Author Zadie Smith has a very engaging review of The Social Network running at the New York Review Books, and although I still haven’t seen the movie, her defense of Zuckerberg’s nerd ethic strikes me as sensible. It’s only when Smith delves into reviewing Facebook itself that she starts to sound like an alarmist Luddite. Smith is quite convinced that we are routinely mistaking our profiles for our actual selves, and as someone who is on Facebook literally almost every moment that I am at home or work, I don’t think we (most of us, anyway) are anywhere remotely close to that point. The evidence Smith presents for this thesis, which she presumably intends to be shocking, is extremely underwhelming:
I’ve noticed—and been ashamed of noticing—that when a teenager is murdered, at least in Britain, her Facebook wall will often fill with messages that seem to not quite comprehend the gravity of what has occurred. You know the type of thing: Sorry babes! Missin’ you!!! Hopin’ u iz with the Angles. I remember the jokes we used to have LOL! PEACE XXXXX
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 another part of me has a darker, more frightening thought. Do they genuinely believe, because the girl’s wall is still up, that she is still, in some sense, alive? What’s the difference, after all, if all your contact was virtual?
Certainly, most of what people post on Facebook is stupid, but that’s because most people are stupid. Don’t most eulogies express the same sentiment, albeit in a somewhat less vapid way? Don’t people go to loved one’s graves and talk to them as if the dead were still alive? I fail to see a significant difference when the venue people use for airing these thoughts is a Facebook wall instead of the site of the person’s mortal remains.
I remember once when I was a freshman in high school, I rode out to a party with my best friend and his older brother. After the party, we went to a graveyard out in the country where a friend of the older guy was buried. We got drunk, listened to Tupac, and he poured beer on the grave. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but suffice it to say that it wasn’t Pericles’ funeral oration. It was a little juvenile–because we were juveniles! Immature kids expressing immature sentiments on Facebook is not a sign of a civilizational apocalypse, but just a little more old wine in a new bottle.