Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The War on Facebook

My desk has lately seen a plethora of material relating to the nefariousness of social networks.

The current issues of my magazine subscriptions to The American Conservative, Chronicles, and Modern Reformation all have either cover stories or prominent articles about the downsides of social networking. My first blog entry for Young American for Liberty dealt with a new Missouri law that aims to police teacher-student communication on Facebook. After the fallout from the Anthony Weiner scandal, it looks like the new bogeyman is social networking.

It’s fashionable right now to blame the various social networks for current lapses in morality and any other social ills we might perceive. This isn’t too surprising. Whenever a new innovation is used to commit an ancient crime, the crime itself is overlooked and the new thing is what is scandalized. Mass murder is committed with an assault rifle and the gun controllers scream that assault rifles must be banned, ignoring the fact that it took a murderer to operate the weapon in the first place. Technology is only as dangerous as the people who use it.

Anthony Weiner’s problem wasn’t that Twitter tricked him into tweeting that lewd picture. The crime was the congressman’s actions, not the avenue through which he committed it. After all, is there a difference in the morality of it if Weiner had been a congressman twenty years ago and he snapped a Polaroid of his . . . you know, and sent it in the mail?

Some of the recent criticism of Facebook and Twitter is relevant and thoughtful. Ours is a narcissistic culture and Facebook has the ability to feed it. Stephen B. Tippens Jr.’s article for The American Conservative concedes that some social networking is good, and I agree, but our eternal narcissism is enslaving us to our computers and cellphones. As he puts it, “couples . . . date their cellphones instead of each other.” It’s only a little hyperbolic to say that everyone between the ages of thirteen and thirty is attached to their mobile device.

But Mark Zuckerberg is a convenient scapegoat.

The inventor of Facebook couldn’t have possibly expected that the little website he concocted in his Harvard dormitory would encompass over half a billion users and make him filthy rich. The irony is that a socially-awkward computer hacker created a website that would digitally bring the world together but also isolate us from one another. In other words, it’s made us more like Mark Zuckerberg.

We might have 500 “friends,” but do we actually know more than a handful of them? It’s true that heterosexual marriage is in the toilet and we don’t know our neighbors, but these were problems before anyone ever thought of Facebook.

In Chronicles (not online), Catharine Savage Brosman sees parallels to the Soviet Union in the erosion of privacy but that isn’t quite apples to apples. The totalitarian USSR robbed its people of their freedom and privacy.

Big Brother has certainly taken privacy away from us but with innovations like Facebook, we’re handing the rest of it over willingly. Through social media we show pictures of ourselves, we tell the world what we like, and we announce when we’ll be home, as if more than a handful of people who see it will actually care. American culture is dead and on Facebook we flaunt our vacuity.

But for the record, Facebook, or any other particular iteration, isn’t the problem. People are the problem: stupid, narcissistic people. Facebook and the other social media are just further examples that anything new and innovative can be enjoyed and serve a worthwhile purpose if people use it responsibly.

Much has been made about the role of social media in Iran’s so-called Green Revolution, the Arab Spring, and more recently, the riots in the UK. Undoubtedly there will be pushes made by the governing class of busybodies to begin policing Facebook in the name of security, of course.

When that happens, watch out. All the wonders of the social media revolution may have simply made the job of the surveillance state all that much easier.

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