As Facebook reaches further into every corner of our lives, it also engenders confusion, annoyance and concern. The litany of complaints is familiar. “People are going to be so busy writing about their lives that they forget to live them,” as a friend complains to me, is perhaps the most typical. This “Facebook isn’t real life” trope spans many sub-complaints. The word “friend” is being devalued by having hundreds upon hundreds of “Friends”. Users’ pages are not a genuine portrait, but a careful selection of photos and updates that amount to an illusion. People should be enjoying their vacation, not taking hundreds of pictures of it and putting them on Facebook. People should spend more time curling up with real books, not waste time bragging about what they read via GoodReads. The birthday messages that pour in because Facebook told your “Friends” it was your birthday are no substitute for real friends who actually remember. And so on.
…Bosworth is merrily impatient with these complaints. “The things people complain about in real life, it’s like they rediscovered them on Facebook. It’s like gossip never existed before, as if your history never followed you around before. I’m not saying there’s not some differences—but these aren’t Facebook problems, they’re just fundamentally human problems.” The philosophy is simple, he says: “Humans talk. Maybe we should let them talk online.”
So “talking” is neither good nor bad. But Facebook means that what people are saying will never again be far away. Long ago, everyone was in regular physical contact with most of the people they would ever know. Everyone knew everyone’s business, but “everyone” was not many people. Then urbanisation, cramming together people from far-flung places, allowed us to vanish into the crowd. Now Facebook is mashing today’s vast crowds into the small town of old, making a world that is both exhilarating and unsatisfying, with more people than ever to keep up with, and more people than ever keeping tabs on you.
Bosworth’s actually right. Relationships are developed and maintained through sustained attention and effort, not through some sort of magic resulting from physical proximity. There’s no reason you can’t put attention and effort into communicating with someone online, just as there’s no reason that an in-person relationship can’t be superficial. Different circumstances mean different aspects of the relationship come to the fore, that’s all. One is not necessarily more “real” than the other, if by “real”, we mean vital, substantial, meaningful.
That said, I find it extremely difficult to give what I consider adequate attention to more than a few close friends. Feeling obliged to keep up with a couple dozen would mean spreading myself too thin, and meaningful communication would get reduced to hasty, reflexive comments. Without some form of contemplative withdrawal from the incessant bombardment of stimuli, there’s no time and space for scattered impulses and experiences to coalesce and develop into the kind of thoughts that might actually be interesting and worth sharing.
Even I am not completely immune to romantic nostalgia, as it turns out—I still fondly remember when the web hadn’t gotten quite so standardized, when you didn’t feel like your once-secluded neighborhood had become stranded in between three or four different big-box stores with eight-lane highways connecting all of them. I know, I know; it was inevitable, but there was a time when the Internet seemed like an interesting alternative to everyday, provincial life, and I loved it that way.