Literary Writers and Social Media: A Response to Zadie Smith

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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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.

I think we confuse the ability to see what everyday writing looks like -- and probably has for a long time -- with a change in how people write. Toss in that the traditional (usually religious) practices and sayings around serious topics like death or childbearing have lost valence, and you get people just saying what comes to mind. It's not always pretty.

Literary writers who, like Smith, teach, have another issue in examining social media. They suffer from a sampling bias much like social science researchers do when they run experiments with Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) undergraduates. She looks at a group of 18-22 year olds, and how they use the technology, and figures: this is how it will always be used and what it means.

I wouldn't argue that the habits of media and mind you pick up as a college kid aren't viscous, but I think it's a logical error to conflate (or decline to separate) common immaturity and generational change. Or to conflate college kids with Everyone.

For Smith, it is the gravest of sins that Facebook allows us to share our likes with each other because it leads us down a path of homogenization. And the next thing you know, "500 million connected people all decide to watch the reality-TV show Bride Wars because their friends are." And yeah, if you're judging all of Facebook based on a tiny slice of the world, it can seem like everyone starts to do something all at once. For instance, last night, everyone was talking about Walking Dead, the new AMC show. But I know that I am part of a very small niche that was interested in Walking Dead. Of the 350 million people in the United States, 5.3 million people watched the premiere last week. Now, take the other things that I pay attention to: algorithms, open government, solar panels. Sometimes mini-trends sweep through my Twitter feeds specific to those topics, but then they are replaced. At best, only a few dozen of the people I interact with online are interested in any one story or event.

To put a finer point on it: I would just ask, is Facebook the engine of homogenization? Do we live in an era where everyone reads, watches, and listens to the same things? Of course not! We live in the time of the hyperniche. All this liking and information spreading has led us to build more paths that are all less taken. Consider that you could capture a majority of the households in the United States on a given night by advertising on the Big 3 networks. And Facebook is to blame for a culture in which everyone watches the same thing?

Last idea: Smith is a celebrity, so she can't and won't ever have a normal social media presence. She could never just start a Twitter feed to post links to random stuff, nor a Facebook page where she receives updates on her niece. For example, this is what she wonders about the future Internet.

"Maybe it will be like an intensified version of the Internet I already live in, where ads for dental services stalk me from pillar to post and I am continually urged to buy my own books." (my italics)

Smith is a public figure, and public figures' Internet presences are not private. That clashes deeply with her sense of what people should be, or at least who she is. She writes, "But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery to the world and--which is more important--to herself." This squares nicely with my recollection of her from college. 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.

While other writing professors seemed to go out of their way to seem kind, Smith was detached and aloof. It made her almost impossibly attractive to the undergraduate population, male and female alike. She was a wonder. 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. Her true location must remain secret.

I think that's a key part of her negative experience of Facebook. She trailed her beauty and brilliance with her, and experienced Facebook with their full weight pressing on her fingers and behind her eyes. Yet, it is precisely in the uniqueness of her experience of Facebook that shows that her fears will not be realized.

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We all bring the history of our bodies and the habits of our minds to Facebook. Because it is, fundamentally, about people relating to one another. 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.

When she has a bout of existential angst on the way to see The Social Network, calculating her physical age, she wonders, "Can you have that feeling, on Facebook?" Her implicit reply is no. Which, to me, is to miss the point. Twice, she tries to say we "live" online now. She uses the fictionalized Sean Parker saying, "We lived on farms, then we lived in cities and now we're gonna live on the internet." to make her point.

But we will never live on the Internet in the way we lived those other places. Let's not reify our online meanderings. The angst of a body slowly dying doesn't go away no matter how many times you type something into a box and then hit return. And that is a good thing.

Smith wants to say, "You are who you appear to be on Facebook." But who believes that of themselves or anyone else? She makes the drastic overstatement only to serve as her grounds for outright rejection of the service. Facebook, the way I see it, is an API to your person. APIs are what programs use to pull information from Google Maps or something like that. When she faults Facebook for not caring about the "quality" of the connections that it generates, I have to ask: Isn't there a box that allows you to enter text? Should Facebook be responsible for making humans better friends, better lovers, more magnanimous, more prone to checking in on grandma?

She urges us to struggle against Facebook, but the real struggle is with ourselves to use Facebook well. She herself notes that she uses text messages to her own ends, regardless of what the medium seems to call for based on how college kids use it. "For me, text messaging is simply a new medium for an old form of communication: I write to my friends in heavily punctuated, fully expressive, standard English sentences--and they write back to me in the same way. Text-speak is unknown between us," she writes. "Our relationship with the English language predates our relationships with our phones."

Exactly! I want to cry out. Our relationships with each other predate our relationship with Facebook! But that was (literally) just a footnote for her, whereas for me, it's the whole point of the enterprise. I want the equivalent of urban planning for Facebook; Smith wants to run off into the woods, or at best, a simple conservationism. You get to determine your level of investment in the digital world around you. You get to choose the people you listen and talk to. You have control over your data. You get to define who you are, no matter what your Facebook profile says. All that is not lost unless we choose to lose it.

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I'm now in a long-distance relationship. Part of our thing is to trade photos we take. They silently arrive, pulled from our pockets when we feel the vibration. I got one the other day from Oakland. It showed two goats, one a tiny baby, standing on a set of stairs next to some bright white birds. An urban farm. Perhaps I should have been thinking about all the technology that went into sending me that photo. The charged-couple device that could capture the light, the wireless networks, the way the device I was using was turning me into a bumbling idiot absorbed with the virtual instead of the REAL WORLD.

But I didn't. I thought about the hands that took the photo, fingers and the fingernails, then wrists and arms running up to shoulders and along the ridge there to the face hiding under a bonnet of curly locks. I saw her looking at farm animals and thinking of a home.

That particular pile of bits wasn't just a pile of bits. It was like bones, an intimation of a body and a place, a body in place. A story. Our messages carry with them the smudges and swipes, the tap-taptaps we use to make meanings. For transport, they are flattened and virtualized. Then it is up to us -- as an act of imagination -- to reinflate them. This relationship predates, well, everything.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/11/literary-writers-and-social-media-a-response-to-zadie-smith/66257/