How we live now: In public.

Who knows? Zadie Smith knows. In her “Genration Why” essay, she writes about how Facebook is unworthy of us. Specifically:

I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.

Well, Facebook is, perhaps, not worthy of Zadie Smith, but I don’t know about the rest of us. Malcolm Gladwell isn’t a fan either. He said it encourages us to make weak superficial connections with everyone, noting:

Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

That’s theoretically true, but it’s not be an accurate depiction of how most people use Facebook. I think that most of the people we interact with on Facebook are people we actually see on a semi-regular basis. To do otherwise – to compulsively post, say, on an admired accquaintence’s page – seems pathetic and ridiculous. If you read the average person Facebook’s wall, it offers a pretty good representation of who they see and hang out with. Most of the posts will be something along the lines of “wild night yesterday!’ indicating that they went out, and, added bonus, they were awesome in some undefined way. If Facebook were to go down forever, those are the people they would still e-mail and text and make time to actually see in real life on occassion (let’s not kid ourselves – they’d never telephone. They’re not 65).

But then, there are those 500 other people who don’t post on our walls – except, maybe, to say ‘Happy Birthday’ because it is appropriate to wish complete strangers happy birthday on that thing. They just linger in the background. And, oddly, it’s those people that the “wild time last night!” post was written for. And those people serve a purpose, too, and perhaps their existence is the life destroying part.

Because the beauty of facebook is that it gives us the illusion that we have hundreds of people who care about us enough to want to bear witness to our lives. The big stuff in our lives, the little stuff, however much we feel like telling them. And they’ll generally do so without passing an kind of judgement at all. They act as little 21st Gods or Big Brothers, always listening when we want to share something, at least in theory. Having those 500 friends you never talk to may not serve a practical purpose, but it does make you feel that, at least on a minor, passing level, their lives would have been worse had you not existed. 60 years ago, you only got that kind of satisfaction if you were about to jump off a birdge on Christmas Eve and an angel decided to come hang out with you.

With Facebook, we get to be the star of our own little show.

One of the moments I found most bizarre in The Social Network is when Eduardo refuses to change his relationship status to “In a Relationship” on Facebook (he says he doesn’t know how) and his girlfriend responds by lighting his trash can on fire. It was a weird moment because the girls next to me started clapping.

Now, look, everyone knew the girl in question was his girlfriend. He introduced her as such. He brought her Hermes scarves. They were clearly a couple. But without the Facebook validation, it could never be real. And that is why the girls in the audience felt that it was fine that she just started setting fire to stuff.

Perhaps because, just as 60 years ago people wanted to stand before God and declare that they were as one, now we want to declare it to the 500 invisible presences in our lives. There is no Zion save where Mark Zuckerberg is.

The terrifying thing about Facebook isn’t that it makes us form weaker connections than we used to – I don’t think it does – but that it makes us feel like our achievements are meaningless if they are not watched. Generation 2.0 expects an audience. Facebook pictures or it didn’t happen. And we don’t particularly care about televising the revolution. We only care about televising ourselves.