) not to do the work of keeping their lunacy in my newsfeed. Maybe I’m just masochistic.

    • Gloria says:

      Beautifully said, Nicole. I really enjoyed reading this response.

  10. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    I really enjoyed this, Elizabeth. And I must say I share your lack of enthusiasm about Facebook antagonism. I’m not one to hop on the *kids today* bandwagon. People are human, that much doesn’t really change.

    My Facebook page has virtually nothing to do with my reality and I probably grand total about 10 minutes a week on there at this point, deleting alien wall posts. But it is certainly a useful network for keeping up with people from TNB and other writers and friends who are far away. I don’t have time for Skype and posting the occasional picture on Facebook that friends can visit at their leisure is honestly quicker than dealing with more email. Besides, serendipity doesn’t discriminate. I made some interesting artistic connections via Myspace a million years ago, and those personal relationships survived though my profile did not. Actually, I was blogging – profiling musicians for an independent music download website called Amie Street (which has since been absorbed by Amazon) – and if anything, the communication and collaboration made possible by that website and Myspace (which is really the original Facebook) was diversifying the public. It only made people more likely to go out into the real world to hear live music that wasn’t one of the five songs being played on the radio that day.

    My Mom has not maintained the number of friendships I’ve maintained from childhood and adolescence for one simple reason: Until recently, keeping in touch with people was too time-consuming. When you can communicate at the speed of thought, it’s a pretty nice edge. It only takes me twenty seconds to let somebody I haven’t seen in six years know I love her. People who really and truly know and love each other can communicate quite a lot with very little. So no, it’s not true that if I really cared I’d be there or I’d sit down and write an intimate, detailed letter. That theory is so impossible it’s stupid.

    I’m going to shut up now. You’ve said it all so well.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, Lisa! “It only takes me twenty seconds to let somebody I haven’t seen in six years know I love her.” So true. I’d also add that Facebook, for all its faults and limitations, also allows you to know someone you haven’t seen in six years. Who they are at this moment, who they’ve become. Not the only way to know that person, of course, and probably not the best way. But we do evolve and change, and Facebook is a record of that, of all that you’ve missed about that person over the years. “A pretty nice edge,” as you say.

  11. Johannes Manjrekar says:

    Very balanced, good piece. We live with so much technology in the interstices of unease and convenience.

  12. Becky Palapala says:

    My thing with Facebook, the thing that I’ve considered trying to parse for a TNB piece, is that the extremely detailed–however compressed–picture facebook can paint just isn’t meant to be in human social interaction or at least not in all relationships. There are things (that is, namely the scopey everything facebook offers) that I am just not meant to know about certain people nor they about me.

    I suppose it depends on who your facebook friends are.

    Maybe if your facebook friends are people with whom you are genuinely close and in whom you have some real vested interest (and who have some interest in you), that kind of intimacy may be fine (though I admit that thanks to facebook, I continue to discover things, even about close friends and family, that I just really didn’t need or want to know and that they would never reveal to my face, and presumably, they could say the same about me. I find myself overexposed to and sick of people I haven’t even seen face-to-face in months). It is truly not always better to know more about a person.

    But, for sake of something like “networking,” for sake of promotion, for sake of not wanting to offend old and new acquaintances, I’m “friends” with countless individuals to whom I have no particular connection beyond my friends list.

    And, contrary to the human social mechanism (social intelligence, maybe) in which we manage our vulnerability, our language, our inhibitions and overall behavior based on context and our specific relationships to those around us, facebook does indeed force us, to some extent, to treat all individual relationships in our virtual constituency in an overwhelmingly generic way. To either behave to the most bland and inoffensive common denominator or to risk ranting into our bosses’ faces about politics. One’s best friend, mother-in-law, boss, and perfect and relative strangers will all, unless one takes meticulous pains to prevent it, see the same (and yet still not necessarily “true” or genuine) picture of a given individual and his/her life. This is just as capable of preventing increased amity and intimacy (or destroying them) as it is of creating them.

    This comes really close to–but not quite–echoing some of Smith’s sentiments. I just can’t help but notice that a lot of people seem to respond to this crisis of social image/”public self” management by maintaining a facebook presence–a page and the very occasional comment or post–but not actually using it to do much. They don’t really interact, they don’t post all that much, they’re just kind of there. These lifeless profiles. Social withdrawal caused by social networking. Censored, stiff, and uncomfortable in the same way one might be if their drinking buddy, boss, mother-in-law, and long-lost cousin all came to stay with him/her for the same weekend.

    It’s my experience that people adopt this position after suffering the stress of trying to cram their lives and ideas and emotions into a universally inoffensive virtual package or the consequences of failing to do so. Facebook becomes stifling rather than liberating for no reason other than the sheer number of eyeballs. Maybe I have too much to hide or am too desirous to control others’ impressions of me, but I can’t think I’m totally alone in this. It seems like a normal reaction to having an audience. Sort of a small-scale kind of celebrity where you are your own paparazzi and PR guy and you never who’s looking at any given moment.

    Phew. Novel. Guess I don’t need to write that TNB piece now!

    • Becky Palapala says:

      Now I see Nicole’s response above.

      Similar thing.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Well done. This should totally be a TNB post. 🙂

      I guess for me the stifling/liberating issue with having a Facebook audience is no different from having a TNB audience. Your articles reveal something about you, and you face the same quandary of whether or not to try to write something “universally inoffensive,” whether to hide or try to control others’ impressions of you. (Which would lead to certain disaster, I’d think. And paralysis.) Publishing anything requires us to have a public self and forces us to grapple with all those messy areas of personal comfort. Having an Internet persona doesn’t seem that different from having a writerly persona.

      I don’t feel forced by Facebook to do anything or interact a certain way with my friends because I’m in control of it. That said, you know, it’s just a tool. If it’s causing anyone stress, they should abandon it, I would say. And thankfully, it’s not the only tool for self-expression. I’m of the school that we should use it to the extent we’re comfortable with it, and use other forms of social media and blogs when we’re not.

      • Becky Palapala says:

        Well, I would counter that by saying that there is some amount of distance–or expectation of distance–built into the writer/reader relationship that does not exist on facebook.

        While sites like TNB challenge that to some degree, total accessibility and egalitarian discourse between reader and writer just doesn’t quite exist, in part because reader/writer relationships, culturally, are formalized, institutionalized things. Individuals classify writing as art, self-expression, etc.–nothing that is to be taken personally by individual observers. A facebook post is seen as a group discussion, but a much more personal/intimate one that is not open to the public but is rather exclusive in that it is among “friends,” no matter how large and loosely-defined that group may be.

        It is rare for people to expect that writers, in the course of going about their writerly business, should try not to rock the boat and remain as agreeable, friendly, positive, and inoffensive as possible. Often, the opposite is encouraged. But on facebook, I’ve seen people insist that it is rude or invasive or inappropriate to eject passionate political opinions or any kind of angry or negative or unpleasant speech onto others’ facebook feeds by way of links & status updates, or to otherwise create discomfort or disharmony in the overall social networking sphere. Even where people do not say it, there is, among a lot of people, an expectation that facebook should be angst and controversy and confrontation-free. I don’t think people have the same expectation of more formal types of writing and opinion-sharing.

        What’s most interesting is when those two relationships begin to tangle up, which is in large part what I’m talking about. People get offended if you’re not friendly enough on facebook–if, despite a facebook friendship, you try to maintain the essentially aloof or intentionally distant reader/writer dynamic, or if you do not treat them with the same kind of personal interest or concern you would treat a “real” friend. There is some convolution of understanding caused by the somewhat heightened personal access facebook grants.

        I quit sending friend requests to TNB people, whether readers or other writers, a looooong time ago for this very reason. Should a person find themselves friends with me and not like what they discover, I don’t find myself in a position to be accused of luring them in just to disappoint or offend them. They friended me, they can unfriend me. I remain entirely passive in the process. My hands are clean.

        • Elizabeth says:

          Er, I guess I shouldn’t send you a friend request then? 😉

        • Becky Palapala says:

          No no! That’s the beauty of it!

          By all means, send me a friend request. But if you do and decide you don’t like me, I have no part in the blame: I don’t actively invite anyone I don’t know reasonably well into a potentially offensive or disappointing situation by sending them friend requests.

          That doesn’t mean I won’t be friends with or even that I don’t want to be friends with people I don’t know reasonably well.

          It just means that in the confusion created by all these shades of personal and public exposure, I prefer to relinquish much of the responsibility for choosing who is watching. Like, it helps to replicate, maybe, the reader/writer relationship if those in my facebook constituency who I don’t know very well (or at all) just sort of come and go on their own volition. I feel more free to do/say whatever I please, less obligated to censor myself or be super fascinating, and able to let them be, kind of, what they (in large part) are: Voyeurs.

  13. Becky Sain says:

    This is, of course, brilliant. I can’t wait to share it on… err, well — let’s just say a few social media sites.

  14. zoe zolbrod says:

    Wonderfully written piece.

  15. Your essay gets social media just right. The idea of a vanity mirror hasn’t held up since the early days of social media, and we’re long past that now. I have been able to console friends, rally to causes, and meet more old friends in real life because of Facebook, Twitter and blogging.

    I’m an artist, and I hadn’t sold a commission in years before blogging came about. And now I have more comments and critiques about my painting on my Facebook wall than I do on the blog. It’s a wonderfully elastic media that doesn’t replace the real world, it connects it.

    “When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook,” Smith writes, “he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character,” Smith says. Yes, and the same happens when a writer’s bio appears on the back flap.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thank you, Glendon! I’ve had a similar experience to yours in terms of people finding my novel because of Facebook and Twitter. It doesn’t feel cheap to me in the way that Smith suggests because I’m really just using Twitter and FB to distribute my essays and stories, which hopefully will lead people to the book. As it is with your art, the work is still selling itself, which I think is pretty amazing in a time where huge numbers of artists and authors are competing for attention and not finding it in traditional outlets. Social media, as you say, is simply what connects that work with an audience.

      And I couldn’t agree more about the author’s bio. We’re also reduced by the way publishers market our books, by the way some bookstores sell them (chick lit, etc), and sometimes by blurbs and soundbites. How do you escape that? If Smith and Franzen have, good for them, but I would imagine even they are always sacrificing something of themselves.

  16. Erin Denver says:

    This was outstanding. I particularly liked the first bit about how you consider yourself better in written form. I feel that it’s much eaiser to be likable, funny, articulate in a few edited paragraphs than it is in reality where awkward interaction, etc. creeps in. To Facebook, I hate self promoting on there and yet, self promoting on there seems like a must have. I love Jonathan Frantzen, but I agree with Greg Olear that it’s easy to take that position when you have already made it.

    Great essay. Very thought provoking.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks so much, Erin. You know, I have yet to meet anyone who feels completely comfortable with self-promotion, on Facebook or elsewhere. Someone — maybe Randy Susan Meyers? — just wrote a great piece about authors grappling with self-promotion on HuffPo, I think. Anyway, thanks so much for reading and commenting. And welcome to TNB!

  17. Uche Ogbuji says:

    This is a truly excellent post Elizabeth; it’s rare that I find someone who doesn’t try to drape some caricature of humanity over some dumb technology. Maybe it’s because I work in tech, and have been involved in online networks since BBSes and the gizmos and hacks and pranks with which we computer engineering would engage virtually over the X-Windows sessions of our DEC OSF/1 lab network. I’ve rarely seen a manifestation of any such communication technology that wasn’t just an extension of human fingertips. Then such networks become mainstream and all of a sudden every pundit is finding that diabolus does indeed reside in machina (That “a ha!” has been echoing tediously through the millennia, hasn’t it), resulting in some over-publicized frenzy to save us all from ourselves. I generally ignore all that, which is why I haven’t read say the Franzen or Smith essays, but what does interest me is the thoughtful pondering of an individual about how such networks intersect and affect all other aspects of their life. And that’s what you offer. You’re not trying to be a priestess of culture, and your observations are clearer for that reason. Despite the frenzied pundits, a life on the network has not reduced my appreciation for the individual.

    But since we all need our savants, I always like to redirect people from the likes of Franzen and Smith to sober alternatives, people who analyze such technology with rigor and insight but without the priestly or psychiatric touch. At the pinnacle is probably the late, great John Postel. His work is very technical, but for anyone who wants to understand the nature of computer networks in context of human society, from the old ARPA e-mail trees of the 70s to Facebook, Postel’s is the direction in which one must venture. For a contemporary touch and a gentler up-ramp (at least in her blogging), it’s hard to beat danah boyd. I’d be curious if other TNBers have anyone else to nominate to such a list.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Yay! I’ve been anxiously awaiting your thoughts on this piece — particularly because of your tech expertise — and I’m relieved that you approved of it. The truth of the matter is that I consider myself woefully ignorant when it comes to technology. I have a Tracfone for chrissakes. I’m so woefully ignorant that your sentence “I… have been involved in online networks since BBSes and the gizmos and hacks and pranks with which we computer engineering would engage virtually over the X-Windows sessions of our DEC OSF/1 lab network” reads like a foreign language to me, as did Smith’s digression about Jaron Lanier.

      Though I don’t know much about technology, the perpetual freak-out by pundits about the music, films, and now online presence of future generations is familiar territory — and worth addressing, I think, without the “priestly or psychiatric touch,” as you so nicely put it. If you do end up reading any of these essays — I think you might like Madrigal’s, by the way — I’d be very interested to know your take. In the meantime, thanks so much for the recommendations of Postel and Boyd. I will seek them out.

  18. Dana says:

    Well done Elizabeth!
    I scanned Franzen’s piece (and frankly haven’t read any of his work) but sheeeeit! I gather he’s indicating that he can’t love birds AND use facebook? That’s just plain dumb, and I’ve got the binoculars to prove it. :p His problem with “liking” is vexing. Is his assertion that if I click that I like the tv show Dexter and California rolls I’m diminishing my love for other things? Bah. He IS curmudgeonly. And honestly, neither one of those things has a thing to do with my narcissism.

    I’ve recently read a few status updates, posts, newspaper articles and rants that say that so many use facebook to “brag” about their perfect lives, and I just have to roll my eyes. Really? Am I that much more discriminating in my choice of “friends”? I see a lot more whining than bragging from my friends. Bitching about everything from traffic, working long hours, to being lonely.

    If someone shares a photo of a new baby or a new puppy, that’s supposed to make me feel bad because I don’t have a new baby or a new puppy? Apparently, I’m supposed to feel inferior about my imperfect life because Sharon from San Francisco is living the dream.

    The technology is here. It’s not to blame. Really.


    • Elizabeth says:

      Sweet Jesus. Poor “Facebook” is going to get her ass kicked.

      Hilarious — I love the idea that you’d have to choose between liking Dexter/California rolls or truly loving something. We have a Navy Seal team that can climb from a helicopter in the pitch dark with a dog strapped to someone’s back and take out bin Laden, but we can’t “like” Facebook and love IRL.

      Good grief.

  19. Angela says:

    Insightful and intelligent essay. It’s easy to dismiss Facebook as merely and purely evil, and in some ways it is (the whole selling personal data thing), but I agree it’s a necessary evil for promoting one’s work, and actually the only way I’m able to stay in touch with people around the world. Smith asserts there’s email and Skype and all that, but I for one am lazy. It’s easier to go to one place and check on all my friends at once.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks, Angela. I found it a little ridiculous that Smith points to our laziness with such relish. We’re all lazy, for one thing, even Zadie Smith. (She’s got to be lazy about something, right?) And who is to say that it’s not simply convenience, as opposed to laziness.

      Anyway, I found your book through Facebook, so as far as I’m concerned, it’s all good. 🙂

  20. I was so glad to find this piece on here. The Franzen article really unnerved me but I’ve been reluctant to say anything, as so many of his criticisms were insightful and articulate, and defending Facebook seemed a pretty daunting and thankless task.

    The thing that irks me is that it’s so easy to criticize young people for their social media and smart-phones, and almost completely useless. I teach college students, and they are so sick of being judged as nothing more than accessories for the gadgets that we built for and sell to them. Franzen’s criticisms will have about as much impact as calling their music noise or their dress inappropriate.

    The man who’s been posited as the standard-bearer for American letters has nothing loftier in mind than this kind of low-hanging fruit? Frankly, I don’t think his essay serves any greater purpose than galvanizing other curmudgeons in their distaste for something they find unseemly. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that those at the top should defend top-down media.

    The funny thing is, Facebook is doing so well precisely because it’s LESS narcissistic and self-aggrandizing than its predecessors. I’m not sure that it will last, in fact I hope it will give way to a platform that’s run more scrupulously, but social media certainly will. To fight against is a losing, and not terribly noble, battle.

    Thanks so much for this Elizabeth!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment, Tyler. It’s true that Franzen’s criticisms — and Smith’s and Madrigal’s — are insightful and articulate. And that needs to be said since I spend the majority of my essay poking (forgive the FB pun) them. They are certainly far more insightful and articulate than I am, though I disagree with how far they push their arguments. (By the way, it also feels incredibly weird to defend Facebook.)

      I’m glad you bring up your college students, and I wonder what they would make of these essays. I wonder too what they’ll create to replace Facebook, and how soon that will happen. It’s pretty fascinating to imagine that what so many millions embrace and so many curmudgeons dismiss as mindless vanity is going to be revised and eventually abandoned by those students as they adopt new forms of social media. I don’t know, maybe I’m an optimist for just this moment, but I trust them to get it right.

  21. dwoz says:

    I have a very huge and long-winded diatribe on this subject, for many reasons including that I am involved in writing software for applications that do face-booky thinks.

    But I’ll try to distill it down into one core thought.

    First, my thinking agrees with your thinking, Elizabeth. I know that’s a huge relief to you, now you can unclench your teeth, let your neck muscles relax, possibly be able to eat a morsel and keep it down, and sleep a good sleep tonight.

    To the point that Uche offers here in the comments…about how we’ve been playing with computer network fire since before Kernighan and Ritchie had stopped noticing girls and found love in a slide rule. (that’s a cred-drop of embarrassing proportion) And as he notes, the hand-wringing all just a bunch of twaddle. We are who we are, an we will still be that if we’re communicating via firesmoke patterns, morse code, clay tablets, mud pit wrestling or evangelical church-going (sorry, redundant), telephone, video phone, facebook, twitter, or direct mind meld.

    First, the networks are becoming “more powerful.” That means that pound-for-pound, they can shovel more coal through. The information density that can be conveyed is passing an interesting threshold. This first detail allows the network to “disappear” and cease being a limiting factor in what we can do.

    Secondly, because of various limitations, we have up till now, and including now, used computer tools and techniques (applications like facebook, email) that are designed more around the constraints of the technology, rather than the constraints of our imagination.

    Facebook’s main “fail” from what I can see, is not that it enables virtual communication over personal communication…but that it does it so poorly.

    Designing a computer application is like playing tinker toys. You have these objects, and you can connect them up in certain ways…or like a chessboard…you have these objects, and you make up rules around how they can move from square to square.

    It’s in “those rules” that the problem lies. Facebook is like a chessboard in which the rules of the game are basically stupid or stupidly basic, and don’t result in a strategic game.

    When you build a computer application like facebook, you gather a set of objects (like wall posts, photos, “like” buttons, “friends”, etc. and you then decide how the user can interact with those objects. You have to make a conscious decision, as a programmer, how much you let your user make decisions about those objects, and how much you make the decisions for them.

    It’s in those decisions that the flow, utility, and usability are enabled or not, or worse, DISTORTED.

    Programmers all too often make very stringent decisions about what the user can do, and when the user can do it, and those decisions end up mapping very poorly to what users would actually do if they could do anything at all. In other words, the programmers don’t just fail to allow you to do what you’d like to do, but they make you behave in ways that you otherwise would never consider.

    This is good for an application like bank software that moves money between banks. You want very stringent rules about who can move how much money, and when. But for social networking, you want the system to be as completely clear of prior constraints and “rules” as practically allowed by the underlying technology.

    We haven’t yet seen that kind of software.

    but, soon.

  22. Elizabeth says:

    “We are who we are, an we will still be that if we’re communicating via firesmoke patterns, morse code, clay tablets, mud pit wrestling or evangelical church-going (sorry, redundant), telephone, video phone, facebook, twitter, or direct mind meld.” Amen to that.

  23. As has been said numerous times here in the comments… what a fabulous, fabulous essay. While it is easy to blame social media for our lack of “bird-awareness” and our increasing attention to erasing photographic evidence of our double chins, it is ridiculous to ignore the benefits of technological advances.
    Last evening, as I took a picture with my phone of a bunch of flowers my sister-in-law had sent to my parents and then sent her said picture and had a response from her in under a minute, my 81 year old father sat at the table shaking his head at the wonder of what had just occurred.
    He said, “Remember the days when you took a trip and you had a camera full of film you couldn’t wait to develop? Part of the excitement of your return home was the anticipation of those photos. Today, you can see a photo as you take it, erase the bloopers and take it again so everything is perfect.”
    He lifted up my phone and read the text from my sister-in-law. “That was amazing then and this is amazing now.”
    I have to agree with him. If my 81 year old father can go with it and see it for what it is — why so much endless discussion and examination? If the Internet has become your social replacement then get off it. Revel in the now. Accept, as Mr. Olear so eloquently put it, the creation of electricity. You just might not want to stare directly into the light.

  24. Marni Grossman says:


    I’m not on TNB much anymore as grad school has eaten my life. This is a shame. I miss everyone. And I miss out on a lot of great writing.

    That’s why it’s been so wonderful to get Brad’s e-mails, alerting me to all the news. Otherwise, I’d never have seen this brilliant essay.

    I read the Zadie Smith piece and it made me uneasy. But because I am easily swayed, I quickly granted her premise. Your piece, however, is the more reasoned argument. It’s also beautifully written.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks so much for reading, Marni, and for the incredibly high praise. I hope grad school is treating you well. You’re certainly missed around here.

  25. Zara Potts says:

    Excellent piece, Elizabeth.
    Just totally excellent.
    I’m going to post it on FB now!

  26. Erika Rae says:

    Wow – this was just excellent. Well done piece. And hey – I know at least one gay friend who came out on FB!

  27. Agree about photos. Always been doctored. Studied history of how photography was misused during the Civil War. I work for the news. I see it happen today. I do it to a degree to promote all kinds of articles. CNN was doing it hardcore today or yesterday with images of Hollywood, purposely posting a cool old ’30s photo next to a piece of crap Hollyweird photo that looked like it was taken with a 2006 cell phone. How dare they!

    I get facebook. I get social media. The problem is in over analyzing a quickly changing technology the masses gravitated to, that the media bent to its aims, and which will change tomorrow anyway. Academia will beat themselves up trying to understand its simple connection to hearts and minds. It’s Coca Cola. It’s a hamburger. It’s electricity. It’s here.

    I get it. I just wish my ex-girlfriend’s face would quit staring at me.

    Thanks for the awesome thought piece.

    • Elizabeth says:

      I know someone who won’t get on Facebook because he’s afraid of being friended (and I suppose stalked, harassed, and/or chastised) by all his ex-girlfriends.

      Meanwhile, congrats on knocking this piece off the top spot of TNB’s most read. I couldn’t have been bested by a better writer or a nicer guy. The kind of guy who won’t even “hide” his ex-girlfriend on Facebook.

      • You’re super kind as always.

        I know people afraid of Facebook too. Sure, I disappeared for a while last year. But what the heck. We only live once. Can’t be afraid of the crappydoodles in our lives. Just move on. Make the best of everything. Rebuild. Reconnect. Connect.

        I’m only currently besting you because I probably beg people a lot more for comments via Twitter, Facebook, yahoogroups, phone calls, guilty notes, etc.

        Never hesitate to let me know when you post something new. Or just post a link on my page. I never mind.

  28. Wow, great piece. Glad for the Franzen counter-stuff, as I was admittedly pretty moved by his words when I read them weeks back. Still am, though you make some valid and provocative points.

    Really feelin’ this, among many of your other angles: “All too often in our obsession with animals, we’re really projecting ourselves on a creature that would be better off if we didn’t exist.”

    Project, project, project: we’re so damn GOOD at this, every step of the way!

    • Elizabeth says:

      Thanks! I was really moved by Franzen’s piece too, by the way, despite my jabs. (Even more so by a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace that’s floating around somewhere on the interwebs.) I’m glad you mentioned the line about the animals. I almost cut it, thinking it was a bit of a tangent. It’s the kind of thing I’d like to develop into its own piece.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting. 🙂

      • kristen says:

        Oh god, that Wallace piece is phenomenal. I make a point of reading it at least monthly–just such wisdom and truth and day-to-day application.

        Glad you didn’t cut the animal bit, and I sincerely hope you expand on it down the road. Sorta calls to mind the thoughtful discussion that took place here a while back: http://www.theatlantic.com/life/archive/2011/01/meat-sometimes-sustainable-never-okay/68524/. Piece that struck me most: humans have no right to impose their own human-initiated/human-relevant values and morals on the animal kingdom–a realm that Darwin himself struggled w/, for its inherent brutality. Anyway, that’s a tangent, and I’ve had a few glasses of wine, so I’ll stop now, but again–a lovely post, and I look forward to reading more of your work.

  29. Kip Tobin says:

    Hello Elizabeth,

    I have been buried in grad school for the past year and thus have not really followed much of this debate regarding social media in contemporary life, so this piece was something of a primer to me.

    From the beginning, I have a hard time accepting any one’s full embrace or rejection of anything. (This is my approach to literary theory, because all the big literary theorists bring something to the table.) I think that all of the arguments presented in this piece have some validity but none possess total truth. I’ve maintained for sometime that it (social media) is neither wholly good nor bad; there are simply positive and negative aspects to its existence, many of these points you, Franzen or Smith have touched upon in your essay.

    One aspect that I have not seen much discussion over is the democratization effect caused by the internet’s existence. It is either both negative and positive or neither negative and positive and just has multiple effects, both direct and indirect.

    I personally see it as partly negative in that previous media and therefore traditions are being annihilated into digital oblivion/permanence. Newspapers, recorded music, books — all of it is being rendered virtual and intangible, and news is disseminated through multiple, disparate channels. Long gone are the days where people sat around watching news together. It is now an individual person-to-screen event that takes place at any time, anywhere. It’s positive in that now readers/consumers can fully interact with the media/each other. Readers are also writers (which in itself is two-sided), and writers can now dialogue almost instantly with their readers. I mean, this is indeed awesome. No more waiting for letters to arrive.

    This, of course, has some sort of net effect upon society that has yet to be fully realized or qualified and is still being worked out in various forums, this most certainly one of them. By this I mean that everyone is definitely writing/producing words and fewer and fewer people seem to be listening. It’s as if hundreds of millions of people are shouting into the vacuous din of cyberspace, and they’re doing it so loudly that they mostly hear their own echo. This is positive in that no longer is the media in the hands of just a few conglomerates, but it’s also negative in that everyone is now competing with everyone else to be noticed/heard/listened to.

    I see social media as a small part of a much larger whole that is and has been evolving since the mid 20th century.

    Congrats on a well-considered piece.


  30. Elizabeth says:

    Thanks for the terrific comment. I agree with you that the truth is somewhere in the middle, and I hope my essay didn’t come off as too slanted in favor of technology. You run the risk of that, I guess, when trying to counter an opposing view that is decidedly fearful about it.

    I don’t quite believe, however, that fewer people are listening to all these raised voices. If we are all competing to be heard, maybe that means we will just have to be more thoughtful about what is it we want to say. And that, I’d argue, can only be positive.

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