It’s no secret that the prosperity of social networking tools like Facebook thrives on inferiority complexes. How many “friends” do you have? How many “gifts” have you received? How many people have photographed you at how many parties? I bet I have more than you, and I’ll do whatever it takes to keep it that way.
The mathematical reckoning of social experience lends itself directly to competitive social behavior — a practice all too familiar to many Yalies.
What’s perhaps less obvious is the pervasiveness of these insecurity-feeding technologies. We complain vociferously about the volume of e-mail we face daily, but how many students are secretly thrilled every time their computer goes “ding”? And isn’t receiving a text message exhilarating? It’s evidence that somebody cares about you. Proof of your social validity. It refutes all those nasty kids who made fun of you in middle school. Your cell phone says “missed call,” but it really means to shout out “missed opportunity for affirmation!”
I understand that my classmates undertake some very important projects. But how urgent is the work involved? How many of these projects genuinely necessitate constant access to a BlackBerry? But of course there’s palpable satisfaction in adding that familiar line to the bottom of each message: “Sent from my iPhone.”
We Yalies love to measure ourselves. We spent our high school careers competing for the SAT scores and grades that won acceptance letters, and campus culture hardly mitigates that competitive spirit. To be sure, competition isn’t the only function of these communication tools, but it’s equally clear that their popularity exceeds their sheer usefulness.
When does the explosion of technological society change from a series of tubes to a web of shackles? Perhaps exactly at the point where freshmen begin measuring their college experience against quantitative criteria provided by the good people at AT&T and Facebook.
It has become cliché to lament the loss of face-to-face interaction implicit in electronic modes of communication. It certainly seems a shame to race through the streets of one of the world’s most architecturally intricate communities with eyes locked forward and ears tied to a miniature electronic speaker; but this behavior has become so commonplace as to be overlooked.
More subversive, however, is the transformation of priorities that results from these electronic metrics. Rather than compete with classmates on the basis of real-world success criteria, we devote increasing energy to artificial systems which are no more than games.
Perhaps these games are an inevitable, even appropriate substitute for older criteria of success. After all, recognition in the real world hinges increasingly on virtual parameters. Image and perception are at least as important as reality.
It’s no accident that “The One” we elected to the presidency boasts the largest worldwide Facebook fan following (twice as many as the runner-up, Coca-Cola; Homer J. Simpson takes bronze). Donald Trump wrestled himself out of bankruptcy by projecting an utterly fabricated image of prosperity. Rod Blagojevich believes talk show appearances will enhance his public image enough to slip him through the fingers of the judicial system. Subprime mortgages were so meticulously shrouded that only an international crisis unveiled the void behind the promises. Hollywood isn’t the only place where illusory worlds emerge from shallow façades. Fame (and infamy), as often as not, is constructed rather than achieved.
Perhaps our generation of undergraduates is unconsciously training itself for a new world of political and economic possibility where belief is power.
But at what cost? Orwell cautioned us against sacrificing reality in favor of collective belief. Perhaps it is true today that image begets success, and perhaps Facebook is boot camp for image synthesis. But we are playing Mark Zuckerberg’s game, not ours, and he makes the rules. When we graduate to the real world, whose rules will we follow?
Make your own rules if you like, or find a game that suits you, but do so consciously and carefully. Remember what you value and what inspires you, and don’t conflate specters with reality.
Benjamin Miller is a junior in Morse College.