March 15, 2010KR BlogKR

Friend Me

Other than that I, and statistically, you (450 million, my dear legion), love it, what’s the point of Facebook?

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Seven-ish years after their founding, four after their explosion, social networking sites are everyone’s look-at-me critical inquiry topic. Digg around: expos??s, reflections, and one ambitious screed of caution by Yale scholar William Deresiewicz.

Deresiewicz situates Facebook (employer-friendly and blue-Ikea-clean) in a long history of western friendship including Patroclus and Achilles–not, he is adamant, a sexual relationship; just an example of a now-extinct same-sex bond–, Bloomsbury and Seinfeld. He pauses at “moral advice,” and the very mixed history of group friendship as an incubator (see this century’s hippie piety and Modernist reactionary sourness) for alternative community. And he ends up suggesting that, in the era of the News Feed and the unconditional well-wisher, that “friendship is devolving“ from a relationship to a feeling.”

“Devolving” is kind of strong– I don’t buy Deresiewicz’s claim that digital acquaintance is a contentless “form of distraction,” and I like the “unrestricted fluidity and flexibility” he finds in the modern temper– but I, too, sense this transition. Don’t you?

Fewer singular nobility-projects (Sappho-Alcaeus, Tennyson-Hallam) in modern friendship, fewer long stories; friend instead a verb, another wire soldered into the circuit whose ambient hum is the “feeling” Deresiewicz describes.

This feeling of being friended is easier online than the “relationship”– moral or strictly shared-transgressive, skeptical or eager– of friendship as such.

Is the end state, then, no longer of Relationships’ few anchoring lines (or balloons? gazebos?), but of a Friend electric cloud (News Feeds, chats sprouting in your email) coalescing into your own silhouette, your image returned securely to you in a buzz of others’ gestures and blurted intimacies?

Urban rootlessness, the eclipse of family, and the marketplace metaphor of relationships combined, Deresiewicz claims, to kill the soulmate. So what killed the later notion, the friend-group as a radical meeting space, “a redoubt of moral resistance”?

Well, since its NSA-friendly “suburban period” (the phrase is Charles Petersen’s) blowup, Facebook has demonstrated the fragility of this redoubt. Since social networking (or, shit, maybe since Friends), the pursuit of a perfected coterie– one either validating or challenging, radical or nest-like– has been resituated as friend-consumption (maybe friend-consumption as practice for everything-else consumption); loving commitment and moral struggle as a project-of-self.

This project results in a leveling among choices, and (let’s be honest) at least a little anxiety. A thought on consciousness from Paulo Freire (pardon my post-Marxist pedagogy): “Apart from direct, concrete, material possession of the world and of people, the oppressor consciousness could not understand itself– could not even exist. [Erich] Fromm said of this consciousness that, without such possession, ???it would lose contact with the world.’”

I am not a monster, but I am a creature of spectacle, even self-built (MySpace’s working-class racket, the Super Bowl’s flash), even if sincerely meant. How unmoored am I if I lose my network, my minds-at-disposal? It isn’t direct or concrete, but it is material; animated, docile, fluid, and nervous (very).

(I have 347 Facebook friends. Be the next, I dare you.)