Is Facebook Turning Us Into Lonely Robots? Or Worse?

Zadie Smith joins the chorus of those fretting the social network will be the end of us

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Zadie Smith was there when Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook. Well, she was at Harvard at the same time, at least. But she's never felt part of Generation Facebook, and is increasingly uneasy with the virtual "world" her cohort as created online.

Smith is part of a growing chorus of those who fret that social networking is destroying life as we know it. "You want to be optimistic about your own generation. You want to keep pace with them and not to fear what you don’t understand." Part of the problem is that Facebook was created when Zuckerberg was a college sophomore, thus it fixates on a college sophomore's fixations. "What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a 'life'? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)"

Second, Zuckerberg is a nerd, and like so many nerds, he is desperate to be liked. "If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format." Smith continues,

Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. 'Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.' Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what 'friendship' is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?
  • Step Out of the Ivory Tower, Alexis Madrigal writes at The Atlantic. "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." Madrigal writes that, "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. ... 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 example, Madrigal says the other night, it seemed like everyone was talking about Walking Dead. But in fact, only 5.3 million people watched the show's premiere. "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. ... 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?" Smith writes that she and her friends like to text (albeit with correct grammar), saying, "Our relationship with the English language predates our relationships with our phones." Madrigal responds, "Exactly! I want to cry out. Our relationships with each other predate our relationship with Facebook!"
  • It's Really Not That Big a Deal, Ben Casnocha shrugs, calling Smith's a "disappointing" essay. "Most negative pieces like Smith's are premised on the idea that Facebook and the web are changing our lives in a massive way. Most positive pieces are similarly premised except instead they argue that everything is sweetness and light. Someone should write an article that argues the total impact (good or bad) of social networking technologies on an individual's identity, philosophies, behavior, and relationships may actually be overstated by the legion of recent essayists and filmmakers. And that it may be especially overstated even by those who claim it's been life changing -- i.e., the piece skeptically assesses first-person testimonies."
  • Enough With the Hand-wringing, Brian Frank urges. File Frank's piece along with "a growing collection of crafted pieces by good writers who don’t get it." Frank quit Facebook after two months, but the "people who know the most about the hazards and challenges are the people using this stuff and learning from mistakes." He continues, "these people (Gladwell too) who are standing around outside, watching us instead of jumping in and learning how to swim, fretting, 'OH NO, we all might drown!' keep looking more and more ridiculous. ... Have you ever met anyone who has been reduced to data? Do you know anyone who’s had their desires, their fears and messy feelings get swallowed up by Facebook? No. What happens is, when some aspects of our lives become data, we expand — we use that as part of a platform or framework to create new opportunities and objects for new kinds of fears and desires." 
  • Don't Blame Facebook, Liz Colville writes at The Hairpin. "Facebook is just a symptom among symptoms — no need to blame Zuckerberg for a compulsion that follows us across the Internet. If only Smith's whole piece had been about how the Internet has caused us to 'rather be doing something else, or nothing.'"
  • Human Relationships Will Probably Survive, Liz Gannes writes for NetworkEffect. "Smith charged that Facebook encourages highly superficial, low-effort communication that threatens to replace actual relationships and experiences. ... basically, Facebook is devaluing the way we relate to each other. Smith thinks her problems with Facebook come back to the site being created by Zuckerberg as an immature college sophomore who desperately wanted to be liked," Gannes writes. But the blogger sees her relationships improved thanks to the site, for the most part. "Still, I don’t often find visiting Facebook to be deeply satisfying either. But, whereas Smith sees reasons to run away screaming, I see an opportunity to better address some of the parts she finds lacking."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.