Because on Facebook, people are doing things. Their “status updates” say they are at the Cardio Barre, or haggling over prices at the Range Rover dealership, or making soup from scratch at home; in fact, it seems to me that someone is always making soup. This information scrolled rapidly down my screen when I was staring at my computer at work, and maybe it wasn’t quite as fast as Twitter, but the people providing the information were twice as important to me. It formed a constant reminder that there was still a real world out there with real people walking around in it, even if they had chosen to leave that world for a moment to join me in the pretend, Facebook world. On Facebook, I didn’t have to talk to anyone, really, but I didn’t feel alone, and I mean “alone” in the existential use of the word; everyone on Facebook wished me well, which I know not to be the case in the real world; and, most important, there was nothing messy or untoward or unpleasant—the technology controlled human interaction, keeping everyone at a perfect distance, not too close and not too far away, in a zone where I rarely felt weird or lame or like I had said the wrong thing, the way one often feels in the real world. This is the promise of Facebook, the utopian hope for it: the triumph of fellowship; the rise of a unified consciousness; peace through superconnectivity, as rapid bits of information elevate us to the Buddha mind, or at least distract us from whatever problems are at hand. In a time of deep economic, political, and intergenerational despair, social cohesion is the only chance to save the day, and online social networks like Facebook are the best method available for reflecting—or perhaps inspiring—an aesthetic of unity.
This safe and happy community is very much a product of design. The old web, the frontier world of autonomy, anarchy, fantasies, and self-made porn, is being tamed. The flaming, snarky, commenter-board culture that dips in periodically to bang heads against the floor and foster self-hate among humanity’s ranks has been deemed not good for business. Facebook’s relentless emphasis on literal representation—the site maintains a “blacklist” of celebrity names to discourage impersonation and reserves the right to delete anyone who claims to be someone he is not, or who creates multiple accounts—turns out to be the weapon to quell the web’s chaos. Now online life is a series of Victorian drawing rooms, a well-tended garden where you bring your calling card and make polite conversation with those of your kind, a sanitized city on a hill where amity reigns, irony falls flat, and sarcasm is remarkably rare. We prepare our faces, then come and go, sharing little bits of data, like photos, haikus, snippets of conversations—the intellectual property that composes our lives.