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Technocurmudgeon: Confessions of a Facebook heretic

When it was just for students, Facebook seemed understandable and forgivable. It was obviously just role-playing for children, a place they could try on the identities of sexy celebrity, party animal, tough dude. But when the adults and their corporations moved in, that desperate blend of self-advertising and self-deception became pathetic.

Feel free to ignore me, because I'm not on Facebook. But you probably are, along with 500 million other people who now know I got it completely wrong.

How can they be so sure? Because Mark Zuckerberg tells them so. The Facebook CEO spent the week asserting the primacy of his social network. His statesmanlike appearance on CBS's 60 Minutes became the occasion for announcing the redesign of Facebook's profile pages, giving more play to personal information and eye-catching visuals that make the network so appealing to users and advertisers.

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From there, the charm offensive turned charitable, as qualms about Facebook's lucrative use of personal information were settled in the time-honoured way: The 26-year-old Harvard dropout pledged half of his $7-billion fortune to worthy causes as part of a "moral commitment" initiated by fellow plutocrats Bill Gates and Warren Buffett "People wait until late in their career to give back," he said momentously. "But why wait when there is so much to be done?"

To which I can only say: Haven't you done enough already? If you really want to do good, destroy Facebook.

Sadly, the tide of inevitability is moving in the opposite direction. "Our goal is to make everything social," Mr. Zuckerberg recently declared.

Mr. Zuckerberg's more a CEO than a totalitarian. He's in the business of overhyping his products, of selling optimism to people who can't handle pessimism, of claiming his new messaging system could be "the way the future will work." Social connections for him are just a multiplier, a way of selling more goods to more people. But even if he truly believes privacy barriers should fall away, it doesn't mean we should be taken in.

Mr. Zuckerberg's bid for world dominance can't be discounted. But then I look at all the networks devised for social interaction, and his reality looks much less grandiose: How do the technocrat's utopian claims align with anxious broadcasts about nothingness and the needy egotism that seems averse to introspection?

Twitter, it's true, has attracted stylists who rise to the challenge of its terse demands. And as a forum for hipster irony, it has appeal - if only because there's a dissatisfied skepticism built into the celebration of the alt-culture dynamic. But within the closed circle of closed minds, it turns invariably into smugness. And then you cluelessly wonder why Don Cherry hates you so much.

I don't need to accumulate friends in quantity, but I want to know what drives my fellow beings. And what I discover in Twitter is the curious disconnect of all this connectedness: People I know as morally obtuse find the meaning of life in a cottage sunset, people I admire as artists can't stop nattering about their frappuccinos, newbie political organizers I hoped would succeed get so caught up in Twitter self-congratulation that they forget to fight the real election on the streets.

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What are we missing in life that makes us settle for these faux-social gatherings? You tell me. Except for the enforced sense of alienation in the workplace that comes from opting out - but boss, I thought you prized non-conformity - a life freed from the social networks' demands should be a better way to pass the time.

"A journalist shouldn't have friends," my first manager told me early on, and I took him very seriously. He didn't mean you should snarl at your spouse, cut off university pals, eat at your desk and kick the dog just to stay in practice. Only that you'd see more, hear more, think more if you stood slightly apart. In modern terms: Look out the window, not at your screen.

The modern world says he's a loser. But he knew that you compromise your intelligence and understanding and autonomy when you try too desperately to join the crowd. For a journalist, that's an occupational hazard, since to do your job well you have to be able to engage with humanity at the human level. But making friends is not at all the same as being fully human.

As Facebook shows, it may even be the opposite. Connectedness isn't a feeling, it's just a device. The template of Facebook confines the way you're seen. In a thumbs-up world, you don't want to be too down: Real-life despair takes the fun out of connectedness. Look good, because people are checking you out, but don't encourage the wackos - you learned that lesson back in high school, remember? Assuming you're not still in high school. But the distinction is a fine one, since Facebook is a permanent high school of the mind.

Thanks to social networks, the triumphal high-school values I once resisted have won out - even the freaks and geeks feel compelled to be on Facebook, to look surprisingly hot while finding ways to downplay their popularity. With that universality as a given, I despair for the children who encounter an isolation harsher than mine when they resist the new social order. The suicide of the gay Rutgers student whose roommate shared videos of his private sexual activity shows how dangerous it is to lose the distinction between public and private.

Privacy is a beautiful thing. For far too long in history, a compulsory sociability was the default position of existence, and the community was the be-all as well as the end-all. What started off as a survival mechanism for those who couldn't fight it out on their own became the master plan for watchful regimes and religions that saw power and conformity as intertwined.

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Then we smartened up. Our more democratic notions of liberty valued the individual right not to play along. Non-conformists and outliers aren't heretics and subversives, we were taught: They're our artists and innovators, the discontented questioners who rescue us from the dehumanizing mediocrity of group-think. They're our conscientious objectors and inconvenient truthers, the ordinary citizens who speak out in public when conventional wisdom goes off the rails and do as they please at home when Big Brother's not watching.

Not any more. Private life has lost its primacy. The days of going your own way are numbered - the relentless dominance of social-network values has become almost impossible to resist.

Yet somehow my children, who are now in their later 20s, have both stepped back from Facebook. With my son, I think it was just a practical decision - if you're going to be obsessive about something, better the timelessness of ancient Greek poetry than Facebook's transitory charms. Hold on, that isn't practical at all. But don't tell him that.

My daughter is more conflicted. Writing to me from Paris (we tried Skype, but the technology of closeness seemed so awkward), she tells me, "It's not that I fear it, but I'm reluctant to become an enthusiastic participant because I think you can be sucked in and lose perspective. Communicating via social media is entirely devoid of meaning. These aren't real relationships."

Social networks, in her view, promote irresponsibility. "You don't owe anything to these people beyond posting the odd flattering comment on one of their bikini shots or wishing them Happy Birthday (after Facebook has reminded you to do so). In return, these people will provide you with the same vacuous brand of unconditional, skim-the-surface feel-goodery."

When a 26-year-old puts the hype in perspective, my crankiness feels much less antiquated. I had a similar reaction when I stopped by the studious Digital Media Zone at Toronto's Ryerson University and talked to the young proponents of LeanIn ("the world's first in-video search and in-stream recommendation") and SoapBox ("an online platform for community-based change that allows each person to get their idea in the hands of key decision-makers"). Though the atmosphere at the Ryerson lab was both profit-conscious and socially attuned, there was no whiff of the messianic mission that Mr. Zuckerberg and his cohort impose on their creations.

Zealotry, it turns out, isn't a necessary component of social media. "It comes from the top, not the bottom," technology writer Ivor Tossell says. At the user level, he tells me, Facebook doesn't attract too many true believers.

"People use Facebook to grumble about Facebook all the time. But because it has essentially replaced the phonebook as a means of contacting people, it has become a useful and unavoidable fact of life."

That's the kind of utilitarian realism I can happily live with. Facebook is like the car, say, without Henry Ford's ethos of the assembly-line efficiency or his right-wing paternalism. Or it's like food without the layerings of dietary guilt, celebrity posturing and privileged foodie purity. It's a part of daily life, no better, no worse, just what we make of it. Or don't.

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