The Cost to Connect

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A like of my photo on Instagram, a post to Twitter when an email was languishing unanswered, a view on Spotify of what music he was listening to that day became torture, after a boy I loved broke my heart and moved out of town. We'd promised to “stay friends” but in practice that just meant that our social networks, so closely entwined, served as tiny little stabs in the heart each day. The social web is just that—a web of connections, woven through multiple sites and apps but spun out of real human relationships, sometimes stretched thin or sometimes already so but made accidentally closer through the technology. I could hide him on Facebook without having to “unfriend,” and I deliberately left him on Foursquare so I'd know if he came into town unannounced. These are the ways we connect and communicate today, the ways we maintain relationships and the ways it remains hard to end them.

An article this spring in the Atlantic by Stephen Marche wondered “Is Facebook making us lonely?” Marche theorized that hyperconnectivity, epitomized by Mark Zuckerberg's human stamp collection of a website, is actually making us less connected than ever—and he discussed it with researchers who found his thesis, ultimately, inconclusive. It turns out, of course, that the loneliness or lack thereof that one derives from the Internet is much related to how one uses it.

The metaphor for the speed of connection that Marche picks up, then leaves dangling, a giant waste of a great symbol, is a connection between stock traders on Wall Street and Chicago. He shifts topics to Facebook almost as quickly as the stocks zip between trading floors, but he misses the entire point he just subtly made—what we've actually done is get better, or at least faster, at selling things, not really connecting or communicating at all.

It's capitalism, late capitalism practiced at hyperspeed, with financial transactions done by computers “far faster than humans can intervene,” that is pushing the $300 million fiber-optic lines Marche references, not our desire for ever-more connection. And it's capitalism that has inspired companies like Facebook to commodify our relationships and attempt to sell them back to us. It's capitalism that leaves us lonely in the wake of so much connection, not merely the existence of the Internet.

The internet, which came to us via government funding, arrived in everyday households as Communism died and what Mark Fisher calls Capitalist Realism—the idea that there simply is no alternative way we might organize society—came upon us. And as this massive communication machine went from being a thing you had to pay a big company by the hour to use to being a thing you could access for free from any coffee shop (or your smartphone), business had to find new ways to charge us for the privilege of talking to one another. From America Online's chatrooms, which you were paying AOL to use, we have gone to Facebook, where you are not the consumer, but the product.

The consumer that Zuckerberg wants to attract is the company willing to pay for access to the data you give Facebook to microtarget ads at you, the small business that used to be able to message its “friends” for free but is now being charged for the privilege. As writer Melissa Gira Grant (a small irony of this piece being that she's a real-life friend of mine, and thus I am quoting her on something before you've gotten to read it) says, Facebook is “a machine for creating wealth for nerds,” built on the unpaid labor of millions (and the special appeal of personal access to women), posting photos, updating their status, providing more and more information. 

The strangeness that Facebook inserts into each interaction, then, is not distance or disconnection, but that ad you barely notice on the side of your screen, that inaudible sound of money, somewhere, changing hands.

One of my dearest friends lives in England; we see each other perhaps three or four times a year. Yet we talk many times a week, almost always on G-chat or through email. I met him online--we met in person not long after, but it's the constant contact of the internet that really created and cemented our friendship. When he's away from the 'net for a week's vacation, I miss his presence even though he is in fact no further away than he ever is. I am lonelier when he is not there; I am less so for knowing him.

The measurable increase in loneliness that Marche notes springs from about the same time period as the internet, but also the same time period as the decline of unions, the increase in income inequality, the end of an economic system that paid even lip service to solidarity and community, and the rise of the freelance worker, “flexibility,” the home office, and the telecommute. The “societal breakdown” Marche laments sprang from the conservative lips (and policies) of England's Margaret Thatcher, who famously told us there was no such thing as society, and on our side of the ocean, from Ronald Reagan. The decline of unions and the isolation of working people was a deliberate strategy for cutting costs and increasing control by a well-heeled elite that saw its income spike dramatically over the last 30 or so years. Oh, and the rise of that hyperspeed finance capital, too.

“In the face of this social disintegration,” Marche writes, “we have essentially hired an army of replacement confidants, an entire class of professional carers.” But while Marche seems to want personal analysis, the claiming of responsibility for our own loneliness, Mark Fisher looks at the rise of mental health problems (and the physical ailments that come along with them) and calls for a re-politicization of our struggles.

“Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress,” Fisher writes, “instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill?” If loneliness is increasing across the board, if we are forced to turn to professionals (who of course charge for their services, turning yet another interpersonal relationship into something we must pay for) to maintain our mental well-being, what is this if not a social problem?

When we see our relationships as “social capital” rather than as community-building, as tools for improving ourselves rather than as contributions to a larger society, when the basic argument for having better friends and deeper connections is that they'll improve one's own health and happiness, it's hard not to think Thatcher was right.

 

Solidarity, a term so often misunderstood these days, is the value of standing together in community. The best demonstration that I've seen recently was Walmart workers, out on strike, telling an executive in one voice, as he offered “to meet with you individually to address any individual concerns you may have,”  “We are not here individually. We are here as a group.” As unions have declined and strike frequency fell off  (though recent big ones have captured some public attention), we have seen fewer and fewer public demonstrations of solidarity; it's not accidental that the Occupy Wall Street movement and its predecessors used social networks to organize but seized control of the narrative when they gathered large groups together in public spaces.

There's been a tendency since at least Iran's Green uprisings in 2009 to credit Facebook and Twitter as being the spark of the mass protest movements, just as there was a tendency to dub first Howard Dean and then Barack Obama the “internet candidates.” The power of what Clay Shirky calls “ridiculously easy group formation” online is that it lowers the cost of collective organizing; the downside to this is the rise of “clicktivism,” where everyone has a petition you can sign. The extreme image called up by critics is of a solitary person sitting behind a screen, passively clicking petition links and then going back to downloading porn or watching cat videos or tending their Farmville, never getting out from behind the screen.

One of the more interesting, though hardly surprising, revelations in Marche's piece comes from Moira Burke, a grad student whose study of Facebook users found that those who use the site to communicate with one another derive more happiness from it, while those who primarily use it to peruse others' pages wind up feeling more lonely. He also cites another study, by a grad student whose name he does not bother to give us, “that showed how believing that others have strong social networks can lead to feelings of depression.”

Surveillance, then, coupled with envy, or perhaps competition is the better word, is what really leads us to loneliness. Watching others interact on Facebook silently, wishing for friendships you don't have, perhaps obsessing over one particular one. It was the surveillance that drove me wild when that boy left town, the occasional “like” reminding me of his existence, the photos and updates but no real contact.

(By contrast, that same information, as Deanna Zandt has noted, can allow your friendships to remain closer—a passing tweet from a friend about her sinus infection led me to send a text and make plans to see her when she's next in town.)

Surveillance is a crucial component of our age; we are always being watched. Our data is collected with or without our permission by Facebook and other companies in order to better sell to us but also to determine our voting preferences, our messages mined for keywords that might spell out a future crime to law enforcement. There's a camera at the end of my Brooklyn block.  Is it surprising that we've replaced meaningful communication, all too often, with the collection of information?

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The newest outrage, at press time, from Facebook is the birth of new “relationship” pages, created by the site for people who've decided to check off the “in a relationship” box and inform Facebook and the world who the lucky other party is.

It's precisely the attempt to boil your “relationship” down to a string of events and photos and mutual friends and interests that is so wrong about Facebook's Relationship pages; by doing so, it highlights exactly what the Internet can never hope to capture, that spark between two people that no dating site algorithm (or indeed, in-person matchmaker) has yet to figure out how to quantify.

Because of course Facebook isn't the first site to try to commodify your relationship. It's just that most of them are trying to sell you the possibility of a relationship, offering access to other humans chosen for you by a formula or screened by photo and list of likes and dislikes or perhaps in one case, by what you'd like to do on a date. They're trying to sell you convenience as much as love, to sell you the idea that you don't need the mess, the complication, the weird human reality of feelings and interaction, of course.

Slavoj Zizek, in The New Left Review, notes this contradiction: “By definition...comparing qualities of respective candidates, deciding with whom to fall in love, cannot be love. This is the reason why dating agencies are an anti-love device par excellence.” Or to twist a phrase of Fisher's, describing the way his students want Nietzsche without the difficulty, the struggle of learning it—the difficulty is love. It is what you don't see on Facebook.

The most strangely intimate social media contacts, I find, are Spotify and Instagram: the one shares with your friends the music you're listening to, the other your photographs of your daily life. Knowing that my friend is listening to a certain sad song on repeat brings me a more direct awareness of his mood than any status update. And I limit Instagram follows to close friends, and am constantly surprised when strangers want to see my endless photos of my dog, my messy bedroom, my new glasses. They're the ones that get the closest to that ineffable something between words, that spark that it's hard to describe in words.

They are also the far ends of the commodification problem, at once the easiest and the hardest to package and sell. While Spotify is a paid music service that aims to lead me to buying albums, Instagram seemed for a while to be impossible to monetize. This week, however, the internet exploded with the revelation that Instagram had changed its terms of service, perhaps making it easier for your private photos to be used in ads—without permission or compensation.

In explaining what the changes actually mean (and how they are and are not an expansion of the rights the company already claimed to have to sell your life), Nilay Patel at The Verge wrote:

“...[T]he company will be using our personal emotional moments in a limited commercial way, even if they have no connection to the product being sold. And make no mistake: Instagram screwed up royally by publishing these new terms of service and not explaining them in any way.” Patel continued, “Instagram has our photos — the company has a responsibility to tell us exactly how it plans to make money with them, even if the plans are fairly benign.”

 

And yet, those photos are harder to quantify and to sell than a Facebook post about the new hot Hollywood blockbuster. Personal relationships are deep and meaningful only to a handful of people; they don't really increase the selling power to a broader audience very much.

 

This perhaps epitomizes Web 2.0, the social Internet: it both is and is not a venue for capitalism, a way to sell and be sold and also a way to connect and create and by doing so confound those who want to boil everything down to the bottom line.