In the middle of Joseph O’neill’s 2008 novel “Netherland,” Hans, the main character, sits down at his computer. His wife has just left him and taken their only son with her to London. Hans, lonely and morose, gazes at the screen. “Flying on Google’s satellite function,” he recalls, “night after night I surreptitiously traveled to England. Starting with a hybrid map of the United States, I moved the navigation box across the north Atlantic and began my fall from the stratosphere.” He descends lower and lower, closing in on the house of his wife and son, until “aloft at a few hundred meters, the scene was depthless. My son’s dormer was visible, and the blue inflated pool and the red BMW; but there was no way to see more, or deeper. I was stuck.”
It’s safe to say that in this brief paragraph, O’Neill captures a piece of our modern lives. When we’re starved for human interaction, we turn on our computers and fly around the world. When we’re curious about an old friend, we don’t reach for the phone; we log on to Facebook and glance through photo albums.
A friend once told me that the worst thing about Facebook is its inability to create a lasting impression. “You never browse Facebook for two hours and think, `I had a great time doing that,'” he said. Facebook serves as a comfort-able parallel universe, where, like Hans, we stare at screens in search of a human connection that we may have already lost.
David Fincher’s new movie, “The Social Network,” offers a kind of creation myth for this online phenomenon, and after the first scene of the film, the irony is clear. Facebook, the site that was supposed to bring friends closer together, was founded by a student with no social skills whatsoever.
But “The Social Network” does something more than simply tar and feather Mark Zuckerberg, the 26-year-old billionaire who dropped out of Harvard to see his Facebook dream to the finish. In one sense, it’s a timeless tragedy with all the necessary elements – greed, betrayal and egomania. It is also, however, a cautionary tale for our time, a testament to human isolation in the Internet age.
At the end of the film, Zuckerberg’s character sits in front of his laptop, and we sense darkness literally closing in around him. He “friends” (thanks to Zuckerberg, this is now a verb) his ex-girlfriend on Facebook, and waits desperately for a response, refreshing his browser screen every other second. Zuckerberg is a 33 billion dollar success, but, in the end, he can’t win the girl. He’s stuck, like the 500-million-plus Facebook users, gazing at his green light across a digital abyss.
I should mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that I have a Facebook account. I was persuaded into signing up during my junior year of high school. Immediately afterward, I heard from acquaintances I hadn’t thought about since I was 10 years old. A few weeks ago, I received a friend request from a student I had never met. I ran this bizarre event by my brother, to see if he could figure out why a stranger wanted to be friends with me on the Internet.
“She is probably trying to accumulate friends,” he explained. “People can get competitive over how many friends they have on Facebook.”
If Facebook has contributed anything to our culture, it has been its success in turning relationships into commodities. For many students growing up with online social networking as a fact of life, the number of friends you have on the Internet can seem more important than the quality of the friendships you have in the real world.
Zuckerberg said in a 2007 interview that he hopes to “create an open information flow for people.” But as Alice Mathias, a recent Dartmouth graduate, pointed out in The New York Times, his site more closely resembles a stage upon which users provide sugarcoated images of themselves and play out the narratives of their lives in front of an anonymous audience.
There is no question that Zuckerberg has created something extraordinary. Like it or not, Facebook is here to stay. But it’s still an open question whether Zuckerberg’s relentless effort to share everyone’s information will bring people closer together or push them farther apart.
Peter Fulham is a sophomore in the College. He can be reached at fulhamthehoya.com. Potomac Views appears every other Friday.”