Architecture determines the way you live.1
So I got back on Facebook recently, after taking about four months off.
It’s kind of a weird feeling. On the one hand, it feels great to see so many faces and names that I don’t see very often. I would like to hug some of these people. On the other hand, it is, paradoxically, soooooo not-intimate on Facebook. Which is weird.
I mean, these are all friends posting photos and updates about their lives, often in real time, right there on the same website – what could be more intimate than that?
I think one thing that makes the FB experience seem less intimate for me than other ways of relating to people is the “cheap” quality of the whole experience. There’s no commitment or expectation on anyone’s part of anyone else’s participation, and often – or at least out on the “wall” – no presumption of common interests.
And while it may be a good place to meet people, there’s not much potential for strong relationships to develop via FB, so far as I can tell. It’s not like when two guys make it through a war together, or two Buddhists finish a month-long silent meditation retreat, or a couple makes it through a rough spot in their marriage. Those are bonding experiences.
It’s more like each person is standing alone in the center of an enormous space with a couple billion people in it, making announcements2 to whomever happens to be nearby at the moment.
It reminded me of high school when I first got on Facebook3 – here you are, an adult, trying to interact with your peers in a positive way, but there is this sense of having almost zero privacy and of being watched and judged by a hidden crowd any time you say or do anything. The slightest gesture of friendship or kindness toward another human being could have all kinds of political consequences, because again, it’s all done in front of an audience.
You don’t have a personal relationship with anyone on Facebook – you have a public relationship with them, along with any “enemies” (or “frenemies”) that person might have, which you don’t know about, any “history” that person may have with others on FB, and on and on and on and on. So paranoia and distrust and fear seem to be not uncommon – or let us at least say “caution” is commonly exercised – simply because of Facebook’s architecture.
3. As satisfying as crack cocaine
So then – after my return to FB after 4 months – I noticed I kept going back to the site over and over that day, to see if I could find love. By “love” I mean little “hits” of affirmation from other people, affirmations that I am valued as a human being. I did get some, but it’s like giving crack to an addict – the feeling is ephermeral and goes away almost instantly, leaving me with an empty feeling.
Maybe it’s similar to how a woman feels getting out of bed after an unsatisfying sexual encounter. Sure, “something” happened, but it was not quite it, you know?
Many people eat well enough and breathe well enough, but they are depressed and insane because they do not communicate through the eyes and through the heart.4 – Adi Da Samraj
4. Dishonest?Another weird thing about Facebook is the dishonesty. I don’t mean people set out with the conscious intention to deceive people. But the medium itself seems to encourage us to conceal things, to put on a false face, perhaps even to spread outright lies.
To give a trivial example, there are things people say on FB that I don’t agree with, but I would never admit to this on there because it’s just not done. It would take too much trouble to explain why I disagree, I can’t tell if the other party wants to invite such a discussion, and often… well you get the picture.
Basically there are no non-verbal cues, there’s no way to drop hints, and there’s almost no context for having a discussion in the first place. Plus, disagreements tend to reflect badly on all participants on FB because, again, there’s always an audience there – folks who may not be in the mood to overhear someone else’s disagreements. And so we avoid them.
As a result of this lack of disagreement, or lack of free and open consideration, I find that I don’t learn many profound things on Facebook. My world-view and my self-imagery are not challenged very much. It’s an atmosphere of “likes” and being “liked”… rather than a culture of “truth”.
Thus, in some ways Facebook provides a “bubble of self-reflection” for each of us, a mechanism for reflecting our own ideas back to us. A p.o.v.-reinforcing machine. We think we are looking at other people, looking at the world, having interactions and getting feedback… but what if we’re not? Not really?
5. ConformistTaking it a step further, some critics7 say that places like FB tend to encourage herd-mentality and social conformity, because of the omnipresent potential to be penalized by one’s peers for saying anything unusual or controversial. If that sounds overstated, try saying something unpopular on FB a few times in a row and let me know what happens.
Paradoxically, this reminds me of the “1984” commercial that introduced us to Steve Jobs’ Apple Macintosh computer 30 years ago. It’s interesting how in this commercial, “Big Brother” isn’t a monstrosity that overtly controls us, but rather a situation wherein we ourselves have voluntarily given up our privacy and been persuaded to penalize each other for independent thinking. Independent thought – or at least being honest about it – is seen as an unnecessary “pest”, something that undermines the institutionalized harmony and artificial “oneness” of the situation.
Well, this avoidance of controversy and conformity to social pressures seems similar to what it takes to be liked by many people on FB. Hmm?
6. A substitute for other intimacy?
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. – James Baldwin
I remember when I first joined FB a little over three years ago. Because I started from a clean slate and added dozens of men & women as friends all at once, I felt I was given an interesting perspective at that time.
I couldn’t help noticing that by far the biggest participants on FB were single women. Second place was single men. Then married women. Married men had the least participation of all.
Happily married people did post, obviously, and there are all kinds of reasons for someone to post on FB on a given day – an extroverted personality, feeling happy, a business venture to promote, pictures to share. But the trends I noticed with regard to gender and marital status seemed convincing.
So just as an informal scientific thing8, a person might conclude that human beings use Facebook, in part anyway, as a substitute for other forms of intimacy. Obviously there’s nothing wrong with wanting intimacy – I think intimacy and friendship are great things, maybe essential for sanity.
However, in my own life I find that I often have to roll up my sleeves and deal with some difficult stuff to help create & maintain friendships and intimacies – they don’t just fall out of the sky because I say I “like” something or I find a witty one-liner or platitude to share. And I think the best friendships I’ve had aren’t even about the friendship, truly, but are about shared commitments that brought us together. Shared commitments that were about more than trying to look good in front of an audience.
Ultimately I think something like Facebook can have value in all kinds of ways – seeing what people are up to, maintaining connections, picking up on news stories, promoting creative ventures, meeting new people, and so on.
My purpose in this article is mainly to pay attention to how I participate in FB, to see how its architecture and its milieu affect me, and to notice if I’m going about things in such a way that my motives can actually be fulfilled.
I’d like to close with some “old-school” wisdom I’ve found helpful. As many of us already know, life is experienced on multiple levels. And it can be conceived to exist in two separate domains: one “sacred” (or intimate – a place of potential ecstasy in our private life), and one public (or secular & more socially-concerned, focused on survival and handling business).
This passage is from the late teacher Adi Da Samraj:
10 belong there that do not belong in the secular social domain – but you must be able to enter into the sacred domain, readily, and be there when you get up in the morning, and freely enact there all the forms of ecstasy that you do not enact in the common (or secular) daily domain. The sacred culture determines how the forms of ecstasy are accommodated in human life, whereas the secular social world always wants to exclude them.The sacred domain must be the core of life, and all kinds of activities and experiences
If you have nothing but the secular social world, then ecstasy in all its forms – even sexual – becomes suppressed, its integrity destroyed. Then life becomes nothing but a self-conscious exercise in which you merely preserve social rules, extending them even into the bedroom and the prayer room – such that you never turn ecstatic, you never “go native”, when you are outside the common social (or secular) sphere…
There needs to be a clear division between these two domains. Both domains must exist…11
- When you are on Facebook, are your communications intimate and uninhibited? Or are they more strategic and political? Or somewhere in the middle? Or is it – as it is for me – an ongoing confusion as to which attitude to adopt, because too many different things are trying to happen all in the same space?
- Does it work to be uninhibited on Facebook?
- When the “secular” social domain infringes too much on the “sacred” domain, do you think that could eventually ruin our sex lives? Could it undermine our meditative lives?
- Mr. Zuckerberg once said “By giving people the power to share, we’re making the world more transparent.”12 Who’s world is he talking about, exactly? Would you want your intimate thoughts, feelings and interactions to be public knowledge, 24/7, in the sense of total “transparency”? Technology already exists that could make this a reality, or so I’m told, so this is a question we might ask.
- Which do you think is more likely to bring people together: having a common commitment and going through a difficult journey together? Or logging in to a corporate website, and being under a kind of spotlight there? Obviously it’s not an either/or situation, but still a useful question to ask myself.
- What were the most beautiful moments in your life, and what made them that way?
- Adi Da Samraj, as quoted in “The Eating Gorilla Comes in Peace”, published by the Dawn Horse Press. ↩
- I don’t want to upstage my FB appreciation with something intense and heavy, but FB also reminds me of this quote. See for yourself though: The human world is now in a state of virtually infinite fragmentation, in which the individual feels powerless and is just thinking of himself or herself as some kind of “consumer”-ego to be titillated and satisfied, and perhaps to be given a voice, a soap box, here and there. The global state of humankind is absurd and dark. Therefore, this darkest time requires an immense force of self-correction and self-rightening… This is from the book Not-Two Is Peace, by Adi Da. I think most of us can all agree that the purpose of FB is not “self-rightening”. ↩
- Before you know it, almost nobody will be alive who remembered what it was like to live in a world without social media. Whatever its effects are on the human psyche – whether good or bad – will seem “normal” by that time, perhaps. ↩
- Excerpted from “The Incarnation of Love”, p.14, published by the Dawn Horse Press, Clearlake, California, 1980. ↩
- Image from Echo and Narcissus by John Williams Waterhouse. ↩
- See wikipedia entry for more info. ↩
- See wikipedia’s article on Criticism of Facebook. ↩
- In the hard sciences, the informal “back-of-the-envelope calculation” is often associated with physicist Enrico Fermi, who was well known for emphasizing ways that complex scientific equations could be approximated within an order of magnitude using simple calculations. – wikipedia. ↩
- Quote from Adi Da. ↩
- Like making love to your wife real good. Also, making music, meditating, laughing, engaging spiritual exercises, making art – these are all things that can be immensely satisfying in a private or “set apart” setting, but are not always appropriate to engage, say, at the workplace. ↩
- Excerpted from “My Call for the Universal Restoration of the Sacred (or Central) Domain of Human Life”, by Adi Da Samraj, as published in 2001 in “Santosha Adidam”. ↩
- This quote is all over the internet, but no website seems to specify when or where it was said. ↩