Because I’ve been distracted by other things (grading, writing articles, travel), I missed Neal Gabler’s recent op-ed on “The Zuckerberg Revolution” until now. Although it is a little more sophisticated in its media analysis, Gabler’s article is consistent with a number of other articles lamenting the effect of social media on how we communicate. Gabler wrote the article specifically in response to the announcement that Zuckerberg has produced a communication tool, Facebook Messaging, meant to combine the utility of email with the brevity and immediacy of social media tools. Zuckerberg has pithily described the tool as a “social inbox” and, like a number of recent communication tools, promoted it as a transformative new way of communicating. For the most part, it feels like Zuckerberg’s announcement has been greeted with a virtual shrug. And yet, the perception that our communication tools continue to change us, typically in ways that are harmful, persists for Gabler. Although I’m often lured in by arguments about media change, I think Gabler’s arguments tend to simplify more complex changes taking place within our communication practices.
First, Gabler participates in the current trend of mythologizing Mark Zuckerberg, a tendency expressed most vividly in Sorkin and Fincher’s The Social Network but also by author Zadie Smith, who sees the invention of Facebook as a generation-defining moment. In virtually all cases, Zuckerberg’s hastily authored bit of code is depicted as fostering banal, narcissistic chatter devoid of deeper meaning. At the same time, this is portrayed as a communication revolution. As Tama Leaver points out in a recent post, the final shot of The Social Network, which depicts a fictionalized Zuckerberg compulsively refreshing his browser window to check the response to a friend request, ominously seems to imply that we have all become Zuckerbergs, reinforced by titles stating that “Facebook has 500 million users in 207 countries. It’s currently valued at 25 billion dollars.” To be sure, any tool that can boast half a billion users is significant; however, we risk obscuring quite a bit when we impose all of the changes associated with social media onto a single communication artifact such as Facebook, especially when an apparently narcissistic Zuckerberg is so easy to vilify. Although it’s tempting to regard Zuckerberg as an archetype for what Zadie Smith calls “Generation Why,” it keeps us from seeing some of the more subtle ways in which social media may be shaping communication (while at the same time being shaped by contemporary social needs and desires).
Gabler also offers a fairly reductive assessment of the processes of media change. His discussion of Facebook messaging compares social media with the print revolution fostered by (though not solely caused) by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan, Gabler argues that “print’s uniformity, its immutability, its rigidity, its logic led to a number of social transformations, among which were the rise of rationalism and of the scientific method. In facilitating reason, print also facilitated complex ideas.” He goes on to suggest, building upon arguments by Neil Postman, that TV helped to diminish this project of scientific rationalism by confronting us with “the onslaught of the visual.” Although Facebook arguably takes us back to typography–most Facebook messages are printed on screens after all–their brevity and informality prevent the kind of thought that Gabler sees as productive. Thus, Gabler concludes ominously, “we are no longer amusing ourselves to death. We are texting ourselves to death.”
I’m not terribly inclined to defend Mark Zuckerberg. Although I am a frequent Facebook user, I recognize the site’s limitations, especially when it comes to privacy (Tama is attentive to these points as well). But I think Gabler obscures quite a bit when he suggests that Facebook status updates can be reduced to telling “tens of millions of people that they are eating a sandwich or going to a movie or watching a TV show.” First, it implies that Facebook has a broadcast capacity that it really doesn’t have. Most Facebook users (or Twitter users, for that matter) don’t have tens of millions of friends or followers; they are speaking to a much smaller circle of friends or family members. Second, it obscures the ways in which these sites work to build ambient intimacy with others. We know more about our friends, family, and colleagues because of these short bytes of communication, knowledge that can help us to make sense of our daily lives or the world around us (I made a similar argument in an article on Twitter a couple of years ago). Facebook and Twitter don’t exist in isolation. They point to other things. We link, we cite, we discuss. Maybe some of that chatter remains at the level of a conversation at the local bar, but we don’t communicate solely in the tiny nuggets that Gabler has characterized as revolutionary. People may tweet about their lunch, but they blog, make (or watch) videos, and write (or read) in other formats, too. I’ve learned much about current trends in communication through my Twitter feed, where colleagues and friends link to articles. Although discussion may start on Twitter, it often spills over into blog posts, articles, conference papers, and even books. And the fact that we are talking about other media–whether TV shows or movies or even books–also seems to matter more than Gabler acknowledges. One recent meme asked Facebook users to list their favorite authors, and I’d imagine that few authors made anyone’s list based on a few tweets.
To some extent, Gabler seems to have bought into Facebook’s marketing hype to the point of treating this moment as “Zuckerberg’s Revolution.” Although such hype is powerful–and may even shape the way we communicate–I’m not convinced that Facebook Messages will do anything that is especially new, even if it might be slightly pernicious in its attempts to weave Facebook use even more deeply into our daily lives, potentially adding more users and drawing in even more advertising revenue. But rather than giving all of the power to the technologies themselves–moving us into the realm of technological determinism–why not look at the ways in which our communication tools are contributing to new forms of thinking in far more subtle ways?