Saturday, October 11, 2008

Open Book Test

After resisting for awhile, I took the Facebook leap this summer. In a way, it fits my techy side, although I suppose the success of Facebook is really more predicated on how un-techy it is. For example, I've been sharing pictures with family and friends for years, setting up my own custom-designed albums, etc. all without the use of Facebook - but it's becoming clear that a big part of Facebook's appeal is that just about all the content comes straight to you; not only do you not have to work very hard to upload content - more importantly, you don't have to work hard to seek it out.

I've realized that one reason my Doctor in Spite of Himself website wasn't a huge success is that it still required getting someone to the site in the first place. My experience tells me that asking people to go visit a website or even emailing them about it doesn't yield much, even from college students, who I once assumed were as avid about searching the net as I am. For me, the dawn of the Internet was most importantly about the thrill of the search - the fact that I could actively go out and find just about anything. But, the student generation that has driven the Facebook phenomenon seem to be much more passive about all that information. I'm amazed at how often I have to tell students how to seek out recordings and scores - I'm supposed to be the old geezer here.

Facebook's biggest strengths are its newness (it's not even 5 years old!), its omnipresence in the life of its users, and the way it pushes information out to those users (which is what keeps them present). Social networking has been possible for years on the net. My far-flung family used to have such a wonderfully busy email circle that I was able to turn 7 years of group correspondence into a telephone-book-sized Christmas present a few years back. (I need to blog more about this book at some point: it's 500+ pages of incredibly small text - and all my reading-mad family members read it cover to cover!) However, it takes work to keep that sort of thing going. The genius of Facebook is that it builds community (i.e. atracts committed users) from the virtual equivalent of small talk - which isn't so strange, since small talk is an important part of any community. Yes, there's something Samuel Beckett-like about the Facebook world.

All of this is hard to appreciate until you've actually tried Facebook for yourself - I finally joined, in part, because I could never grasp just exactly what made it work until I jumped in. I still don't know for sure what I think, but I've been surprised to connect not only with past and current students but with high school classmates I hadn't seen in more than twenty years! In fact, that's probably what I've enjoyed the most, although I suspect that the ongoing intrusion of forty-somethings into the world may be what spells its doom. How long can the college students be content to share their cool world of endless party photos and idle chitchat with distinctly less cool older people - who also post (old) party photos and idle chitcat? (Please understand that I hold idle chitchat in the highest regard.) Or, Facebook may move beyond its college-level core identity and become something more - well, who knows?

I went to a faculty lecture about Facebook this week, and was startled to be reminded how new Facebook is, how young its leader is, and how many missteps the company has already made deciding how to handle all this personal information that people have casually tossed out into the unknown. One thing that's clear is that the Facebook powers-that-be understand that the medium has to keep changing to seem fresh - which means there's no telling what's next.


Fusedule Tecil said...

MM -

Your intoxication with Facebook should give you pause. You have redefined the word "community" to include faceless (despite the moniker, "FACEbook") communication, usually ill-thought and overly self-aggrandizing (forget not that the point of Facebook is to get you to buy products from its advertisers, an unsubtle manipulation in the guise of "providing a service you need"). Such faux-"communities" appeal to and offer anonymous/crafted personas (as opposed to persons). The dangers are well documented. Caveat, my friend. You need not descend to "hipness" in order to be relevant to the young'ins.

You commend Facebook's "newness." Remember Hindemith's poem, "The Posthorn", to be read before the finale of his "Alto Horn Sonata." Here it is:

The Posthorn (Paul Hindemith)

[Horn Player:]

Is not the sounding of a horn to our busy souls
(even as the scent of blossoms wilted long ago,
or the discolored folds of musty tapestry,
or crumbling leaves of ancient yellowed tomes)
like a sonorous visit from those ages
which counted speed by straining horses' gallop,
and not by lightning prisoned up in cables;
and when to live and learn they ranged the countryside, not just the closely printed pages?

The cornucopia's gift calls forth in us
a pallid yearning, melancholy longing.


The old is good not just because it's past,
nor is the new supreme because we live with it,
and never yet a man felt greater joy
than he could bear or truly comprehend.

Your task it is, amid confusion, rush, and noise,
to grasp the lasting, calm, and meaningful,
and finding it anew, to hold and treasure it.

As to why/whether/if Facebook qua MySpace, etc. is useful/important/necessary for reaching the "younger generation," I commend to you this important book (with a needlessly overly-provocative title): "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupifies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future" (2008. Tarcher/Penguin) by Mark Blauerlein, professor of English at Emory University and a former director of Research and Analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts.

Yes. A book. You hold it in your hand and turn the pages. Remarkable invention!


-Fusedule Tecil


Wow, this is an odd response. I'm not intoxicated with Facebook, nor did I commend its newness. (By identifying its newness as a "strength," I only meant in terms of its success as a business.)

I have enjoyed it, and also expressed some skepticism about it. You might be surprised to know I actually know every one of my Facebook "friends" - these are not anonymous acquaintances with crafted personas (well, except to the degree that all our personas are crafted), although I'm sure that happens as well. One reason Facebook has risen to the top of these social networking sites is that it uses networks (universities, businesses, etc.) to help frame identities and connections among them. Of course, the system can still be manipulated, and I'm sure there are abuses, but it makes it pretty easy to bring together people who already know each other for purposes of sharing information, such as photos, event planning details, and the like.

I mentioned previously on the blog that we used it to build a list of "invited" audience members for the operetta I conducted last month. Because the students are so naturally connected via Facebook, getting word out, as well as reminders, was a seamless and highly effective process. We were also able to share rehearsal and production photos quite easily and fluidly, with members being able to comment back and forth, etc. To say these activities are somehow not evidence of real community is just wrong.

It's true that I'm having "faceless" communication with old HS classmates - on the other hand, there's a 99% chance that I'd never have had any communication with most of these people without this sort of community. I really value the chance to revisit some of these relationships. Although I don't expect it to be life-changing, it's kind of a small-level corrective for a world in which it's so easy to lose touch with people - especially when one moves cross-country.

That doesn't mean there's not a lot of wasted time and faux communication that happens on Facebook. College students (and other humans) will always find ways to waste time and be artificial and/or plain deceptive in any community.

It is an easy way to waste time, and day-to-day Facebook activity can easily be addictive in a way that distracts its users from more useful uses of time. I think the jury is still out on how all of this technology will impact the "intellegience" of future generations. I would just caution that it's always much easier to take note of the disadvantages (because we'll note the absence of familiar ways of thinking) of new ways of thinking/interacting than it is to see the advantages (because they will be new and unfamiliar).



As a quick and good-natured aside, I find it interesting that your somewhat heavyhanded critique of online communities is taking place in an online community, and that you choose to single out "anonymous" personas, while writing with what appears to be a pseudonym! Honestly, I always enjoy and appreciate your comments, and always find them to be a good challenge to me, but still, it is a bit ironic.

Fusedule Tecil said...

I figured you'd mention the irony of my posting my comments on a web based blog. Don't make assumptions about my name, though.

My use of the word "intoxication" was too strong. I regret using it, but could not go back and change it. My apologies.

Why do I post on your blog? It's a conversation with you. I never think what others who read your blog and my comments might think or say. It's a conversation. I know something of you, you know very little about me. You set up your blog so comments would be posted right away (as opposed to your monitoring them before allowing them to be posted). In this you live a little on the edge. You're taking risk. I like a lot of your thinking. A lot of it. I gave up posting on web based fora and email discussion groups many years ago. Yours is the only blog I look in at from time to time and the only on which I've posted. I have too much to do in investing in personal contact to spend much time any more with the Internet. We could not have this conversation if you knew where I lived or worked. I'm no "Madame von Meck" and you're no Tchaikovsky, but it is enough that we dialogue on common issues from certain common reference points without deeper knowledge of one another since the discussion could not take place if we did. I assure you of that. If I become tiresome, you can just pull the plug on me. And I'd understand if you did that. It's your blog - it's a risky, dangerous format. Many I've spoken to have told me that they have stopped blogging (they were not full time bloggers who were paid for doing their blogs). They couldn't take the anxiety they faced after posting, wondering who was reading, and then feeling depressed if nobody responded, or feeling angry if someone disagreed. They began to question their reasons for the exhibitionism that is blogging. More on this below.

My reply rode on these comments that you made in your post:

You said, in your first sentence, that you had "resisted" Facebook. That's a strong word. You could have said, "I decided to join Facebook." But you resisted, then changed your mind.

Your last sentence mentioned how the powers that run Facebook seem to understand that "freshness" - new - is the lifeline to its ongoing success.

And you also spoke about the dangers of "Facebook," the "missteps" the company has spoken about, and the dance they are doing while deciding how to handle all this personal information that people have casually tossed out into the unknown.

Question: What does your experience with your "Doctor" website tell you when you have another production? Will you bother with a website again?

Question: Why do you do this blog? How many people visit it (fewer than a handful of people seem to respond, although I have not read every post)? Do you do it for the readers? Or do you do it for yourself? Is your day "made" if someone responds but you go to bed at night disappointed if it seems nobody noticed that you have poured out your carefully thought and expressed opinions?

My response (and quoting Hindemith) was really triggered by your comment about the disappointing impact your "Doctor" website seemed to have, and your astute observation that with Facebook, . . .just about all the content comes straight to you; not only do you not have to work very hard to upload content - more importantly, you don't have to work hard to seek it out.

And you deeply resonated with me (and verified a core tenet of Bauerlein's book) when you observed, My experience tells me that asking people to go visit a website or even emailing them about it doesn't yield much, even from college students, who I once assumed were as avid about searching the net as I am. For me, the dawn of the Internet was most importantly about the thrill of the search - the fact that I could actively go out and find just about anything. But, the student generation that has driven the Facebook phenomenon seem to be much more passive about all that information.

Passive. Loss of curiosity. Wikipedia as primary source. Never getting off the first page of a Google search. The sense of entitlement - I should have it for "free." You see it with your students. I see it all the time in my work.

The jury is not "out" when it comes to seeing how the digital age (post 1995, when the Internet as we know it today really had its birth - a birth that also roughly coincided with the explosion of mobile phones, which in tandem with the Internet is part and parcel of defining the "digital age") has affected thinking, social interaction, manners, reading, use of language, and attention span. The verdict is in, with study after study after study. Read Bauerlein's book. We read it and weep. What we do about it is the question. For me, being able to say, "I have a robust interaction with true communities without MySpace, Facebook and YouTube being needed," is an antidote and a way to speak with credibility about some of the problems that are facing us today. It is not just being "an old guy." Like still being married - for many decades - to my first wife, living my life in a counter-cultural way (and being married for decades to one's first wife IS counter-cultural) and then being able to express the benefits of that has led to some deep resonance among those who had actually never thought about it.

We stand like little boys and girls with fingers in the dyke. Everything we do matters. There is no "little stuff." It's all "big stuff." Actions have consequences, words have meaning, gestures are observed, hypocrisy is sniffed out.

A closing thought from Bauerlein:

Yes, young Americans are energetic, ambitions, enterprising, and good, but their talents and interests and money thrust them not into books and ideas and history and civics but into a whole other realm and other consciousness. A different social and a different mental life have formed among them. Technology has bred it, but the results don't tally with the fulsome descriptions of digital empowerment, global awareness, and virtual communities. Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them. Young people have never been so intensely mindful of and present to one another, so enabled in adolescent contact. Teen images and songs, hot gossip and games, and youth-to-youth communications no longer limited by time or space wrap them in a generational cocoon reaching all the way into their bedrooms. The autonomy has a cost: the more they attend to themselves, the less they remember the past and envision a future. They have all the advantages of modernity and democracy, but when the gifts of life lead to social joys, not intellectual labor, the minds of the young plateau at age 18. This is happening all around us. The fonts of knowledge are everywhere, but the rising generation is camped in the desert, passing stories, pictures, tunes, and texts back and forth, living off the thrill of peer attention. Meanwhile, their intellects refuse the cultural and civic inheritance that has made us what we are up to now.

This is not some "old fogey" talking, the usual screed of the older generation that feels the younger generation is going to pot. It is empirically verified and we ignore it to our peril.

The jury is in. And the jury is not nuts.

-Fusedule Tecil



There's a lot to comment on there, but for now I'll briefly address the "why do I blog" question. I do it mostly to keep myself writing - I'd never managed to keep a journal over the years, in spite of the best of intentions. It's true that at times I've hoped to build a wider audience here, and I suppose I still have that hope, but it's necessarily a pastime to which I can only commit so much time. Although I would love to have the blog be more widely read, I have mixed feelings about attracting too much commentary, just because I see where that sort of thing often goes. I'm aware of several things I could do to get more traffic - post more often/regularly, comment elsewhere more often, request feedback from readers (which you may notice I don't often do), pester the bigger name bloggers for mentions, etc. It's probably a copout attitude in some ways - with a bigger, more regular audience would come more obligation: better editing, more focused lines of reasoning, etc. However, there is still a part of me that wants to move in that direction; for now, I'm happy to be building a fairly large portfolio of posts so that, if I ever do attract more attention, I'll have something substantial to build on. Even in the ever-changing online world, my blog is pretty young. There are dozens of topics I’d like to write about that I haven’t gotten to yet, and this forum provides a kind of freedom I really enjoy. I have never really found the lack of regular feedback a frustrating experience – in fact, with the Doctor website, I was more disappointed it didn’t get attention from other bloggers than I was that it didn’t attract a huge audience of people planning to attend. To some degree, I suspect that people who might’ve liked it never saw it, although I did email some influential bloggers to see what they thought and never heard anything. I think a big lesson is that in a world of virtually infinite publishing freedom, the potential audience for such information is still very finite.


Ian Good said...

I am a minority in that I am at college and do not use facebook. I see others that spend too much time, and I can recall using derogatory terms such as "superficial" in reference to the interpersonal interactions one may experience on the website. But I am not completely at peace, for some reflection reveals traces of self-righteous purity, from which I feel slightly gratified for "rising above the rabble." Anything that causes me to think myself better than someone else is suspicious.
Members of my family use facebook extensively. My sisters are making memories, connecting through the sharing of pictures of their latest play or get-together, or a movie of our clumsy cat's latest stunt. And I am missing out. I hardly call my high-school friends, and though I can see them over Christmas break, there will be gaps to fill. I don't mind giving summaries of the intermittent events of my life, but "catching up" isn't too far from "remember when."
In recent years I have developed a preference for reading over video games (a sharp contrast to my childhood), for face-to-face talk instead of emails, and overall what many would see as an "old-fashioned" approach. But after exploring Dr. Monroe's website, I do not see my distaste for technology as entirely positive. One cannot be an influence if they refuse to meet people where they are. Rather than disregard online networking on the basis of the possibility for idleness and a diminishing IQ, one can find positive uses. Promoting books? The arts? Making connections through the colleague-of-a-colleague-of-a-colleague? Maintaining connection with those whom might slip off the radar (as I often do) when life intervenes? Keeping up with the close circles of family and friends?
While my sister went to the extreme of making me a facebook profile, I have never checked it. That may change. My rebuttal to the inquisitions I receive from peers is usually some variation of "I don't want to get addicted." But if I can enjoy ice cream without making three meals out of it, if I can e-mail while remembering I much prefer hand-written letters, if I can spend time with friends at a movie to maintain community and wisely use my other time for productivity (are relationships devoid of productivity?), then surely I will have the self-restraint to not waste away at the computer until my eyes shrink into California golden raisins.
For this hermit, it might be healthy!