I saw Jesse Eisenberg on 114th the other day. I don’t bring this up to brag, since as a New Yorker, I obviously don’t give special attention to celebrities, but only because I was with my friend, who apparently confused Eisenberg with his “Social Network” counterpart Mark Zuckerberg (thus making it a far more interesting story to the people she told).
The faux Zuckerberg sighting got me thinking, mostly about how crazy it is that he was in our shoes—an undergraduate at an elite university—as recently as 2004, which really doesn’t seem like that long ago. The year is still vivid in my memory, mostly because the Sox broke the Curse, and it’s insane to consider that in that short time, the social world has completely changed.
It wasn’t all him, either. Zuckerberg was a kind of Hegelian world-historical individual—he was just an agent of the world (networking) spirit (bam). In fact, one of Facebook’s early rivals was created by a SEAS class president who was trying to invigorate Columbia’s school spirit—so I suppose it was doomed from the start. The social revolution was inevitable.
It’s hard to gain perspective on a revolution while it’s still happening, especially since we came of age right at the advent of social networking. It’s pretty difficult for me to imagine the social world even pre-Myspace, although admittedly I’ve mostly blocked 2003 out of my memory (Aaron fucking Boone).
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, LinkedIn, recently deceased but once powerful sites such as Livejournal, Digg, and Flickr, even texting to some extent and smartphones to a large extent—these are all part of the social networking revolution. They control our lives more than we realize, or at least more than we would like to admit. I’ve probably checked Facebook 10 times in the course of writing this, and my iPhone has buzzed with just as many notifications (to which I always have an intense Pavlovian reaction).
Facebook & Co. are more than a procrastination tool, though. Social networking has truly changed the way humans interact with each other. It has led to developments which have undoubtedly improved the world’s ability to connect with and organize larger groups of people, and the ability to share information.
Still, I wouldn’t necessarily call social networking a net positive. It’s no coincidence that Facebook was created by a man described by more reputable sources than Aaron Sorkin as socially awkward, overprogrammed, and robotic. Social networking truly seems like it was created by someone who hates human interaction, who reduced it to an algorithm and completely removed the human aspect. Popularity is measured in likes and followers, our moods are determined from our status updates, and every social action is methodically recorded and made public, to be judged by our friends.
Most of us have a core group of friends and family, and the way we interact with them will (hopefully) never change, but social networking has changed how we interact with everyone else. It’s become immensely easier to maintain superficial friendships. In the past, you had to make an effort to maintain a relationship with someone you didn’t see regularly. Now, we can decide who to consider a friend by noting who writes on our walls for our birthday or who has a cursory conversation with us on chat every other month.
Dunbar’s number—which says we can handle knowing and keeping contact with at most 150 people—is seemingly being shattered, but our cognitive ability to maintain stable relationships with larger groups of people isn’t necessarily improving. We’re just having increasingly superficial and uniform relationships with larger groups of people.
Social networking goes deeper, though, since it appeals to our natural impulse to share. We crave validation, and nothing is more powerful than shared experiences. In the past, when we shared experiences with each other, it was much more personal and meaningful—mostly occurring face-to-face, or at least in the much more meaningful medium of letters or even phone calls.
Now, sharing has become absurdly impersonal. We send out every thought that occurs to us and every image we find interesting, every video and article and stream of consciousness rant, with absolutely no filter, and even worse, with no face-to-face interaction.
Not only are we separated from the people with whom we’re sharing—we’re also becoming increasingly alienated from the experiences we’re sharing. It’s almost like we’ve become more obsessed with the act of sharing our experiences than with the experiences themselves. Every time I go to a concert, people are watching it through their smartphones. Whenever I see a great speaker, everyone is feverishly tweeting what he’s saying.
As the new cliché goes, social networking has vastly increased our connection with everyone, but vastly decreased our connection to each other. A majority of our interactions now take place behind a screen. Our connections to each other are increasingly detached and distant, and our experiences increasingly reduced to more palatable sound bites.
I’m a horrible hypocrite, too. I wish I could give up my phone, or Facebook, but at this point, they’re too much a part of my life and the lives of the people I interact with. They’re here to stay.
I have no solution, except to sometimes leave your phone at home, or refrain from checking Facebook for a day. It’s nice to imagine the world pre-Zuckerberg, but his revolution has just started, and we can crack only the surface in understanding the deeper implications.
Now go tweet this article.
Leo Schwartz is a Columbia College junior majoring in political science and Latin American studies. Rationalizing the Irrational runs alternate Thursdays.
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