Sunday, March 20, 2011

In Praise of Facebook

I belong to a generation for which Facebook is a novelty, and like the elders of times gone by many of my cohort dismiss Facebook for a whole host of reasons, much as grandparents at the turn of the century saw the automobile as a blight on the landscape, the telephone as an unnecessary intrusion into one's private life, the movies as a threat to literacy.  I hear complaints all the time that Facebook eliminates privacy, dehumanizes relationships, substitutes for "real" life, or focuses too much on the mundane tracking of one's friends' whereabouts.  There may be some truth in this, just as it is true that television can be a time waster, internet gambling can be a route to disaster, or an MP3 player can drown out the sounds and silences of nature.  So, yes, like everything, Facebook is not perfect.  However, I would like to offer a defense against the charge that Facebook is a poor substitute for face-to-face conversation, that Facebook friends are not "real" friends.

I am a student of the nineteenth century, in particular British literature.  The 19th c. saw a shift from life lived mostly in public to the elevation of the private home and its offer of escape from the hurly burly of the streets and factories.  Friendships were often passionate (in ways that can sound quite peculiar to modern ears), and letters were often the most common form of communication between friends, especially those who lived some distance away.  Many courtships were conducted primarily through letter-writing, like that of John Ruskin and Effie Gray.  These two splendid writers became friends through letters, John proposed in a letter, and they spent far more time apart than together during their rather long engagement.  Their letters contain intelligence (on both sides), wit, curiosity about the world and thought, and an exchange of ideas they found nowhere else.  It is probably not too much to say that Effie fell in love with John's prose style, just as John was attracted to Effie's hungry intellect and eagerness to read and discuss the books he recommended to her.  The rest of their story doesn't need retelling here, except that once they were married and living under the same roof the vividness of their letters quickly turned to the vinegar of mutual recrimination and disappointment.

I would venture to say that so long as their relationship was epistolary, it was successful.  It was the face-to-face, everyday physical reality of marriage that wrecked their happiness.  I think many Americans today can conceive of a very limited number of relational possibilities.  In some ways the young today have it better than my generation.  They find male-female friendship easier, and dating is no longer the fraught, constricted thing it was fifty years ago.  I find them to be more spontaneous, more openly affectionate, more tolerant than my friends in high school and college were.  I think it is a mistake to assume that Facebook communications are trivial.  Most of casual conversation is trivial, but both are a way of staying in touch, of reaffirming a connection, of belonging.

But there are other ways Facebook nurtures connectivity.  Now it's possible to find friends with similar interests, whether they live next door or a continent away.  It's possible to reconnect with friends who would otherwise be lost.  It's possible to have an epistolary relationship without the responsibilities and demands of people we see all the time.  I suggest that Facebook and blogs, perhaps even texting (which I know nothing about) allow people to think differently and write more fluently.  They place a new kind of emphasis on the written word that makes language itself more accessible and democratic.  We have seen how Facebook and Twitter have influenced politics in the Middle East and raised the consciousness of oppressed peoples.  Just as we thank God for a cell phone when our car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, we should also appreciate the unique opportunities Facebook provides.  In her great novel "Middlemarch" George Eliot uses the metaphor of a web to explain human interdependence.  Touch the web at any of its points, and the whole thing vibrates.  Facebook is our web; it transcends space and contracts time.  The revolution in Egypt could not have happened had it depended on the mail or even the telephone.  Friends who were lost can be found.  Thoughts that might evaporate can be shared.  Facebook allows us to share a brave new world, and we are the better for it.