Thursday, June 10, 2010

This Just In: People Make Mistakes

As my time in Milwaukee comes to an end, I am seriously considering rejoining Facebook—after a 19-month hiatus—in hopes that it will help me stay in touch with friends in Milwaukee. After spending a significant amount of time off the Facebook grid, it should be easy to evaluate whether or not I feel more connected to friends or if communication with them has been eased and made more accessible. If Facebook proves once and again to be inconsequential to maintaining close friendships, and instead becomes a waste of time (no matter how many minutes are burned up by it), then I will quit it again.

But just as I am about to sign back on, I read this article at called “Company on the Verge of a Social Breakthrough,” by Michiko Kakutani. The article is about Facebook and a new book about it, which was written by David Kirkpatrick, titled The Facebook Effect. Kirkpatrick was granted unprecedented access to the Facebook team for months and was presented with arguments in favor of the social-networking tool’s presence in our lives. He writes in his book, “Some claim, for example, that because of Facebook, young people today have a harder time cheating on their boyfriends or girlfriends. They also say that more transparency should make for a more tolerant society in which people eventually accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things.”

I take issue with both of those claims. Firstly, I doubt the first statement is true. If it is, provide me with the numbers showing the decline of relationships having come to an end because of cheating. Facebook’s transparency does not contribute to moral fortitude, it perhaps makes having an affair or cheating on someone harder to hide, but when it comes down to that moment when you commit yourself to an affair, Facebook isn’t going to be in your decision making process. If you are going to cheat, you are going to cheat. Facebook, cell phones, text messages, Twitter and the blogs aren’t going to stop you. Additionally, people are increasingly voyeuristic (the other meaning) when it comes to their Facebook addiction. They love, in a sickly way, to see people stumble, to see flaws. And there are also those people who are more tempted to cheat on their boyfriend or girlfriend because of the social shockwaves it will send through Facebook. These people most certainly suffer from narcissism, they crave admiration and are willing to get it even if means self-abasement.

Secondly, let’s focus on the next statement about the transparency of Facebook leading to “a more tolerant society in which people accept that everybody sometimes does bad or embarrassing things.” Which is to say, what? That before Facebook people didn’t believe or accept the idea that everyone screws up every once in a while. Please. The fact that humans aren’t perfect isn’t exactly breaking news. Maybe folks over at Facebook and its most ardent supporters love to believe this, but to attribute the discovery of human infallibility, and its acceptance as a universal trait, to a social-networking site is absurd.

Furthermore, this statement assumes we benefit from knowing every bad or embarrassing thing our friends and acquaintances do. I am not convinced this is healthy. Concerning our lives, mistakes and errors in judgment included, privacy is important. While sharing with a close friend or relative about a bad thing you have done is very important, sharing about that bad thing you have done on Facebook via a status update hinting at a mistake, or a post, video or picture about it is not comparable or healthy. While the former approach is an attempt to heal, the latter is more of an exercise in narcissism once again and a cry for help from someone who doesn’t know how to share the old fashioned way. We are left to assume that friends of the person who takes the latter approach will meet the other person halfway and make a connection with them, but I don’t believe that is happening on Facebook, at least not in most cases. Why? Because Facebook—ironically called a social-networking site—is outrageously impersonal. It is too easy to walk away from someone crying out for help on Facebook. It is not too easy to walk away when they call you on the phone sobbing or show up on your front door completely broken. The latter scenario is both harder for the person seeking help and for the person who help is sought from.

Lastly, I wouldn’t be that surprised if the transparency on Facebook, which, people say, helps people accept that everybody does bad things, doesn’t lead to more tolerance, but leads to lowering the standards of human behavior and morality. I know, this makes me sound old, like some fuddy-duddy who just doesn’t get it. Well, is it so hard to imagine a world in which every one of our mistakes is known by our friends and relatives because of Facebook’s transparency? No, it isn’t and in this world would we become comfortably numb to errors in judgment from one-night stands to trying cocaine? Yes, it is possible. ‘Everyone screws up’ and tolerance are great things to practice, but it is dangerous to let them become your mantra because although we all screw up, we all need help too. While Facebook may help with bringing the former truth out of the shadows, the latter truth, the one that speaks directly to our love, compassion and our need to edify each other, isn’t exalted by the saturation of our world by Facebook and all of its friends.

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