Facebook's Phony Friendships

In the last few months, I have received half a dozen e-mails inviting me to become a "friend" on Facebook. Some of these are from my beloved children, some from colleagues and former students, and others from people I barely know.

In every case, I have politely declined, explaining that I detest the idea of Facebook and refuse to be emotionally blackmailed into joining it solely to avoid offending them.

My first reason for opposing Facebook is the sheer phoniness of it. "Friends" are collected and displayed, like a stud's panty collection in a frat house. The very indiscriminateness of it cheapens it. It reminds me of the scene in Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater where Senator Rosewater chides his hyperidealistic son in words something like this:

"Eliot, it's as if you stood on a street corner, with a pile of squares of toilet paper with 'I love you' written on each one, and handed one out to everybody that passed by. I just don't want my square of toilet paper."

My second objection is that the very use of the word "friend" betrays its falseness. I doubt that I've ever used the word in speaking with anyone I know. If one of us were to ask "are you my friend?" the answer would automatically have to be "no"; the asking of the question implies the answer. It's like the explanation of a charming young English acquaintance that "one never calls a woman a lady unless she isn't."

My third objection is that Facebook imposes an artificial and superficial digitalization of the concept of friendship. I know hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. If pressed, I might categorize them as people I've met, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, friends, and loved ones. But in truth, they form a multidimensional spectrum of innumerable and delicately nuanced gradations of interest, respect, fondness, intimacy, and mutual understanding. (I don't know how many dimensions there are; as in string theory, it's always more than you think.) It would be crude and imbecilic to try to reduce these relationships into a one-dimensional, binary 0 or 1.

There's something Marxist or even Orwellian about this. At the very least, it gruesomely demonstrates how cheap and artificial our society has become, with its A- and B-lists and computer-programmed selection of Christmas card recipients.

My fourth objection is that these relationships are a private matter that I do not wish to have displayed on somebody's website.

My fifth is that the Facebook organization seems to be trying to build an evil empire -- not merely to facilitate, but to dominate the social network they have created. Otherwise, they wouldn't insist on forcing would-be friends to first become members. And they wouldn't send you repeated reminders that so-and-so wants you to be his "friend" and urging you to quickly sign up. There have been several uproars about Facebook's manipulation of its members' privacy, including encroachments that some say the Facebook organization anticipated would be unwelcome. Moreover, it appears that once you have joined, it's very difficult to cancel your account.   

My final objection is that it's morally and emotionally harmful to the participants. Popular people are tempted to display their "friends" like trophies or scalps. The shy or lonely are brutally embarrassed by their poor display. It's the very essence of the cliquishness that makes high school a hell for outsiders and loners.

I'm writing this today because I think that the tragedy of Tyler Clementi is a case in point. I think it's significant that Tyler posted his suicide note on Facebook, and I wince at the irony that the mourning of his death is being commemorated on a special Facebook page. More to the point, I believe that the bizarre actions of Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, which allegedly led to Tyler's suicide, were to a major degree the product of the Facebook-Twitter mentality that they were all victims of.    

This week saw the debut of The Social Network, a movie about the genesis of Facebook. I planned to see that movie in the hope of finding out how all this idiocy started. Instead, I intend to boycott it in honor of Tyler.

And please, if you plan to join Facebook, don't send me any invitations.
In the last few months, I have received half a dozen e-mails inviting me to become a "friend" on Facebook. Some of these are from my beloved children, some from colleagues and former students, and others from people I barely know.

In every case, I have politely declined, explaining that I detest the idea of Facebook and refuse to be emotionally blackmailed into joining it solely to avoid offending them.

My first reason for opposing Facebook is the sheer phoniness of it. "Friends" are collected and displayed, like a stud's panty collection in a frat house. The very indiscriminateness of it cheapens it. It reminds me of the scene in Kurt Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater where Senator Rosewater chides his hyperidealistic son in words something like this:

"Eliot, it's as if you stood on a street corner, with a pile of squares of toilet paper with 'I love you' written on each one, and handed one out to everybody that passed by. I just don't want my square of toilet paper."

My second objection is that the very use of the word "friend" betrays its falseness. I doubt that I've ever used the word in speaking with anyone I know. If one of us were to ask "are you my friend?" the answer would automatically have to be "no"; the asking of the question implies the answer. It's like the explanation of a charming young English acquaintance that "one never calls a woman a lady unless she isn't."

My third objection is that Facebook imposes an artificial and superficial digitalization of the concept of friendship. I know hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. If pressed, I might categorize them as people I've met, acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, friends, and loved ones. But in truth, they form a multidimensional spectrum of innumerable and delicately nuanced gradations of interest, respect, fondness, intimacy, and mutual understanding. (I don't know how many dimensions there are; as in string theory, it's always more than you think.) It would be crude and imbecilic to try to reduce these relationships into a one-dimensional, binary 0 or 1.

There's something Marxist or even Orwellian about this. At the very least, it gruesomely demonstrates how cheap and artificial our society has become, with its A- and B-lists and computer-programmed selection of Christmas card recipients.

My fourth objection is that these relationships are a private matter that I do not wish to have displayed on somebody's website.

My fifth is that the Facebook organization seems to be trying to build an evil empire -- not merely to facilitate, but to dominate the social network they have created. Otherwise, they wouldn't insist on forcing would-be friends to first become members. And they wouldn't send you repeated reminders that so-and-so wants you to be his "friend" and urging you to quickly sign up. There have been several uproars about Facebook's manipulation of its members' privacy, including encroachments that some say the Facebook organization anticipated would be unwelcome. Moreover, it appears that once you have joined, it's very difficult to cancel your account.   

My final objection is that it's morally and emotionally harmful to the participants. Popular people are tempted to display their "friends" like trophies or scalps. The shy or lonely are brutally embarrassed by their poor display. It's the very essence of the cliquishness that makes high school a hell for outsiders and loners.

I'm writing this today because I think that the tragedy of Tyler Clementi is a case in point. I think it's significant that Tyler posted his suicide note on Facebook, and I wince at the irony that the mourning of his death is being commemorated on a special Facebook page. More to the point, I believe that the bizarre actions of Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, which allegedly led to Tyler's suicide, were to a major degree the product of the Facebook-Twitter mentality that they were all victims of.    

This week saw the debut of The Social Network, a movie about the genesis of Facebook. I planned to see that movie in the hope of finding out how all this idiocy started. Instead, I intend to boycott it in honor of Tyler.

And please, if you plan to join Facebook, don't send me any invitations.

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