Facebook, Fahrenheit 451, and the crossing of a cultural threshold
One of the most subtle and subversive pieces of social criticism in Fahrenheit 451comes early in the book when Montag, a fireman (i.e., book burner) who eventually wakes up to a recognition of his society’s essential character as a fascist-totalitarian dark age, chats with a teenaged girl named Clarisse. Or rather, it’s she who chats with him. The dumbed-down denizen’s of Bradbury’s keenly envisioned future dystopia of ignorance, repression, distraction, and dissipation are more fond of television, music, games, sports, sedatives, and other amusements than they are of real human contact, and when Clarisse suddenly shows up, introduces herself, and begins talking to Montag on a succession of evenings as he walks home from work, he’s considerably discomfited. But he finds her intriguing, and eventually he comes to look forward to their talks, so that when she unexpectedly disappears — presumably having been taken away by the repressive central government (a suspicion that’s confirmed later in the novel) — he’s deeply disturbed by it.
At one point in their conversations, he asks her why she isn’t in school. Her response reflects a profound inversion and perversion of what it means to be “antisocial” as judged by the surrounding society:
“Oh, they don’t miss me,” she said. “I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. “Or talking about how strange the world is. Being with people is nice. But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running, another hour of transcription history or painting pictures, and more sports, but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing, and us sitting there for four more hours of film-teacher. That’s not social to me at all. It’s a lot of funnels and lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it’s wine when it’s not. They run us so ragged by the end of the day we can’t do anything but go to bed or head for a Fun Park to bully people around … I guess I’m everything they say I am, all right. I haven’t any friends. That’s supposed to prove I’m abnormal.”
Although Bradbury’s critique in this passage is aimed largely at the public school system, his description of Clarisse’s ironic plight, in which her authentic human sociability earns her the label “antisocial” — a label that, as the book later shows, is tantamount to a criminal charge in this particular (semi-)fictional dystopia — has wider resonances in today’s world of cultural dominance by social media. In fact, we may be seeing a similar inversion and perversion of language and values play out right before our eyes at this very cultural moment.
The Facebook resisters
Last December The New York Times reported on the growing population of Americans — still small in absolute numbers, but representing a statistically and demographically significant trend — who are making the decision to forego Facebook. The story came out amid the pre-launch furor over Facebook’s initial stock offering, and it focused on the fact that even as the company was eager to show off its enormous global pool of users and brag about the way it was helping to give them all more rich and vibrant social interactions, a lot of people in America were bailing on the service and saying it had produced the opposite effect of alienating them from people:
“I wasn’t calling my friends anymore,” said Ashleigh Elser, 24, who is in graduate school in Charlottesville, Va. “I was just seeing their pictures and updates and felt like that was really connecting to them.” To be sure, the Facebook-free life has its disadvantages in an era when people announce all kinds of major life milestones on the Web. Ms. Elser has missed engagements and pictures of newborn babies. But none of that hurt as much as the gap she said her Facebook account had created between her and her closest friends. So she shut it down.
— Jenna Wortham, “The Facebook Resisters,” The New York Times, December 13, 2011
Many people also told the Times they were worried about Facebook’s privacy problems, both for themselves and for others:
Tyson Balcomb quit Facebook after a chance encounter on an elevator. He found himself standing next to a woman he had never met — yet through Facebook he knew what her older brother looked like, that she was from a tiny island off the coast of Washington and that she had recently visited the Space Needle in Seattle. “I knew all these things about her, but I’d never even talked to her,” said Mr. Balcomb, a pre-med student in Oregon who had some real-life friends in common with the woman. “At that point I thought, maybe this is a little unhealthy.
… Erika Gable, 29, who lives in Brooklyn and does public relations for restaurants, never understood the appeal of Facebook in the first place. She says the daily chatter that flows through the site — updates about bad hair days and pictures from dinner — is virtual clutter she doesn’t need in her life. “If I want to see my fifth cousin’s second baby, I’ll call them,” she said with a laugh. Ms. Gable is not a Luddite. She has an iPhone and sometimes uses Twitter. But when it comes to creating a profile on the world’s biggest social network, her tolerance reaches its limits. “I remember having MySpace for a bit and always feeling so weird about seeing other people’s stuff all the time,” she said. “I’m not into it.”
The article consistently used the word “holdouts” to describe people who decide against Facebook, and it reported the experiences of those who found themselves under increasing pressure to capitulate:
Will Brennan, a 26-year-old Brooklyn resident, said he had “heard too many horror stories” about the privacy pitfalls of Facebook. But he said friends are not always sympathetic to his anti-social-media stance. “I get asked to sign up at least twice a month,” Mr. Brennan said. “I get harangued for ruining their plans by not being on Facebook.”
And whether there is haranguing involved or not, the rebels say their no-Facebook status tends to be a hot topic of conversation — much as a decision not to own a television might have been in an earlier media era. “People always raise an eyebrow,” said Chris Munns, 29, who works as a systems administrator in New York.
Opt out, invite suspicion
Here’s where the situation takes a tilt toward the decidedly creepy and palpably dystopian. For the Times spoke to representatives of several research and polling organizations who confirmed that a society-wide shift in fundamental attitudes is attending the Facebook revolution. Involvement in Facebook and/or other social media is increasingly becoming the norm, not the exception, and so the pressure to participate is increasing, perhaps to the point where we all face a situation equivalent to Fahrenheit 451‘s Clarisse: the definition of being “social” may have fundamentally changed, so that not participating in social media, ipso facto, makes you antisocial. In the words of the Times,
[T]he peer pressure is only going to increase. Susan Etlinger, an analyst at the Altimeter Group, said society was adopting new behaviors and expectations in response to the near-ubiquity of Facebook and other social networks. “People may start to ask the question that, if you aren’t on social channels, why not? Are you hiding something?” she said. “The norms are shifting.”
But beyond even that, we may begin to see a situation where not only a person’s level of sociability but his or her level of mental health and social safety is linked to participation in social media. A person’s level of trust in other people and in society at large has long been used as a general gauge of mental health. According to this standard, the less fundamentally trusting a person is, the more likely he or she is to suffer from a mental disorder. In fact, lack of trust is deemed a mental disorder in itself; on the far pole of mental pathology lie all the various shadings of paranoid personality disorder. So what is the link between this and social media? Again, from the Times:
Those who study social networking say this issue boils down to trust. Amanda Lenhart, who directs research on teenagers, children and families at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said that people who use Facebook tend to have “a general sense of trust in others and trust in institutions.” She added: “Some people make the decision not to use it because they are afraid of what might happen.”
If you’re inclined to think these concerns are all a bit potboilerish and overwrought, then consider this: two weeks ago, as reported in English by activepolitic.com and picked up by a Forbes blogger, Slashdot, The Daily Mail, and others, the German magazine Der Taggspiegel published an article (click here for Google’s automatic English translation) that speculated, with help from professional psychologists, about a possible connection between the fact that James Holmes, the shooter in the Colorado theater, and Anders Behring Breivik, Norway’s mass shooter, both had no Facebook profiles. People who don’t use Facebook, the article hypothesized, may automatically be suspicious, since, in the words of psychologist Christopher Moeller Hanover, “The Internet has become a natural part of life.”
Slate blogger Kashmir Hill comments that although the German article’s thesis is “extreme” and “flawed,”
I’m seeing the suggestion more and more often that a missing Facebook account raises red flags … [Slate advice columnist Emily Yoffe told someone that] “If you’re of a certain age and you meet someone who you are about to go to bed with, and that person doesn’t have a Facebook page, you may be getting a false name. It could be some kind of red flag” … I’ve heard both job seekers and employers wonder aloud about what it means if a job candidate doesn’t have a Facebook account. Does it mean they deactivated it because it was full of red flags? Are they hiding something? … [I]t does seem that increasingly, it’s expected that everyone is on Facebook in some capacity, and that a negative assumption is starting to arise about those who reject the Big Blue Giant’s siren call. Continuing to navigate life without having this digital form of identification may be like trying to get into a bar without a driver’s license.
— Kashmir Hill, “Beware, Tech Abandoners: People without Facebook Accounts Are ‘Suspicious’, Forbes, August 6, 2012
“You can’t get away from it”
These speculations are amplified by the case of former Facebook employee Katherine Losse (to whom Ms. Hill refers in her blog post). As reported recently by The Washington Post, Ms. Losse was Facebook’s 51st employee, and she eventually became Mark Zuckerberg’s personal ghostwriter. But in 2010 she quit the company, cashed in her stock options, and moved to remote Marfa, Texas, in order to write a book, which was published two months ago as The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network. She made this major transition after she
gradually soured on the revolution in human relations she witnessed [inside Facebook]. The explosion of social media, she believed, left hundreds of millions of users with connections that were more plentiful but also narrower and less satisfying, with intimacy losing out to efficiency. It was time, Losse thought, for people to renegotiate their relationships with technology.
— Craig Timberg, “Refugee from Facebook questions the social media life,” The Washington Post, August 3, 2012
Losse also deactivated her own Facebook account, but she soon reactivated it, feeling that total abandonment was a bit extreme, and she reapproached Facebook
with a new wariness, not as a place to make and maintain friendships but one where a new author could cultivate a public image. She carefully minded the privacy controls and signed on using a browser setting that limited the ability of Web sites to track her as she surfed the Internet. She prefers to carry out conversations on the phone, by e-mail or, when possible, in person. “The Boy Kings,” meanwhile, has no Facebook page — a rarity in today’s book industry. Along the way Losse has found a point of balance, a mix of technological connection and disconnection that, for now, suits her. “You can’t get away from it. It’s everything. It’s everywhere,” Losse said. “The moment we’re in now is about trying to deal with all this technology rather than rejecting it, because obviously we can’t reject it entirely. We can avoid one site or another, but we can’t leave our phones at home anymore.”
If Losse is correct about Facebook, social media, and digital communications technology in general — “You can’t get away from it. It’s everything. It’s everywhere” — then we have crossed a historic threshold indeed, and “holdouts” against Facebook or other social media will increasingly come under suspicion exactly as illustrated by the Taggspiegel article.
In Truffaut’s film adaptation of Fahrenheit 451, the conversation between Montag and Clarisse is altered to focus on the “antisocial” potential of books themselves:
Montag: Books are just so much rubbish. They have no interest.
Clarisse: Then why do some people still read them although it’s so dangerous?
Montag: Precisely because it is forbidden.
Clarisse: Why is it forbidden?
Montag: Because it makes people unhappy.
Clarisse: Do you really believe that?
Montag: Oh, yes. Books disturb people. They make them antisocial.
(You can watch most of this scene, minus the final two lines of dialogue above, in this video clip.)
In light of all these things, one can’t help wondering how long it will be until the reading and writing of books, and the cultivation of human relationships in a manner that is consciously conducted outside the Facebook and social media circles — which is to say, in a manner that aligns with the way people always did these things throughout human history, up until less than a decade ago — will become so foreign to the common experiences and expectations of people living in digitally connected societies that such things will appear inherently backward, foreign, and suspicious. Mark my words: we stand on the cusp of this very transition right now.