Last November I dropped my phone in the bathroom sink and fried it completely. I was able to rescue the SIM card and order a new phone from Ebay, but with slow shipping and a clunky Sunday to deal with, I was without my phone for about a week and a half. When my friend from home found out I would be sans phone for a week, he sent me an email and told me he “envied” me, that he “wishes [he] could be in [my] position.” Said he “hated [his] dependence on technology.” Said he wanted to “taste [my] freedom,” I remember that bit. I’m sure he thought it was poetic.
A few days ago, Kelly McGauley wrote a post in the USA Today College Blog about the “Facebook detox” that a number of friends of mine have tried, where one suspends their account and lives a life without Facebook for a period of time. Kelly’s been Facebook detoxing for a full year, which, I’ll be the first to admit, is pretty impressive. Usually friends of mine who try the Facebook detox come crawling back after a week or a month or after giving it up for Lent, and they always seem disappointed in themselves when they admit how much they missed it, how tough it was to live without it. Like they’re lesser human beings for being so “addicted” to it.
Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter get an unprecedented, unfounded negative rep in our society that, frankly, boggles my mind. When people find out I’m an active Twitter user, I get a range of reactions. Predominately, people scoff or make fun of me or the organization as a whole. For some reason, Twitter gets hate like no other networking site on the internet. They say things like “Why would I want to know what you had for lunch every 40 minutes,” and when I point out to them I don’t eat lunch every forty minutes they answer with a dismissive hand waive, like they’ve won. It’s like people forget that they are in charge of their own Twitter accounts. If someone’s tweeting inane bullshit every six minutes, don’t follow them.
Instead, I use my Twitter (among other, more trivial uses) as a real-time news aggregator. I follow the CNN, NBC and Fox News breaking Twitter handles in addition to the Philadelphia Phillies beat writer, my favorite stand-up comedians, musicians, A&O Productions, both NBN and The Daily’s breaking news handles and around 200 other assorted accounts. The average Twitter user’s age is just older than 39 — most likely tweeting on behalf of a company or business, promoting deals or breaking news. It’s not a bunch of tweenies tweeting about Justin Bieber (which I have done).
I log onto my Twitter and see what my brother’s thoughts on Black Swan are, yes, which one could argue are trivial, but I also see up-to-the-minute updates on the biggest news stories around the world. I found out Michael Jackson died by checking my twitter account, and “Cairo,” “Mubarak” and “Egypt” have all been trending topics for a month now, giving me a real-time stream of tweets from users across the globe. It’s essentially a live-blog, a faster, more up-to-date Google Reader account, without the same level of social acceptance.
It comes down to an issue of social responsibility — things like Facebook and Twitter are tools, to be used by us, for a specific goal or aim. We have a debt of responsibility to our online avatars, just as we have a debt to our real-world selves to make responsible decisions and arguments in our universes of discourse. I’m a firm believer that every person in the country should have a Twitter account. It wouldn’t matter if they never sent a single tweet in their life — Twitter’s real power comes from receiving and aggregating other accounts’ tweets. Facebook can be fun for posting a web comic to a friend’s wall, but it can also be a way to alert 8,000 students about an Evanston city council “Brothelgate” meeting tomorrow night.
I’m not attacking Ms. McGauley’s character or her line of reasoning. She needed to shake some things up in her life and did just that, and made herself happier because of it, which is more than I can say for myself — kudos to her. In the first line of her post, though, she admits she’s just an “average fad-following college senior” and that she gave up Facebook, presumably, to break the Facebook-fad. I disagree with her rhetoric here — fads aren’t the norm, they’re deviations from the norm. The “South Beach diet” is a fad diet precisely because it’s not a typical diet. Facebook has become the norm in our culture, and by taking a stand on her nonconformity and deleting (or “suspending,” as one can never really quit Facebook) her account, she actually bought into one of the biggest fads of college-aged students — the famed “Facebook detox.”
Yes, people may spend “too much time” on Facebook these days, and making fun of twitter (a good friend of mine is a fan of the simple-yet-surprisingly-catchy phrase “Twitter is for twits”) is all the rage these days. The key point of these sites, however, their very purpose for existing, is to make life easier. It’s an efficient system — the most efficient a system we have — of communication between people. Like email before it, like the telephone before email, like the postal service before the telephone. For some reason, though, these devices get elevated to a supernatural status that Facebook and other social networking sites lack — McGauley writes that her friends could still get in touch with her through the phone or email, but what about when email was a brand new invention, with old-timers lamenting the death of the telephone? Or when the telephone was invented, marking the decline of the personalized letter?
Every great invention comes from improving upon an old invention or making some other thing obsolete, and to eschew these new technologies is to willingly, knowingly make one’s life more difficult, if only by a degree. Can one survive without Facebook? Of course. Can one survive without penicillin? Most likely, yes. Could we still have had an economic revolution without the cotton gin? Hey, maybe. But the very point of these inventions, their very reason for existing, is to make life easier, to create more free time and resources to allocate to a separate pursuit. These separate pursuits, this regained energy and free time, are the true values of these sites. It’s all about opportunity cost. Opportunity costs are these sites’ bread and butter.
In his New Yorker article “How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” Adam Gopnik uses an elaborate metaphor likening social networking to toast. When bread became mass-produced in sold in perfectly-shaped loaves, Gopnik argues, the general uproar was that people would lose the experience of making their own lumpy, misshapen bread. The toast-process became streamlined but lost personality — the argument many critics make with regards to reading the news via Twitter instead of through an old-fashioned newspaper. Gopnik’s point, however, is that newspapers are filled with as much crap (like the homemade lumpy, misshapen bread) as Twitter and Facebook are — less serious offenses like bad comics to more flagrant issues of yellow journalism that irresponsibly shape the mind of the general public. “Toast,” Gopnik concludes, “…isn’t really about the quality of the bread or how it’s sliced or even the toaster. For man cannot live by toast alone. It’s all about the butter.”