In Defense of Facebook

"Only connect." E. M. Forster's directive from Howards End may be even more potent today than it was 100 years ago. Inundated by information overload, we may be quick to decide that the answer to life is to disconnect. This seems to be the trend of podcasters and pundits, business gurus and mindfulness "thought leaders." I personally have heard more than my fair share of "Don't waste your time on Facebook, sifting through the trivial stuff--friends' baby pictures, #tbt hashtags, and oversharing." I think this dismissive attitude is harmful, and ignores the enduring success of Facebook.

The fact is, while jobs and productivity are necessary for a useful society, we hear repeatedly from the philosophers of our day about the importance of emotional intelligence, finding the "why" before the "what," and "nobody on his deathbed wishes he spent more time at the office." And for good reason: the worthwhile life is one in which we connect and understand and think about the meaning of our life. A successful life is one in which our values and priorities align. To apply that more forcefully to Facebook: what is more important than knowing more about the inner thoughts and passions of our loved ones, provoking laughter in someone who's been crying all day, reconnecting with an old schoolteacher who helped make you who you are, sharing pictures of your kids with your grade school buddy's mom who's wondered for decades how you turned out? Sharing is giving of yourself, and giving of yourself is giving to yourself.

Speaking of sharing, a recent fascinating column about economics in The Guardian that covers topics as diverse as the Greek financial crisis, gay marriage, and the valuation of intellectual property, argues that we are headed for a post-capitalist era more focused on a "sharing economy." The argument goes that economies have been built on the scarcity and monopoly of resources, and that the main resource that drives today's economy--information--is abundant and inexpensive (if not free). My takeaway is that while robots, machines, and computers will eventually be able to replace human beings in performing work involving hard labor or hard data, they will never be able to serve in the same way as human beings the inherent need for humans to connect with each other. Information is abundant, but not sufficient. And curation of information is not sufficient. The caring and communal curation of content, both informational and emotional, is what keeps startups relevant, and this 11-year old tech startup is still growing.

Facebook may be the invention of Mark Zuckerberg, but it's no longer Mark Zuckerberg's. Facebook has weathered controversies from The Accidental Billionaires and The Social Networks to privacy policies and baby breastfeeding bans, but the admonitions that Facebook would go the way of Myspace and Friendster missed the point: Facebook has allowed its more than a billion (!) users to build their own safe neighborhoods on their terms. Users could choose who to share with, and will soon be able to curate the content they receive. Meanwhile, other social networks such as Twitter and Reddit--useful in their own rights--are immersed in management fiascoes much because they are virtual environments that embrace pugilism rather than community.

Speaking of pugilism, the great inarticulate pugilist Rocky Balboa described the love of his life Adrian as a woman who "fills gaps." Facebook fills gaps.

“What’s the attraction?  I don’t see it.”
“I dunno–she fills gaps.”
“What gaps?”
“She got gaps; I got gaps–together we fill the gaps.”

Our daily lives allow us only to personally see and spend time with so many people, and mobility allows us to do almost anything remotely that we can do from our home, so the centrality of physical gathering places has faded. If we are lucky, we personally see and spend time with people we care for, but will never be able to see and spend time with all of the people we care for--that's why Facebook fills gaps. We don't watch the same three channels and we don't get our news from Walter Cronkite, so Facebook fills gaps. We set up playdates and kids no longer play in the street, so Facebook fills gaps. But before we wax nostalgiac about yesteryear, how much did we used to know about the people in our lives back then? Did we know our friends, classmates, or colleagues had pets, or really dug Hot Tuna, or held deeply nuanced political beliefs, or railed against injustice near and far, or would one day work with the impoverished in Kathmandu and Kenya? Did we know when they were battling depression and needed the support of so many others, or when they got a new job or did something so so amazing that they preserved it for eternity in a video?

Speaking of eternity, I hope that Facebook lasts an eternity. In 2008, an old friend from camp posted a note, "The Wonderful Note My Nana Left Behind -- Worth a Look," and it drove me to tears. His grandmother's warm words were preserved beyond her life, and not just for her family, but for those with whom her family shared. This very week, a wonderful woman in my extended family who was not on Facebook passed away, but the rest of her wonderful family shared her passing on Facebook, and preserved her memory with previously unheard stories and unseen photos. Hundreds of people mourned together at her funeral and on Facebook. The outpouring of warmth on Facebook only slightly paled in comparison to the outpouring of warmth at the funeral.

Speaking of mourning, in my favorite moment from my favorite play, "Our Town," Emily has passed away and wishes to go back to an ordinary day. She goes back to an old birthday, and it pains her, but I always loved the conceit of a memory time machine--not to relive old times, but to see what we cared about on any given day. What is Facebook but this memory time machine? No body but so much soul. In the Jewish faith, it is said there is a "Book of Life;" is it too bombastic to say that, with 1 billion plus people on Facebook, an imperfect and incomplete Book of Life is being written, never to be read by all of humanity, but to be shared in small portions with those we love?  

Don't get me wrong; too much Facebook, unlike cowbell, can be a bad thing. Of course, too much of the essential things in our life: water, air, food, can kill us, so I am not sure I buy the argument. It's all about moderation, discipline, and prioritization. But there is so much meaning in remembering who we loved, how we loved, and keeping those we've loved nearby--maybe not the way we used to, but in a way that fits with our lives today. And isn't that what matters?

Speaking of matters, I find it not unimportant that matter can mean to have substance or tangibility or purpose. The virtualization of our neighborhoods de-emphasizes tangible matter, and what is left? The intangible matter, the matters filled with purpose.

"And at one point you'd hope that the physicist would step down from the pulpit and walk to your brokenhearted spouse there in the pew and tell him that all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you. And as your widow rocks in the arms of a loving family, may the physicist let her know that all the photons that bounced from you were gathered in the particle detectors that are her eyes, that those photons created within her constellations of electromagnetically charged neurons whose energy will go on forever." - Aaron Freeman

Facebook is all soul and no body. And we mourn for the body, for it is matter. But light is made up of photons, and photons are bits of matter. And what matters more is that light matters. Thinking matters. Memories matter. The things that speak to us matter.

Speaking of speaking, the Ancient Romans declared, "Vox audita perit. Litera scripta manet. (The spoken word perishes. The written word survives.)" But that was before we were able to upload the spoken word to our memory time machine. Facebook changed all the rules, hopefully forever.

Updated: Check out the sequel! The Gift of Gratitude, or "In Defense of Facebook Part 2"