Sorry, but your computer isn’t your friend

Update:  Check out today’s Doonesbury.

Last week, I received a startling message from Facebook.

There next to the other chit-chat and klatsch that graffitis up my “wall” was a note from the company that said “Help a friend.”

Next to the note was a photograph of my mother, with a suggestion that I “suggest friends for her.”

The truth, of course, is that my mom has plenty of friends in the real world.  But like myself she has zero interest in Facebook or the finely distilled level of superficial intimacy that it offers.

Before I go on, let me nod once to the fact that I am the outlier here.

Literally hundreds of millions of my global neighbors adore Facebook and the increasingly virtual nature of our collective social life.

My scorn for on-line “friendship” — and scorn isn’t too strong a word — can be interpreted fairly enough as snobbery and Ludditism.

I accept both those labels.  I’m convinced that friends, like a good bottle of wine, should be chosen carefully and tended to with something like adoration.

Where friends are concerned, I am an unabashed elitist.  I don’t want six packs or kegs of intimacy.  I want to pick and choose, and (yes) reject.

And yes, I’m also a Luddite.  Or perhaps it would be better to say that I’ve embraced the friendship version of the local foods movement.

It’s not that I don’t have people out there in the world who I maintain contact with at great distance and over years of separation.  But those are the rare, fine, unique exceptions.

Most of my friends are people I break bread with regularly, people whose children I’ve cared for when they’re sick, people who have my borrowed books on their night tables.

There is also something vital to be said for privacy and aloneness.  One of the reasons I love my real friends with something close to passion is that I don’t spend a lot of time snacking on the make-believe version.

Working against this finer, warmer version of intimacy is an increasingly sophisticated set of computer algorithms and consumer-monitoring programs and customer-friendly chat programs and dating services, all designed to make us think that the on-line world is warm and welcoming.

But that note about my mother obviously wasn’t generated by some caring human who wanted to make sure she had enough companionship in her life.  It was a solicitation, using the language of intimacy to sell a product.

I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that this kind of thing verges on the sociopathic.

To coldly use words that are so specifically emotional and vital (putting “help” and “friend” in the same sentence) as a form of manipulation?   That creeps me out.

And Facebook isn’t the only siren song in the virtual world, wooing us away from real human contact.

While traveling over the holidays in New Orleans, I watched young people at bars and nightclubs who weren’t talking or interacting with one another.

No, they were busily texting or tweeting or chatting on their smart phones, while real live people sat neglected across the table.

The tug of digital intimacy is already so strong that it overwhelmed the ancient magnetism of boy-meets-girl.

Obviously, the web can be a vital, fascinating, dynamic place.  And yes, it offers bits and pieces of that weird abstraction we call “community.”

But as its programs grow more sophisticated, and as its consumer-marketing memory of your tastes and desires grows more detailed, the illusion that it offers of real human companionship will grow as well.

Just as we’ve learned to distinguish between a bag full of Big Macs and a home made meal, we will also have to draw careful lines between the Facebook mob clamoring for our attention and the complex, thorny, flesh-and-blood people we really, truly want to friend.


23 Comments on “Sorry, but your computer isn’t your friend”

  1. It’s a tool Brian, nothing more. As I was reading your post I couldn’t help but think of the scene in “Pride & Prejudice” where Darcy sits off to the side of a room writing a letter while his companions are busily carrying on with small talk and asked him what he is doing. Is it really any different to do it on a computer of smart phone instead of writing letters? I agree that you can overdo it, rudely and or inappropriately, but it is just another way of staying in touch with people and I have “met” many people via email, Facebook, even this forum, that I would probably otherwise never have encountered. Far from isolating me, the technology has greatly expanded my world.

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  2. Walker says:

    Yes, Facebook creeps me out, and for a long time I wanted nothing to do with it because it is clearly the next big thing in marketing– surreptitiously mining data about people while they connect with others. But having gotten familiar with it, I confess to finding it a fascinating place to wander about.

    I really don’t think that many people are confusing digitally assisted connections with the real thing, though I do sometimes get the sense that, because of Facebook, for some folks, getting THE photograph may be becoming more important than actually having the experience.

    But you may be missing the point a bit. Facebook is the new town square. Since people spend so much time watching TV and surfing the web, they don’t have time to hang out in public. So Facebook, Twitter, et al. are substitutes for those quick “Hi, how are ya? Whatcha been up to?” contacts that used to take place in public places.

    Incidentally, Brian, blogs are another form of the phenomenon.

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  3. Sheila Newtown says:

    Aloneness what a wonderful thing in a world seemingly incapable of being quiet. I wonder sometimes how people can know what is really going on in their families, communities or anywhere when the fashionable thing is to be talking constantly to someone other than your family or friends you can actually touch. It keeps fashionable the idea that enjoying the world can only be done through constant contact and not through actual introspection. Of course if we actually were the resilient people we claim to be we wouldn’t be such easy marks for the advertisers, false prophets of the media, or the idea popularity is what’s most important.

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  4. Pete Klein says:

    Twitter, Facebook and MySpace are things I am “on” but not things that mean all that much to me. Usually, what I post on them are links I find interesting but I seldom bother to read anything posted on them by my “friends,” many of whom I have no real idea of who they are.
    I wonder, though I don’t care, how these meeting places in cyberspace make any money or are worth so much on the stock exchange.
    I do agree, real friends are those you see and break bread with on a regular basis. A phone call is much more real than a tweet.

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  5. Jack says:

    Wonderfully said Brian.

    Here’s one for you – @ Christmas Eve service this past year a young woman, probably 18-20yrs old was texting away immediately in front of me and was quite a distraction. When I tapped her gently on the shoulder and kindly asked her to stop, she was incredulous. She did cease, which I was thankful for. Her mother, however, sitting a few seats away, was only concerned that I’d actually “touched” her daughter, and not at all concerned that her daughter was missing the entire point of being in communion to celebrate & worship. I’m not terribly religious but there are times when it’s inappropriate to engage in this form of masturbation & few seem to be wiling to set these boundaries. Maybe I’m getting old and curmudgeonly but I don’t think so.

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  6. buddy says:

    I too have a facebook account as well as a facebook page, and you’re right, a FB friend isn’t the same as a real be there when you need them friend and users should be aware of that. But from a Business point of view ,using social media is a must now and in the future.
    Go to youtube and bring up the short films titled “social media revolution 1 and 2, These are short films and will only take a couple minutes of your time. Whether we like it or not, it’s the way things are and will be, so if you’re a business you’d better get on the bus or be run over by it.

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  7. Brian Mann says:

    James B –

    A letter isn’t one bit like a cookie-directed marketing or social media algorithm that follows you, monitoring and recording your tastes and desires, inserting itself into your consciousness at deliberately timed intervals.

    Facebook isn’t Mr. Darcy’s blank piece of paper. It is architecture and design. The goal of that design is to convince you that you are experiencing a meaningful version of intimacy, so that you will continue to tune into a mass media channel.

    I would also argue that content reflects nature. I’m guessing that Mr. Darcy’s letter would have been fairly interesting. Read a typical Facebook or Tweet exchange. It’s depressing.

    Finally, Mr. Darcy may have been behaving rudely, but he was also deliberately rejecting what he perceived as chit-chat and superficiality. He was, in short, being a snob.

    Which is I think, in this context, a good thing.

    Brian, NCPR

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  8. Ellen Rocco says:

    Copy and paste this url
    to see the youtube video Buddy referred to above.

    Social media is a bit like watching violence in a movie or tv show: it only feels “acceptable” if one can distinguish between fiction and fact, between a detective story and a police blotter report on your local news.

    I agree with Brian that there is no substitute for sitting down, breaking bread and sharing an evening with friends and family. But, like the long-distance telephone call, social media sites are wonderful for keeping in touch with those far-flung family and friends.

    The commercialism? Well, are we surprised? That’s why there’s a public broadcasting act–to save one small piece of public technology real estate for a (mostly) ad-free zone. And, public media people are not in the business of selling their audiences anything (other than an occasional trip to our pledge page).

    And, finally, social media platforms tend to be very flexible and easy to use. This is why email is in decline with people under the age of 30. Over 30, too.

    Hey, did I ask you lately to go to to check out the latest news and sign up to be counted as a public media supporter and friend?

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  9. dave says:

    “a cookie-directed marketing or social media algorithm that follows you, monitoring and recording your tastes and desires, inserting itself into your consciousness at deliberately timed intervals.”

    I have no idea what this is even describing.

    Your zero interest in Facebook is reflected in your understanding of what it is and isn’t.

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  10. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    As James B said it is a tool. A tool can be used effectively or it can be misused.
    Everyone knows, or should know that a Facebook Friend isn’t necessarily a real world friend and everyone should be aware of the Dark Side of FB. It can be a device that sucks time out of your life and it can expose to the world just how sad, lonely and boring our lives are.

    On the other hand it can allow us to share our photo’s, thoughts, feelings, and ideas with friends and family. It can help organize events from family reunions to revolutions. It can be a great tool for small groups to discuss, plan, brainstorm all kinds of things without cumbersome email “reply all” or trying to find a time when all members can meet in person.

    But when you log on to FB remember that you are about to go out your virtual door without any pants on.

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  11. buddy says:

    I tell people it’s Like having the Bathroom wall to the world, and everybody has a pen. It’s up to the reader to sort through it all.

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  12. phahn50 says:

    Im sitting here in Oaxaca Mexico taking a break from driving around- we have wifi – and I am served ads for mexican resorts in spanish. (although not while reading this blog – how do “they” know where I am?). The point being that the marketing capabilities of these computer algorithms are truly amazing. Facebook is not the only marketer out there. google is pretty good.

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  13. phahn50 says:

    for example – from the ADE home page “No te arriesges
    Contrata AutoSeguro Dínamico elige el plan que quieres pagar….”

    I will admit to checking my facebook page regularly – but it is mainly to keep tabs on one of my grown children who uses facebook a lot. I noticed they want me to suggest friends for someone too. She probably belongs to a demographic they need more of. I do find it creepy.

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  14. Bret4207 says:

    I neither Tweet, use Facebook or MySpace. In this case I think I stand firmly with Brian. It may be a tool, but so are golf clubs, jet skis and Harleys. I don’t own or use any of them either and my life seems more than complete.

    Funny, I didn’t go for disco, getting tats or owning a pet rock. My life still seems complete. To each their own.

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  15. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It was interesting during the last election to see how much the political Right had embraced technology including blogs and Facebook. For instance, Chris Gibson had several times the number of Facebook friends as Scott Murphy. Will the Right take over these technologies as they did with talk radio, tabloid news and cable news?

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  16. Mervel says:

    In concept I agree particularly about what is actually real and what is not.

    I do have a facebook account that I look at once a week or so. I have to say though that it keeps me in contact with one part of my family who I would not really talk to very much without FB. They live in another part of the country and several are in the Service. Before FB I would call them a couple of times a year. From that perspective I can’t totally knock it without being a hypocrite.

    I have also considered canceling my account for all of the reasons given.

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  17. Brian Mann says:

    No tats, Bret? I figured you all wrong. :)

    -Brian, NCPR

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  18. Carol says:

    I don’t think you can look at Facebook or Twitter in a vacuum and say these applications are destroying the fabric of personal intimacy and communication. It is just a different form of intimacy and communication than you are comfortable with.

    The reference to Darcy above is a good place to start. Darcy didn’t want the idle chit chat around him. So, off he went to write a letter to a distant “friend.” How did he do it? He employed the technology of the day. Dipped a pen into a bottle of ink and applied it with his best hand to a piece of paper (parchment?)

    Why did he write the letter? He was driven to communicate to an individual who was not in his presence.

    What did he say? Well, I don’t know. It’s been a long time since I read “Pride & Prejudice” -however, I would suppose it didn’t include the phrase “yo dawg.”

    He was sending a personal letter to an individual. If Darcy had the option of sending the same message to ten people at once, would he? And I think that is the crux of it all.

    The times change. Lately, I’ve seen a video resurface that is from a 1994 episode of the Today Show – they don’t know what the internet is:

    As I recall, TV wasn’t intended for personal entertainment when it was invented. But, that is how the masses use it. How do they get the money to write/produce/air all the shows? Advertisers. And, on the other side of the advertising debate, PBS struggles to get donations to support their quality programming….As far as communications goes, on one platform for a few short decades, TV was the way to reach thousands if not millions with one advertising message.

    Not too long ago, people used to send out family Christmas messages – one letter photo copied (in color if you could afford it) and mailed to everyone in your address book – with the lovely title “Christmas Greetings from the Nelson Family.” One letter that allowed them to get everyone they knew (or selectively cared about or wanted to brag to) up to date on this years accomplishments. Of course, you had to hand write the individual addresses onto separate envelopes….

    The internet came along – and with the help of personal computers, email, digital cameras and video cameras things changed. Now, I get a handful of mass emails at the holidays – with photos attached. Some still have misspellings…?

    But, the internet itself is a piece of technology where anyone can submit their voice to the world to be heard. (just like this blog.) A giant soap box. Look at YouTube. How crazy is that? People can write you notes on your video and say the worst possible things…. but everyone has an equal voice.

    So, social networks like Facebook and Twitter are the next extension of today’s communication channels. Like anything else it is up to the individual as to how they will use it and whether the words they send off into the net will have a validity to each of the recipients.

    With that thought in mind, advertisers want to be selective of who their message is delivered to – because they have to pay for each delivery…. So, the internet has mechanisms so that individuals can be filtered down to the “most likely to buy” groups. You may find it insidious – but, like most things, it is the result of a commercial enterprise. Right or wrong is immaterial – but each of us is given the ability to filter and use the material as we wish.

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  19. Bret4207 says:

    Not a one Brian, not even an Eagle, Globe and Anchor. Scuzzy is scuzzy, no matter what decade.

    Knuck, “take over”??? One cable news network and some AM radio shows vs CNN, CNNHL, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, CBS, NPR, PBS HBO, The Comedy Channel, 99% of news papers, most of the news magazines and Hollywood???

    Wow, what a coup!

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  20. buddy says:

    That “one” news network stands alone for a good reason, and that is
    most of us like the lies we’re told not to be so obvious.

    Having said that , I wish All american newscasts would be more like canadian news networks, and try to report news and facts, and not share their personal opinions, we the viewers and the listeners should be trusted to think for ourselves and make up our own minds.
    And that’s the same way FB should be treated, it’s a tool or a convenience, but decide for yourself if what you read is true or not.

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  21. Brian,

    The “architecture” of Facebook is simply the digital equivalent of a postal system. Yes, they have advertising. They have to pay the bills somehow. Would you feel better about FB if they charged 45¢ each time you posted instead of selling ad space?

    As for Darcy being rude, are you obliged to participate in every bit of twaddle that happens to be going on within earshot? If so I too must be a snob by your definition.

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  22. phahn50 says:

    both twitter and face book are really designed for young people and cell phones. they can communicate with each other serupticiously (like the girl at mass). For me, the idea of taking out my reading glasses to see what was buzzing my cell phone doesnt sound too exciting

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  23. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I loved the old days when you could learn Morse Code and tap out communication on a telegraph line. This new technology doesn’t hold a candle to that. Or using a wooden stylus in clay tablets then baking them; whooo-hoo it don’t get no bettern that! These kids got nothin’ to say worth puttin’ to papyrus.

    And Bret, HBO? Funny.

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