I was an early adopter of Facebook, or, I should say The Facebook. In 2004 I was a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, just a handful of subway stops along the Red Line from Harvard, where Mark Zuckerberg, the site’s founder, was still working out the kinks of his earth-shattering website. I could probably guess at the exact moment that I joined (or, I’m sure Facebook has records of that), based on the way the site was rolled out. I wasn’t at Harvard, or any of the other select Ivy Leagues (and Stanford) that got access to the site first, but I did have to sign on with my .edu address and was at least casually aware of the fact that this was a thing broadcast from a Harvard dorm room. I remember the picture of a curly haired man-boy in the upper left hand corner and the tagline “A Mark Zuckerberg Production” at the bottom.
I’m saying all of this, I suppose, to justify the reason why it took me more than 6 weeks to see “The Social Network,” the movie about Facebook – a movie I have been anticipating since I heard the first strains of Radiohead’s “Creep” as performed by Scala and Kolacny Brothers in the film’s trailer. When the rave reviews started piling up, from the critics and from friends who had seen it, the anticipation strengthened ten fold. But, whereas that graduate student in 2004 had few responsibilities other than writing really bad poetry, my 2010 self has a couple jobs, family responsibilities, and a new puppy. Finally, however, last weekend my wife and I put the puppy in the kennel and snuck out the front door to hop across the river and see David Fincher’s film.
Why did I want to see this movie so badly? Besides the great reviews and my vested interest in the subject matter, I really have been waiting for a film, a book, a song, a comic strip, anything, to help me synthesize what is always and ever happening to us (Millenials? Generation Y?) now. Of course, there is no shortage of people guessing and taking stabs at what we’re all up to – the way we connect, primarily, online, that despite or because of this we seem to value sincerity, and that, probably as a result of both of these things, we’re often full of crap – but I’m trying to form a comprehensive picture; to see us in full.
I’m not blind to the fact that it is precisely that urge that really typifies my generation: the desire to see ourselves. This is why we have Facebook, and why it was created by one of us. This is why we sing and code and write and tweet. In the physical world, this is why we move to cities. There’s a telling anecdote in Jonathan Franzen’s essay “First City” (which I’m sure I’ve mentioned elsewhere) about a mother taking her child to New York City for the first time so that they can try to be on the “Today Show.” We love to be seen.
This might not make us all that different from previous generations that crave attention. Perhaps the pendulum swing has led us here. Where Generation X seems to have wanted to disappear, or as a result of the excesses of the boomers, had no choice, our generation is one of those desperate to be seen. What does distinguish us, though, is the extent to which we can manufacture our image.
Zadie Smith touches on this, among a million other things, in her inspired review essay about “The Social Network” in The New York Review of Books, brilliantly titled “Generation Why?” She sees these manufactured images as a reduction, and, to a certain extent, they are. She goes on to acknowledge that the experience is simultaneously transcendent, but she cautions, “our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”
But her assertion that what Facebook and other social networks do is flatten the individual and create “a uniform environment” in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make ‘choices’ (which means, finally, purchases),” feels, to me, a bit too much like an outsider’s write-off. (Smith does admit that though she’s not much older than what she calls “Generation Facebook” or “People 2.0,” that she was in fact at Harvard when Zuckerberg was coding up Facebook, she doesn’t feel like one of us.) She goes on to suggest that perhaps we should resist Facebook as, really, it is recreating us all in the image of its founder.
Without attempting to discredit Smith’s review – I read it over and over because its chock-full of brilliant insights into what it means to be alive now, as are her novels – I disagree with her conclusion. Perhaps I can’t but disagree that social networks strip us of our individuality because of the way that assertion implicates me, but I think there is something to the quip that Rob, the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, makes: what matters is what you like, not what you are like.
As a final example, my wife and I moved to New York City over two years ago without knowing a soul that lives here. Frankly, we had no friends. But today we have all kinds of friends, many of whom, we are sure, will be friends for life. How did we meet these close friends in a city of 8 million? Online. Nearly every friend we have here was made through a social network connection. By learning the interests and beliefs of our new friends, information we really could get from Facebook profiles, tweets, and blog posts, we were able to make very real connections. Each initial meeting had the awkwardness of “I’ve never met you and yet know so much about you,” but after that wears off, beers are drank together, favors are exchanged, holidays are spent, and real, genuine friendships are born.
“The Social Network” doesn’t tell the story of our generation in full, but it gets there by asking the right questions and by offering a kind of creation myth. I’m pretty sure no medium will ever tell the complete story of a people, but it is the bits and pieces that are assembled that begin to create a picture. Perhaps there’s something to the fact that our generation, with our qualities and flaws, is offering more of these pieces than any before it. We give ourselves a lot to look at, and much to consider. I can only hope that this will amount to more than mere naval-gazing, but that in really seeing ourselves we can continue to strive to be better.
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