Thursday, September 3, 2009

Networking Not Working

Remembrance of Things Past is the ultimate statement about social networking, and perhaps the most profound philosophical meditation on the subject in the canon. But it was written in total solitude. No one was friending Proust when he wrote his famous series of novels in his cork-lined bedroom.

Facebook, the most popular manifestation of the social networking phenomenon, may represent the death of solitude. Facebook is a little like intravenous feeding—its audience is always linked in and hooked up. And while people constantly talk about wanting to get away, to find a little peace and quiet, the lure of the constant party on Facebook, with its incessant friending, is irresistible.

After all, aloneness is anxiety-producing. Humans are born alone and die that way. The only thing differentiating them from animals with similar fates is the consciousness of their predicament.

Facebook thus presents a plethora of philosophical, social and political problems, and potential virtues—the recent Iranian elections proved that social networks can be vehicles for social change. Much of this is addressed in Fortune tech writer David Kirkpatrick’s much anticipated book The Facebook Effect.

On top of the conundrum of solitude, there is the question of identity. Facebook is based on pictures. Could you imagine Proust offering photographs of the real-life characters on which he based Swann or Odette? What does a small thumbnail sized photo tell us about identity? And what of the constant updates about the banal ephemera of every day life? Diarization of the kind found on Facebook and especially Twitter mistakes bathos for honesty. It’s no wonder that Facebook is so popular. It allows the constant feeling of human interaction without the messy consequences of intimacy.

Facebook also removes a sense of place. It’s no longer necessary to go anywhere when you exist in this ubiquitous cybernetic community, with its rules and rituals and mores that so easily replace indigenous culture.

Alain de Botton wrote a book entitled How Proust Can Change Your Life, but he omitted at least one possibility. Just set out to read Remembrance of Things Past and there won’t be any time for Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site.

MySpace or your place? That is the question.

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