“I would like people to think I’m as quick and clever and smart and charming as the characters that I write, so I identify with somebody wanting to build an entire world where they get to reinvent themselves. Where they can socialize in solitude. Where they can do a rewrite and polish their own personality.”
That’s a quote from Lloyd Grove’s Daily Beast interview with Aaron Sorkin, screenwriter for the forthcoming–and already critically adored–film The Social Network, a tale of Facebook’s founding (or stealing?) by Mark Zuckerberg. And how painfully right-on it is. On Facebook, we can be whomever we want to be. We can be funny and pithy and intelligent and successful and worldly and sexy and happy and sporty and well-read, well-traveled, and well-“liked”. We can detag ourselves in pictures where we look too fat or too frumpy; we can delete posts that make us sound inane or insane; we can change our profile pictures with the weather. We can expound our impressively-informed political leanings, broadcast our exceptional taste in food, put our enviably stacked social calendars on display. But a list of likes, a compilation of status updates, a collection of comments does not a real person–or a real life–make. Nor does a “friend” a friendship make.
Consider this, from a rave review in not less than The New Yorker:
From the first scene to the last, “The Social Network” hints at a psychological shift produced by the Information Age, a new impersonality that affects almost everyone. After all, Facebook, like Zuckerberg, is a paradox: a Web site that celebrates the aura of intimacy while providing the relief of distance, substituting bodiless sharing and the thrills of self-created celebrityhood for close encounters of the first kind.
We avoid actual interaction in favor of the intensity of nonstop, always-on, mass e-teraction — so what is it that we’re after? And, what is it that we’re avoiding? In Jeremy McCarter’s excellent Newsweek review, McCarter leads off with a reference to a series of Harvard lectures given by Thornton Wilder, one of which focused on “the loneliness that accompanies independence and the uneasiness that accompanies freedom.”
Our modern world, our modern lives, are marked by independence, by freedom, but a pseudo-salve like the ‘book is nothing but a band-aid. A band-aid we’re all too happy to apply, lest we have to deal with our real selves. Our real lives. That inevitable loneliness and uneasiness of which Wilder spoke. Check this quote from McCarter’s piece:
[Zuckerberg’s] opacity leads to an irony that’s not quite tragic, but, in light of how many of us share it, still plenty sad. Zuckerberg and his employees spend enormous time and energy trying to make people connect to each other via their online social network, but they’ve got the situation backward. The route to a happy life, let alone a meaningful one, doesn’t lie in escaping loneliness. As Wilder tried to tell his audience, it is an inescapable part of living in a country as big and free and unencumbered as this one… The trick for us, and for the people around the world living as we do, lies in using our loneliness. Wilder stated that challenge best and for all time when he described the ‘typical American battle of trying to convert a loneliness into an enriched and fruitful solitude.’ Like… another touchstone of contemporary culture, Don Draper–these characters can’t get along with each other because they haven’t learned to get along with, and don’t even really know, themselves.
Fear of solitude, fear of intimacy, longing for connection… no doctor could conceive a better cure than Facebook. But does it make our condition worse? After all, if we’re constantly living the Profile life, the one that offers a sense of reprieve from our solitude, a mirage of intimacy, a well-defined “self,” we never learn to deal with the real stuff. And while it may, indeed, be a harmless way to pass the time, to offer minimal nurturing to connections truly worth maintaining, to provide a quick fix of “social life” when one is chained to one’s desk, there’s something to be said for all the analysis. In a world so limitless, so full of options and possibilities, so marked by independence and freedom and their concomitant loneliness and unease, it can feel nigh impossible–not to mention terrifying–to invite the solitude we’d need to narrow down who in the hell it is that we are. So we create and recreate ourselves at will–all while avoiding ever getting to know who we really are.
I can’t say I’m above it. I’m posting a link to this post now on my own FB page. And I hope that you “like” it.