As conflicted as I am over Facebook, I’m awkwardly pleased to see the sudden ‘ditch Facebook’ movement. The people I connect with are great, but the ultimate impact of Facebook (and social media in general) is troubling.
What feels most distressing is to recognize that social networking has filled (and monetized) a very specific and growing need. I describe it as “life sprawl”: most of my close friends live over an hour away. (Bay Area traffic can make a short distance into a long trip.)
Connecting online can provide real nourishment to people whose mobility is limited, whose loved ones live far away, or who would otherwise be without an active social life. Yet it can also turn physical isolation from a reason to explore the neighborhood into a reason to retreat into virtual relationships, and accept the limitations they offer.
A commuter who walks an hour to work every day finally buys a car. Do they then drive five minutes to work every day? No, they move farther away, buy a bigger house, and spend the same hour driving to work instead of walking.
This doesn’t always happen, and it isn’t a good argument against driving. But it’s human nature to change our circumstances to match our compromises instead of the other way around.
Facebook presents specific problems. Monetizing friendship itself, controlling media access, and turning users into marketable data can each, we are now realizing, have a major, largely negative impact on American culture and human civilization. Some of that negative impact could be diminished by recognizing social networking as a public utility to be separated from commercial influence. But some of it can only be dealt with by recognizing it as a kind of symptom – not to be fought as a disease, but to be understood as a reflection of deeper problems requiring a holistic response.