The banality of Facebook

By Razib Khan | November 9, 2010 12:02 am

Jonah Lehrer (a.k.a. the “boy-king of the neuroscience blogosphere”) has a mild and gentlemanly rejoinder to Zadie Smith essay which verges on moral panic about the Facebook phenomenon. Back in 2000 I remember listening to literary critics rave about Smith’s White Teeth. I’m a nerd, and when I read fiction it tends to be “speculative fiction.” But I decided check out White Teeth. It was OK, though I didn’t see what the big fuss was about. But then I suspect I lack some cognitive module which allows for the appreciation of “literary fiction.” Interestingly in the years which have followed a few people who have come to know me have analogized me to to the character in the novel named Magid. In any case in response to Smith’s overly grand panic, I would point out three things:

1) Facebook isn’t that big of a deal

2) The broader technological arc of which Facebook is simply a small aspect is a big deal (a.k.a. the Transparent Society). If Smith wants to get all panicked she should write about Pipl or Spokeo

3) The worries about the distortions which information technology impose upon humans goes back to the invention of the alphabet, which democratized literacy beyond the scribal castes, and purportedly was going to make memory obsolete (the printing press was actually the death knell of mnemonic techniques)

On the last point, many ancient letter writers behaved as if they were posting on a Facebook wall. Personal correspondence of prominent individuals were written with the expectation that they would be copied and circulated, and sometimes even read aloud. Memoirs and diaries were written in part to burnish reputations, and preserve for posterity one’s recollections. This is one reason that the letters of Quintus Aurelius Symmachus are apparently so boring. Everything new is old. Sort of.

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  • Katharine

    There’s an alternative, which is simply DON’T USE IT.

    I check it approximately once a month.

  • Snookybutts

    I don’t really see why she cares that you can’t list your favorite “plants” on Facebook. Her case against Facebook is seems to me elitist and irrelevant to its actual function. She’s just signaling that she is more sophisticated than college students who are looking to hook-up, or dopy middle-aged women trying to reconnect with old boyfriends.

    This is a standard lament from high minded people: regular social intercourse is banal, people should be more interesting, more intelligent.

  • Ray Sawhill

    Don’t worry about not digging Zadie Smith’ writing. In fact, don’t worry about not “getting” literary fiction generally. The literary fiction thing is overblown, if not actually a bit of a con job and a hoax. Lit fict of the type we have today isn’t some organic extension of the great literature of the past, it’s a creation of post-WWII academia, the creative-writing industry, government funding, and elite-education snobbery. It’s a completely weird hot-house flower. I wouldn’t be surprised to see it vanish from the cultural scene entirely in the next couple of decades.

  • Razib Khan

    re: smith. white teeth was OK. but some of the critics were having orgasms on air just thinking about it. the issue isn’t that i thought it was an unreadable work. it wasn’t. just didn’t see what was climax worthy.

  • Ikram

    Zadie Smith’s essays are brilliant. White Teeth was obviously a first novel — the ending was crap (Transgenic Mice?!?). But her non-fiction essays are intelligent, sensitive and very human.

    Yes, Magid wouldn’t get the human part. But you’re not just Magid, you’re also Karim and Chanu from Brick Lane, both sadly human.

  • Ikram

    OK, read the essay. Fantastic, and also too rough. Needed more polish. Smith has written, and thought, a lot about fiction, and the way it relates to being human. The essay is a good extension of that line of thought. Lehrer, in contrast, is arguing the medium doesn’t matter. That’s been obviously wrong since McLuhan pointed it out.

    (But this comment, Razib, “If Smith wants to get all panicked she should write about Pipl or Spokeo” — seriously?)

    From the essay: “But something is not right with this young man: his eye contact is patchy; he doesn’t seem to understand common turns of phrase or ambiguities of language; he is literal to the point of offense, pedantic to the point of aggression. (“Final clubs,” says Mark, correcting Erica, as they discuss those exclusive Harvard entities, “Not Finals clubs.”)”

  • Justin G

    But then I suspect I lack some cognitive module which allows for the appreciation of “literary fiction.”

    You me both my man!

  • Razib Khan

    nice to have the arbiter on the importance of smith’s ouvre drop by 😉

  • EcoPhysioMichelle

    I can’t believe I read that whole essay. Okay, I agree with her on some things, mostly that Facebook makes it easy to be lazy with our friendships (that’s an issue I deal with personally, since I’m prone to bouts of agoraphobia and it’s hard to maintain friendships when you can’t leave your apartment), and I do get ooked out about the idea of my profile being public. But, whatever, it’s a choice to use Facebook and it’s a choice what to put on it or how public to make it.

    Then again, the social pressure to use Facebook is overwhelming, and I’m guilty of this. I keep telling my dad to get a Facebook. My dad and I have never been very close (divorced at a young age), and we’re both very socially awkward, so I thought Facebook would be a good way for us to keep in closer touch, as well as for him to stay in touch with his family (who I only really talk to on FB because they live far away and I don’t know them that well). He told me he’d like that, but he didn’t want to have to deal with all the friend requests from people he used to know. I found that very interesting. He thinks FB is a time waster, and he wouldn’t mind using it just for family, but even as a non-user he knows that he will get friend requests from people in his past, and that if he doesn’t add them it’ll be an awkward Thing, but he does add them it will take away from his enjoyment of the product.

    My dad and I are a lot alike in that we both dislike People, but I guess I’m better at tuning out what doesn’t interest me (I’m probably also a bit more considerate of other people’s feelings).

  • Razib Khan

    on the issue of literary fiction, let me clarify that i often find the stuff readable. i get the general points, and can follow the characterizations. but i really don’t see the rationale for the out of control reactions critics sometimes have. i’m talking about the gushing, etc. as an analogy, i once encountered a teenage boy who gushed over ender’s game. i read the book, in one sitting, and i realized why he gushed. it’s not a “great” work of literature, but the appeal to a teenage boy was pretty clear to me (as a teenage boy then for sure). i’m just trying to say that taking middle-aged literary critics as their word i really can’t see what the fuss is over singular books in terms of the substance.

  • EcoPhysioMichelle

    Razib, you just need to find a book that resonates with you. May I suggest “The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs”?

  • Caledonian

    i’m just trying to say that taking middle-aged literary critics as their word i really can’t see what the fuss is over singular books in terms of the substance.

    Most fashion isn’t about aesthetics, but social display. Literary fiction is currently very fashionable.

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  • Ruchira

    Razib, well said as usual. We’ve had this conversation before. In fact, you were kind enough to link to my own opinion on this matter once where I spoke very much as a 1.0 generation person using new technology.

    Ms Smith is being a highbrow snob, of course. She thrives on celebrity herself (all literary fiction stars do) – of the wine & cheese variety and looks down upon all the pathetic social misfits who engage with others in the void of cyber space. The pitfall, all too common with those who look down on the “internets,” is that they fail to realize that you can do both. You can enjoy literary fiction, knit quietly, enjoy Caravaggio, appreciate Fight Club and still use Facebook. There is no zero-sum social game here unless it’s one’s choice. The technology doesn’t make you do anything. You do what you wish with technology.

  • Sandgroper

    My daughter openly admits she uses Facebook to track people, spy on them if you will, nothing else. There’s no way she regards 100+ people as friends.

    For her half-dozen close friends who are living elsewhere, she uses MSN and Skype, email for photos and stuff.

    For her close friends here, she tracks them down on campus by mobile phone and ummm, look I know this is going to sound weird, but she tracks them down and talks to them face to face. They eat lunch together. Sometimes they even hug each other, except when they’ve been handling human body parts in the wet lab. Talk about primitive.

    They don’t do wine and cheese though. Fish dumplings and soy milk. Nice bit of dried cuttlefish, maybe. Moan about how they can’t get any pig’s intestines, jellyfish or sea slugs to eat in this primitive backwater.

    No, my observation of my daughter and her friends is that they’re all doing fine in terms of human relationships, better than I and my friends did. But we were boys, so maybe that’s apples and pears. But my wife didn’t keep her childhood friends the way my daughter has, they scattered to the four winds and she lost track of them because writing letters in longhand is a pain, and a poor way to keep knowing someone.

    One of my daughter’s friends has known her since she was 3, and said she wants her as a bridesmaid at her wedding, and intends to keep her as a friend until she dies. They’re currently living 4,000 miles apart, but that’s small village stuff.

    How can someone be “based between New York City and Queen’s Park, London” anyway? Where does Ms Smith live, somewhere in the middle of the North Atlantic?

    Where I live, whenever a child is hit by a car and killed on a street, which is unfortunately an all too common occurrence, someone will put a small memorial wooden cross on the verge, and keep putting fresh flowers around the cross every day, sometimes ribbons and balloons, and this goes on for years. For all I know, it might go on forever. At one intersection, there are two little crosses side by side – a double hit. People stop by and write dumb little messages on the footpath, draw little hearts and stuff, and the council graffiti-removers leave the messages there.

    And the message writers do realize that the kids are dead, Ms Smith.

  • Sandgroper

    On lit fict, I wouldn’t go as far as to call it a hoax, I went through a phase of reading Japanese writers who write in English, and got it, and liked it. That stuff definitely qualifies, I’m certain of it. I can recommend some of it. References to white foxes and such can get a bit obscure, it doesn’t mean what a modern native English speaker might think it means, but you can figure it out.

    Of the Chinese equivalent, some definitely borders on it, although a lot seems more genre stuff to me. It’s OK, nothing wrong, good, entertaining, funny and informative, but it doesn’t qualify as having ‘literary merit’, just fun stuff to read – Orientals have never been mysterious and inscrutable, jut culturally different. But the most recent that I read definitely qualified, it was a serious piece of good writing, while also being hilariously funny, and giving deep first-person insight into modern day Burma.

    I used to read a lot of the late Patrick White, who in my worthless opinion is the best of the Australian writers, but I haven’t read much Australian stuff lately.

    I read a lot of Vladimir Nabokov in my youth. He was not a waste of time. Franz Kafka was no slouch either.

    Ms Smith’s stuff is OK, but I wouldn’t rave about it. Like Michelle, I can’t believe I read that whole essay, it was a chore, hard work to get all her ‘in’ oblique references, and unpleasant to read because the whole way through my brain was rejecting what she was saying, and a waste of time. I suspect she is a pseudo-intellectual fraud. I might be doing her a disservice, but that essay is all dreamed up impressions based on zero data and analysis and bugger all proper research, written with the intention of impressing the reader with the writer’s wonderfulness, and I have read much better writers.

    I know kids, my daughter’s contemporaries, who used to lock themselves in their rooms for days at a time and play World Of Warcraft, and it was their only topic of conversation. One I got to know pretty well, he was a nice bright Chinese American kid who was helpful to my daughter logistically in exchange for her coaching him in math, but they couldn’t be friends in any real sense, because they had nothing to talk about outside of mathematics – she thought WOW and game-playing in general was dumb and a waste of time, he thought it was the only thing worth anything. But I also know for a certainty that among their group, he was in a small minority. He was not normative.

    I think Ms Smith has been insulting, has greatly missed the point, and is being dismissive of a lot of people more intelligent than she is who can do much more difficult stuff than she can that is of much more direct utility to humanity. They might write in SMS-language, but they can do real stuff in real time in the real world that benefits people in a tangible way. She writes anxious-sounding intellectually-superior bullshit that benefits no one, and it’s not even entertaining and escapist.

    I just broke a long-held pledge to myself and joined Facebook, against my daughter’s advice, partly because I want to use it for professional purposes, engineers do use Facebook for networking for work purposes, for tracking professional colleagues, and to advertise their availability and services, but also prompted by Ms Smith – if she thinks it’s that bad, there must be something good about it. And if she’s insulting people, I wish to join the ranks of the insulted.

    The personal computer came into being during my lifetime, at university I was writing Fortran IV programs for mainframe computers that filled a whole room(anyone remember those stacks of punch cards, and then your ‘mates’ would surreptitiously shuffle your cards? bastardos), having to book time on the computer a week in advance, doing land surveying calculations using 7 figure logarithmic tables (anyone remember them?) and engineering design calculations using a slide rule (anyone remember them?) or a Hewlett Packard pocket electronic calculator (which were banned from exam rooms), and my daughter was born into a household that was already online, and she was being taught to spell by Reader Rabbit by age 3 and hogging my desktop by the time she was 7 (to the extent that I had to buy her a machine that was better than mine and give her her own Internet connection, just so I could get access to my own computer), but I have realized that we are both 2.0 people – I was computer-literate long before she was born, and by the age of 4, she and I both were. By about age 11, we achieved parity. My wife finally made it this year – my daughter has finally succeeded in teaching her mum how to use a PC without having to read the instruction manual.

    Ms Smith is welcome to her wine and cheese (I might envy her the cheese, depending on what it is, but I live in a land where drinkable wine is cheaper than Coca Cola) and her mid-Atlantic lifestyle (too bloody cold and wet), but I won’t be paying attention to any more of her opinionating any time soon. Or her books. She has had as much of my money as she is going to get. The world is full of great, smart, honest,highly educated, competent people who are much more worthy recipients.

    And Razib is free, prolific, informed, data-driven, and instantaneous. You can’t get better than that. And he has the value-add of some high class and entertaining commenters, not including moi.

  • twl

    Zadie Smith, disconcerted by the knowledge Facebook was invented by a young, white, male nerd.

  • Ruchira

    Sandgroper and I should become “Friends” on Facebook :-)

    But seriously, what he said is completely correct. Today’s younger generation, my adult children included, stay in touch with their “real life” friends way longer and more efficiently than I did with my own friends from school and college. They are perfectly sociable and not the kind of eyes-glazed-over tech zombies that Ms Smith describes with horror.

    The other thing that the e-mailing/texting/ blogging/FB tracking “nerds” are very good at is organizing for a cause, a concert or a party at a short notice. I am from the hippie era of political protests. It used to take us hours and days in smoke filled dark rooms to organize just one sit-in or bus burning. After adult pursuits scattered us all over the world, we lost touch. Long distance phone calls and snail mail by long hand just don’t cut it when it comes to staying in touch from a distance, as do today’s tools of instant communication. Thanks to FB, I have found many of those long lost friends and have touched base with them happily after years. What’s not to like, as long as it is just another mode of communication and does not interfere with reading (not necessarily Zadie Smith), cooking dinner and yes, hanging out with flesh & blood friends who are in town ?

  • Sandgroper

    Ruchira – well now we can! You would find me disappointingly blank at the moment though.

    You make a valuable point – Facebook is an excellent way to find people you have lost and want to find again. (So far I have found a few people I don’t want to find again, but that’s my choice.)

    When my daughter was small, there were two young Filipinas who used to baby-sit her. They became extremely fond of her, and she of them, and she still remembers some of the Tagalog they taught her. One subsequently returned to Manila (which is a huge trackless slum/maze), the other migrated to Italy, we moved home multiple times and changed phone numbers, and totally lost contact.

    This year they both tracked her down on Facebook. My daughter was like “Um, you’re not going to believe this, but guess who just found me on Facebook?” When we knew these girls they were both computer-illiterate. We don’t expect to be able to see the one in Italy any time soon, although we can work on that, but she will be reunited with the other one very soon, which is going to be good for laughs, because she is now a foot taller than the baby sitter and could pick her up in her arms with ease and swing her around in the air, the way the baby sitter used to do with her. And she probably will :)

    On the organizational thing, that’s exactly one of the things I use email for, not burning buses, but planning/organizing the logistics of work stuff with groups of work associates, exchanging useful information needed quickly, etc. One friend/associate got throat cancer and had to go to another country for radiation treatment (successful), and was trying to keep running his consultancy on a daily basis remotely by email. He and I were emailing each other in real time every night after I got home from work – not only did that give him some moral support and comfort during a very difficult time for him, but I was also able to be his informal agent on the ground and solve problems and remove road blocks for him so that his company didn’t go bankrupt in his physical absence and he didn’t get sued for breach of contract.

    Last night he became my first friend on Facebook.

  • Ruchira

    Razib if you don’t mind, here is the relevant link to what I think of Facebook and why I don’t share Zadie Smith’s “moral panic.”

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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