Digital Lives of 2.0 People, Not Locked In But Extended Out
Reviewing the movie The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto in this month’s New York Review of Books, Zadie Smith warns readers of the perils of social network sites like Facebook where “life is turned into a database.” According to Smith, Facebook “locks us” into a system designed by a college nerd to resemble “a Noosphere, an Internet with one mind, a uniform environment in which it genuinely doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you make ‘choices’ (which means, finally, purchases).” Smith writes:
“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. It reminds me that those of us who turn in disgust from what we consider an overinflated liberal-bourgeois sense of self should be careful what we wish for: our denuded networked selves don’t look more free, they just look more owned.”
Smith worries about her students and other “2.0 kids.” She contrasts “1.0 people” who use social media tools to connect with others in an outward-facing way with “2.0 kids” who employ them to turn inward and towards the trivial. 2.0 people, Smith fears, are embedded in the software, avatars who don’t realize that “what makes something fully real is that it is impossible to represent it to completion.” She wonders: “what if 2.0 people feel their socially networked selves genuinely represent them to completion?” In Smith’s view, Mark Zuckerberg tamed “the wild west of the Internet” to “fit the suburban fantasies of a suburban soul,” risking the extinction of the “private person who is a mystery to the world and–which is more important — to herself.”
Smith’s review recalls Neil Postman’s critique of television culture and Benjamin Barber’s warnings about contemporary consumerism. While television helped us amuse ourselves to death and pervasive pop culture produces shoppers, not thinkers, social network sites turn youth culture into over-sharing, unthinking, eager-to-please avatars who “watch the reality-TV show Bride Wars because their friends are.” Yet this can’t be the whole story. Whether 41 or 21, social network participants live in the real world, integrating their online activities seamlessly into their daily lives. Far more goes on in social network sites like Facebook than sharing information to “make others like you” as Smith suggests. On Facebook and other popular social media sites, people join groups of every stripe. They work, as Miriam Cherry’s terrific new article Virtual Work addresses. They build reputations in ways that can enhance offline careers. They join study groups. In many respects, social media sites provide platforms for genuine participation far more than just Government 2.0 engagement. Far from deadening the everyday citizen, social media platforms can resemble Alexis de Toqueville’s town meeting, John Dewey’s schools, and Cynthia Estlund’s workplace. Of course, citizenship participation online is different–it is not the face-to-face interaction envisioned by Toqueville, Dewey, and Estlund. But even with the challenges brought by internet-mediated interactions, 2.0 kids are more than denuded avatars.