In the wake of the Anthony Weiner scandal, the Washington Post’s calls attention to the modern phenomenon of the ‘e-fair.’ This is nothing new, of course, as social media sites like Facebook have been reported in divorce cases as contributing to the end of marriages. Yet the WaPo article has the intuition that ‘e-fairs’ are in some sense removed from the reality of ‘real life’ affairs.
We treat our virtual lives as if they have the same meaning, depth and repercussions as our offline lives, which is a noble impulse. But there is a difference. Having a Facebook friend is not the same as having a friend, tweeting a politically charged hashtag is not the same as being an activist and sexting is not the same as having sex.
All of these claims are true, but I would submit that they are trivially true. Of course sexting is not identical with having sex; anyone can see that. Yet the discernibility in the “meaning, depth and repercussions” of the actions doesn’t diminish their moral significance. This is because technology does not diminish our human significance. It is a fallacy to suppose that the online world we inhabit is somehow “less real” than then non-online world. Whatever the existence of the online person amounts to, it is unquestionably true that it makes a real difference in the world. And to make such a difference, a profound difference, both the human person and his or her significance must exist online. The denial of this truth is what I call the Facebook fallacy.
The Facebook fallacy rests on the simple assumption that the reality of a person’s being is diminished insofar as the person is mediated by technology. We might call this the “filter effect” as features of embodied human relationships are removed from our social interactions. We have all heard the complaints about technology disconnecting us from embodied human community, and to be sure, there are clear instances where this is problematic. Yet many of these complaints are too hasty. Communications experts have studied the effect of email on human communication and have noted that certain personalities are less inhibited and more communicative in writing than they are in person. Not everyone has been blessed with graceful social skills, good looks, a magnetic personality, and confidence in speech. The filtering effect of email, in a way, levels the playing field between two communicators by removing those barriers, and makes room for other properties of good communication to emerge like linear thought and artful prose. This goes to show that the loss of knowledge about another’s body language does not necessarily imply that we have lost the best knowledge available about another person.
A better way to think of social technology like Twitter and Facebook is not to think of them as filters, but as enablers. They enable human communication more conveniently than ever. The Washington Post article makes the interesting observation about what Weiner’s dalliances would be like before the digital age:
But 20 years ago, Weiner would have had to load his Nikon with film before pointing it at his crotch. He would have had to take this film to the Fotomat, wait 24 hours before picking it up, find an envelope, lick a stamp. In every preceding era, there were built-in checkpoints, moments in which one could ask oneself, “Is this a good idea? Does she want to see my dog in a sweater? Am I a congressman? Should that influence my decision?”
These actions are weighed against those today, “Click. Here are my genitals!” In light of the perceived imbalance, the writer asks “Does that make me a cheater?” I think the answer is obviously yes, but there is an important intuition she stumbles upon. 20-year-old technology took a greater amount of intentionality to pull off this sort of social connection. It took more time and more resources. The mind had to be focused more on carrying out each step for a longer period of time. That does count for something, but this doesn’t make the actions of clicking a picture of your crotch with an iPhone and then uploading it to Twitter morally less serious. Though the process is easier, faster, and more efficient its effects are just as concrete. More frighteningly, it can be disseminated just as easily by the receiver to a larger audience. The problem is that we don’t understand the power of the technology we are using—not that our actions are somehow less real because they are instant.
[Cross-posted at 20 Times Around the Block]