Facebook blues

Besides the mandatory Belgian chocolate pretzel challah from Got Kosher?, I always try to bring a little food for thought for my kids to our Friday night Shabbat table — either an interesting story or dvar Torah or an experience I had that week. Last Friday, I decided to bring something I’d read in Tablet magazine on the modern-day obsession with Facebook:

“What computers can do is think in code, a series of simple, mathematical statements. Human beings, on the other hand, can imagine and dream, hope and despair, hate and love with all their hearts. When they meet — truly meet, face to face and at leisure — with their friends — true friends, not an assortment of barely recognizable acquaintances living on the periphery of an enormous virtual network — they are capable of subtle wonders. If, instead, they opt for convenience, if they reduce their thoughts to brief posts, if they don’t bother finding out who they really are outside the bounds of their Facebook profiles, they’re doomed to wither into a virtual oblivion.”

It wasn’t a paragraph; it was a punch to the stomach. The writer, Liel Leibovitz, was doing a wicked riff on the Facebook Generation, which he believes is mired in a “thick but meaningless pile of likes and dislikes” and getting more and more disconnected from what really matters in life.

This is serious food for thought: Does Facebook disconnect us from real life, and if so, how?

I got one answer on Friday night. While I was reading the quote, my oldest daughter, Tova, a freshman at the UCLA School of Fine Arts, interrupted me: “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you’re reading this,” she said. “I just disconnected myself from Facebook.”

It turns out Tova was getting exhausted by the idea of having 935 “friends,” when in reality she has less than a dozen. But, more importantly, she just felt the whole experience was becoming empty and frivolous — that she wasn’t being very nourished by Facebook.

Yet there are 600 million people around the globe who apparently feel differently. How do we explain this phenomenon? Is it simply that people crave human contact? That we are fascinated by other people — what they look like, what they do, what they think, what they like, who they know? That in a chaotic world, we need the perceived safety of belonging to a group?

It’s certainly all that. Facebook is like a never-ending virtual cocktail party full of people you know, used to know or would like to know, with one irresistible advantage over a real party: you can eavesdrop on all the happenings while still in your pajamas.

It would be unfair to undervalue this experience. Facebook helps you reconnect with old friends (and old flames, but that’s a whole other story); share ideas, photos, movies, songs, videos, jokes, musings and articles; promote your work, causes and events; join movements; and so on. But beyond its utilitarian value, the real problem for those seeking human connection is that everything happens on a digital screen. This plays to our laziness. It’s so convenient to hang out at this “virtual” party that it can easily become a substitute for the real thing.

Worse, though, is that it also plays to our narcissism. Once you start posting personal statuses like, “I think I’ll make soup now” or “I can’t believe I have another headache,” you know you’re approaching the status of self-worship.

Ultimately, as I see it, it all comes back to the digital screen. You can “like” to paint or hang glide or read poetry or engage in deep conversation, but while you’re on Facebook, you’re actually not doing any of those things. You can crave human contact, but how human is the contact? You can create a profile that makes you look great, but how great do you feel inside?

You can be networking all day long — but are you living?

In a recent piece in Time Out New York, writer Sharon Steel exhorted her fellow New Yorkers to lessen their obsession with social networks: “Just keep in mind that anyone anywhere can thumbs-up a YouTube video of the Rufus Wainwright concert at Carnegie Hall, retweet a pic of the red-quinoa salad from Octavia’s Porch or comment on how insane the Pandasonic party looks. But you, lucky New Yorker, can actually go.”

No matter where we are, we can “actually go” to experience what Leibovitz calls the “subtle wonders” of the nonvirtual life, whether that would be walking barefoot on a beach or having a passionate conversation over lunch with a friend. Can a computer geek who designs “social network” algorithms ever replace those experiences for us?

As I was reading Leibovitz’s quote to my children last Friday night, it struck me that I was living, right there and then, an antidote to the Facebook experience. It was the Shabbat table, with its slow, unhurried pace, when everyone dresses nicely and everything is real — from the candles, the blessings, the singing and the chocolate challah to the safety of family and the stories that are allowed to extend beyond a few sound bites.

It also struck me that Facebook might be the most misleading name in the history of marketing. For all its virtual wonders, it comes with neither a face nor a book.

David Suissa is the founder of OLAM magazine and OLAM.org. You can read his daily blog at suissablog.com and e-mail him at {encode=”suissa@olam.org” title=”suissa@olam.org”}.