“How are Kaberi and the girls doing in India?” she asked.
“Fine. They’re doing fine. You know… the best way to keep up with them and see how they are doing is to follow Kaberi on Facebook! You can even see pictures she’s posting
“, I replied.
“Oh… I don’t really go on Facebook all that much” she said, “but perhaps I should, now…“.
I had the above conversation with a friend yesterday, and have had a few more like that in the two weeks since Kaberi and our daughters left for an extended trip to India. How might these conversations have gone in the days before we were on Facebook, a scant two years ago?
I pose that question as a hypothetical because I never experienced this before, being alone here while they travel there. But I imagine I would have said the first part of my response above, and the conversation might have ended there, having satisfied the requirements of polite conversation.
Or, depending on who the friend was, we might have talked a while longer, me filling in details from conversations I’ve had with Kaberi and the girls on the phone, or even sharing bits from letters. Maybe even show a picture from my wallet? Well, maybe not those last two bits, because back in the day when we actually physically mailed letters and pictures, those would be unlikely to reach me within two weeks – I would still be waiting for them eagerly now – instead of just leaving my Mail/Skype/iChat/Facebook windows open on my computer screen night and day hoping for another glimpse into their temporarily distant lives.
But I could scarcely have offered up similar glimpses directly to my friends as I do now, referring them to Kaberi’s Facebook wall! Does this diminish the nature of our social interaction, our friendship, my pointing them to the online social network? Am I pushing all my friends into some uniform bland experience mediated by the constrained imagination of Mark Zuckerberg, as Zadie Smith worries
in her review of “The Social Network
“, the recent movie about Facebook, and of Facebook itself? Or am I attempting to transcend those constraints by merely using the software to do (more efficiently, perhaps) what I would have done anyway, as Alexis Madrigal writes
, in response to Smith? Both these long (some orders of magnitude more than 140 characters!) essays had me up late last night and when I woke up this morning, in between checking Kaberi’s wall to look for any more pictures and to see what other friends were writing there in response. And both these responses to the social network 2.0 phenomenon embodied by the success of Facebook fall somewhat short, in different ways, of capturing my own experience over the past several years.
The main element I think missing (or weak) in both these writers’ literary responses is the context of globalization and how that has altered the individual and collective realities of life and friendship for so many of us today. Having chosen a diasporic existence flung far from family and friends I grew up with, I am an unabashed cheerleader for the internet and online social networks. In the 20 years since I arrived in the US and received my first email account in graduate school (waay back before the www was even born, and Zuckerberg a toddler, so what generation would Ms. Smith place me in?), I have enthusiastically used whatever networking software was available to stay connected with my old lives even as new ones formed and dissipated around me as I went from grad school to wandering postdoc-hood to my current (more rooted?!) status as a tenured professor. Various internet software tools, each with their quirks and constraints, have allowed me to stay connected with friends and colleagues, casual acquaintances and collaborators, spread across the globe, in ways that would have been daunting to anyone short of prolific letter writers and correspondents like, say, Darwin! And the very lack of “education” or facility with words for expression that Ms. Smith bemoans would likely have kept some from responding to my missives. So is software really degrading the quality of my connections? How can it, if I don’t restrict myself to just Facebook, but use it as part of an array ranging from email and skype (which she prefers), to blogs and twitter and more?
I took to blogging and Facebook later than I might’ve had they appeared while I was in grad school, but have found new ways to nurture my social connections through these media. Blogging, I suspect, is something that writers of literature will have less issues with than some of them seem to with Facebook (as would I if blogging is indeed losing ground
to shorter form writing and sharing, but I’m not convinced). I started blogging as a means of expression and of sharing what fires my imagination and keeps my inner world in intellectual ferment with those in the outer world. It remains at the creative and intellectual core of my online self, bolstered by my dabbles in photography, and I use Twitter and Facebook more often than not to point to my longer-form works (and that of others who inspire/irritate me as evidenced right here in this very post!). In the process I have also found long-lost friends (including some relatives) who may never have been lost in the first place but for the vicissitudes of our globalized culture and means of living spread out thinly across the planet. And made new ones too that I am yet to meet in the flesh! Does the fact of being largely online diminish the quality of my relationships? On the contrary, I think it has rejuvenated many dormant ones. Of course I have issues with the canalization of the online social experience into singular (and bland) portals like Facebook, not to mention the commercial aspects that come with that. I may chafe against some of the constraints, but that hasn’t stopped me from using the software for more than what might have been the dominant concerns in the mind of the Harvard sophomore who invented it. And of course, it is possible to use the software solely for superficial chatter and inanities that may trivialize what it means to have friends and true social connections. But that superficial chatter happened before Facebook too, and will continue to happen long after the online software has evolved well beyond what we can even imagine today. We are after all still the same social primates who evolved through our need for grooming and gossip
on the savannas of Africa.
No one, not even the ever-more-powerful Mark Zuckerberg now looming large in our collective imaginations and our online lives, as imagined and repackaged by Sorkin, Fincher, and Smith alike, is forcing us to constrain our true social interactions. Much as Ms. Smith (and many others like her) bemoan the commercialization of Facebook and how it commodifies us and turns us into databases for corporations, or mindless homogeneous consumers who can be force fed advertisements and products, I often think the reality may be somewhat the other way around with this Generation Why (to borrow Ms. Smith’s disparaging/despairing label). Far from controlling and homogenizing the conversation, I think the corporations are desperately trying to keep up with us inanely chattering masses! If they become too intrusive in their advertising, or the software too cavalier with our information, or even too rigidly constraining, people rebel and complain loudly (as has happened with Facebook repeatedly) or walk away to form new communities (anyone remember MySpace? or AOL? How about CompuServe?). If no one is forcing us to use Facebook and Facebook only (they want to, yes, but they haven’t yet), why all this angst about the degrading of social interactions in the new networks 2.0? I sense a faint whiff of elitism mixed in with nostalgia for the good old analog days…
Meanwhile, I am perfectly happy to point my friends toward’s my wife’s Facebook wall when they ask me how her visit to India is going. It offers me something in between brushing them off with the superficial polite “she’s doing fine, thank you for asking” and boring them with the family travel album or slideshow for two hours (or being bored myself by the same set of questions over and over). What this third option allows is an intermediate level of social interaction, beyond superficial niceness but not as deep as close friendship, and one that also accommodates our busy lives where one may not have the time for those deep conversations cherished by these writers. If anything, then, I see this as a way not to constrain my social interactions, but to winnow them in ways that allow more space for deeper conversations and connections to sprout where they may never have between friends caught up in separate busy lives.
How is that for escaping the grim portrait that Ms. Smith paints us in at the end of her long critique: as “people entrapped in the recent careless thoughts of a Harvard sophomore“?
I better leave you to ponder that and turn my attention back to Skype/iChat/Facebook. Because it will soon be dawn on the other side of the world where my women are now asleep, at the foot of the Himalaya in north Bengal where their horizon is capped by the snowclad peak of the world’s third highest mountain, Kanchanjangha, even as I try to glimpse the fresh snow from Sunday night’s storm on the Sierra Nevada’s ridges visible (sometimes) from my office window. And if you want to see an image of Kanchanjangha captured by Kaberi this week, you know where to look, right?