My faith in adult society got a little boost the past weekend when I read that a growing number of people are becoming disillusioned with Facebook and are discontinuing their affiliation, or at least their frequent visits, to the site.
Not that Facebook, or its conceptual offspring Twitter, are in any immediate danger of extinction. The numbers of both networks are still climbing. But as Virginia Heffernan reported in the Sunday Times Magazine, there's a growing number of people who are becoming disenchanted with Facebook--and in some cases the whole idea of the Facebook--for a number of reasons.
For some, it's concerns about privacy. Facebook isn't just a friendly neighborhood park; the company profits from the information it collects on users. There were many who objected, in early 2008, to the fact that the site was holding onto profile information even when people closed down their accounts. Not to mention the "oops" when Facebook decided to let everyone in a user's circle know about other internet purchases a user made. There were also some who turned away after the kerfluffle over Facebook's assertion, last February, that it owned the copyright to all content on the site, and some who object to having their personal activity so closely monitored by some large, unseen entity.
But what intrigued me about the group Heffernan interviewed was the number who were simply tiring of checking in on other people's lives all the time, investing in connections that felt more like stalking or distant newsletters instead of direct one-on-one friendship, and a growing unease about how they're spending, or wasting, their time.
I find these growing sentiments reassuring because of an assessment a friend of mine made last spring about the social-network frenzy of Facebook and Twitter. A friend, it should be noted, whose entire job revolves around the development of new technology in Silicon Valley. But both of those technologies, he said, were really geared toward the needs and interests of teenagers and young people. Twitter, after all, evolved from cell phone texting, which nobody does anywhere near as impressively, or frequently, as the under-20 crowd. And Facebook was started by college students as a kind of snide "pig book" to put various students' photos together and allow people to weigh in on who was "hotter." It evolved into a college networking site, and expanded from there. But, still.
The tasks that Facebook and Twitter enhance ... staying connected with as large a group as possible, staying up-to-the-minute informed about what everyone in the social world you care about is doing, and in the process keeping track of where you fit in the social hierarchy of it all ... have been a primary focus of teenagers since time immemorial. Forty years ago, there were gossip cliques by the school lockers and fights over who got to use the family phone to keep up with the latest social status news. All Facebook and Twitter do is give teenagers additional tools to accomplish one of their prime developmental tasks: figuring out how to define themselves in relation to, and as distinct from, the rest of their peers, and exploring a wide variety of social connections within that group.
So in that context, texting, Facebook and Twitter are all terrific developments that, among other things, certainly free up the family phone. The puzzling thing is why they've been so popular among people who are supposed to be a bit beyond that stage. At some point in our development, we're supposed to let go of that obsessive focus on what everyone else is doing in order to focus on our own work and achievements. We're supposed to mature into valuing fewer but more meaningful friendships over the herd social groups we favored as teenagers. And hopefully, we're supposed to get busy enough with more significant contributions to family, community and the world to either care about, or have time for, the movements and chatter of people we're not that deeply connected to. As free time becomes more limited, choices have to be made. And there's a trade-off: to go deep, you can't go as broad.
There are certainly valuable uses for Facebook, even in the 30-something and beyond set. Most of my friends who have teenagers have joined so they have a better awareness of the technology and world their children are experiencing ... and to help them keep track of what's going on in their children's lives. And for older people who can't get out as much, social networking sites offer a way to stay connected with the world, and to keep loneliness at bay. Not to mention their appeal to marketers, who see a way to reach large groups of people (and especially the all-important young demographic) with a sales message in a fairly easy manner.
So the sites have their uses. But using them to compensate for the loneliness of old age, track your kids, or sell a product, is different than being giddy about them--or being addicted to them--for their own sake. And that's the part that's perplexed me about their growing use and popularity among the over-30 set. When teenagers are texting or twittering inane comments during class, they're being difficult, but age-appropriate. When Senators are twittering inane comments during major policy speeches, there's something slightly askew.
But perhaps the fascination with both sites is just a product of our innately curious and exploratory natures. When my sister and I, at ages 15 and 17, bought lacrosse sticks (boys', because we couldn't locate girls'), I remember the way my dad was drawn almost irresistibly toward the back yard where we were trying them out. He watched from the back window, then the open door, then the grass at the foot of the steps. We could feel how much he was itching to have a go at it, even though he'd never held a lacrosse stick in his life. When we finally offered him a turn, he lit up like a Christmas tree and laughed out loud at the novelty of the play. He had a blast with it. But he didn't have the need to play as long as my sister and I did. He tried it, had fun, and then moved on to the other tasks and activities of his day.
The kids come up with something new, and we can't help but want to try it out. But with different life and developmental tasks demanding our focus and time, we don't, or at least we shouldn't, stay as obsessed with it as they are--whether the "it" is the hula hoop, skateboarding, hanging out at the mall ... or a passionate attachment to Facebook or Twitter.
Is that natural dissipation of interest coming to pass with the social networking sites, as well? Hard to say. But if Heffernan's subjects are any guide, it may be ... until, of course, the next exciting new fad, fashion, techno-gizmo, or toy comes to town.
FEMA Director Craig Fugate on why the Katrina response failed, why it’s important to talk about “survivors” instead of “victims,” and why citizens can’t just wait for the government to save them in a huge disaster
The man who made computers personal was a genius and a jerk. A new documentary wonders whether his legacy can accommodate both realities.
An iPhone is a machine much like any other: motherboard, modem, microphone, microchip, battery, wires of gold and silver and copper twisting and snaking, the whole assembly arranged under a piece of glass whose surface—coated with an oxide of indium and tin to make it electrically conductive—sparks to life at the touch of a warm-blooded finger. But an iPhone, too, is much more than a machine. The neat ecosystem that hums under its heat-activated glass holds grocery lists and photos and games and jokes and news and books and music and secrets and the voices of loved ones and, quite possibly, every text you’ve ever exchanged with your best friend. Thought, memory, empathy, the stuff we sometimes shorthand as “the soul”: There it all is, zapping through metal whose curves and coils were designed to be held in a human hand.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
In continuing to tinker with the universe she built eight years after it ended, J.K. Rowling might be falling into the same trap as Star Wars’s George Lucas.
September 1st, 2015 marked a curious footnote in Harry Potter marginalia: According to the series’s elaborate timeline, rarely referenced in the books themselves, it was the day James S. Potter, Harry’s eldest son, started school at Hogwarts. It’s not an event directly written about in the books, nor one of particular importance, but their creator, J.K. Rowling, dutifully took to Twitter to announce what amounts to footnote details: that James was sorted into House Gryffindor, just like his father, to the disappointment of Teddy Lupin, Harry’s godson, apparently a Hufflepuff.
It’s not earth-shattering information that Harry’s kid would end up in the same house his father was in, and the Harry Potter series’s insistence on sorting all of its characters into four broad personality quadrants largely based on their family names has always struggled to stand up to scrutiny. Still, Rowling’s tweet prompted much garment-rending among the books’ devoted fans. Can a tweet really amount to a piece of canonical information for a book? There isn’t much harm in Rowling providing these little embellishments years after her books were published, but even idle tinkering can be a dangerous path to take, with the obvious example being the insistent tweaks wrought by George Lucas on his Star Wars series.
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft.
In Beijing, China marked the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and its role in defeating Japan, by holding an enormous military parade and declaring a new national holiday. The spectacle involved more than 12,000 troops, 500 pieces of military hardware, and 200 aircraft of various types, representing what military officials said were the Chinese military's most cutting-edge technology. While the entire event was a show of strength, Chinese officials insisted the message was about peace, with the logo displayed on posters featuring an image of a dove.
Some people see threats even when none are present. Strangely, it can make them more creative.
For much of his life, Isaac Newton seemed like he was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. In 1693, the collapse finally arrived: After not sleeping for five days straight, Newton sent letters accusing his friends of conspiring against him. He was refraining from publishing books, he said at one point that year, “for fear that disputes and controversies may be raised against me by ignoramuses.”
Newton was, by many accounts, highly neurotic. Brilliant, but neurotic nonetheless. He was prone to depressive jags, mistrust, and angry outbursts.
Unfortunately, his genius might have been rooted in his maladjustments. His mental state led him to brood over past mistakes, and eventually, a breakthrough would dawn. “I keep the subject constantly before me,” he once said, “and wait till the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.”
When Kenneth Jarecke photographed an Iraqi man burned alive, he thought it would change the way Americans saw the Gulf War. But the media wouldn’t run the picture.
The Iraqi soldier died attempting to pull himself up over the dashboard of his truck. The flames engulfed his vehicle and incinerated his body, turning him to dusty ash and blackened bone. In a photograph taken soon afterward, the soldier’s hand reaches out of the shattered windshield, which frames his face and chest. The colors and textures of his hand and shoulders look like those of the scorched and rusted metal around him. Fire has destroyed most of his features, leaving behind a skeletal face, fixed in a final rictus. He stares without eyes.
On February 28, 1991, Kenneth Jarecke stood in front of the charred man, parked amid the carbonized bodies of his fellow soldiers, and photographed him. At one point, before he died this dramatic mid-retreat death, the soldier had had a name. He’d fought in Saddam Hussein’s army and had a rank and an assignment and a unit. He might have been devoted to the dictator who sent him to occupy Kuwait and fight the Americans. Or he might have been an unlucky young man with no prospects, recruited off the streets of Baghdad.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
Climate change means the end of our world, but the beginning of another—one with a new set of species and ecosystems.
A few years ago in a lab in Panama, Klaus Winter tried to conjure the future. A plant physiologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, he planted seedlings of 10 tropical tree species in small, geodesic greenhouses. Some he allowed to grow in the kind of environment they were used to out in the forest, around 79 degrees Fahrenheit. Others, he subjected to uncomfortably high temperatures. Still others, unbearably high temperatures—up to a daily average temperature of 95 degrees and a peak of 102 degrees. That’s about as hot as Earth has ever been.
It’s also the kind of environment tropical trees have a good chance of living in by the end of this century, thanks to climate change. Winter wanted to see how they would do.
A tattooed, profanity-loving Lutheran pastor believes young people are drawn to Jesus, tradition, and brokenness.
“When Christians really critique me for using salty language, I literally don’t give a shit.”
This is what it’s like to talk to Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed Lutheran pastor, former addict, and head of a Denver church that’s 250 members strong. She’s frank and charming, and yes, she tends to cuss—colorful words pepper her new book, Accidental Saints. But she also doesn’t put a lot of stock in her own schtick.
“Oh, here’s this tattooed pastor who is a recovering alcoholic who used to be a stand-up comic—that’s interesting for like five minutes,” she said. “The fact that people want to hear from me—that, I really feel, has less to do with me and more to do with a Zeitgeist issue.”