Thursday, January 27, 2011

Social Network Anxiety, or We Are All Courtiers

It's Oscar season!

Both Sherry Turkle's new book, Alone Together, and "The Social Network" seem to have the same humanist viewpoint and message: social networking sites and the machines that we use to "keep in touch" are tools that we use to fake intimacy, treat each other like objects, and obsess over our self-presentation.

In "The Social Network," we meet Mark as he is utterly failing to have any kind of face-to-face human connection with his girlfriend, Erica.

His response to her break-up, and her assertion that he's an asshole, is to take the intimate details he knows about her and share them with his blog readers. His readers form a community who provide Mark with a way for faux-intimacy--by sharing intimate details and personal thoughts. At the same time, Mark builds a program that allows men to treat women like objects (or farm animals) and laugh.

And then at the end, Mark, the billionaire who could buy Mt. Auburn Street and turn the Phoenix into his billiard room, is friendless and alone, engrossed in his creation--the site where we can all be friends.

Turkle and others have pointed out that sites like Facebook are ways that people develop and present their personae. The teenagers that Turkle talks to about these sites are completely aware that they're presenting themselves as characters; that is, they don't mistake their on-line profiles for their truest or most vulnerable selves. But Turkle's point, and Aaron Sorkin's and David Fincher's, I think, is that true intimacy and human connection happens when we interact with people with whom we can be a person, not a persona. Mark and Eduardo's obsession with final clubs is a way to get elite status and be "cool," a way to take on a different persona, in the hopes that it will transform their personalities. At the end, Mark, told by Erica that his nerd persona is overshadowed by his asshole essence, gets told by another pretty lady that his assholism is just his persona--he's just trying too hard to be a jerk.

Perhaps Turkle's and Sorkin/Fincher's viewpoints are humanist in the historical sense, too, arguing that the social network is a kind of semi-public, courtly sphere in which we carefully curate our selves. Sprezzatura and Renaissance self-fashioning, welcome back!

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