Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Facebook Fallacy

So you think – hooray I’ve finally found my old friend, or better yet, my old flame … and they friended me! We’re back in touch, as if no time has passed, and all through the miracle of the internet! Of course you don’t think at that moment of all your other ‘facebook friends', many of whom you don’t even know and some of whom are actuallygroups or even institutions – the very definition of a “virtual” community, in other words, about as real as the Coliseum in Gladiator or Jar Jar Binks. There’s a story about George Lucas visting the gorgeous, massively elaborate exterior set of lower Manhattan that Scorcese designed for Gangs of New York and making some typically idiotic comment about how it was the last of its kind, soon to be replaced by the wonders of CGI – like the city planet in those unwatchable Star Wars sequels? I don’t think so. Welcome to the world of holograms. Well, Facebook is our emotional Coruscant -- a CGI community … apart from the occasional note on the wall of someone you’ll probably be seeing in two hours anyway.

But it does serve one noble if demoralizing purpose: it gives us a sense of the huge intricate density and detail, the untouchable richness and complexity of another person’s life. It does this so elegantly … a few photographs (O my god, they have a kid??, Crap, do I look that old? How long have they lived in that huge house?), a few wall postings that refer to family trips and graduations, circles of friends over-lapping with other circles of friends like the Olympic logo, and you get the sense of it – like the pulsing halo of light above the hills that promises the still-invisible Las Vegas as you drive through the desert night.

So you sit back and think – did I really believe I could fit myself somehow into that humming sprawl? And could they fit into my own? A few novelty e-mails, check the box and move on: you’re conscious but not connected. It turns out that information is inert -- simple awareness (they’re still alive, they remember prom night, they got fat, they published that stupid book they could never finish) doesn’t generate much energy. They drop away again, and the search for new prodigal pals goes on.

A more accurate image might be that you start off thinking –“This will be a fun ride on the tourist trolley of someone else’s life – a trip through Fantasyland on the Disneyworld train, licking a five dollar ice-cream cone and catching up."

But people’s lives are bullet trains not trolleys, and if you happen to place yourself on an adjacent track all you see is a glint in the distance, then a roar of passing metal, a blur of windows, a buffeting smear of velocity. Then it’s gone. There’s no way off your train, and no way into theirs. And most of all, no way around the dismal paradox at the heart of the metaphor: despite the apparent fact that you are hurtling off in opposite directions, you’re heading for the same terminal, faster every day.

Beter to glance at an old yearbook occasionally.

And leave it at that.

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