It goes without saying that most people hate Facebook but use it anyway. It’s like some kind of super-bacteria, always one step ahead of the curve, evolving too quickly for us to find a way to kill it. Maybe that’s what irks us. Or maybe it’s that we’re giving all our personal information away to an exploitative corporation, and we’re doing it willingly.
Or maybe it’s that Facebook comes with this whole weird etiquette because your parents and co-workers are on it and the conversation never really feels fulfilling, the virtual room always has this undertone of awkwardness and unease.
Or maybe it’s that we need to use it to feel relevant and part of the group (what group?).
Or maybe it’s that it forces us to see old friends who are our age getting married and having babies and we alternately deride and envy them for it.
Maybe it’s all those things. We’ve reached a weird point in human history—the village is now digital, the tribe is an assortment of icons, your wise elders are the ones who can’t pick up on your tongue-in-cheek typespeak. And you—you are a flattering picture put through a preset filter, you are your carefully crafted status posts.
It’s all terribly confusing. I’m honestly surprised more people aren’t jumping off bridges or eating each other’s faces. Because when you take away social order and supplant it with this chaotic network of endless information, how do you stay sane? Sure, “society” can be a lot of bad things (repressive, regressive, dogmatic, downright psychologically damaging), but when it’s working right, it can give us a model for life. It can teach us how to react when we come upon life’s big changes: the transition into adulthood, childbirth, child rearing, the gradual breakdown of the body, and eventually, death. How do we deal with these things, how do we know how to act in the face of life’s challenges, when we don’t have a cultural blueprint?
We don’t. We’re making it up as we go along. What’s that tagline from Lena Dunham’s GIRLS, which is about confused twentysomethings living in a lawless urban environment? This season it’s Almost, kind of getting it together. Young people are starting from scratch, they’re making up their own rules, they don’t know how to interpret the difficulties of life, and God, is there anything harder? People say that show is about privileged white people, but it is really about this utterly perplexing brand of 21st century anomie you find today in places like New York City. And it is absolutely relevant. But I digress.
Over the past few years, especially when I was living alone in New Orleans, I spent a lot of time semi-addicted to the internet, desperately seeking human connection. The term “addiction” here is apt, because, as bizarre as it sounds, you really do crave the thrill of getting that red notification alert on Facebook, or those linear “_____ is now following you” messages on Tumblr. “Someone out there in this vast, chaotic, informational ocean notices you and likes you!” they seem to say. And the jolt of validation is like a fix.
I know that many people derive much-needed solace and reassurance from internet communities. I think that’s a great thing—I guess I’m just saying, Be careful. You can lose yourself in the chaos, because the center of every online interaction is as hollow as a drum. I don’t think this is the internet’s fault—I think it’s just the way we’re wired, what our bodies have equipped us for. For our experiences to mean anything, they must be coupled with the sensory. If you were to ask me to describe a recent, powerful memory that will stay with me to the end, I wouldn’t say, “Talking to my friend on Gchat.” I’d say, “Getting drunk on Cafe Granada’s sangria with Krystal in New Orleans one late summer afternoon, laughing and laughing for hours like two old ladies, with the roar of St. Charles Avenue’s traffic in our ears.” (Okay, I don’t actually talk like that—that’d be annoying, wouldn’t it?)
So yes, this is all very confusing, yes, we need to come up with a new order of society that makes sense today and gives people the spiritual guidance they need, but in the meantime, don’t forget the power of your senses. In this sleek, streamlined, digital age we sometimes lose the power of the grit and gristle, the earthy, the imperfect. If you’re ever lost in the ones and zeroes, go hug somebody hard, look into their eyes and memorize the color. I promise that you’ll feel better, at least for a little while.