Facebook is an unusually intense medium in which to conduct a conversation.
It compresses our social lives across space and time into short bursts of connectivity.
My Facebook friend list has recently become a strange amalgamation of ex-girlfriends, distant relatives, friends from college, people being bombed in Gaza, Israelis who support the bombing, refugees from genocide, followers of Ken Wilber, former massage clients, and the odd Tea Partier.
Visualizing them interacting together at a cocktail party is as difficult as imagining what it is like to fly elephant.
We can now reach our oldest childhood friends, our most distant familial relations, and activists on the other side of the planet in a flash.
It is difficult to know what to say to so many pieces of ourselves, but humans have a remarkable capacity to normalize even the most awkward of situations. Perhaps this is the anthropological function of cat memes: they reign us in with a simultaneous blend of cuteness and humor.
But to focus on trivialities is to overlook the revolutionary nature of this new mode of communication.
To comprehend just how revolutionary it is, to connect the several parts of our lives with the many regions of the world, we need to look at how we got here.
Language allowed early humans to carry messages across space and time. But being limited to the speaker, the messages did not tend to go far, perhaps a few generations into the future and a few villages over at most.
The advent of writing allowed these messages to spread to the outer reaches of the linguistic community and to be passed across centuries and even millennia. But the messages that were spread in this way were either practical business accounts, or sacred literature…and neither allowed the listener to talk back.
The printing press later allowed for a wider diversity of messages to spread. But it was not until the appearance of the Internet that it became possible to partake in a single conversation comprised of people speaking in numerous places around the world.
The ability to participate in these global conversations changed the way we imagined our relationship to all of humanity.
All of a sudden, we began to speak of the global village. But it was mostly an empty village, since few people actually took part in these global dialogues. And yet, somehow we experienced ourselves as increasingly interlinked.
Social media, and especially Facebook, have once again scrambled these relationships. Many of us, and particularly Americans, grew up in a world in which our lives were more or less split into job roles and social roles, past and present, work and play.
Our most intimate relations from one period of life would often drift away, never to be heard from again. Friends from high school seldom met friends from middle age, family seldom saw our acquaintances, and we were all challenged to wear the right face at the right time—or else somehow pull together our many sides, each reserved for a different set of relations, in some great act of psychological integration.
Now all of this is gone. Facebook allows you to speak to all of them at once.
This ability for your words to touch so many people across space and time, all at the same time, would not have been possible but a few short years ago, unless you were famous. And yet, now it is so common we yawn.
This has brought about a sense of an eternal present in which everything is here and now. And this is reconfiguring what it means to be a social animal. For it forces us to consider everyone we have known and everywhere we have been whenever we post. (Of course, some of us forget and post political rants to unintended audiences and sexy photos to our parents.)
Most of us have failed to notice the ground moving under our feet. We speak of our addiction to this new medium as if it is simply a new gadget and not a fundamental reworking of our inter-communal identities.
Since everyone is likely to get a little more of who we really are, many of our relations will be made more whole. But many will simple implode under the pressure. And yet, these social relations can be incredibly thin.
What are we to make of connecting with a friend from 20 years back with a friend request, when we ignore them once they have been added to our network of hundreds?
It is as if a vertical string of dissociated relations stretching across the arc of our lives has been flattened into a rich eternal present, which goes nowhere and means nothing.
Even as we have found a hundred new ways to affirm our friendships, they have simultaneously, all too often, been trivialized.
And then there are the global conversations. My own friend list includes numerous Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, Americans and Iranians, South Africans and Malaysians. It speaks to the experiences of people living under different types of government, modes of production, and civilizations.
Of course, the lists of others might not be so diverse, but they are often more diverse than their nearest relations, and that suggests a potential for something beautifully expansive.
Thinking through the multiple perspectives reconfigures our conceptions of the world, smashing our narrow parochialism. Now it is possible to imagine the whole world existing in conversation with our whole selves.
And that is the sort of conversation about which it is worth becoming addicted.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Emma Ruffin