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."