Meanland: On privacy and self in a networked era

In a recent article in the New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith expressed her discomfort with social media, most particularly Facebook, and the harm she believes it has caused to a generation’s worth of communication:

When a human being becomes a set of data on a website like Facebook, he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience: we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears. … Connection is the goal. The quality of that connection, the quality of the information that passes through it, the quality of the relationship that connection permits—none of this is important.

Smith is without a doubt a great writer – persuasive, sharp and erudite, but, like many critics of the whole social media phenomenon, I can’t help but feel that she is looking at the issue from the wrong way round, comparing apples to oranges and finding them lacking, so to speak. Yes Twitter and Facebook can sometimes be ugly – filled with bit-sized commentary that is dull, rude, bigoted, boring or self-indulgent, full of #firstworldproblems, LOLs and bad grammar. And yes they can be exactly otherwise – witty, caring, funny, intelligent, radical, observant and all the variations that come in between. This is because social media is more a less a reflection of ourselves. Like art, like literature, like film and TV, it contains a myriad of ways of being. As Alexis Madrigal points out in the Atlantic Monthly:

It’s key to Smith’s reasoning that Facebook implicitly creates more opportunities for people to say maudlin, ugly, or otherwise silly things. But we’ve been expressing ourselves in ways like that forever.

I suspect perhaps that the unease with this form, and worries about what it is doing to our ‘generation’, comes first and foremost from disappointment with what we are seeing, rather than any intrinsic faults with the programs themselves.

Read the rest over at Meanland.

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