The Death of Facebook

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Many of you know that I have a love/hate relationship with Facebook. I joined it reluctantly six months ago, and have loved and loathed it for various reasons. Recently, though, Facebook has been mired in a bit of an existential crisis. Just this week it reversed its new terms of service which users passionately rejected for its creepy proprietary implications. And then there is the whole “25 Random Things” sensation that has inexplicably captured the imagination of 7+ million Facebook users. To me, this oddly retro, gloriously insipid throwback to 1998 e-mail forwards is the strongest sign yet that Facebook will soon collapse under the weight of its own purposelessness.

Here is an excerpt from my analysis of this whole thing, published last week on Relevantmagazine.com (read the full article here):

This latest “bout of viral narcissism,” as Time magazine described it, gleefully nebulous though it may be, seems to me to be a sort of resounding trumpet announcement of the coming death of Facebook and all that it represents. “25 Things”—like 90 percent of all status messages, tweets, and Facebook apps—is utterly pointless and nothing more than a distracting way for us to be vaguely familiar to a whole lot of people. If this is the best Facebook can do, it will not last.

Of course, this is wishful thinking. It will in all likelihood last, at least until the “next facebook” comes along. But I’ve never been a fan of facebook, and I’d be just as happy if it collapsed in a spectacular implosion of uncool irrelevance over the next month or so. In my dreams.

In the meantime, there came more frightening news of narcissistic technocalypse this week, from Google of course! Their new “Google Latitude” application provides us with the “maps” version of the Twitter mindset. Now, it is no longer just about updating the world as to your minute-by-minute activities, but also your minute-by-minute locations! Attention, world, I am now at the gas station on Westwood & Santa Monica. Just so ya know! What’s next? A technology to broadcast to the world what we are thinking in real time?

Here’s my problem with all this stuff: in addition to stoking the coals of our inflamed narcissism, all of these technologies make it easier for us to control every aspect of our identity as it exists in relationship to other people. It makes “communion” with people little more than highly self-conscious, intricately schemed, situational performances wherein we control what, when, where, and how much of ourselves people can know. Whatever happened to that wonderfully unsteady sense of mystery, that awkward flubbing around in relationships that used to characterize “getting to know” someone? That is all dispensed with in the Facebook world, where we can “know” someone just by spending some time poking about their various profiles, blogs, and pictures, or just by googling them. We never have to meet them in person, really!

A friend of mine, who miraculously isn’t on Facebook and avoids the Internet in general (but is nonetheless one of the smartest and kindest people I know), recently posed this question to me:

“Do you think that people who do a lot of online networking become that much less able to relate to people in a way that leaves room for inklings about people rather than making decisions based on profiles which are essentially ingredients listings?”

The question immediately resonated with me. Yes, it’s true. I think Facebook has done much damage in the way that we conceive of “knowing” a person. Does it really only amount to how much we know of their favorite music or movies? Or what their status updates report about their day-to-day activities?

I feel like I have false notions of so many people, just because I know them only or primarily through the Internet. It’s so much more interesting and enlightening to get to know someone in reality, without all that. I like being able to discover things about people by asking them, hearing from them, having mysteries and encountering little discoveries along the way. I like seeing the dissonance between someone’s facial expression and or body language and what they are saying. When we all have control over what we look like and how we define ourselves on the Internet, it removes that mystery. And it turns “friendship” into something that has less to do with knowing people deeply than just knowing whatever bits and pieces of them they want to reveal (which happens in real-world relationships too, but moreso on the Internet).

Human beings are far, far more complex and wonderful than their status updates and “ingredient listing” profile pages. And it is far more rewarding and profound to get to know someone in an unsafe, slightly uncertain and awkward way than to rigorously research them and pretend to know them via all the accumulated Internet data on them.

So let’s take a step back from “25 Things” and think about this. Do we really think that sending out mass notes with carefully selected tidbits about ourselves is making anyone more known? Who are we kidding? As a mindless diversion and exercise in classic Facebook self-love, it’s fine. But as a commentary on the uses and practices of online social networking (which I think it pretty much is), “25 Things” is nothing if not a warning sign that the end is near.

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18 responses to “The Death of Facebook

  1. Here’s the deal. I think it’s becoming hip to dis Facebook, and not without reason. I hope it’s OK for me to push back a little bit?
    I have a similar love/hate relationship with Facebook. But it’s not neccessarily for the same reasons you mention. I found myself wasting time (imagine!) playing games, looking at every photo that got posted, poking my nose into everyone’s wall posts. My confession is more a form of voyeurism than narcissism.
    At the same time, I have connected with nieces, nephews, and old classmates in ways that WOULD NOT happen without Facebook. I feel no guilt about that. Sitting down to write 25 or 50 handwritten letters, including prints of family photos, is just not going to happen.
    As for my friends that I see weekly in community — it’s a mixed bag. In many ways I feel like this has been an excellent “supplement” to the relationships we’ve worked hard to form. And, yes, even those “25 Things” notes were great — kind of like a digital small group icebreaker. I’ve even observed the healthy elements of accountability, confession, and forgiveness as a result of those silly things.
    I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the application doesn’t create the maturity in self-assessment or community. If we’re expecting that then we should bag the whole thing. And, how is that different from any tool ever used for community in the history of man? Is narcissism really so new? These are amoral methods that become positive or negative used in the hands of people. People who are choosing to grow up or stay babies in the faith. People who are choosing to pay attention to a Creator or to ignore Him.
    Certainly, we need to think about what we are doing, to call each other up toward maturity. I commend you for initiating discussion through your post.
    You should link it on Facebook. : )

  2. This is funny, because I have been a Facebook user, abuser, and maker-fun-of since college.
    I’ve been up and down. Sometimes with an account. Sometimes not.
    Facebook has been like a High School girlfriend to me. On again, off again. Sometime serious, sometimes a fling.
    I guess I’d be pleased (and disappointed) if it went away.

  3. Interesting article, and I agree with the idea that things like “25 Things” can turn us into total narcissists. However, I don’t think it’ll go away anytime soon. People sent silly e-mails around in 1998, but e-mail didn’t die because it had a practical purpose outside of that.

    And Facebook is practical in so many ways. I plan events with it, I use it instead of e-mail because I find it more convenient, and I can even use it instead of AIM if I ever choose to chat online. If you use Google Analytics, check to see how I found this article…yup! Through Facebook. I’ve been linked up with so many interesting things on the Web because of it.

    Social networks are here to stay. Whether they can make money…now THAT’s the real issue.

  4. For me, it’s not social networking websites themselves that bother me. Most of my dad’s side of the family is on Facebook, and since we live far away from each other it’s a great to keep in touch. However, there is a danger if living one’s entire life online. Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace become the only way we connect with others. It’s like that scene from Wall-E when the two people are talking to each other through the computer screen, and they’re sitting right next to each other!

    Of course while I’m typing this, I should be working, so I can’t really say much.

  5. I have a yes-and-no feeling about this. On the one hand, I don’t really have any relationships with people that I’ve “met” through Facebook or other online networks. I agree that those kinds of relationships would be mostly pen pal kinds of things at best — no real shared experiences, no face-to-face interactions, etc.

    On the other hand, I started out on Facebook in order to better keep in touch with the students in my campus ministry, and it worked very well for that. They’ve graduated and I’ve moved on, so those relationships are attenuating — they’re gathering a little electronic dust, if you like. I’ll probably unhook from a lot of them during this year.

    And now, I’m re-connecting with people from different times in my past with whom I have already shared those similar experiences and the rest. A lot are high school classmates who are on Facebook to make sure they can keep an eye on their kids, but we’ve started stumbling over each other and enjoying learning about the lives we’ve been living since our last reunion. For example, for a lot of us, our “25 Things” were fun reminders of some past times and some neat insights into what made us the people we are today instead of the people we were back then. The Time writer can gripe all she wants that this meme “is so stupid,” but maybe she should have more interesting friends ;-)

    I think you’re right on in that anyone who sees an internet-created relationship as an end in itself will wind up mired in the superficial. But when it’s an introduction to or a continuation of a real flesh-and-blood relationship, then Facebook, et. al. can be useful tools.

  6. I think both are possible and one does not necessarily preclude the other. Both can support and encourage growth in the real relationship. I’m so grateful to have reconnected with friends from all over the continent that I would have otherwise. And now, since I know where they are and what they’re up to, when I’m in their area, I can facebook message them and say, “Let’s get together!” If it weren’t for facebook, I’d come and go and never hang out with them. When I use facebook as a supplement to real relationship, I think it’s fine. When it becomes a replacement, then we have a problem.

  7. i agree with you brett, facebook will destroy how the next generation looks at and communicates with other people. we have already lost so much with email and the telephone- look at teenage girls who spend hours texting on the phones rather than actually having a conversation with those around them. If facebook is the downturn to our society, we should go even a step further and blame TV. and movies- so really this problem has been around since we started inventing and producing media.

    facebook has just become another one of our functional saviors as a society. we have lost how to listen, enjoy the quiet of silence in conversation and the lost art of letter writing. Our problem is that has been around since the Eve ate the apple and Adam did not kill the snake. We long to save ourselves or find something to save us but since we are mostly narcissistic creatures really we just want to save ourselves.

  8. If it didn’t kill email, why will it kill Facebook?

  9. “Whatever happened to that wonderfully unsteady sense of mystery, that awkward flubbing around in relationships that used to characterize “getting to know” someone?”

    Seriously…I honestly regret many of the things I’ve learned about people from the Internet and wish I could “unknow” some of them. It’s just not nearly as cool to find out you have something in common with someone on Facebook as it is to have a conversation about it.

    I killed my blog this week because of that…

  10. I have been reading your blog for a few weeks, but this is my first comment. I felt it appropriate to comment on this subject since your blog was suggested to me by a friend with whom I recently reconnected on Facebook.

    I agree with Brett T that Facebook provides a way for someone like myself, who has lived in almost ten cities in my lifetime, to catch up and reconnect with friends who had become “long lost”. There would be no way to know the mundane details of my friends lives who live in FL, GA, TN, CA, Afghanistan, Scotland, etc. if it weren’t for Facebook. I like knowing what my friends are reading, watching, and thinking about. I like seeing their creativity, joy, frustration, and opinions in a brief status update. There is no way I could keep in touch with as many friends spread across the globe as I do with Facebook if all I had were letter writing and the telephone.

    However, Facebook is taking an ugly turn. What started as a way for college students — who lived in close proximity to each other — to network with each other, naturally evolved into a way for alumni to stay connected. Facebook, at its heart, is a way to network and stay connected. But lately, with the rise of the “survey” (kicked into motion by the 25 Facts craze), Facebook is in danger of becoming yet another narcissistic poster board of self promotion.

  11. I’m not quite ready to give up on Facebook yet. While I agree with many of the potential dangers you listed, I feel compelled to point out that I, for one, don’t use Facebook to “get to know” people I’m not close to in the first place. Example: My extended family members and I are very close, and the advent of Facebook has given me and my cousins (who live in various cities across the country) a way to connect and “hang out” in a way that may never have been available to us otherwise.

    The points you make in this post certainly apply to the people who use Facebook as an escape from reality and a way to omnipotently control their interactions with others, but I think something still needs to be said for the connection that Facebook provides among people who already know and love each other in real life but who can’t always be together.

  12. We disagree then. I like Facebook and find it rather useful. I like to maintain a network with people, and wish Facebook existed 10 years ago, would have been easier than trying to keep everyone’s contact information up to date. It’s nice, too, to get comments from people I used to know well back in college and other times.

    I ended up doing “25 random things” after being tagged for awhile, and sure, it’s not the same as a conversation, but it ended up being fun, and one could argue that a lot of things are pointless. It hardly ‘captured my imagination’ though.

    There are many people that argue blogging is narcissistic, and leaving a comment, whether here or on Facebook, could be labeled a waste of time. Do I know you because of what you choose to share here? Not really, but I know something.

    I do feel, however, that we need to interact more with each other in person, in ways that we truly get to know one another. It’s far different to be emotionally vulnerable in person than online, and not nearly the same. Technology can be a useful supplement, but it’s a sad replacement for real relationships.

  13. Indeed – the move toward using digital mediums as windows through which we interact is weird… probably wrong, and definitely gives a cheaper sense of the person. However, this is just another cog in the wheel – another mix between anonymous information and pornographic techno-identity. According to Comscore over one billion people use the internet around the world and nearly 1 in 5 of them using facebook – and the fastest growing segment is 30+ with 70% of users overseas… it’s becoming global and its not moving in the direction of the simpler but the more complex…

    Meaningless yes – but lucrative, evolutionary, and most importantly natural for the younger…

    It wont matter if its facebook or its replacement – social networks and their data connected through mobile devices around the world will drive lifestyle, our sense of truth, and the economy for the rest of your life… Indeed you may be fighting this battle your whole life…

    Most important is that we develop a language or ontology with which we can model and express substantive truth within such a world. Those who reject the world in whole may be less effective a infusing truth than the critical eye within.

  14. Facebook for me has been a jumping off place for real life relationships. I have many fruitful relationships in real life, both friendships and networking type relationships that were originally nurtured on Facebook. Its not that I meet people via Facebook, its that Facebook helps to get over the road blocks that stand in the way of keeping up with these sorts of relationships. For example, I am an introvert and it can be difficult to work through the small talk stage of a relationship. Facebook has helped me to do that. As silly as it sounds, knowing some small conversation starting piece of information gathered from Facebook gives me a great jumping off point with people in real life. Also, as a full time stay at home parent, Facebook gives me the opportunity to network and stay current with people who are in the field that I wish to enter upon finishing my time at home with my children. I simply can’t, at this point in my life, show up to many of the events that people go to to keep up with their career field, but when I am able, I have a jumping off place with people because of the relationships that I have built with people on Facebook. I love that when my kids are in bed and I’m stuck at home for their sake that I can still enter into a chat on Facebook that keeps me connected. In my experience this has enhanced my real life relationships rather than taken something from them.

  15. I do agree that facebook often reflects our own narcissicm, but I also think it is very useful for people who move a lot (like myself). My parents live on the sub continent, my siblings are all over the us, and my dearest friends are in England, Australia, Seattle, Portland, Spokane, and Chicago.

    It would be wrong to allow facebook “relationships” to take me away from present friendships in my current home, but it is immensely valuable for keeping up with loved ones around the world, and for that I count it a great blessing!

  16. Just discovered your blog – beginning with the Christian hipster series (was mildly disappointed not to really find myself among the twelve, but also mildly relieved) – and I love the bits about irony (I’ve been railing against irony lately, including in myself)… anyway, related to this post, I recently wrote this at the beginning of a Facebook hiatus: “I think I become more myself – which can be scary: I don’t have other people’s clever verbal habits as close to hand, I don’t have the reminders of people’s personal lives, of topics that might interest them, as close to hand either. Facebook can be a kind of buffer against personal weaknesses in relationships, I think. It is good for me to be forced to write letters or email, if I want to talk.” But I also have a love/hate relationship with it. Example: is it good that when I’m desperately lonely I can post ten updates in a day? Or would it be better if I just learned to deal with loneliness? Many dilemmas…

  17. Thanks though,
    I also feel that the death of facebook seems imminent, it’s just like the death of many hypes before the dotbomb.

    bob Julius Onggo

  18. Facebook will die and there are three letters you need to know to believe that statement: AOL. For years many thought that America Online was necessary to view the internet. So much so that it stayed far longer than it should have. However, when sheeple finally realised that you don’t need a middle-man to view the internet, it eventually became a ghost of its former self. Now it’s nothing more than a website. A cheap knock-off of Yahoo!’s website, at that. Wow…talk about hitting rock-bottom.

    The novelty of Facebook will be replaced with something that doesn’t take as long to complete and has a shinier interface. It really is that simple. As a web programmer I know that Facebook is nothing more than a place for people who don’t know how to build web sites, or even simple pages for that matter. And that’s fine. That can be fixed easily without having some college dropout making a few billion.
    But when large companies feel they are missing out on business because they lack a Facebook presence, I take issue. Mainly because of two reasons. 1) It isn’t true. This myth is perpetuated from the idea that when someone searches on Google, sometimes the company’s Facebook page will show before the company’s actual website. This brings me to number 2) Facebook as part of a business model is idiotic. The only thing Facebook does for companies is steal traffic from them. If viewer A goes to the Facebook page of a company to get some quick information then leaves, the incentive to go to the company’s actual page is lost. Which means they don’t get the page view. A few missed views is one thing. But if you are a large company, those missed opportunities add up. It REALLY becomes a problem if you’re trying to tell your marketing and sales departments that it’s worth the client’s money to advertise with them. Those clients want large numbers. And if Facebook is stealing those numbers from you, it’s time for Facebunk to go.

    These points are what is going to kill Facebook. If you tell this to ten others, we could kill this thing ourselves.

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