Sunday, December 16, 2012

On Leaving Facebook

Several months ago-- more than six months ago already, I think-- I deleted my Facebook account. (I would write that I permanently deleted my Facebook account, but I imagine that would simply betray my naivety.) Since then, my life has been one long holiday of blissful relaxation.

OK, that's overstating the case more than a little. But the truth is that, even now, I sometimes find myself actively enjoying my absence from Facebook. It feels a little bit like being invisible, and perhaps rather more like lying on a desert island with all your favourite books conveniently washed up with you.

I no longer have to get worked up about provocative comments being posted about the Catholic Church, or the nature of marriage, or the purpose of art and entertainment, or the innocence of childhood, or whether fairy tales can or should be "updated", or the desirability of a society based around the motor-car.

All that-- and more (much much much more) is raging in the cyber-seas of Facebook right now. But I am deliciously, gloriously, serenely immune to it all.

Why would someone who loves the idea of debate so much be so relieved at this?

Well, because I don't think the debates that happen on Facebook are debates at all-- not in any serious sense of the term. It's not just that the combatants already have their minds made up and are unlikely to change them. This is true of pretty much all debates anyway.

It's that the medium makes civilized debate impossible. For me, what is really required to have a proper debate-- a debate where something of value occurs, even if the value only comes in the urbane pleasure taken in the debate-- is leisure.

This means that the parties need time to form and express their arguments. It also helps raise the thing to a higher level if they have time, not only to express their arguments, but to do so with some finesse. A debate that is ruthlessly focused upon the points at issue and that has no time for asides, anecdotes, humour, gracious tributes to one's opponent, and so forth, is barely a debate at all.

A debate should either be conducted face-to-face-- with both participants sharing the same time and space, rather than hollering at each other across timezones or at irregular intervals-- or else should be the opposite pole entirely, a debate in which there is no pressure of time and space, in which participants can reply to each other at book length and after years of rumination.

Facebook, alas, is the worst of all worlds for debate. Aside from the above considerations, there is the bane of hypertext.

I don't like hypertext. I try to use it sparingly in this blog. I prize the integrity of a piece of prose. Books, and written texts in general, have always seemed like a shelter or a refuge to me. There is something inestimably cosy about print, and type, and written words. When you read, you are in a private world; a world bound between two covers. It is your own little sanctuary. Though it can take you on an imaginative journey to ancient Egypt or the microscopic world of DNA or alien civilizations, you still remain snugly ensconsed in the text. (As I write this, I have a picture of myself walking around the schoolyard while reading 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke.)

Admittedly, writing on the internet is not a book or a magazine. But I see no reason why it shouldn't seek to emulate the printed page. And perhaps I am not the only internet user who feels an unpleasant sense of disorientation when, working my way down a page of text, I suddenly find that I have to click into a totally different page to follow the argument. It is like a pit opening in front of you. Nor do you have any idea whether you are required to read a fifty word thesis or a five thousand word dissertation.

So, this is another reason for my dislike of Facebook debates; the constant dragging-in of second-hand material. In a face-to-face debate, someone might say: "You should read The Peril of Subliminal Messages by P.Z. Vermillion. What Vermillion says is..." On Facebook, there is simply a link to the homepage of P.Z. Vermillion, with its dozens of articles, each one containing thousands of words.

Then there is the acrimony of Facebook debates. All debates are in danger of becoming heated, and face-to-face debates can often become uncomfortably bitter, but Facebook seems especially prone to this-- even more so than the internet in general. It's funny that this should be so, since Facebook is not anonymous, and the discussion is supposedly conducted between "friends" (or, at least, friends of friends).

Finally, when it comes to Facebook debates, there is the phenomenon of the long-winded winner. The person who "wins" the debate is simply the one who is willing and able to keep going after everybody else has been worn down.

Of course, Facebook isn't just about debates. It is also about stupid jokes, reproduction of other peoples' witticisms, photographs of cats, photographs of cats doing "funny" things, subtle displays of one upmanship (look at all the parties I go to!), a preoccupation with pop culture and celebrity news, and friend requests from people you knew twenty years ago and who you're not especially keen to be in touch with again.

Then again, I was my own worst enemy. When I was on Facebook I would post several times a day. I liked to think it was because I had so much to say, and found so much to remark upon in my peregrinations around the city. Doubtless the truth was less flattering.

Of course, it's impossible to fully escape from Facebook. Even if you find yourself in a properly social situation, like a party or a dinner, it's a very high likelihood that the conversation will turn towards what Jenny posted on her account, and soon the i-phones will come out and you will wonder whether the virtual world is a shadow of the real world or vice versa. Or you will find yourself posing for photographs which are destined for Facebook, and whose appearance online will mean that the event has "really" happened.

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