Sociality, facebook, and farmville

First there was facebook, and then there were a bunch of games for people to play on facebook.

Today, sociality is becoming explicit in a variety of ways. What I mean is that our cultural institutions are, to an increasing degree, solidifying sociality into a quantifiable and manipulable force. Sociality is now a game, a goal, a method, a tweet, a status update, a friend count, a text, and a host of other measurable units. The point is not just that we have all these new units of sociality; it’s that we are slowly but surely making social interaction into an object of social consciousness. Social networking sites, social gaming sites, twitter, and real time news polls, are part of the same trend to make explicit or conscious our interaction with other people.

What worries me about this trend is that some things are better left implicit and in the form of a fluid practice rather than a static institution. Coming from an analytic philosophical tradition, I realize that the previous sentence may seem cryptic and unhelpful, but I think I can make the point more clear.

There are many examples I think, of values or goals that are best fulfilled by not trying to achieve them in a conscious way. Take the person who is tries really hard to be funny. This person is always thinking to himself “how can I say something funny?” But inevitably such an indelicate and direct approach to being humorous fails. People recognize that the person is trying too hard or that the jokes are forced. The same goes for any number of other activities. Take the person who is playing basketball and thinks to himself “I’m going to make a great play on our next possession.” As we all recognize, such thinking is nonsense. Great plays come about as side effects of playing hard or playing with intensity. Highlight moments can’t be reliably produced by the direct intention of producing them; you have to get at them obliquely. They arise naturally out of practice and dedication.

Think also of dating advice. Any number of men and women, when giving advice to the opposite sex, say things like “just be yourself and don’t try too hard.” The point is that the someone who approaches a member of the opposite sex as if they are “on a mission” come off as fake and mechanical (think also of business people that can’t stop “networking” and how obnoxious it is to endure their fakery). The people who are best at meeting others aren’t trying to meet people; rather, such people are just having a good time, or are genuinely interested in things, or are just nice. Meeting people comes about as a side effect for such people.

One last example. Take a kid lying in his bed on christmas eve. The more this kid focuses on trying to go to sleep, the more he will stay awake. We’ve all experienced this feeling. The more we try to will ourselves asleep so that morning will come, the more we stare at the ceiling. Sleep has to be attained through the back door; we have to count sheep or think about something other than sleep itself.

I think sociality is the same way. It always waits in the background as a fluid setting for all our other actions. We go to work, to school, and to the movies. We cook and compete and fight, but all these activities are always with other people. In the course of our other activities we are always navigating the fluid waters of greetings, platitudes, jokes, and conversation. The new emphasis on social everything is taking an elaborate and unconscious skill and transforming it into an object of scrutiny and work, destroying its spontaneity and playfulness in the process. Sociality is reduced to information. Notice how this model of sociality is dulling our ability to have conversations and interact with other people in satisfying ways. Text conversations are slow and drawn out, and one can always wait a few minutes before replying. The art of repartee, changing the subject, acknowledgment and reading someone’s face or mood are all lost. The same is true on facebook and all other social media: social exchanges are reduced to sound bytes, hanging in electronic space, awaiting a response. In other words: just because we can share more information with more people does not mean we have become more social.

You might ask: why then do you have a blog? Are you not just participating in this mechanical model of sociality? I answer: no, because my blog has never been aimed at sociality. Rather it has always been about trying to stimulate my thinking on philosophical subjects. Any social interaction I get from it comes about purely as a side effect.


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