Monday, December 6, 2010

Dear Zadie Smith: please stop.

A critical take on Jade Smith’s review of Facebook, the movie.

OK, I’ve had enough. I need to make this public. Attention cultural critics and social commentators, attention please: if you were born before 1980 please stop writing scathing critiques about my generation, the supposed generation why (not?), generation z, T(echnology), Internet, or whichever new label you are throwing at us. I’ve read them in the New York Times, in the NY Review, the blogging sphere ect... and on the whole, your assessments are drab, painfully predictable, unoriginal, and fundamentally flawed by your lack of belonging.

Even writers as prolific as Zadie Smith, who couldn’t help slamming Generation Facebook over and over again as she critiqued Facebook, the movie, for The New York Review of Books, should really keep following the classic writing advice: write what you know best. Clearly Smith does not know Generation Facebook (see:

I want to spend a bit of time debunking parts of her essay.

One of the main reasons folks of older generations are so put off by Facebook and social networks, and subsequently put off by our own virtual representations, is the subject of privacy. Zadie Smith says that when Facebook changed its privacy settingings “Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose. For a revealing moment Facebook forgot that.” I’m gonna go a head and deconstruct this quote because it is quite revealing. Starting with the Factual. It wasn’t Facebook’s privacy settings that made Aunt Dora able to see the queering of one’s virtual self. The issues with Facebook’s privacy settings had to do with the selling of profile information to research and marketing firms. Nobody liked the idea of Facebook selling what they considered to be their photos and interests and favorite music. This has to do with the larger question of licensing of material posted to profiles which is interesting but not relevant (at the moment). Aunt Dora can now see her niece taking a body shot off her girlfriend’s breast only if her niece doesn’t know how to properly use Facebook’s privacy settings.

Why is Aunt Dora, who is now in her 50s and part of the baby boomer generation, on facebook to begin with? Privacy itself isn’t the issue for the Facebook generation, but rather the already old fashioned definitions of privacy. The untagging of party pics and the censoring of political speech and sex talk online are actually products of the fact that people who aren’t part of the Facebook generation are now on Facebook...and immediately passing judgement based on their generations’ social standards and expectations. Zade Smith definitely belongs to one of those generations because she tries to set apart Facebook from the “real world.” In Zade Smith’s world, individuals evidently have the absolute authority to be whoever they want with whomever they want and that mythical upside down virtual reality that is Facebook “forgot” how things are supposed to be. In my opinion, Smith’s idea of how the “real world” works is as fictional as multiplayer online dungeons and dragons. But just to drive the point home, as opposed to the usual fear mongering of online predators using the privacy of the Internet to become whoever they want to be and preying on the innocent, we now need to fear social networks because they may actually represent too much of us too much of the time?

To be fair, Smith is right about young people now trying to exercise greater caution about what they “allow” to be published online. In deed, I only allowed myself to be tagged in this year’s Halloween albums after I changed my Facebook user name. We are legitimately nervous by what people might see on Facebook, but we aren’t frightened of Facebook’s lack of privacy. Rather we are frightening by what older generations’ sense of propriety. Undergraduate students at Columbia University were sent a warning by their career counseling office not to post commentaries about the newest Wikileaks documents (see: Evidently a Columbia alum emailed the school explaining that to the US State Department those documents are still considered “classified” and the State Department officials (most definitely not of the Facebook generation) would consider anyone blabbing about the leaked diplomatic cables as unlikely to respect classified documents while working for the US Government.

The debate on privacy will eventually resolve itself when middle-aged folk become old and young people become middle-aged and run things. In 20 years just about every middle manager will have been drunk on Facebook. Every banker will have been embarrassed about that messy breakup that showed up on News Feed. And any diplomat of my generation who ever was a "fan" of Sarah Palin will regret making such support public knowledge (see: My point is that my generation doesn’t have the same hang ups. We aren’t confused about the “real world” and the Internet (because that pizza I just ordered online is real, I get to eat it with my non-virtual hands). And those of us in our 20s won’t ever consider information posted on the Internet and analyzed by five major international newspapers as still being “classified.”

The binary of real world vs. Internet is ubiquitous throughout Zade’s essay and indeed throughout much of the discourse about the Internet and Facebook and other social networks (by all generations...well perhaps not the youngest who really put those disposable thumbs to work texting from the age of 9). Lamenting the new Facebook programming that will allow third parties (read Internet marketers) to track users online activity and strategically advertise based on their actions, Smith says “Or maybe the whole Internet will simply become like Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous.” Hmmm, falsely friendly? Disingenuous? Sounds like Smith once again is confused about which world is which. I at least find it far easier to be an anti-social bitch online and not have to deal with the social consequences than in Smith’s supposed “real world” where I evidently exercise greater strategic control over my continually constructed identity.

Smith comes off as a technophobe throughout the entire essay. At one point even paranoid when she questions “what the software does to us” (emphasis mine). Her celebrated literary voice suddenly sounds redundant and tired, scared of innovation and incapable of adapting to new social phenomena. Her paranoia is expressed in her drawing of lines between people who are 1.0 and those who are 2.0 (1.0 and 2.0 being slightly outdated methods of identifying the “static” web 1.0 and 2.0 referring to the more interactive programming and social networks). Despite throwing herself in with the Facebook Generation (a desperate attempt to validate her criticism), the real difference between 1.0 folks and 2.0 folks is the ability to view the Internet as just another social space in which people have valid (i.e. real) interactions. Folks who question the reality of the Internet, I argue, only do so because they remember a reality when the Internet didn’t exist. They are able to nostalgically compare what was with what is. That isn’t the case for my generation. I grew up online (I still remember Prodigy when user long-in IDs were a random selection of numbers and letters, and yes I still remember ours), and I tend not to stress out about how many Facebook friends I have and which one of them are “real” friends with whom I have “real” conversations.

I think that Smith’s fear is really about what she doesn’t relate to. So rather than attempting to explain away my generation disguised as your dissatisfaction with Mark Zuckerberg, here is my advise: just leave it to us–we are, after all, the inevitable future.

P.S. Zadie, you were born in 1975 and as far as generations go that firmly plants you in Generation X. This has of course been confirmed by a Google search which lead me to your wikipedia page. So stop claiming to be part of the generation you do not comprehend.

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