For quite a while, I contemplated opening an account with facebook.  A few months ago, I set aside what reservations I entertained and decided to go for it.

Admittedly, neither the desire to “reconnect” with old acquaintances nor any other such sympathetic desire figured at all in helping me arrive at my decision.  Rather, I had just launched a blog and was hopeful that through facebook I could increase traffic to it.  But lest my motives come under fire, let us be honest with ourselves: there isn’t one of us who participates in facebook merely for the sake of reestablishing lost relationships.  For that matter, very few of its users care a lick about restoring old relationships at all.

Unquestionably, there is a complex of motives that drive facebook users.  Yet from what I have been able to gather in the short amount of time that I have counted myself among their number, the desire to be acknowledged, to be heard, is most fundamental.

Now, not only is this by itself not a vice, it is not infrequently the spring of virtue.  But lest this all too understandable, even justifiable, longing to be heard be conscripted into the service of an insatiable ego, lest it be consumed by an inflated sense of self-importance, we should attend to it with all of the care that we would show an infant, for this aching for affirmation is on perpetually perilous ground.

Regrettably, it is my considered judgment that we have been not just careless, but reckless, as far as our treatment of this desire is concerned. 

Good manners demand that upon being granted the hearing from others that one seeks, one repay this good turn with something worthwhile saying.  What constitutes “worthwhile” utterance is, of course, going to vary with context; but however it is determined, worthwhile utterance is the coin we pay for the hearing we’ve achieved.

Yet the problem with facebook, though, is that this hearing is no achievement at all; nor is it viewed as such by those who obtain it.  There are facebook account holders with hundreds and, in some instances, thousands of “friends.”  At least as obvious as the fact that the vast majority of such “friends” are not true friends at all is the fact they aren’t even genuinely known: most of these “friends” never communicate with one another at all. 

We are all impressed with the fact that the creators of facebook were only college-aged when they gave birth to their brain-child.  But I now wonder whether their invention of facebook occurred, not in spite of their youth, but because of it.  After all, outside of high school kids themselves, who better than kids barely out of high school have such a keen awareness of the intensity of the desire for popularity?  In other words, the phenomenon of “friending” was born, not from any sort of philosophical reflection on the longing to abate one’s loneliness that dwells within the breast of every human being, but of the facebook creators’ intimate knowledge of the pride of place that their peers gave to being popular.  Their genius, however, was to recognize, or to assume, that regardless of how old people get, this adolescent impulse to achieve popularity never altogether leaves us.

Granted, it can be used for multiple purposes, some of which are innocuous, if not valuable in their own right; but the “friends” option intrinsic to facebook and the unmanageably large lists of names that it is utilized to accumulate render it exceedingly difficult to circumvent the conclusion that if not for the union of an inordinate love for popularity and a hyper-inflated sense of self-importance, facebook never would have seen the light of day. 

Like the “reality television” that is its counterpart and, for all of that, countless other features of our generation that promise to reserve for it an unprecedented place in the annals of narcissism, facebook boils down to a celebration of me. 

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.

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