Imagine my surprise when I logged into Facebook last week and an unsolicited list of my friends’ every move confronted me. I half-expected an item saying “so-and-so has just gone to the bathroom — thought you’d like to know.” Moreover, I wondered which of my Facebook actions were now propagating far and wide.
Any earth-dweller knows what I’m talking about: a new feature, entitled “News Feed,” which allows users to track the minute cyber-wanderings, picture additions and profile changes of their friends, would-be-lovers and mere acquaintances, debuted last Tuesday. Such observation was always possible, but “Feeds” enable it as never before. If you’re like me, this didn’t just befuddle you — it made you viscerally uncomfortable.
Now before I go any further, let’s give credit where credit is due. Mark Zuckerberg, creator and C.E.O. of the online social network, responded promptly to immediate outcry on the part of Facebook users. In an open apology letter issued Friday, Zuckerberg wrote, “Somehow we missed [the] point with [News] Feed and we didn’t build in the proper privacy controls right away. This was a big mistake on our part, and I’m sorry for it. But apologizing isn’t enough … better privacy controls … will allow you to choose which types of stories go into [the News Feed].”
Lovely. He apologized. What’s more, he fixed the immediate problem. Just today, I was able to empty the trough of fresh personal information around which my friends can gather. But I felt unsatisfied. Are we dealing with a bigger problem than Zuckerberg is willing to admit?
I believe Zuckerberg has created a sort of monster that wields an unsound portrait of genuine social interplay.
Consider, and do so honestly, what Facebook implies about human interaction. Somehow, reading on a computer screen about our friends’ interests and activities has become a substitute for actually asking them in person about such things. Facebook sums up our friends for us so that we don’t have to.
But valuable, non-verbal information is lost in translation here. How can we react to the tone of someone’s voice, if all we do is read about them? How can we discern, by someone’s body language, how that person feels about him or herself and others, if all we see are still photographs? How can we really become romantically involved if we don’t have the time-tested benefits of eye contact? And, most importantly, how can we ever learn anything new about a person if their whole life reads like an advertisement?
After two years at Yale, I am convinced that life depends on such nuances. I didn’t know this in high school. I had to come to college to realize why actual, quotidian interactions are fundamental in molding our lives. I suspect I am not the only Yalie to have this experience. But I am also certain that phenomena like Facebook are slowly but surely erasing it from our collective memory. The News Feed was and is an alarmingly giant step in this direction; now we can stop exchanging our thoughts and feelings, because another entity relays the information instead. This transfer used to be precious, but it has become rapid and oversimplified. As a result, subtleties of behavior and speech are either disregarded, or go unnoticed altogether.
One could contend that if we criticize Facebook in this way, we have to make similar considerations about e-mail. I would not disagree. E-mail, and even phone conversations, are no substitute for pure, face-to-face contact. But to my mind, Facebook is the most extreme example, a logical yet absurd outgrowth of the Information Age that e-mail helped spawn. Without a doubt, people need e-mail and other tools to connect with family and friends, particularly over great distances. But Facebook bolsters Web interaction as a surrogate for all voice or face-to-face relations, accomplishing in seconds what used to take much longer. Yes, we still meet and make friends in person. But this process’s power over our relationships has been diluted, rendering real human contact a mere supplement to life, rather than its backbone.
Zuckerberg’s apology has saved Facebook from complete embarrassment. But it shouldn’t have taken the News Feed to perk people’s ears at what Facebook has come to signify: a permanent alteration in our concept of social life. One must judge for oneself, as I have done, whether this shift is for better or for worse. But I urge students to think: When we send our children off to college, will our sole advice be, “Make friends on Facebook”? One only hopes we will be bold enough to say, “Don’t forget that it’s people — real people — that can change your life.”
Michael Dziuban is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.