As is the gift or the curse of any academic, our every action, no matter how seemingly quotidian, eventually calls for reflection. Lately, for me, like many others, I have been thinking a great deal about Facebook and other social media. The stirrings of my meditation have been whipped into a frenzy by a recent rash of news articles by various authors as well as a TED talk by Sherry Turkle, “Connected, but alone?”, investigating an emerging fear that social media is contributing to an ironic rise in feelings of disconnection and loneliness.
The argument centers on a conundrum. We feel isolated, so we are attracted to the hundreds of connections on Facebook (or your network of choice) in order to reach out, only to be disappointed when the casual relationships that abound there don’t react in a more meaningful way simply because we have mutually agreed to inhabit the same virtual space together. The act of “friending” (a deceptive choice of wording, in my opinion) seems to imply a contract of caring on a deeper level, but the reality is far from satisfying. We want more complexity, yet we turn to mechanisms that promise to make relationships, even supposedly close ones, as easy as a click of the “like” button. Of course, this perspective is only one potential consequence, and it willfully and gleefully ignores the positive types of relationships social networks can create. Still, the emotional impact of such wide-spread phenomena should be considered – on both a cultural and an individual level – if for no other reason than because the thought exercise is intriguing.
About a month ago in the midst of my musing, I read Stephen Marche’s article in The Atlantic, “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” While it gave me more to think about concerning the above, it added another angle that had not occurred to me: the connection of social networking to the American representation of isolation. Marche writes, “the one common feature in American secular culture is its celebration of the self that breaks away from the constrictions of the family and the state, and, in its greatest expressions, from all limits entirely.” He provides examples from history and literature. The Pilgrims, the cowboy, the astronaut. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. It’s a romantic notion. The ultimate American is the man or woman who needs no one, who forges into the West or into space sustained only by the human spirit. It’s a choice that requires sacrifice; as Marche continues, the “price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness. But Americans have always been willing to pay that price.” Heading out to sea or into the wilderness to found new land meant leaving behind roots and family traditions. It is true that the accounts of the people who went West are riddled with laments of loneliness, although such emotions didn’t slow the waves of migration.
In comparing this American “lonesomeness of the proudly nonconformist, independent-minded, solitary stoic” with the type of isolation that may be forming as a result of social networking, Marche finds them to be very (and disturbingly) different. The main point of departure he cites is Facebook’s demand for constant performance, its “relentlessness” and its appeal to our vanity. When I first read his statements, I nodded in agreement and felt a sense of helpless outrage that the noble solitude of the proud American is being transformed into a staged, never-ending marionette show. Then the part of my brain that tells my students to question everything they read kicked in. Four points in particular come to mind:
· First and foremost, we should ask: how much of the image of the “solitary American” is, if we remove the negative connotation, a performance? Marche’s examples are literary and cultural constructions, what we imagine ourselves as being or what we admire rather than perhaps what we are in strict reality.
· Second, Marche comments that the paradoxical flip side of the solitary American coin is the “impulse to cluster in communities that cling and suffocate.” For this, he cites the darker elements of Pilgrim society, the Salem witch trials, McCarthyism. Agreed, these examples are “suffocating communities,” but he fails to mention the communities that have bonded together throughout American history in a mutually beneficial way to survive or to share skills and abilities (he fails to consider the Native American experience as well, but I’ll let that go). Neither isolation nor community is necessarily positive or negative on its own.
· Third, is it truly possible for social media alone to transform such a long-established idea? If Marche’s definition of American isolationism is correct, it has been developed and promoted throughout our history via several cultural practices. It is difficult to connect its possible transformation just to the relatively unrelated advent of Facebook.
· And four – isn’t how each of us interacts with Facebook an individual choice? Marche is careful to state that it is not social media that is responsible for potential transformations; on the contrary, we are making ourselves lonelier. Yet, his final conclusion is that “Facebook denies us a pleasure whose profundity we had underestimated: the chance to forget about ourselves for a while, the chance to disconnect.” The link Marche does not express is that, as “nonconformist, independent-minded” Americans, it is our right to disconnect if we choose. We can decide not to participate blindly, but to question the quality of our relationships.
So is Facebook making us lonely (or lonelier)? Is it changing our image of the self-reliant, solitary American? I certainly ponder its influence on our definitions of relationships. Ultimately, however, my stubborn conclusion is this: only if we let it.
[Ben’s] PS. What do you think? Please share your takes in comments and I’ll make sure to pass ‘em along to Kisha!
6/9 Memory Day nominee: Luis Kutner, the pioneering human rights lawyer who co-founded Amnesty International, founded World Habeas Corpus, represented the Dalai Lama and numerous other significant clients, and created the crucial modern concept of the “living will” (among other impressive accomplishments).6/10 Memory Day nominee: Maurice Sendak!
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