Two Cheers for Facebook

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in Ceylon Today on January 29 2014.

Colman's Column3

Enemies of promise?

UK education minister Michael Gove recently had an article in the London Daily Mail in which he wrote: “Exactly 75 years ago the great English writer and thinker, Cyril Connolly, published his most famous book – Enemies of Promise. Connolly’s work explores the ways in which the talented individuals of his time were prevented from achieving their full potential.”

Well, Michael, up   to a point. I cannot help wondering if you have actually read the book. The most famous quotation from the book is: “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.”

Mr Gove says: “It’s time someone produced an update.”Who are the guilty men and women who have deprived a generation of the knowledge they need? Who are the modern Enemies of Promise? Well, helpfully, 100 of them put their name to a letter to The Independent newspaper this week. They are all academics who have helped run the university departments of education responsible for developing curricula and teacher training courses… Sadly, they seem more interested in valuing Marxism, revering jargon and fighting excellence.”

This has little to do with what concerned Connolly. He was not much interested in who was guilty of depriving a generation of essential knowledge. Connolly was writing about himself. The overarching theme of the book is the search for an explanation of why Connolly failed to produce a major work of literature. Connolly confronts the evils of domesticity (symbolised by “the pram in the hall”), politics, drink, and advertising. Connolly provides a list of things that can distract a writer can use as ways to drift away from writing.

What are the real enemies of promise in the 21st cewntury? What is the equivalent of “the pram in the hall” today? Social media must be a strong contender as a major distracter and disrupter.

About 75 percent of 12-17 year-olds in America own a cell phone. Half of them send 50 or more text messages a day and one-third send more than 100 text messages daily. I do not text much or use a mobile phone unless I have to. However, I do recognise the power of social media in preventing me from writing the greatest novel of all time. I started blogging in 2008 on a site called Open Salon, which invited contributors on the basis that it offered a platform for writers, photographers and other artists. That was not how it turned out. The site policy of openness left the doors open to flame wars and obsessives. I withdrew and started using Facebook.

Why write that masterpiece (or fill in your tax return) when you can read recipes, look at pictures of cute kittens or discuss TV programmes? Some people just post to say they are having a coffee or that the sun is shining. Some argue that technology alters our brains. In his book The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet might have detrimental effects on cognition that diminish the capacity for concentration and contemplation. Nietzsche’s prose style changed when he started using a typewriter. Carr ventures that the cognitive impact of the Internet may be far more encompassing than any other previous intellectual technology because it is replacing them all. Carr contends that ads and obtrusive notifications significantly hinder the capacity to concentrate. These detrimental effects on concentration are compounded by traditional media because they  mimic the Internet, in order to remain competitive.

I have been comfortable on Facebook, although there are many opportunities to be irritated. However, the most irritating thing for me is people who make condescending remarks about Facebook on Facebook. I fully understand that someone might object to such social media sites on principle but I would have more respect for that viewpoint if they just stayed away from Facebook. There are real issues about privacy and Facebook does not have a good record of responding to concerns about technical “bugs”.

There are those who see conspiracies everywhere and believe that the CIA set up Facebook for its own fell purpose. They may have a point. Facebook has willingly provided information in response to government subpoenas or requests. The 2013 mass surveillance disclosures instigated by Edward Snowden identified Facebook as a participant in the U.S. National Security Administration’s PRISM program. Facebook now reports the number of requests it receives for user information from governments around the world. There has been concern about Facebook selling users’ data to private companies.

I found my experience of Facebook mostly positive. “Experts” worry that lack of face-to-face social interaction might be psychologically harmful.  It might even cause the part of your brain that controls speech to atrophy. However, I have been lucky enough to interact with people whose witty banter keeps my brain stimulated.

Another remarkable phenomenon is the kindness of strangers. One of my Facebook friends is suffering from a horrible illness. The outpouring of affection reinforced by practical and financial help that flowed to her was awe-inspiring. A support group was set up to get another Facebook friend out of jail in Africa. The group raised money to get him to the UK and found accommodation for him. He is now reunited with his wife and children and undertaking  an AA 12-Step programme. In less dramatic circumstances, other writers more celebrated than myself have shown me great kindness and support.

I have to confess that I am going through a jaded phase. Did Noel Coward not say: “A man who is tired of Facebook is tired of life”? No, he did not. He was talking about London. Sometimes the witty banter fades as people think they have to make a million jokes every day or to express an opinion on every topic, speculate about the private life of every Z-list celebrity.

Even in those positive instances I cited, vicious flame wars erupted between members of the “support group” which had nothing to do with the people being supported.

A joint study conducted by two German universities found that one out of three people felt less satisfied with their lives after visiting Facebook. Social envy was often the cause. Some resented the fact that their Facebook “friends” were posting vacation photos of destinations they themselves could not visit. On Open Salon, there was much anger about the award of Editor’s Picks and spaces on the cover. Facebook users compare the number of birthday greetings they get.

Gloomsayers argue that social networking keeps our minds off important matters and encourages apathy. Sherry Turkle argues that social media bring people closer and further apart at the same time. Peoples’ expectations of each other tend to be lessened.  Although people network they get a feeling of loneliness in spite of being together.

One has to learn to step back and avoid obsession. A 2013 study in the journal CyberPsychology, found that some users actually decide to leave social networking sites because of their feeling of getting addicted.

Many people confuse debate with diatribe. Anger that would be suppressed in face-to-face contact is given full expression online. I nimbly stepped back from what looked like a long war when a stranger in the American Mid West disagreed with my views on punctuation. I have seen otherwise rational people (perhaps over-rational) writing long essays in comment threads about the most abstruse points, the equivalent of the number of angels on the head of a pin. One thread had over 600 of these lengthy comments. Who has the time for this? One has to accept that some people will not be persuaded to change their minds whatever rational arguments are put to them.

Psychologist John Suler coined the term “online disinhibition effect.” Anonymity allows a disconnect between the commenter’s identity and what he is saying. The moment you shed your identity the usual constraints on your behavior go, too. Arthur Santana, a communications professor at the University of Houston, found that a full fifty-three per cent of anonymous commenters were uncivil, as opposed to twenty-nine per cent of registered, non-anonymous commenters. Anonymity, Santana concluded encouraged incivility.

Substantive debates are one thing, but negative, vile comments—especially personal attacks—are something else.  To eliminate or censor comments, however, does not seem to be the answer either. More about the serious implications of this next week.