The Facebook Mirror
I have one of the world’s greatest jobs. I teach writing to college students. In my off-hours, I listen to complaints about student writing: They can’t spell, write a complete sentence, or use commas appropriately. Often these complaints are accompanied by an invitation to identify the villain(s) responsible for this catastrophe. Television, e-mail, texting -- I may choose one or all three.
This year, in an effort to spice up a few dinner parties, I’ve identified a new candidate for the Hall of Literacy Villainy, and in doing so, throw stones at two favorite demons of civilizations: pop culture and computers. This year I nominate the Hollywood darling Facebook.
Facebook presents far more danger than the cultivation of lowercase first-person "i"s and emoticons :). The real threat posed by Facebook is not that it ruins writers' ability to punctuate or encourages them to replace words with pictures. The problem with Facebook is that it nurtures one of writing teachers' greatest foes -- the teenage fantasy that writers write only to themselves and to those who are just like them.
Although Facebook is properly classified as "social software," it is more accurately categorized as mirror-ware, a whole new kind of social that consists only of us and our self-projections. And it is that mirror, that seductive invitation to reflect us and only us back to ourselves that damns us.
On Facebook, we post pictures to represent ourselves: our best, shiniest, toothiest, happiest/sexiest ponderer/wanderer/adventurer. The fairest ones of all. Or we post some other person or object as icon. Puppy, baby, six-year old self. The poor person’s version of identity airbrushing. To deepen the portrait, we post our status, likes and dislikes — bananas, skiing, taxes — and photo albums of grand vacations, graduations and celebrations. To our walls we announce opinions, as they come. What we find good, stupid, evil, sexy.
Facebook writers expect homogeneity from their audience. All readers read the same observation, and insights in the same way, regardless of who they are, what they know, what they need to know or even what they seek. Facebook writers do not select, shape or color moments and thoughts for particular readers. They trade the pleasure of imagining the absent reader for the imagined adoring gaze of selves. And they expect their friends to "like" their posts, pictures etc. immediately, and to shower them publicly with praise.
With Facebook, we don't need to explain why Obama should be elected or gays shouldn't be allowed to marry or a hundred seagull photos merit viewing. If birds bore our friend Gerard, too bad. If Gerard didn’t vote for Obama or has a male partner, that’s too bad, too.
Although our Facebook friends include those we haven't seen in years, decades, even, we can pretend that they share our experiences, our views, and our general disposition towards life. No justification, no explanation.
On Facebook we never think outside the four walls of the self, and we need never imagine readers different from us. We expect neither argument nor curiosity nor challenge. Just a thumbs up or down.
Teachers spend years working to broaden students' intellectual worlds beyond their own virtual backyards. We challenge them to discover ideas that come from individuals who might be very unlike them; people they would never conceive of friending, or if asked to friend would be more than likely to ignore. Or who don't have computers.
So is Facebook truly the new scourge of writing? Maybe not. Like all tools of such ubiquity and power, Facebook must be recognized for what it is — a medium that invites carefully polished reflections of our favorite self. But writers generally write for readers other than that self. We need, then, to provide contexts that allow our students to know and consider those readers. How often do we ask students to hear, read and truly understand a viewpoint different from their own? How often do we expect them to think of someone, anyone, other than themselves? The ability to imagine a perspective other than our own — the idea of an audience consisting of curious minds rather than adoring fans — defines our most effective writers.
Technology is not the smooth broom sweeping the art of writing across the threshold of death. The placing of blame often, if not always, is a means of self-exculpation that renders us powerless. If in reading their words we find that our young people have no sense of others beyond and/or different from themselves, we should supply them with that sense.
Brutus, dear, the fault lies not in our Facebook stars.
Lisa Lebduska is associate professor of English and director of college writing at Wheaton College in Massachusetts.