Liberals shouldn’t slam Facebook

TV rots your brain

Every Christmas I like to have an argument with my mum, usually about technology, and usually conducted like an irregular serial – picked up several times over the course of the holiday.  In previous years my Christmas technology arguments have been about kitchen appliances; can you believe we still don’t have a microwave or a dishwasher?  Next Christmas it has got to finally be about the pitiful size of our TV, a debate that was this time sidelined by 2009’s topic: social networking.

In a car ride to visit grandma, mum passes this article by Julia Neuberger over to the back seat. (Her producing articles from the Guardian, often snipped out and left on my bed, is a feature of our arguments.)  Essentially Baroness Neuberger had summarised what my mum thinks:  that social networking is making us less social by wrapping us in a virtual world and isolating us from ‘real’ relationships.

This is of course bunk.

One problem with this criticism of social networking is that it is just such a tired old refrain – one that has so often proved to be inconsistent and alarmist; its intellectual heritage is millennia old:  that new technology is rotting the brains of our children and threatening civilisation as we know it.  Yawn.  (Let’s not even start with Baroness Greenfield.)

Baroness Neuberger says that an email is “not as good as hearing a human voice” which is not as good as meeting face-to-face.  I’d probably agree with her sentiment.  But then she says, “If you can have an enormous circle of acquaintances on the net, why would you – unless very determined – go out and make real friends?”  Unless you have a very low opinion of human beings, your argument can’t be both that being online is so compelling it offers a Soma-type existential threat and that it’s a lesser form of interaction.

But the other problem with her criticism is that it fundamentally misunderstands how quickly technology and our relationship to it has moved in even the last ten years.

There may once have been a time when “virtual worlds” existed; when teenagers withdrew to their bedrooms and entered closed fantasy worlds divorced from real life, but the more that the connectivity of our computers has increased, the less that that has been true.

It was probably most defensible to make the virtual worlds argument before the internet, when to play a computer game was in many cases not a social experience (unless you played it with mates in your room, or went to an arcade, which, um, I think were quite common experiences).  And the critique may still have had some weight in the first days of internet message boards, when early adopters were sufficiently few that, so I understand, the internet did feel like a new realm.  But the whole point about the success of Facebook, the defining social network, is that it bust open that closed world.  Most people’s experience of the internet has become mostly about interacting with real people that they really know in the real world.

What’s important to understand, I think, is that the interplay of technology with new social behaviours has not brought us to a place that many predicted:  ever more realistic fantasy worlds that we spend ever more time in at the expense of time in the real world.  Rather, the exciting thing about technology today is that it is connecting us with more people more of the time.

And not just connecting us to them online.  Look at what’s hot right now:  mobile connectivity and geolocation.  Look at just a few of the services that are already yesterday’s news: Meetup, Foursquare, the Obama campaign’s social network.  These are about using online technology to help us meet and do things offline.

The technology of the new decade is about augmented reality not virtual reality.  (See this Tech Crunch article.)

As the best sociologists of the internet age have said (including the mighty Clay Shirky) modern technology is not diminishing our stock of human capital.  If Bowling Alone (which kind of said just that) ever had a point, it was because it was written in 2000 before the full effects of what I believe to be the start of a social revolution were evident.   In fact the turn of the millennium may be seen by future generations as the cusp between the end of an old social order (which included the hierarchical reassurances of Church and class) and something new.  And I for one am optimistic that this society, powered by internet age technologies, will be more connected, more democratic, more decentralised, more open and better.

Which brings me back to Dame Neuberger.  Now, I like her – at least the little I know about her.  The world needs liberals, and religions need liberals more than most institutions, so she doesn’t deserve to have the full Dawkins/AC Grayling secularist barrage.  But I can’t help feeling that an attack on social networks from the direction of religion is less about regretting that young people are “less able to make conversation face to face, less likely to eat together and share a sense of fellowship with others in the real world” and more about regretting that they’re less and less choosing to do those things in the church, mosque or synagogue.

The internet loosens the grip of centralisers and monopolisers everywhere.

Baroness Neuberger does make a compelling point, which I wish she’d spent more time on, when she hints at the existence of a digital divide – the fact that the old and the poor risk being left behind without access to the internet.  Martha Lane Fox in January 5th’s FT I think said that 10 million people in Britain have never touched a computer do not have the internet at home.  (Can that be right?  I would check it but the article is hidden behind a pay wall – you can get to it here.  UPDATE: And here’s another source, ‘Digital Divide in the UK?‘)

This is what progressives should really be concerned about.

Because when they aren’t, and instead worry that the internet is destroying the fabric of society, they’re not just misunderstanding the technology.  They’re bolstering an essentially conservative argument against a set of tools that, perhaps more than any before them, have the power to further the progressive cause and put the interests of the many on an equal footing with the special interests of the few.


13 thoughts on “Liberals shouldn’t slam Facebook”

  1. A very astute defense. It’s clear social networking helps connect rather than divide, certainly for expats like us.
    I’m sure the generational gap will narrow with time (heck, most nans have DVDs and cell phones now, right?), but I’m more concerned for those without the financial means to access technology – that 10 million statistic is worrying, if it’s accurate.
    As for Neuberger…it’s a shame but there’s always paranoia on the part of religion towards progress. I’m not about to start comparing Mark Zuckerberg to Galileo but…oh crap…

  2. Social media also has positive implications in small business growth. Fojol Bros, the DC street food vendor, would not be able to make enough money to stay above water without broadcasting their location on Twitter. I wouldn’t even visit half of the restaurants and shops I frequent without social media. Really an excellent tool for discovery and community building–I’m much more in tune with local news and politics than ever, and my guess is that it drums up that sort of interest across the board, in a way that static local media was unable to engage readers.

    Interactivity is important to people. We don’t want to listen to a monolith–we want to hear what people have to say and we want to talk back. So much of it is bunk, as you said, but I do wish we could all step away from our screens a bit more each day.

  3. Jacob your arguments are all sensible and I think for yourself and many other people who already are skillful social communicators then the online networking phenomina is beneficial. But what about the others? The lonely, the desperate, the shy, the attention seekers etc! You cannot have failed to notice them! How many times have you logged on only to see this status, “only 34 hours until the weekend, wooo!”, needless to say this is their 8th status update of the day! Perhaps even more despairingly 6 people have made the effort to give this a “thumbs up”. People please, please, please stop reminding me how many hours there are until the weekend, I am not Stephen Hawking but this piece of maths is not beyond me.

    Ask yourself this question, what motivated the Captain Obvious (as I’ve Christened them) status updater to orchestrate this online countdown to Friday evening? And why do so many people appear to ‘like this’? It is a form of attention seeking and social affirmation in its lowest possible form. Unimaginative, impossible to disagree with and hugely dull.

    Despite the repetitve dullness of Captain Obvious users, I don’t believe these to be the worst offenders. I lead you onto desperate user type two, or as I affectinately call them Captain Dramatic. I quote from a real status that I read recently, “I’m seeing my grandma today, the best grandma in the world, maybe for the last time, treasure the ones you love”. I find this inappropriate in so many ways, the tendency for self pity and online sympathy cries seem to be growing exponentialy. The stiff upper lip does not seem to apply or be required within cyberspace.

    The final type of user that I would like to identify, is Captain Deep. You know the one, the cryptic, ambiguous message writing type, often ending there status with a question mark. “Am I the only one who wishes the light at the end of the tunnel would be a little brighter?”

    I could go on, I haven’t even mentioned Captain Football Score, Captain Song Lyric or Captain Hangover Status. My rather over blown point is that so much of this marvellous communication device simply exposes so blatantly the human weakness for ego massage and self pity. Martin Luther King wanted his children to live in a world where they they won’t “be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character”. I want to live in a world where people do not judge themselves on how many people “like” that they had weetabix for breakfast lol. For those who disagree with my words, log into facebook and analyse the first status update you see!

    1. Wow, Richard, Captain Do-It-My-Way-or-Don’t-Do-It-At-All.

      Let me link you to a couple of paragraphs I wrote defending Twitter – which is essentially a status update service

      People are obvious and dramatic and dull in real life. Facebook is not making these people like this. And it’s certainly not making you or anyone else judge them because of their status updates. Because these status updates cost nothing to post, they add value even if only one person in the world (that person’s mum?) is interested in them.

      The way you describe these characters I wonder why you don’t just unfriend them. Or skim their updates like you used to skim headlines in a newspaper.

      What you’re suffering from is filter failure.

      1. I have read your other article and I realise that perhaps my response was more appropriate to this.

        However, I stand by my comments. My point isn’t that facebook (and in particular facebook updates) are making people more dull but simply that it holds a mirror up to many of the worst elements of human characteristics.

        You are right about my final comments regarding judging, that was a protentious bag of shit, as you say neither facebook or anyone else for that matter is making me judge, I do that of my own inclination, and I won’t lie, I REALLY ENJOY IT. So maybe I don’t delete these people because in my own sad way I feel superior. Perhaps I am the worst status abuser of all, Captain Silent but Superior! definition – spends half the day reading the shit and the other half saying how sad the people who right the shit are!

        p.s. only 18 hours to the weekend

  4. Richard is right, and hilarious at the same time.

    I have one ‘friend’ on Facebook that is a perfect example. Ladies and gentleman I present Matt Belshaw:

    “what to do today? and tommorow night? no plans as yet but then everyones kinda busy anyways. hmmm”

    “got a weary on again. I know its the nature of the beast but still, need something to keep me awake”

    “fell asleep in front of the pc.. oops. bed time me thinks”

    “dont send them money, send them ray mears to teach the dumbasses how to feed themselves”


    “time to go into town for a coffee or something.”
    Reutairat Wilundasopon likes this.

    “stranger and stranger”

    “could go out tonight, but cant really be arsed with it.”


    “Flap your gums at the big dog and you will just get your nose bitten off.”

    Matt clearly see himself as some sort of cryptic philosopher.


    Jake I agree with you, but I feel the most important aspect of the interwebs is freedom of information. I don’t think WW2 could have occurred had the internet existed in those times.

    The biggest thing we have to hear in the 21st century is governments attempting to curtail the freedom of the internet.

    What reassures me however, is the ability of net-heads to stay one step ahead of the law. It’s encouraging to see that no matter how hard the entertainment industry try to copy protect their wares, a way is always found to overcome them. Just look at how quickly HD-DVD and BluRay’s (supposedly un-crackable) protection was overcome:

    I feel that if it were necessary, similar ingenuity could be harnessed to maintain freedom of information online.

    1. I’m not sure I’d go so far as to agree with your WW2 point. But, I might.
      I agree with you on freedom of information broadly – I’m conflicted about the specific example about music and file sharing, but my instinct, yes, is that it should be free. And certainly the transparency and accountability that the web can bring to our governments and corporations is massively welcome. And, as you say, because the the little man, the hacker, is so difficult to stop the internet can rebalance power away from the centralisers and monopolisers.

      1. Hey Jake I’m not saying music should be free on the internet. I think it’s highly unfair for musicians, film-makers et al not to receive payment. I was just making the point about the ingenuity of the pirates.

        The WW2 thing is based on the idea that with free internet the German people could never have been brain-washed by the Nazi’s. Of course not everyone has free internet, look at China.

        However I think once a people have had free internet they can never go back.

  5. This comment came in by email and wants to be anonymous. It’s great, though:

    So, yes, comments on the blog. I hate blogs. Still, of course I agree with the general sentiment of the post, particularly as it’s very hard to agree with Rabbi The Rt Hon The Baroness Neuberger DBE. Your response is somewhat forgiving though I feel, and you even state that you “like” her, because she’s a liberal. She is, however, a Rabbi, and therefore I find it much harder to believe her when she claims to be a liberal and hold liberal views. However, I have no personal feelings towards her, and judge her argument purely on its own merits. With that in mind, I don’t know why you feel she doesn’t deserve a secularist barage. This is a woman who publicly claims social networking, an idea entirely focused on communication, sharing of experiences and maintaining relationships has, or is likely to have, a negative impact on society and on individuals. She suggests instead that we dedicate more time to trying to talk to an imaginary sky being, or collectively studying the moral values espoused in religous text (

    This view is not only ludicrous, but her statements regarding social networking clearly suggest she is not speaking from a position of extensive knowledge and experience. There is no evidence provided to backup her claim that by using social networking sites
    “We begin to forget that feeling each other’s human presence makes us happier.”
    or that
    “Young people become less able to make conversation face to face, less likely to eat together and share a sense of fellowship with others in the real world”.
    Indeed, she seems to have misunderstood the concept of social networking entirely.

    Her argument isn’t coherent, and isn’t backed up by anything resembling evidence, or even I suspect by her personal experiences. I suggest it needs little rebuttal, after all, what she really means is that we should spend more time reading the liberal views she believes are approved of by god.

    1. I agree with this comment. Baroness Neuberger writes the article with ignorance of that which she is deriding. People enjoy reading such articles because they reinforce what they have already to come to believe. I think we are all guilty of this to some extent.

      If you look through my blogroll you will find mainly right-wing bloggers because their derision of such people as Polly Toynbee and George Monbiot is what I find most amusing.

      And yet during the US election I was glued to HuffPost because I supported Obama.

      I don’t know what this says about me. LOL

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