I recently read Zadie Smith’s Feel Free essay collection, and re-read several times the essay and film review of The Social Network: “Generation Why,” which was published in the New York Review of Books back in 2010. I found similarities between her essay and Jonathan Franzen’s essay/speech “Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts,” which was published in the New York Times a year later (2011), though they both reach for different points. Franzen’s essay is now in the collection Farther Away. They are both linked if you are interested in reading them, though I will be summarizing them, and quoting what I considered valuable in them before I share my experience.
Smith looks at the ways in which 2.0 kids (Millennials, and Gen Y) have been making a new world by having alternate personalities, and alternate versions of themselves in social networks. Her concerns are directed at the strength of our connections, and the fullness of the person we choose to share with others. She writes:
“Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important. That a lot of social networking software explicitly encourages people to make weak, superficial connections with each other… ‘You have to be somebody,’ Lanier writes, ‘before you can share yourself.’ But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.”
To Smith there is a sort of façade that one should feel and behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ when one hasn’t quite become a full person, nor is one sharing their full and real, three-dimensional selves, or circulating concrete ideas. She writes:
“..here in the Anglo-American world we race ahead with technology and hope the ideas will look after themselves…If you love a medium made of software, there’s a danger that you will become entrapped in someone else’s recent careless thoughts. Struggle against that!”
In a NYPL interview following this piece she says that what is lost with the use of this interface is that we become performative in our interactions with others rather than relational.
“The relationship is one way, and you are voyeuristic about other people’s lives… real life is relational, you have to deal with real people. You have to look at people in the eye.”
Smith is both hopeful and self-aware. She agrees that “no generation is more stupid than the one before” and that it will be interesting to watch young people work their way out of this situation.
What got my attention in her analysis of our generation was an observation of people interacting with someone’s Facebook wall after that person had recently passed away, in somewhat simplistic, street-talk. Smith reminds herself that perhaps this person feels the same way as she would, but simply doesn’t have the education or 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?”
I’ve seen this happen myself and I’ve been an active participant in it. Immediately after the death of someone you’re looking for people to relate to, a form of mouring community, and seeing people post on someone’s wall immediately after it happens is somewhat reassuring, especially when both friends and family don’t always live in the vicinity. However, after several months or years, seeing people continue to post seems somewhat performative like you’re showing others how you continue to grieve. To me, sharing these inner feelings is reasonable, and a part of being human. But I can see that it’s complicated. Smith writes: what’s inside of me is none of your business; and I think this attitude is something we all admire: people who can think and act this way, but find it equally difficult to follow up on it ourselves, and actually stop our hands from typing every little thought, feeling, or frustration. But Smith too shares inner feelings in her long novels. I do it on this platform. Just because hers are disguised as fiction doesn’t make them particularly private. What Facebook does, and what I think Smith is actually disagreeing with is making the trivial important. “Jamie got a haircut today….250 likes.” Not only is the trivial important, it is more valued than a work-hard achievement at times. On my feed I’ve seen a haircut, or a hamburger picture receiving more attention and likes than someone getting their Ph.D diploma, at which point it makes you feel compared. Everything is always one up against the other. He/she/they have more fans, more friends, more support. These ‘likes’ in numbers give a numerical value making it look objectively (and feel subjectively) the haircut was clearly more important today—which can make the-person-working-somewhat-harder-for-longer-periods-on-something’s achievement seem illaudable or unworthy of the respect of one’s peers. These become moments of comparison as the timeline quite literally puts one above the other, and next to each other.
Jonathan Franzen looks at Facebook as an anesthetic. Temporarily feeling numbed into not feeling, or tricking oneself into feeling happy from people’s immediate reactions. He writes:
“The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking…And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.”
Franzen’s solution to handling this fear, instead of anesthetizing it like ‘a patient etherized upon a table,’ is to surrender yourself to something real. He writes:
“my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.”
Both writers seem to narrow in on the fear of “not being liked.” Above I mentioned how a lack of ‘likes’ can make one feel somewhat inadequate or lacking approval—or on the reverse, quite happy/popular on days the reactions and feedback is favourable. Yes, at its bottom line it is a fear of not being liked, but outside of social media, isn’t everything we do in the real world, day to day, for one form of social approval? How many people don’t become doctors, lawyers, and professors for the social respect attributed to those jobs?
“For our self-conscious generation (and in this, I and Zuckerberg, and everyone raised on TV in the Eighties and Nineties, share a single soul), not being liked is as bad as it gets. Intolerable to be thought of badly for a minute, even for a moment.”
“But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable…to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.”
Real life is messy. This two-dimensional world is too cleaned up. Moments of eye contact are irrelevant, your full, whole-rounded person doesn’t come through, you’re afraid of being disliked on a constant basis, thus giving you anxiety, and you constantly compare someone’s highlight reel to your ‘behind-the-scenes’ moments.
I’ve been on Facebook since 2006 (has it been 12 years?) I remember when it first came out and we were just adjusting to the shift from MSN messenger not quite getting the difference between the MSN status (the immediate feeling), and the FB status: an opinion. I remember being terrified when the switch to the “timeline” happened back in 2011 because I had my life laid out in such a way that my past self, my teenage self, was archived in an easily accessible way for the new people to see the old me—a person I no longer liked, a person I no longer wanted to be, and a person I didn’t want others (new people in my life) to have a chance to see. I can hear people say the same responses they give to NSA intrusions: what do you have to hide? Nothing. I’m just not that person anymore, and I don’t want her here. Moments of “this was you five years ago” as I stare at my screen horrified. Moments I’d rather not remember. Facebook picks the numerically important (by likes), or random picture to remind you of a time, when realistically, that wasn’t an important moment to you, nor something you want to recall right now. While I encountered the feelings both Smith and Franzen discuss, there were so many other layers to them.
My first frustration is from the people involved. Facebook to me isn’t made of people with whom I have things in common or share similar interests. Rather it’s made up of the people I happened to live near in high school, accidentally got paired to be near in university, and extended family I happen to have. On that forum, I feel like I am constantly at a high school reunion or at the family gathering. People fighting, disagreeing, bragging, and everything in between. There are moments of mourning, and moments of celebration, and moments of tagging each other in memes and gifs that show ‘dogs who know exactly how you feel about pizza.’ I watched SO MANY movies where Gen X and Y’s ‘biggest obstacle’ was to go to their high school reunion or a family gathering with extended family. On Facebook we live that every single moment. Every day is a high school reunion. I’ve read psych articles highlighting the stress most people have before a high school reunion because it brings back all of your high school self’s insecurities. My bottom line here is that Facebook is filled with people I don’t hang out with, people who don’t share my interests, and people who I don’t necessarily talk to through this forum. It feels like gossip. Did you hear, did you see? Detective work beings. John and Jane had pictures together, now they’re all gone. John deleted them. What happened? Are you going on a date with so-and-so? Let’s ‘creep’ his Facebook and see what we can dig. A reductionist understanding of his top likes, top pictures, etc. It all seemed “fine” until I tried looking at my Facebook the same way. I hardly have any pictures on Facebook with my best friends, my close family, or my real interests. I was mortified by the idea that someone might judge me by the information they find, and the pictures they see.
Thinking this through a few years ago, I decided to be that person who shares little happiness-es often, rather than only the big accomplishments, to remind people there are little reasons to smile. Such as: I found a penny. There’s an apple shape on my apple. I met a squirrel outside, gave it seeds, and now we’re friends. They shouldn’t name condoms Trojan since they lost because the enemy intruded through the wall—literally the opposite of what you want.
After a while I began to feel annoying and above all: I started to make the trivial things more important and I started to feel performative. Like I’m some sort of clown who owes people a smile, entertainment, or humour. You don’t want to make anyone feel sad because you achieved something big, so you focus on the small. Then you complain for making the trivial take priority and become more important. There’s just no winning.
I also (and this is funny) found myself at work (in “the real world”) needing instant feedback from my boss and co-workers. Did you like my assignment? How would you say you reacted to it? What would your immediate commentary be? What GIF would you assign it? Not to mention that mindless clicking of the ‘f’ button has led me to waste countless hours liking pictures of books, and taking time from actual reading.
Then there are the failures in life where you feel like you owe people (a large amount of people) an explanation. I’ve seen countless people explain their choices as if they owed it to us (as Smith puts it: their fans). It only takes one ugly breakup to want all digital traces erased.
And the last thing is this: have you ever met a completely new person with no digital trace? Or no social media? Because I did, and they are fascinating! The Ron Swanson type. I feel like Jane Goodall. It’s so intriguing getting to know someone based on what you see, actually see—and actually communicate. I want to become that person.
I don’t hate Facebook, but I hate my relationship to it. If I can adjust that, then maybe I can go back. But for now, I’m going to pretend that Instagram and probably everything else is not owned by Facebook. I’m okay with it existing, I’m okay with what it has become and could be, but for now, I don’t like how it makes me feel, and my personal relationship to it. It’s something I have to work on. Maybe for a while I’ll try the Franzen method and say it out loud: I don’t care about being liked! I’ll try to find something real and alive to give part of my self to.