Complaints about Facebook's deleterious effect on language are
long-standing, of course. In the past, the main gripes have been about
how the site has sapped the meaning of the words "friend" and "like." A
"friend" has been reduced to any acquaintance you choose to add to your
Facebook network -- someone you "friend" (look, a noun becoming a
verb!). Meanwhile, "liking" something has become equated with the manual
click of a little thumbs-up icon. Crucially, either of these online
interactions can be reversed, by "unfriending" and "unliking."
No long-term commitment is necessary in this realm of ever-shifting
allegiances. The call goes out, whatever happened to authentic
friendship? (Facebook's new competitor, Google+, seems to be playing on
concerns over the Zuckerbergian degradation of "friendship." For the
default "Friends Circle" on Google+, the explanatory text clarifies that
it is intended for "your real friends, the ones you feel comfortable
sharing private details with.")
Personally, I've felt that the hubbub over the dilution of "friend"
and "like" in the Facebook era has been overblown. These are hardy words
going back to Old English that are in no need of special protection. As
I told a journalist from the Boston Globe
reporting on worries over the word "friend," such terms are inherently
flexible, accruing multiple meanings over their lifetimes. (Even the
verbs "friend" and "unfriend"
have been around for centuries.) Traditionalists may sound the alarm
about new meanings of old words because of anxieties about the way they
think that society is changing, and social media sites like Facebook and
Twitter can serve as easy targets for those who think that our shared
language is going to hell in a handbasket. Those traditionalists ignore
(or distrust) all the ways that social media can enrich the language, in
terms of new vocabulary, new modes of expression, and new pathways for
innovations to spread.
But the latest makeover of Facebook goes far beyond adding special
connotations to particular words. Instead, language is being recast in a
more profound way, turned into a utilitarian tool for "expressing"
relationships to objects in the world in a remarkably unexpressive
fashion. Verbs are for doing things, things that are then announced in
uncomplicated declarations. Sentences become mere instruments for
sharing easy-to-digest morsels of personal information. (Ananda Mitra, a
professor of communication at Wake Forest University, has dubbed these
short for "narrative bits.") All of this represents a re-engineering of
the very syntax of natural language, and to what aim? Is it designed
for "telling one's story," or for satisfying the needs of advertisers
looking to collect personal data for targeted marketing?
As Web developers jump on the Open Graph bandwagon to create new social apps, Facebook is saying good-bye to the old days when people simply "liked" things, moving to a much wider verb-space to promote different activities. You'll now be able to announce to the world that you are "watching" (a television show), "listening" (to music), "eating" (a meal), and so forth. And as the verbs shift from present tense to past, all of these activities can then be stitched together with your status updates and photos to create a reverse-chronological autobiography of sorts in your Timeline. The Timeline, Zuckerberg submits, is nothing less than The Story of Your Life.