Literary Writers and Social Media: A Response to Zadie Smith

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Zadie Smith writes beautifully. It's like her prose has a soft, hard-to-place accent that makes every word feel closer to truth than your own. She lives on a cloud with easy access to angels and the divine, but telescopic vision to the people below.

So, when I heard she'd penned an essay on The Social Network and Facebook called "Generation Why?" I read it eagerly, wanting her to explain me to myself, to name us right.

On the movie itself, she's brilliant. Her analysis of how the film works and its role in American cinema, its actors, are all top-notch. And when she goes deeper -- like you knew she would -- probing for the meaning of Facebook, she lands at precisely the right question.

"Is it really fulfilling our needs? Or are we reducing the needs we feel in order to convince ourselves that the software isn't limited?" Smith asks. I wonder this same thing nearly every day, but I come to very different conclusions than she does about the value of Facebook and its ilk -- and how it is that we might counteract the deleterious effects of technology.

"When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced," she writes. "Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. "Facebook, though it binds us together, cares not for "the quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits."

She cites Malcolm Gladwell and Jaron Lanier for backup on her point that "social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak superficial connections with each other." She wonders whether "the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous."

You might guess that I disagree with nearly everything in that last paragraph. While I don't doubt that the tools we use shape our relations, we don't have to give away all human agency. Let's consider the metaphor she uses for how software shapes humans.

"And then consider further that these designs, so often taken up in a slap-dash, last-minute fashion, become 'locked in,' and because they are software, used by millions, too often become impossible to adapt, or change," she writes. "MIDI, an inflexible, early-1980s digital music protocol for connecting different musical components... takes no account of say, the fluid line of a soprano's coloratura; it is still the basis of most of the tinny music we hear every day -- in our phones, in the charts, in elevators -- simply because it became, in software terms, too big to fail, too big to change."

It's true that MIDI qua MIDI makes crappy music. Everyone knows that it flattens music out. But then humans get a hold of it and reinflate it with meaning. We hear the Mario Brothers theme music, and it is like the smell of a warm summer day, musky little boys testing their reflexes against a mysteriously evil turtle and his minions. MIDI and synthesizers more generally opened up making music to new types of people, who heard the flat tones (absent coloratura) and thought, "There are many instruments like this, but this one is mine." To make the story way too short: the flatness of MIDI does not indict all of electronic music. And we do not confuse its tones for that of the trumpet, nor like the latter less because of the former.

To put it more bluntly, as one of my Twitter followers, Brian Frank, wrote, "I think what Smith, Lanier don't appreciate is humans will always find new ways to stay human--not be passively 'reduced.'"

And I expected, mostly, that Smith would get that. Her wonderful book, The Autograph Man, was a testament to our ability to make deep meaning -- to make lives -- out of any pursuit or dataset. But she doesn't see Facebook as capable of being a meaningful part of a life. And I'm really trying hard to comprehend why. I've come up with three reasons that I think may explain more generally why big-name writers so often seem appalled by that which hundreds of millions adore.

First, there's the aesthetic revulsion of so much bad writing, so many misspellings, so much butchered language and LOLs. The lack of proper punctuation! The stupid exclamation points!!!! There is nothing literary about the simple communications between most people on Facebook or Twitter. When Smith invents a farewell message posted on a dead woman's wall, "Sorry babes! Missin' you! Hopin' u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX" she recoils not from the sentiment, but from the aesthetic. She even tries to catch herself, saying, "When I read something like that I have a little argument with myself: 'It's only poor education. They feel the same way as anyone would, they just don't have the language to express it."

But I read that, and I say: She did express her feelings. Would "my condolonces" have been any more profound or heartfelt? Or merely more seemly.

It's key to Smith's reasoning that Facebook implicitly creates more opportunities for people to say maudlin, ugly, or otherwise silly things. But we've been expressing ourselves in ways like that forever. Consider even good pop music. One of the best punk rock love songs of all time, "Ever Fallen in Love With Someone" goes like this, "You stir my natural emotions / You make me feel I'm dirt /And I'm hurt / And if I start a commotion /I run the risk of losing you / And that's worse / Ever fallen in love with someone?" And as we all know, this is just one example out of hundreds of thousands.

Perhaps I've been inured to this sense of a fallen English language because I've rooted around in the history of technology. I've read telegraphs between figures who were decidedly non-literary and engineers' papers. If your vision of the past language is mostly Melville -- the stuff that's endured -- then, yeah, English seems like it's in damn sorry shape. But if it includes all those other low and middle-brow writings, the bad letters, the telegraphs, the stupid poems, you end up with a spikier, less formal take on language. Consider that in 1870, 20% of the population was illiterate. Surely, on that basis alone, we now live in a far better place for words. Or consider the way dialect writers, like a Ben Brierley, tried to capture how normal people talked (and presumably wrote, whenever they did if they could). He would write things like, "They tell me these wenches con write books, play th' payano like angels, an' talk like saints. But I wonder what they'd do wi' a stockin ut's too much dayleet letten in at one window."

Perhaps this is an old argument, one about the sanctity of language, but I think it's newly important. When professional writers, especially ones trained in the literary arts, see horrifically bad writing online, they recoil. All their training about the value of diverse (or, you know, heteroglossic) societies and the equality of classes goes flying out the window. Social media acts as a kind of truth serum, as Marshall Kirkpatrick likes to say: This is how the masses of people talk. This is how the masses of people write. Not moonlighting bloggers. 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.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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