Everybody loves to hate on Facebook, even while we continue to, apologetically, stay on it. Let’s acknowledge from the outset that Facebook is already a permanent part of our internet-official lives today – just like Google is. Since we’re acknowledging things, let us also give credit where it’s due: like Google, Facebook has fought a worthy battle to stay in our lives and to become that inevitable tab next to our Gmail accounts. Not being on Facebook is a modern-day act of rebellion, much like using Bing for your searches, or having a Hotmail account as your primary one. And like all rebellious acts, not having a Facebook account is sexy and mysterious; but you know the battle has been won, when it also becomes a foolish one. Well, right up to the point where it starts turning you into a fool – well, possibly.
If you are part of the small percentage of people who actually clicked on the link that brought you to this article, you’re probably part of an even smaller percentage if you’re reading this – the second paragraph. Getting this far earns you the right to know, and it’s only fair, that what follows is not in any way a defense of Facebook (as you might have guessed), nor does it seek to glorify its use. On the contrary, and you might be surprised (even pleased) to know (especially if you are one of said haters) that this article is all about a convoluted form of Facebook bashing. But for all the wrong reasons.
I discovered the potential of pressing “Like” on a particular Facebook page much later than most Facebook users. Where my “friends” had 200-300 pages that they Liked, for a long time, I only had one: Hugh Laurie (I had never doubted my Like for him). I had also kept myself irreverently away from any “personal” pages I was asked to Like. Still, being an avid reader (whatever that means today), I wasn’t completely ignorant of what was going on in the world beyond Facebook. I still ascribed to some “traditional” means of keeping informed; a leading news website was my homepage, I frequently visited a number of my favorite blogs, and of course, I read books (real ones) quite extensively.
Then the good people down at Facebook, quite thoughtfully, gave us the option to “Unsubscribe” from getting all sorts of updates from our “friends,” which I used as a convenient enough excuse to stay put. My News Feed became much more tolerable as I stayed well-informed about my closest friends, Hugh of course, and even what was “hot” in the internet world (since I was now only subscribed to people who posted interesting and current articles, whether I liked them personally or not). Needless to say, I felt quite content with my knowledgeable-ness and once again, less apologetic about being on Facebook. And then it happened: In the purest moment of naivety, I went to the official Facebook page of one of my favorite journals, and I clicked Like. What I didn’t know/couldn’t have known that day was that I had just made a late entry into the era of TMI.
Having pompously considered myself a liberal intellectual for a long time, even a couple of months ago I would have scoffed, yes scoffed, at the idea that there could be such a thing as too much information. After all, my intellectual and cultural predecessors had fought for centuries for all kinds of knowledge to become accessible to the larger public. And with the internet, it had finally happened. Anyone could produce, share, access information in any language from any part of the world; the perfect global public space for views, opinions and general information had been created and it was flourishing. Social media was of course born out of it, and now we could exchange knowledge with like-minded people and have unending virtual debates on public forums. But let’s stay utopian for a little longer and forget that half those debates were about Rihanna’s new hairstyle; let’s also not go into governmental attempts at censorship or the socio-economics of the whole thing – instead let’s go back and talk about Facebook.
Aggregators that would gather information from your favorite websites have been around for a long time, but Facebook has left all of them behind. It has become a vortex that sucks information from everywhere and gathers it within it. It is the ingenious synthesis of a macro-aggregator and our micro-social needs to share and perform. And that is why it is almost foolish to not be part of it. Instead of visiting all those websites and blogs separately, you can get minute by minute updates from them by signing into one. And with one click, or a dab as we might have it, you can share this information, discuss it or at least let people know what kind of a person you are. And that’s great! But as I have discovered lately, it’s a slippery slope.
When that first article from your favorite journal or website appears in your news feed, you experience a strange sense of meaningfulness. All of a sudden, sitting in that cold dry cubicle, the banality of “Facebook-ing” is diminished by the very fact that you gained some “real” knowledge. You might even use that knowledge to become a more productive worker or a kinder human being. But this news site is too mainstream and we all know how they can be biased sometimes what with all the politics of media ownership; maybe you should also Like that not-for-profit news site to get the underdog’s perspective. This other one is better with international news, and I love the poetry in this magazine, oh and let’s not forget those articles on art and culture. And there, before you have it, you are Liking Charlie Brooker on Facebook, which is owned by a lazy fan who rarely updates the page. Needless to say, my personal plan to keep my Facebook Likes below 10 so that I only encountered the very “best” of information, failed miserably. Is that so bad? Not at all.
What could be more wonderful than discovering that there is so much more “quality” knowledge to be gathered, that incredible writers were writing about incredible things and that there were so many people just like you, hungry for deep, meaningful information. I started logging on to Facebook all the time and it quickly became a fixture in my browser window. My news feed became a barrage of links about science, music, fashions, arts, photography, literature, comics, sports, business, politics, and everything else; insightful, funny, critical articles and I wanted to read all of them. My intellectual pomposity was at its peak, I mean, if my “Facebook” looks like that, I must be an extremely well-informed and well-read individual. But then it hit me. I was not reading any of it.
There was so much to read that I was merely looking. Where in the past I would read an entire article that interested me, and often the Comments Section as well – now I was merely reading the “headlines” and waiting for the next one. If I clicked on an article link, I would barely skim over it and then move on to the next one, as if I was going to miss out on something. For the first time in my life, some articles were too long, even if they were interesting. It became even worse on the smartphone; I would start reading something and all of a sudden this tiny bubble would appear telling me that there were “New Stories” – trained as I am to tap on tiny bubbles, I would forget all about what I was reading and move to a new article. Finally, because I’m always reading about so much interesting stuff, I barely have time to read books anymore. It’s just so much easier, to slide the thumb, than to turn the page.
A few articles that caught my eye have been discussing the problem of short attention spans of people today – but I can’t seem to remember what they were about or where I read them. But this is not just about Facebook – Facebook is a company that caters to the needs of its customers. It represents the climax of the Information Age. Is the Too-Much-Information Age the anti-climax? If technology exceeds biology, where does that leave the future of learning? If you have read this piece in its entirety, then disagreement is welcome. But till then, I can’t help but wonder if in an attempt to be less ignorant, are we more ignorant than ever?