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"Liking Is for Cowards, Go for What Hurts"
May 30, 2011 4:44 AM   Subscribe

Jonathan Franzen's essay, excerpted from his commencement speech at Kenyon College says, among other things "To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology... is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes ... with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self."

Mr. Franzen is not the first person to speculate that technology enables narcissistic behaviour; or that an online experience tailored to your interests can create "filter bubbles" (previously).

The author (previously) (previously) (previously)
posted by dubold (71 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm just here for the favorites.
posted by ryanrs at 4:47 AM on May 30, 2011 [18 favorites]


Never fear; narcissistic personality disorder is being eliminated from the next DSM, so that's one problem solved.

(comments on Franzen's piece copied from my blog)


Given the weirdly ambivalent best-friendship between Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace, it’s sort of a strange choice to invite Franzen to give this year’s Kenyon College commencement address, the 2005 edition of which seems destined to be the essay of Wallace’s that stands in the popular imagination as a portrait of the man himself.

Franzen’s essay is good, but I thought he made a mistake here:

If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).

Surely the joke is much stronger without Trump, or the parenthetical: “You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or running for president.” Then, instead of going for Leno-style yuks, he’s actually gently reminding the high-achieving students at a fancy liberal-arts college that an unreflective drive to achieve, and to win, is second cousin to corrosive melancholy. That would have been a good nod to Wallace. And it still would have gotten laughs, while gently turning the knife.

Instead, Franzen talks bird-spotting, reiterating the similar material in his much-discussed New Yorker piece on Wallace and solitude. This part didn’t sway me. Jonathan Franzen likes birds, we get it. Not all enthusiasms have a lesson to teach.
posted by escabeche at 4:54 AM on May 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


Go Lords and Ladies!
posted by bardic at 5:08 AM on May 30, 2011 [7 favorites]


Did he go to the Peeps party after commencement?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 5:11 AM on May 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


I think the first person to make the narcissus/narcosis connection was Marshall McLuhan
posted by temporicide at 5:26 AM on May 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes ... with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

I think he's reading a little bit too much into Facebook's use of the word "like" and using that as a jumping-off point for three pages of mostly filler, but he did make me think about Metafilter as part of my extended phenotype and I guess that's something.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 5:26 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


He's right. Bird Watching is uncool.
posted by delmoi at 5:47 AM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


the ultimate goal of technology... is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes ... with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.

As long as the "self" is a 20-something single male geek, with a serious tech fetish, working as an over-paid web developer in a boutique shop somewhere in San Francisco, who never has his smart phone out of his hands, then...yeah.

Otherwise, I find the goal of technology seems to be to extract as much of my money from my wallet and to put it in the coffers of extremely large corporations. That and to enable my fridge to buy milk for me.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:48 AM on May 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


Liking is for cowards. Favoriting, on the other hand ...
posted by localhuman at 5:51 AM on May 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


Anyway, I think he has an actual point about facebook. But he's missing out that facebook is designed in a particular way to cultivate people as consumers. And I don't just mean that it has advertising on it, but the whole experience is tuned to get people to 'interact' with brands and think about themselves as people who are defined by the stuff they by.

Technology can be neutral. A hammer doesn't imbue it's user with any particular values. Even something as complex and monetized as Google search doesn't really try to imbue any kind of ideology to it's use (at least not in an obvious directed way like with facebook).

But facebook is all about cultivating consumerism in it's users, because those users are worth more to advertisers. Sites like Craigslist or Wikipedia were built in a different way and have a different ideology.
posted by delmoi at 5:55 AM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


the ultimate goal of technology... is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes ... with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self."

"Technology" has no goals. Humans do. The error of his argument is evident in his need to anthropromorphize "technology"in order to make his point.
posted by Ironmouth at 5:55 AM on May 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


Also, I think his friend Alice Siebold has been listening to too much* Kid Rock.

* Any quantity
posted by adipocere at 5:58 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I guess I'll be the first to say that I really liked this essay. Maybe the points he makes aren't points which matter once you're done being a young twentysomething, but this was intended to be a college graduation speech and this message is one that I think a lot of graduate-aged kids benefit from hearing.

I don't think that love is something we're born understanding. I don't think we grow up knowing exactly what passion is. I once thought I was passionate about a lot of things that it turns out I don't give a shit about. So while we look for our passions, we maintain a bunch of weaker connections to things that matter less. This is why the people most invested in social media tend to be either young or antisocial.

Now, I don't think that the "like" culture is to blame for young shallowness. I also don't think that it necessarily inhibits us. What's getting in our way is ourselves; but we get over it as we get older, right? Or at least most of us do? I think it's worth asking how we could teach younger people to cultivate deeper, more meaningful relationships, and that's a part of what I hope to focus my work on in the next few years. In the meantime, I don't blame Facebook for not encouraging depth, while on the other hand I'm grateful to Franzen for writing so well about what we ought to be looking for.

But facebook is all about cultivating consumerism in it's users, because those users are worth more to advertisers. Sites like Craigslist or Wikipedia were built in a different way and have a different ideology.

I disagree that this is primarily Facebook's purpose, or even that this is the primary effect of Facebook, but I do think there's an issue here. Facebook didn't create the "like" as a way of attaching to brands. Actually, to the best of my knowledge "liking" was done by Tumblr before Facebook ever had it; I remember discussion on tumblelogs about Facebook's "like" unveiling. The "like" was intended to be a content-related version of the poke; when you don't have anything useful to say, you like it, and let the poster know that you appreciate its being there. And this is the way it happens on Facebook, too. It's the online equivalent of laughing at a joke; you're adding nothing but your own positivity.

Of course, Facebook moved the "like" to things like books and musicians and companies, because Facebook is all about the providing connections between everything that can possibly be connected. I feel like there's a good intention behind this, too; certainly letting people attach to musicians and films help a bunch of independent artists thrive. It also opens the way for a bunch of corporate nonsense, like when ChapStick asks people to share their "favorite ChapStick memories", but part of the point of Facebook is that when you dislike the messages you're seeing, it's either the fault of the person pushing the message, or it's your fault for humoring them.

Some people use Facebook to create a brand for themselves by attaching to other brands. But that's not the only way to use Facebook. My own profile is as close to unbranded as you can get: no images, no information beyond contact information, just a wall and a bunch of status updates. It's a faulty tool that you can hack into working.

"Technology" has no goals. Humans do. The error of his argument is evident in his need to anthropromorphize "technology"in order to make his point.

Clearly when he says "technology" he means "the technology which we are creating, but specifically the technology that fuels 'social' interactions (like smart phones and Facebook)". When did we stop meeting writers half way?

He's right. Bird Watching is uncool.

Bird watching is awesome. I don't even bird watch, but if I meet somebody who bird watches it's a plus in their favor.
posted by Rory Marinich at 6:32 AM on May 30, 2011 [15 favorites]


I loved his discussion of birdwatching.
posted by docpops at 6:38 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I really liked the essay as well, but I think Like Cuture is, if not the problem, a symptom of the larger problem. Liking seems to differ from loving in at least three ways: you can like as many things as you want, there's no checks on the internal consistency or inconsistency of the things you like, and liking doesn't demand anything of us in return. While a bit on the heavy handed side, Franzen's sexual metaphors do get our attention - relationships, even with abstractions like environmentalism, are meant to demand something different of us, are meant to change us. That's why we're not capable of loving an infinite number of people or things (at least, not in the same way as the things we primarily love) - we would change so often we'd lose track of ourselves.

Where Like Culture could really get dangerous is in its re-calibration of what a normal amount of fascination with the universe is. I try to use the Like button really sparingly so the list of things on my Facebook profile is an effective encapsulation of what I'm into. In the context, you could take away a different message: I don't use Facebook that much, or I just don't care about a lot of things. I worry about a culture which bases personal worth on the quantity of things you're into, rather than the quality of your relationship with them.
posted by Apropos of Something at 6:49 AM on May 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


Apparently Alice Sebold, author of The Lovely Bones, likes to quote Kid Rock, a circumstance I find as baffling and potentially frightening in its implications as I would J.K. Rowling quoting Insane Clown Posse or Alice Munro citing the lyrics of Buckcherry.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:58 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of.
I think this is very very true and is something I'm trying to keep in mind as I enter a new relationship.
posted by peacheater at 7:02 AM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I tried reading The Corrections. I got about 50 pages in and cxouldn't stand it anymore. Thus whatever he has to say is boring and meaningless.
posted by jonmc at 7:03 AM on May 30, 2011


Apropos: But if we worry so much about liking things, doesn't that make us more culpable than the people who click like five hundred times a day because they don't care what it says about them (or even consciously realize that it says nothing meaningful)?

My dad told me recently that Kid Rock is actually a talented, interesting songwriter. I forget which song he recommended me, but I can't say that I have enough Kid Rock experience to judge him.
posted by Rory Marinich at 7:08 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


My dad told me recently that Kid Rock is actually a talented, interesting songwriter.

He's OK to listen to in a bar or a party situation, when it's something like "Cowboy" or "Wasting Time" and he had that other song which was a listenable ballad.
posted by jonmc at 7:12 AM on May 30, 2011


the ultimate goal of technology... is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes ... with a world so responsive

were it the health care system :P here's a bit from atul gawande's commencement address:
The core structure of medicine—how health care is organized and practiced—emerged in an era when doctors could hold all the key information patients needed in their heads and manage everything required themselves. One needed only an ethic of hard work, a prescription pad, a secretary, and a hospital willing to serve as one’s workshop, loaning a bed and nurses for a patient’s convalescence, maybe an operating room with a few basic tools. We were craftsmen. ...

[Today] we train, hire, and pay doctors to be cowboys. But it’s pit crews people need.
cf. How Consumer Choice Can Save Health Care & We Are Bad At Buying Insurance? viz. The Dirty Little Secrets Of The Pharmaceutical Industry

not to try and turn this into a discussion about health care -- altho NPD isn't being 'eliminated' from the next DSM; sam vaknin explains! -- but i think if technology is going to be positively disruptive of entrenched and unresponsive institutions, then the hard part is taking them on (and not being co-opted, subverted or deported in the process)

also btw...
-Watching Yourself
-The Camera On The Revolution
-Inflation In Real-Time
-The Modern Man
-In The Beginning [1,2]
posted by kliuless at 7:21 AM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rory Marinich: "Apropos: But if we worry so much about liking things, doesn't that make us more culpable than the people who click like five hundred times a day because they don't care what it says about them (or even consciously realize that it says nothing meaningful)?"

Worrying is, in general, to be avoiding. To the extent we worry, I suppose, our relationship with the world gets a bit less naturlal. More to the point, though, I think having a public relationship with a thing should require a level of devotion beyond the sort of one-way relationship Franzen describes. Requiring someone put their money (or their time, or their trust) where their mouth is helps prevent people from appreciating something ironically or otherwise using liking something as some sort of in group shibboleth.
posted by Apropos of Something at 7:25 AM on May 30, 2011


I got about 50 pages in and couldn't stand it anymore.

I think Frazen is supposed to be writing the "novel of our times" that people in the future will turn to when they think about the 90s or 2000s and its generation. Like Hemingway's Sun Also Rises and the 1920s Lost Generation. Or Dickens and Victorians. Or Tolstoy and Russia. It's sort of the holy grail among writers because it imparts immortality. The problem is, I think, he's not 'the one', because the future will be bored by his novels which are middle class period pieces.
posted by stbalbach at 7:31 AM on May 30, 2011 [6 favorites]


I think Frazen is supposed to be writing the "novel of our times" that people in the future will turn to when they think about the 90s or 2000s and its generation.

Richard Price & David Foster Wallace (among others) beat him to it.
posted by jonmc at 7:36 AM on May 30, 2011


Man, I wish someone would write another The Sun Also Rises. I would read the shit out of that.
posted by localhuman at 7:41 AM on May 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool.

This has not been my experience, and I guess I'm cooler than Franzen because I didn't worry that birding would be seen as cool. My fb comments and posts about birds get a lot of "likes." Maybe all my fb friends are uncool? I suppose not caring about what's cool is actually what's cool. I do try to keep a lid on the bird nerding when I'm not with other birders; not because I'm ashamed of being uncool, but because I don't want to be a bore. I also try not to tell endless stories about my cats.

It's strange to me how he anthropomorphizes technology. As Ironmouth said, "technology" doesn't care about this or that; it was designed and marketed by humans to appeal to us in this way or that way.
posted by rtha at 7:43 AM on May 30, 2011


Birding's an effective example, I think, because it's all about patience, quiet and deriving value from ordinary experience. These are the cultural attributes that Franzen's worried about losing, I suspect.
posted by Apropos of Something at 7:48 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


The funny part of this article is that there is no hobby more like facebook than bird watching.
posted by srboisvert at 7:52 AM on May 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Technology" has no goals. Humans do. The error of his argument is evident in his need to anthropromorphize "technology"in order to make his point.


Clearly when he says "technology" he means "the technology which we are creating, but specifically the technology that fuels 'social' interactions (like smart phones and Facebook)". When did we stop meeting writers half way?


While you may be correct about what he means, let me introduce you to my old friend technological determinism, a pervasive and influential understanding of the relation between technology and society.

Given its pervasiveness, I'm not sure it's clear that he's not granting agency to technology, it can be a difficult notion to dislodge. For example, I spend a fair bit of time each semester trying to get students to critically examine their own technological determinist tendencies, and still end up marking too many essays that begin with propositions along the lines of "Facebook is fundamentally changing the nature of social relationships" which never go on to unpack that it is the way which people use technology and its position within broader social, political, and economic formations that leads to such change, rather than the technology in itself.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 8:07 AM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


"Technology" has no goals. Humans do. The error of his argument is evident in his need to anthropromorphize "technology"in order to make his point.

1. You've probably noticed that technology has had a bit of an effect on civilization over the years.

2. Perhaps you haven't noticed that many of the effects of technology are not human goals at all but by-products of the design of a technology, including by-products of thinking within the parameters of a technology. For example, cities are laid out the way they are because of cars. Industrial food production has fundamentally changed our relationship with nature. We slot our minds into the narrow channels required to navigate a computer interface, even as we claim that they are a transparent extension of our minds.

3. That technology is so seamlessly woven into our lives makes it harder to see that we are moulded and used by technology as much as technology is used by us. Just as language and culture create patterns of thought (some Amazonian tribes don't have the concept of mathematics or numbers over ten), so too does technology. The usual example is Facebook, which has undeniably changed the way hundreds of millions of people think about social interaction, without many even realizing it.

4. As our immersion in technology becomes more complete, and our technology advances, we move towards a unification of thought and action. In Franzen's terms this is the domination and mastery of nature. The ideology of scientific progress guarantees this path.

By the way, Ray Kurzweil's singularity concept is the end point, if you believe that this process can continue indefinitely.
posted by gonna get a dog at 8:21 AM on May 30, 2011


"a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes"

This is a basic problem with perception. In my experience, the natural world, in which we are embedded, of which we are a part (for better or worse), is not indifferent either to our wishes or our doings.

Watching the experiment, changes the outcomes. If humans can develop the ability to closely observe the natural world, in fact find some blissful closure, then they can also directly perceive the natural world is the farthest thing from indifferent to us.

People will try to debunk climate change to me, and I look up at the strip mall, or industrial park, and I say, of all the things we could have chosen for our interface with Earth, we chose this. We deserve what we have created.
posted by Oyéah at 8:28 AM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


Birding's an effective example, I think, because it's all about patience, quiet and deriving value from ordinary experience. These are the cultural attributes that Franzen's worried about losing, I suspect.

It's also highly competitive and ego-driven: who has seen the most birds? Who is best at identifying a bird from one quiet note? Who can most quickly ID that speck two miles away? Who has traveled farthest to see some rarity or accidental? Who has the best optics?

Birding is not without beauty and zen and peace. It's also not without jerks and their bragging.
posted by rtha at 8:39 AM on May 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


By the way, Ray Kurzweil's singularity concept is the end point, if you believe that this process can continue indefinitely.

I think you mean it's the event horizon, the point beyond which we have no clear vision of what could happen because it is beyond our ability to know.
posted by hippybear at 8:44 AM on May 30, 2011


Technology can be neutral. A hammer doesn't imbue it's user with any particular values.

I disagree. With the hammer example there is even the old cliché: When someone is holding a hammer - everything looks like a nail. Specific tools are created to solve specific problems, and than applied to other problems whether they are appropriate or not.

Technology, by merely existing, shapes our perceptions and expectations. And because of this technology is not a neutral player, but one wrapped in ideology.
posted by elwoodwiles at 8:59 AM on May 30, 2011 [4 favorites]


One problem with "like" culture is that "like" and "friend" don't have their (formerly) common meanings as they're used in social media and networking.

On FB, "liking" things means you give them your attention and access to your feed. I "like" some movies because I want to see the trailers when they come online, not because I think they're great movies. How can I know whether I think Green Lantern is a good movie? It's not even out yet! Similarly, I like bands because I want to get their updates. Steely Dan is one of my favorite bands but they don't have a FB presence so there's no point in "liking" them.

Similarly, "friend" means mostly "someone I follow and/or who follows me" in social networking, possibly with access considerations. (Livejournal is a big and early offender in the use of "friend" and helped set the tone.) Not everyone I follow and read who has a blog is someone I'd consider a personal friend, and I have a lot of acquaintances I follow on FB although I'm more restrictive there.

The "like" culture may mean we're exposed to only stuff we're interested in, except of course when our friends like/recommend things that are new to us, but it also twists the meaning of like to something different to the formerly common usage. It's OK to surround ourselves mostly with things we enjoy, but a lot of what we "like" is really just sort of mental clutter. Where I think Franzen missed the boat on liking and loving is that you need to make room for the things you love, and that means "liking" less.
posted by immlass at 9:05 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


A hammer doesn't imbue it's user with any particular values.

Actually, it makes some people want to hammer in the morning, in the evening, all over this land...
posted by jonmc at 9:13 AM on May 30, 2011 [3 favorites]


Ok, jonmc said it better...
posted by elwoodwiles at 9:16 AM on May 30, 2011


I'm not sure I understand why people who snark about Franzen and Foster Wallace being "friends" also snark about how their books are similarly boring/unreadable. Franzen's writing is monumentally different and way more accessible. Someone thought the first 50 pages of The Corrections was boring? Geez. If that's boring, what ISN'T boring?? The fucking Hobbit?

As for his speech/article, I agree with him. Facebook may have started as a fun way to keep in touch with friends, but I remember the day so many years ago when they introduced ads and thinking it was just a matter of time before the whole thing was corrupted. Not worth it anymore.
posted by ReeMonster at 9:44 AM on May 30, 2011


Similarly, "friend" means mostly "someone I follow and/or who follows me" in social networking, possibly with access considerations.

It's always weird to me how some people can't seem to redefine words within specific contexts. (see "Evolution is just a THEORY!") I've had many discussions with people (probably because I'm in my 40s and a lot of my peers are middle aged luddites) who cynically remark that Facebook "friends" aren't FRIENDS, as if there's a great conspiracy to fool people into believing they have more friends than they actually have.

At least for me, there's nothing to be cynical about. My Facebook friends wouldn't take a bullet for me? Wow. Big news. Yes, I totally understand that most of my 315 Facebook "friends" are actually online acquaintances, which is exactly what I want them to be. (I also have a few Facebook friends who happen to be actual friends, in the traditional sense of the word.)

It's very easy for me to use the word "friend," when not on Facebook, to mean "someone I'm really close to" and, when on Facebook, to mean "someone whose posts I'm amused by." There's zero cognitive dissonance for me.

I DO think there's are real (and interesting) things to discuss about online social networks, but I wish Facebook had called "friending" something else, so that we could eliminate all faux profound discussions that are actually just word games.
posted by grumblebee at 9:52 AM on May 30, 2011 [8 favorites]


Even something as complex and monetized as Google search doesn't really try to imbue any kind of ideology to it's use... But facebook is all about cultivating consumerism in it's users, because those users are worth more to advertisers. Sites like Craigslist or Wikipedia were built in a different way and have a different ideology.

The web was originally conceived as a way for academics to share knowledge, which is why it's no accident that Google's PageRank algorithm is a descendent of citation analysis. The web works when people think of themselves as something like academics, producing knowledge for the relatively altruistic goal of increasing humanity's knowledge, and fails when they try to directly profit from it. Obviously, Wikipedia also encourages and promotes this kind of subjectivity, but there are limits to how many people can be absorbed by it.

Facebook and social media are able to extract value from people who don't see themselves this way by promoting different, more social motivations for producing content. In a way, the narcissistic subject that ends up being created on facebook is a parallel to content farms, SEO spammers, trolls, etc. on the web - the platform creates the possibility for other forms of stigmatized "pathological" subjectivity - "pathological" because they undermine the potential for profit.

So yes, there's a difference between participation on Wikipedia and participation on Facebook in terms of motivation, but the difference is not between active producers and passive consumers. If anything, the creative, productive capacity of Facebook users is what Facebook sells to advertisers.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:53 AM on May 30, 2011


Franzen's writing is monumentally different and way more accessible. Someone thought the first 50 pages of The Corrections was boring? Geez. If that's boring, what ISN'T boring?? The fucking Hobbit?
I haven't read any DFW books but they sound interesting. Just reading descriptions of Frazen's work is boring. If it's boring to hear people talk about the book, how can the book itself not be so boring? And yeah it sounds much more boring then the Hobbit, why not? It just doesn't seem very imaginative. Who wants to read a book about bland middle class baby boomers with boring lives? I don't get it.
posted by delmoi at 10:02 AM on May 30, 2011


I wish Facebook had called "friending" something else, so that we could eliminate all faux profound discussions that are actually just word games.

I think in some ways the discussions about the word games are actually important. It's a dilution of the true meaning of the word to have it shift so drastically when used in different contexts, and as new people grow up with the increasingly pervasive NEW meaning of the word, it is simple to see how that may (and probably will) color their inbuilt definition of the concept behind the word via its old definition.

It's especially frustrating because it probably WAS originally meant as "this is my friend" back from the early days of Facebook when only people with .edu email addresses were allowed to sign up and it was a non-commerical space. But the more accurate term for what it stands for now would be "subscription" or "feed follow" or something.

Words do have meanings, and while those meanings change organically over time, this is a much more forced meaning shift which has implications which extend beyond the carefully defined context-spaces you describe.

Anyway, I have no dog in this race. I'm not a Facebook member, and have never clicked a Like button in my life. But people who speak out about the meaning of "friend", I think they have something worth hearing. It's just a shame that it's so entrenched in the FB thing now, because better vocabulary choices would indeed be better.
posted by hippybear at 10:05 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Facebook "friends" aren't FRIENDS, as if there's a great conspiracy to fool people into believing they have more friends than they actually have.

I do think Facebook (and livejournal before it) encourage people to consider more people "friend-friends" than "readers" or "people I follow", mostly for purposes of expanding FB's reach and their ability to advertise. To the extent that it's a conspiracy, though, it's not about the ego-stroke of big friend numbers as much as it is a conspiracy to expose users to more/more targeted ad impressions and make the social network sticky (difficult to leave).

(And hippybear's comment about the forced evolution of the term also resonates for me. I don't have trouble juggling the meanings, but I know people who do. Unhooking from someone on a social network isn't the same as cutting off a real-life friend, but "defriending drama" happens for a reason.)
posted by immlass at 10:24 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


as new people grow up with the increasingly pervasive NEW meaning of the word, it is simple to see how that may (and probably will) color their inbuilt definition of the concept behind the word via its old definition.

I'm not sure there's anything simple about it.

Let's say that one day the word "friend" comes to mean "someone whose posts you follow" and it totally loses its old meaning. Okay. So what are you saying will be the likely upshot? Are you saying that, in such a world, people wouldn't have friends of the traditional sort? Isn't it more likely that they would, but that they'd call them something else?

We no longer call a child a "barn," as people did in Shakespeare's time, but we still have the concept of a child.

I am not saying that definitions have no effect on thought. But the relationship is anything but simple and it isn't predictable. Which is why I think it's silly to claim that Facebook is changing the way we think about friendship (or liking something) because it's changing our definition of the word "friend" (or "like"). MAYBE it is. But let's see some evidence.

One thing for sure: these word discussions make sound-bites and "opinions" really easy. They're great for journalists! "Is Twitter Changing the Way We Think About Birds?"

I do think Facebook (and livejournal before it) encourage people to consider more people "friend-friends" than "readers" or "people I follow"

What makes you think Facebook does this? And do you think it's effective? How? Why?
posted by grumblebee at 10:38 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)

Uhhhhhhh...

Well, let me just say if I may, etc.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 10:49 AM on May 30, 2011


What makes you think Facebook does this?

The immediate thing I think of is that it encourages you to acknowledge birthdays, anniversaries, and other major occasions by noting them as "events" along with invitations you've received to social events (parties, etc.). The current UI doesn't have an obvious "gift" mechanism but the "event" is marked in your sidebar with a gift box and previous iterations of the UI have had payment-oriented gift opportunities when you post to the wall for people's birthday. Given how many wall posts I see acknowledging these occasions, I would say yes, FB is successful in promoting that behavior. YMMV.
posted by immlass at 11:04 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


Someone thought the first 50 pages of The Corrections was boring? Geez. If that's boring, what ISN'T boring?? The fucking Hobbit?

I don't read sci-fi, numbnuts. And several authors(Richard Price, Tim Sandlin, Chris Offutt, Trey Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Kinky Friedman, James Ellroy, Chuck Klosterman, Benjamin Anastas & Larry McMurtry, just to name a fucking few) are more enjoyable to read than yuppie angstmeister Franzen.
posted by jonmc at 11:04 AM on May 30, 2011


(and David Foster Wallace of course, who reduces Franzen to pygmy status)
posted by jonmc at 11:06 AM on May 30, 2011


I don't read sci-fi, numbnuts.

Do you talk to people in real life like this? Because when I read you writing here in this manner, it makes me look for your username and then sort of tune out whatever you may have to say regardless of quality of content, just like it would if I were at a party with you and this kind of language were your way of holding conversation.
posted by hippybear at 11:10 AM on May 30, 2011 [5 favorites]


Do you talk to people in real life like this?

Sometimes. I just felt obliged to respond to the initial 'Hobbit' crack (and FWIW, there's some sci-fi I like, James Morrow for instance). and from what I've seen, you and I would make for good drinking buddies. I just need to knock Franzen off his pedestal.
posted by jonmc at 11:28 AM on May 30, 2011


Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.

Well, I hate to say I love anything that Franzen has ever said or written, but it's true here, even though it's been said better by others, it caps off his speech well. And it has the added advantage of not being filtered through his usual screens of narcissism and self-regard -- and the even better advantage of being true, true to the pain of life, true to the pain of love, true to the pain of death. And the sadder truth is that he's really preaching to an audience that won't fully or daily understand what he means by this statement until it's too late -- I say this because I was once one of those people, many long years ago. It's not until you hit your 40s that you come face to face with mortality on a regular basis, for the most part, unless you're in the military or in another career that forces you to confront death on a daily basis. And even then, adjusting to the realization that you will die before long, possibly even sooner than you think, is a constant battle.

Oh, and I agree with him that it's impossible not to love birds, unless one shits on you, that is.

ReeMonster: Franzen's writing is monumentally different and way more accessible. Someone thought the first 50 pages of The Corrections was boring? Geez. If that's boring, what ISN'T boring?? The fucking Hobbit?

Many great novels' first 50 pages aren't boring. Just one off the top of my head: Revolutionary Road. That's the first example I could think of; there are many, many, many more. The Corrections was boring and infuriating both. I read it all the way through and was still bored and infuriated at the end.
posted by blucevalo at 11:32 AM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


(also 'numbnuts' is what my dad called me as a kid, as in 'time for dinner, numbnuts' so I don't really see it as a slur or anything, just a friendly jibe)
posted by jonmc at 11:34 AM on May 30, 2011


The immediate thing I think of is that it encourages you to acknowledge birthdays, anniversaries, and other major occasions by noting them as "events" along with invitations you've received to social events (parties, etc.).

Maybe this is just me. I would be interested in hearing how far I am from the norm: when I acknowledge people's birthdays on Facebook, it's not a very meaningful ritual, unless they are already a real friend of mine. It's a nice bit of politeness, that's all. It's like when it's a co-worker's birthday, someone at work I'm not all that close with. I certainly don't feel closer to anyone on Facebook just because I've wished him or her happy birthday.
posted by grumblebee at 12:13 PM on May 30, 2011


when I acknowledge people's birthdays on Facebook, it's not a very meaningful ritual, unless they are already a real friend of mine.

This is why I don't list my birthday on Facebook. I know that it's not a very meaningful ritual for a lot of the people who would say something, and I don't want to think about that.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:10 PM on May 30, 2011


The appropriation of the word "friend" is driven by the need to keep the brand viable: nobody's interested in connecting with "acquaintances" or "strangers." Similarly, your band or your company isn't interested in being followed so much as they are being liked. All that's fine enough, I suppose - I appreciate that there's a relatively easy way for my acquaintances to let me know about events I might be interested in or tell me when they move or get engaged - it gets trickier when we start to lean on Facebook as much as we do or when we mediate so much of our real life experience through the web. At this point, I think Facebook has encouraged an impatience with traditional social mechanisms for learning about the world.

I'm a big believer in the idea that technology can be both useful and agenda-neutral. My Google Calendar is both useful and agenda-neutral. The smartphone I finally started using is useful in a variety of ways and is agenda-neutral as long as I'm at least somewhat careful with my app choices. On some level, Facebook is useful and agenda-neutral, but there's a point at which too much sharing and liking starts to define how you relate to the world. For the sake of argument, I'd say that line is above one status update or like a day, but YMMV.
posted by Apropos of Something at 1:38 PM on May 30, 2011



I found the whole article ludicrous, but this was where I started laughing:

"My love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed."
posted by CunningLinguist at 2:37 PM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


I would be interested in hearing how far I am from the norm: when I acknowledge people's birthdays on Facebook, it's not a very meaningful ritual, unless they are already a real friend of mine. It's a nice bit of politeness, that's all.

Yes, but would you remember their birthday if FB wasn't telling you and suggesting you perform that ritual every time someone had one? I'm happy to wish all my friends and family members a happy birthday, but the truth is there are about six people whose birthdays I'd remember without a nudge. I'm not sorry to have that reminder and do it, but the effect is to flatten my remembrance of almost everyone's birthday into the same sort of thing: acquaintances same as friends, and close friends same as more distant ones, like the time it told me to write on my husband's wall because it was our wedding anniversary. (This is part of what Franzen is getting at.)

Compare that to how we interact on Metafilter: many of us enjoy each other's e-company (and RL company through meetups) but the site doesn't prompt us to ritualize birthdays. When was the last time you got a memail about your birthday that wasn't prompted by a post that mentioned it? Metafilter encourages different behavior.

FB is constantly reminding me--or was until I got wiser and adblocked most of this stuff--to "reconnect" to people, to play games with people, to write on people's walls. It shows me "top news" based on who interacts most with the site and with me, which is a cool algorithm but doesn't have anything to do with who my friends are because I also interact with them off the site, which isn't and can't be figured into their algorithm. It sends me notes to suggest friends for people I've just added, as though I should know who they like and to whom they should be introduced.

This all makes sense when you realize that what FB wants is to increase your site participation (the more you write on people's walls, comment on their posts and links, play games, etc., the more ad impressions you see and maybe click on and buy something) and to open you up for more viral marketing ("your friend John Doe likes Jonathan Franzen; like Jonathan Franzen"). But it's not (necessarily) the same as other forms of equally valid friendly interaction. You can become friends through FB interactions but FB interactions aren't identical to the broad range of interactions that friendship can include.

I'm sure I notice FB's handling of "friendship" in part because I'm a bit introverted and that makes me more aware of FB's attempt to appropriate my narrower social bandwidth. Overall I find the site useful enough for my purposes to keep using it within limits (adblocking a lot of suggestion stuff, limiting the number and kind of people I friend, limiting my likes, etc.). I don't think there's a grand conspiracy to change the nature of friendship; FB just wants to appropriate my social instincts to make them money, per that quote about me (probably) being the product instead of the customer for a free website.
posted by immlass at 3:22 PM on May 30, 2011


Yes, but would you remember their birthday if FB wasn't telling you and suggesting you perform that ritual every time someone had one? I'm happy to wish all my friends and family members a happy birthday, but the truth is there are about six people whose birthdays I'd remember without a nudge. I'm not sorry to have that reminder and do it, but the effect is to flatten my remembrance of almost everyone's birthday into the same sort of thing: acquaintances same as friends

I guess we ARE different. If I wish 1000 people "Happy Birthday" and only really care about the fact that it's 3 of those people's birthdays, that makes 997 of those happy birthdays empty, polite rituals and 3 of them meaningful rituals. I don't get at all confused about the difference, which is why I'm not bothered by the 997. When I say happy birthday to my best friend, I get a deeply warm feeling. When I say it to a Facebook friend (who isn't a RL friend), I feel like I've done a duty and maybe added 5 seconds of "sparkle" to someone's day. There's no mixing the two feelings up for me.
posted by grumblebee at 3:41 PM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have absolutely no experience with Facebook, I’ve hardly seen it. But the more I read discussions about it the more horrible it sounds. It used to be something I was ambivalent about since it didn’t seem like something I’d be interested in, now I’m actually repulsed.

This feeling is certainly not helped by recent occurrences where companies would not give me information on their web sites or let me enter promotions until I "like"‘d them on Facebook, even though I’m not a member. Also known as "how to instantly lose a customer".
posted by bongo_x at 4:26 PM on May 30, 2011


I don't get at all confused about the difference

Talking about general trends isn't meant to suggest that I think you're a weak-minded sheeple because you use Facebook, you know. I don't get confused about the difference between my husband and the people I "friended" after my 25th high school reunion but hadn't otherwise spoken to since I was 18 (for instance) either. But the use cases for which FB is designed promote the same behavior for all sorts of friendship (closer and more distant). Based on your interaction with the site, as seen by other users, there's no way for any onlooker to tell how attached you are to the 3 vs the other 997.

In terms of actual proof of the change of the meaning of the word, there won't be any actual data for a long time, until ever. But colloquially, I don't remember hearing "friend" as a verb until social networks started to use it that way.
posted by immlass at 4:49 PM on May 30, 2011


Also known as "how to instantly lose a customer".

Yeah, there are more than just a couple of interactions with bands or companies I might have pursued if it hadn't involved a Facebook membership. On some level, it's the company being lazy, because the infrastructure is being provided for them by FB. On another level, it's FB gaming the system and trying to put the right honey in the pot to attract me as an object for them to sell. Either way, I miss out on the interaction, they miss out on my money.
posted by hippybear at 4:54 PM on May 30, 2011


I liked Corrections, but the essay didn't resonate as much. I found it ironic that Franzen, a writer, found technology's intrusions upon reality disturbing. Isn't literature, really the act of writing, a means of escape? An intrusion of someone else's 'life' into yours?

Especially in the 21st century, where the web does provide fairly rich environments for interaction, Franzen sounds a bit self-congratulatory. And what of the NYT, don't they have a vested interest in the matter -- where they were the tastemakers, where most of the left if not the country received their news and commentary. And now they have to compete with Facebook?
posted by Silo004 at 4:59 PM on May 30, 2011


I apologize in advance for this half-hearted defense of Jonathan Franzen; it’s been a long week and I’m at the end of a wonderful holiday weekend but I couldn’t let all the Franzen hate go without some response.

I read The Corrections and was completely underwhelmed. The writing is capable and the characters plausible but that was about it. I recall the book was about a family facing their anxieties and each other during a holiday season, the children returned home as adults. I’m not even sure this is correct. Judging by the impression the novel left on me, I considered Franzen an overhyped writer, one with lucid and serviceable prose but not more than that.

In the first part of this year, I finished Franzen’s Freedom. In my opinion, Freedom secures Franzen’s place among the best novelists the United States has ever produced. Among other things, Freedom documents the way in which love, family, ambition, consumption, materialism, isolation, corruption, friendship, politics, warfare, music, and idealism come together in the form of relationships between spouses, friends, lovers, children, and larger aggregates like newsrooms, corporations, campaigns, and departments of state. I apologize if my clumsy description of the Franzen’s novel flattens its reputation rather than enhancing it.

Freedom is the most important novel written by an American (United States) in the last twenty-five years. It ranks with Don DeLillo’s Libra Tony Morrison’s Song of Solomon (not Beloved), and Thomas Pynchon’s V. (Gravity’s Rainbow really is in a category of its own.) One might make the comparison between Freedom and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and conclude what Infinite Jest is to precocious Northeastern boarding school residents Freedom is to upper middle class Midwesterners, and thereby draw a completely useless conclusion from an ill-considered comparison.

Freedom considers questions of politics, environment, love, and ethics in a vernacular that is, yes, white upper-middle-class American erudite. But it wields that vernacular while acknowledgiung some of its blindspots and limitations.

The novel is amazing start to finish and even its metafictive conceit is part of a postmodernistic structure that enhances (rather than undermines) the novel’s integrity.
posted by mistersquid at 5:39 PM on May 30, 2011 [1 favorite]


I found the whole article ludicrous, but this was where I started laughing:

"My love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed."


Personally, I find this passage incredibly earnest and moving. The fact that you and so many others are so dismissive freshly evokes the feeling of isolation. It reminds one of the chasm that exists between the perspectives of educated individuals, even in an online community such as this one. Incidentally, this is exactly what Franzen is expressing, that the exposure of the whole, imperfect self leaves it open to the pain of rejection. Your rejection, I think, is a beautiful example.
posted by stroke_count at 6:19 PM on May 30, 2011 [2 favorites]


If that's a half-hearted defense, mistersquid, remind me to come to you if I ever need a full-throated one.
posted by escabeche at 6:41 PM on May 30, 2011


I don't really care for John Updike, but I'm smart enough not to make an ass of myself by calling him a bad writer because he writes about people of a status, era, and place that makes me yawn. Dismissing Franzen because his characters have mortgages, lawns, and Volvos is like saying Nirvana sucks because I can't understand the lyrics.
posted by docpops at 7:44 PM on May 30, 2011


If anybody's interested, I've tracked all the comparisons between the speech he gave and the piece he filed with The New York Times. What he left out --- including the removal of references to hating others, the phrase "avian conversion experience," his journalistic m.o. ("Whatever I most hated at a particular moment became the thing I wanted to write about"), and his ex-wife remarking to him, "You can't deconstruct and undress at the same time" -- says much about what Franzen's ideas of love and being human are.
posted by ed at 8:46 PM on May 30, 2011


Who knows, maybe easy access to the Internet is making us a little crazy, even.
posted by Mooseli at 6:49 AM on May 31, 2011


not because I'm ashamed of being uncool, but because I don't want to be a bore.

Consider that you might just be quibbling terms here.
posted by aught at 6:53 AM on May 31, 2011


delmoi: But he's missing out that facebook is designed in a particular way to cultivate people as consumers.

And as products. Don't forget that part. It's how Facebook makes their money, after all.
posted by lodurr at 9:39 AM on May 31, 2011


... and delmoi again: I haven't read any DFW books but they sound interesting.

Wallace's work is interesting, even fascinating, but like many fine dead writers he's been cruelly over-rated. It does him no service. People cite him as an authority as though the fact that he said something makes it true. From what I can tell from his work, he'd have been horrified by that attitude.
posted by lodurr at 9:43 AM on May 31, 2011


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