Read this this morning in Alessandra Stanley’s review in the New York Times of Cinema Verite, an HBO movie about the making of An American Family, the 1973 PBS documentary that changed television forever or, you know, not.
Documentary storytelling was the Trojan horse in the age of hyper-self-consciousness, in which privacy is as antiquated as gaslight and people are the curators of their own lives on Facebook, Twitter and all those other forms of aggrandizing self-expression.
Ok, I don’t know about you, but I use Twitter and Facebook for shameless self-promotion. I’m trying to lure people into reading my blog, where I do my aggrandizing self-expressing.
It doesn’t work the way I want it to. In fact, it tends to work the other way. Most of my Facebook friends are longtime readers of the blog. Or were. Now a lot of them never leave Facebook to come read my posts. Oh well, never mind me, I’m just self-expressing aggrandizingly again. The real point is, what is going on in Stanley’s Facebook and Twitter feeds that caused that Puritanical harrumph?
Probably not much. Likely the paragraph’s nothing more than a former A-student’s reflex---Students, make sure everything you put in your essay supports your thesis. An American Family aired just shy of 40 years ago. Not exactly a fresh topic. But here’s this HBO movie starring Tim Robbins, Diane Lane, and James Gandolfini. There must be a reason to watch the movie besides the fact that it stars Tim Robbins, Diane Lane, and James Gandolfini. It must have currency! How about this? An American Family was the beginning of the end of all that was good and decent in the American character? Something like that anyway. Once upon a time we knew to keep our dull, boring, sordid, mean little lives to ourselves. Now we force Alessandra Stanley to look at pictures of our cats.
Warning to cat lovers. Cats are going to be a metaphor for the rest of this post.
Some people do tend to overshare. But that’s as true out in the analog world as it is here in Virtualland. The difference between a Facebook friend who thinks you can’t look at enough pictures of their cats and the person ahead of you in the line at the grocery store who thinks the cashier needs to hear their long story about the funny thing their cat did the other day is that you can skim over the Facebook friend’s status update without hurting their feelings. Anyway, I’d rather look at more pictures of your cat than have to watch yet another YouTube video of his favorite rock band from the 70s performing his favorite song from his freshman year when everybody else was listening to that other band but he and his friends knew what was really hip and happening.
My main gripe with Facebook and Twitter is they’re time-sinks. I enjoy looking at pictures of your cat. And your cat. And your cat, and your cat, and your cat, and yours, and yours, and yours, and…
You get the point. I’m sure you have the same problem. By the time you’re done looking at pictures of my cats, and his, and hers, and theirs, and etc., an hour’s gone by and there are still more cat pictures showing up in your feed.
Another pitfall of social networks is that they can become an alternative to actually socializing. All that time wasted staring at the computer screen could have been spent talking to live human beings.
My niece, Violet Mannion, who is finishing up her freshman year in college in Boston, was a Facebook virtuoso. She knew just what to post and when to make her feed a happy mix of news, games, fun, and information, managing to keep the aggrandizing at a minimum while making the self-expression charming, lively, and always entertaining. But she deactivated her account in January. It was bothering her that Facebook was becoming the venue for interaction with college life. Here she and her friends were, students in the greatest college town in America, and instead of meeting up nights to discuss their days and their classes over coffee or pizza in one of the thousand quirky dives and joints Boston offers, they were all retreating to their separate dorm rooms to type into the ether. She declared that she’d had all she could stand.
Gosh darnit, she said---Violet shares the Mannion family inability to curse persuasively---If we’re going to make each other look at pictures of our cats, then we’re going to do it by handing each other actual prints, or at least our cell phones, back and forth across real wooden tables damp with bar sweat and sticky with half-dried tomato sauce and the spilled foam from our lattes and we’re going to have to yell over the music from a real live band that we’re all listening to together while we do it instead of while each of us is half-distracted by whatever is shuffling through the headphones on our iPods!
I didn’t watch An American Family and I can’t say I’ve been aware of its influence on television or life in these United States. I can’t connect the dots between it and Facebook. I’m not sure Stanley can either. It’s not really her job to in her review. So, like I said, I’m not sure that paragraph isn’t just a throwaway, like her references to Modern Family and Parks and Recreation, neither of which needs for An American Family to have existed to be what they are, unless Ricky Gervais could only have created The Office because when he was twelve he accidentally caught one episode and had been mulling it over ever since.
But I can’t help suspecting that Stanley means it, at least she means the indictments of Facebook and Twitter as blots on the national character.
Stanley has a Facebook page, but she maintains it with less of the assiduity of a Sarah Palin. And she’s on Twitter, at least somebody named Alessandra Stanley claiming to work for the New York Times is on Twitter, but if it is her, she hasn’t posted a single Tweet. For all I know she’s using aliases and twittering and Facebooking like a madwoman, but unless that’s the case it looks like she hasn’t found much use for either. Maybe she’s resisting the temptation to self-express aggrandizingly. Maybe she’s just too busy expressing herself professionally in the New York Times.
The reason I think she hates Twitter and Facebook, though, is that a lot of people do.
Mainstream media types, especially, seem to have a grudge against social networking. It seems like a continuation of the grudge they had against blogs. Stanley could have written that same paragraph on the night Mark Zuckerberg was inventing Facebook, substituting blogs for Twitter and Facebook but putting the same sneering spin on the word, and her colleagues would have nodded aggressively in agreement. Lots of keyboards have been pounded without mercy as the sages and savants of the intertubes have tried to figure out the source of this animosity, with the consensus being that the olde media types are both afraid of the new media taking away their jobs and jealously protective of their own status and privileges---How dare you members of the great unwashed have opinions about the opinions we’ve decided you should hold!
But I’m not accusing Stanley of sharing either that fear or that arrogance. I’m just saying that I think for one reason or another Facebook and Twitter appall and disgust her or at least make her mildly annoyed and a lot of people who aren’t mainstream media types feel the same way.
I used the word Puritanical to describe her tone. You should know that I don’t think of the word as necessarily a pejorative.
Lots of liberals reflexively use the word Puritan to describe social and religious conservatives. But they are thinking of the humorless, hypocritical, intolerant authoritarians who inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne and not the self-improving, self-questioning, self-doubting intellectuals who inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson. There’s a strong Puritanical streak in contemporary liberalism. Forms of witch-hunting and handing out scarlet A’s are popular American traditions handed down to us by the Puritans, but so are public schools.
American liberals are relentless self-improvers. This has its good side as well as its bad, and that bad side is that it can make us judgmental and intolerant in our own way. My review of T.C. Boyle’s new novel, When the Killing’s Done, was long enough without my getting into it, but both its main characters are liberals with strong Puritanical bents. Alma Takesue and Dave LaJoy are driven self-improvers who can’t resist the temptation to improve others in the same ways they’ve improved themselves.
You can see how a contemporary Puritan---like me. I’m one, I confess.---would be wary of Twitter and Facebook. What’s the benefit here, we ask ourselves, meaning, In what way will this make me a better person? How is Twittering and Facebooking self-improving as opposed to self-indulging? It might be ok if I’m using social networking to be social, if I’m using it to connect with people, to share information (of the self-improving, non-self-indulging kind), to learn about what other people are thinking and doing and what’s going on in the world outside my own garden and get ideas on how I can help make it a better place. But what if all I’m doing is using it to show off? What if I’m just aggrandizing myself by showing off? (Puritans can make a big show of showing off their virtue, but they can also make a show of not showing off their virtues. They show off by not showing off.) What if I’m not using social networking to be social at all? What if what I’m doing is closing myself off from the world by spending all my time alone at my computer screen reading things that confirm my smug self-satisfied opinions typed by strangers I’ve decided to befriend or follow just because they happen to think like I do and believe the same things I do and like the same movies I do and vote for the same liberal politicians I do. Aren’t I limiting myself? Aren’t I being a hypocrite? Aren’t I wasting time I could and should be devoting to doing something productive? (Puritans are very bad at loafing.)
Where we Puritans get into trouble, and start causing trouble, is when we decide it’s not enough for us to refrain from something, you need to refrain from it too.
When we’re not content to say, You know, I think I’d better cut back for my own good but have to add, and you should too because it’s contributing to the decline and fall of civilization.
And we can get worse. We start to believe that anybody who doesn’t agree is a deliberate agent of that decline and fall.
Oh, I don’t own a television set.
Oh, I don’t let my children eat at McDonald’s.
Oh, I don’t follow sports.
Oh, I don’t have a Facebook account.
Implicit in all those statements is the question, And what is wrong with you that you do?
I’m pretty cool with Facebook. Twitter is my downfall. Like I said, where I get into trouble with both Facebook and Twitter is when I lose track of time. But with Twitter I have another problem or, as a good Puritan I should say, I face another temptation. Anger. Twitter makes me mad. Well, not Twitter itself. It’s the fact that almost all the people I follow are liberals obsessed with politics and I wind up spending an hour I should be devoting to self-improvement growing angrier and angrier as I read tweet after tweet and follow link after link that tell me what I already know, the world is in terrible shape and it’s all their fault. They being politicians and conservatives and any liberals who don’t agree with me about how it’s their fault or what to do about it.
It wouldn’t help if I started following some conservatives because I would still be following people who are as obsessed with politics and also believe it’s all their fault.
And on Twitter I fall into the habit---give into the temptation---of tweeting in kind, of obsessing over politics and passing along links to my followers that will reassure them that they’re right, and I’m right, it’s all their fault.
Twitter is not, for me, a social network. On Twitter I am the opposite of social. I’m anti-social.
If that’s the case, Lance, you may ask, Why do you have that Follow Me on Twitter widget in your sidebar? Why do you routinely put links to your Twitter feed in your posts here on the blog?
Mainly because I can’t resist self-expressing aggrandizingly.
But also because I do try to make use of Twitter for good Puritanical reasons, to be informative and to take part in social networking, which is to say, to be sociable.
The fault isn’t with Twitter. It’s what I do with it. Posting my notes from my visit to the American Museum of Natural History last week is sociable, especially if it helped send some of my followers over to the Musuem’s twitter feed and even more especially if it led to anyone’s deciding to go visit the Museum themselves. Being the six hundredth person to retweet a tweet about how Paul Ryan’s a big jerk? Not so much.
I need to be a better person.
Your turn. What do you like/dislike/love/hate about Twitter/Facebook?