Ross Douthat greets the Facebook IPO with schadenfreude:
Of all the major hubs of Internet-era excitement, Mark Zuckerbergs social networking site has always struck me as one of the most noxious, dependent for its success on the darker aspects of online life: the zeal for constant self-fashioning and self-promotion, the pursuit of virtual forms of community and friendship that bear only a passing resemblance to the genuine article, and the relentless diminution of the private sphere in the quest for advertising dollars.
I have a hard time disagreeing with Ross most days, but I can’t go along with his take on Facebook. Of course, any tool can be harmful if not used in virtuous moderation, but I don’t think there anything particularly vicious about sharing links and photos with your friends. The temptation to “constant self-fashioning” is no more acute here than in, say, dressing. Sure, both forms of self-presentation can tempt us to vanity and immodesty, but the solution is prudence and care—-not necessarily wholly abjuring fashion or closing one’s Facebook account (not, it is important to note, that Ross calls for any such thing).
When I try to explain to my friends why I have no problem with Facebook-style sharing, I point to the kind of small town I grew up in. Our town’s weekly paper printed (and still prints) social news of the kind you’d find in a Facebook feed: “Leroy and Martha Kralishek’s son David and family visited this weekend. Sunday dinner was a roast and a good time was had by all.” We had social news, in other words, for people who aren’t socialites. This is just the sort of thing one finds every day on Facebook’s famous “news feed,” and it is much more common than the sorts of grotesque oversharing that seem to worry Ross.
Another example of Facebook’s small-town traditionalism: Our town’s radio station has a long-running daily show called “Party Line” where people call in to ask for rides to the next town, hawk their used furniture, or express their political opinions. Here again we had a form of media that allowed us to keep track of, and in touch with, our casual acquaintances. Party Line is still going strong, but we should be grateful that Mark Zuckerberg has given us a much more efficient technology for realizing the kind of loose connectedness people have long sought.
All that said, I decided to mothball my Facebook account about a year ago (in practical terms, this meant removing all posts from my “wall” and making it so that no one could post anything new to it). I was concerned about a large corporation selling my social relationships and claiming marketable rights over content I produced—-pictures, notes to friends, etc.
I rarely go on Facebook now, but whenever I do, I’m amazed by the richness of information, both useful and fun, being shared by people in my social network. I think I’d enjoy spending more time on the site, but as much as I appreciate Facebook’s basic format, I just didn’t trust the company. If there were a service like Facebook that were more predictable, humble, and accountable—-that is, more like the small-town paper and radio station that (at its best) my news feed reminds me of—-I’d be a very enthusiastic user indeed.