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Facebook Friends Without Benefits (broken heart) and Other Newsfeeds

You have a secret. You are a masochist. You were feeling down on yourself and so you checked the Facebook profiles of the last three people you have been involved with.

Kendra Robinson wrote on Nick Patterson’s wall.

Sure, no big deal, right? But, then why is Kendra’s profile picture of her and Nick? And, if you scroll down further, why did Nick post a picture of the two of them when he has never posted any of the pictures he has taken with you?

Poster of a kitten knocking over a glass of milk: FML.

Now, all of the typical things you used to enjoy bring little pleasure. You don’t want to poke anyone and you haven’t been able to “like” anything for weeks. You’ve taken Vitamin D. Nothing helps.

You should have known: the rule of thumb for photo posting and tagging is, generally: (two words) pretty clear. The hurt is indescribable, but the term for someone who carefully manages the contents of his or her profile page like it’s a promotional site is a “Po-Sé”, or, Post selectivist. You should have guarded your heart like Mr. Po-Sé guards his wall.

Your Status Update: “Dreams don’t come true.”

Darren Feldman: Hey! Haven’t talked to you since grad. Just wanted to say that mine did! Got a job in Atlanta and just married the woman of my dreams!

Brett Chan-Man: Hey, is everything ok?
Saw that you recently took a “which lonely island character are you” quiz. Who’d you get?

Karin Tanner-Feldman: Would have to agree with Darren! Love you babe!

Somehow, you used to be able to get away with using Facebook as an emotional outlet; by putting your rambling tidbits of melancholia in quotation it seemed plausible that you were just quoting Sylvia Plath. But then, Facebook changed. What’s on your mind? Facebook began to prompt.

And now, every poem, song, video and bulletin you share is, however minutely, a reflection of your state of emotion and your state of consciousness; it is a reflection of you and a reflection on you. You are what you post. And, by extension, it’s easy to feel that you are, only if you post.

But, you haven’t been able to come up with an interesting or clever status update for hours. And, everyone knows that a successful status update lies not in the amount of information divulged, but in the number of “likes” it receives. That’s why nobody posts about the boring or unappealing things that happen in their life.

Tamara West: Ugh. Second urinary tract infection in the last two days! :/

Cora Kitchen: hang in there, hun!

Janice Wilson: have you tried Canesten? Lacey Wilson had an infection last month and it worked for her. They must be going around! Praying for you.

Sometimes, you wish you were ignorant, or perhaps just blissfully unaware, of the subtle and not-so-subtle indicators of status exhibited in the social network. Now that you’ve been exposed, your awareness feels like a burden: there’s the terrible feeling you get when you see someone else’s life and feel embarrassed about your inferiority, and the terrible feeling you get when you see someone else’s life and feel embarrassed for their inferiority. Which is worse? The latter, as your initial embarrassment on behalf of another is then compounded by feelings of guilt and shame over your arrogant feelings of embarrassment on behalf of another. Pity is the opposite of compassion.

Aaron Katz: Check out this article. How is it that everyone in America, except for me, and a few select others, is stupid, ignorant and unbelievably intolerant??!

Dan Markham: I just read the same article and had the exact same thought.

Lara Chisholm: Ugh. So violently angry about the rampant, fanatical hate speech in this country.

Jennifer Rothschild: I am always shocked at how ignorant people can be. I guess it just goes to show you that small minds think alike.

Dan Markham: I couldn’t agree more.

Then again, this is your network and these are your friends. Right? Aren’t they? Are they?

Take the REAL friendship quiz to find out!

1. You would feel comfortable dropping by (insert friend’s name) place if you were in the neighborhood. i.e. Writing an annual, “happy birthday” note on their wall.

Yes No

2. (Insert friend’s name) is someone who is there for you when you need them. i.e. Available on chat.

Yes No

3. (Insert friend’s name) is someone who understands that reciprocation is necessary in a relationship. They not only invite you to brunch, they Poke back.

Yes No

Your results:

1. Maybe?
I mean, you watch your home page more than you watch the news… so, you are up-to-date on what your friends are up to—even the ones you haven’t actually sighted or spoken to in years. But, you don’t necessarily comment on or like their posts, as that would be weird or creepy.

2. No.
You and Jacqueline Wilson are not actually friends. You are what the world long ago, and Facebook only recently has created an appropriate sub-category for, called, “acquaintances.”

3. No.
You don’t have 1330 friends. 10? Again, Maybe?

The truth has set you free from accepting friend requests from your friends’ moms, but it still hurts. Weary of the façade of interaction and the inexplicable pressure to maintain appearances, you begin to wonder if your life would be better if you just deactivated yourself. But it would be an inconvenience; you don’t know anyone’s phone number or mailing address. And what about your family? How would they cope? How would they know where you were without a Places update?

Joe Crossman decided not to head to the 2nd Street Bridge and is @Second Cup. He’s sitting in the third chair from the right of the doorway on the first floor. He’s wearing a blue shirt with a small, embroidered insignia on the left breast pocket and sipping coffee from a non-biodegradable off-white cup. Ouch! (He forgot to get a thermo sleeve.)

To remove your self from Facebook would be to commit the unthinkable: social suicide. You don’t want to deactivate yourself forever, you just want to go Invisible for awhile – so that you might still receive notification of—and read all—the nice posthumous things people might say about you when/if someone notices you’re gone; but, unfortunately, that feature is only available on Gchat.

In the only act of self-destruction, that you realistically feel destructive enough to carry out, you remove your profile pic. You don’t want to try or to be or to try-to-be anything. You don’t want to be perceived as something that you’re not, or anything that you are.

As you peruse your photos, contemplating the removal of all albums, you can’t help but feel a certain sense of nostalgia for the olden days. Those days when Facebook albums had caché… the days when you had a reason and a purpose: to dress up, take pictures, and post your photos by the next afternoon. Remember?

What happened? When did everything change? Why did everything change?

There are numerous reasons, but, according to your timeline, everything took a turn for the nostalgic after that song “Please Remember Me” by Tim McGraw was shared on your newsfeed. No, wait, wrong year… It’s the advent of the mobile upload that’s to blame.

Instagrammer: Insert Instagram and …voila!

Everyone likes this.

Purportedly to allow for greater sharing, in actuality, the mobile upload resulted in the breakdown of traditional sharing modalities. When everyone: instagrammers, foodies and partyers, are uploading immediately, instantaneously and spontaneously, your album of 60 photos, complete with memorable and witty captions, looks like you actually care about your Facebook account. It says: I made an effort. And that’s not cool.

Foodie: Insert picture of food on a plate and a description of ingredients.

Fan Friend: Yum!

Friendly one-upper: Is that today’s Times?

Philistine: … are those brown things mushrooms?

Foodie: No. Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy.

Friendly one-upper: Sweet, man. Couldn’t tell. Quality of the pic isn’t as good as the shots I’m used to on my 7D.

Foodie: Let’s do lunch Friday and we can discuss aperture settings and Aristotelian ethics over chicken rosemary Salmon Rushdie curry salad sprinkled with mini-bake-oven roasted pine nuts.

What’s cool is mobile uploading. Oh. Hey. Just happened to have my phone out. Took a snapshot. No big deal. Here it is. Check it. It’s instantly gratifying in a casual, I’m-only-disinterestedly-interested kind of way. It’s like when you pretend that you are interested in a poster in a store window so that you can unabashedly gaze at your own reflection in passing.

The Partier: Insert picture of girl wearing a bustier and holding a red plastic cup

Friend Partier: Ridiculouuusss.

Partier: average Tuesday night: aka totalll sh** show.

Partier: apparently, I threw my cup on the floor, and laughed like a hysterical hyena. #becausethatswhatyoudowhenyourlifeisaridiculousrealitytvshow.

Partier: I don’t even remember taking this pic I was so outrageously out of crazy-trashy-fantastically-sexy-hand. Let’s keep talking about how ridiculous I am.

The reality is that Facebook is less like a network of friends and more like a neighborhood watch. Best-case scenario: everyone is watching you; worst-case scenario: everyone is watching you. But, the most-likely scenario is that no one is watching you as closely as you are watching yourself.

In your efforts to “sell yourself” to others, you have deluded and diluted yourself; you have come to believe that you are, or should be, a finished product. Why are you trying so hard? Who are you hiding your celebrity birthday quiz from, anyway?

Kendra Robinson: Be who you are meant to be, even if it means dressing up as a sexy-nymph-princess-child-witch-cop-bo-peep-school-girl-seductress-she-devil on days other than Halloween. Am I right? Truth. Love!

Post. Comment. Share. Everything. All The Time. Even incomplete sentences. Like that. Like this. Like everything.

Like the ad on the right hand side of your home page that depicts a baby the size of a dinky car wearing a furry blue hat and lying in the palm of a hand with the tagline: “be a social worker in NY”, one’s timeline here on this networking planet doesn’t make sense: it’s hectic, barely comprehensible, arguably user-unfriendly but ultimately, inevitably, change is imposed when the Programmer Almighty sees fit.
Then again, maybe it’s not meant to be understood—just enjoyed—in the moment—for what it is: (absurd).

I don’t know…. Maybe it’s not You. But it can’t be just me…

photo by:

I Facebook, Therefore I Am

Last month I committed social suicide.

I deleted my Facebook account.

 

With no small sense of irony, I went to see The Social Network shortly after. What struck me about the film wasn’t the portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg’s lack of social skills (funny, for a guy who now runs our social lives), the speed of his success, or even how Justin Timberlake brought sexy back to hacking. All I could focus on were the dates: Facebook was created in 2004! It sounds like yesterday, yet I can hardly remember a time when Facebook didn’t exist. I climbed on board in early 2007 with trepidation, anticipating another MySpace or Bebo—too busy; little of value. Only three years later, it’s hard to fathom how we planned high school reunions, shared wedding photos, or found out if our exes are still hot before Mark Zuckerberg came along.

I intended to find out.

My intentions were noble. After nearly five years of living abroad, hubby and I were gearing up to move back home to the West Coast. It seemed like the perfect time to put an end to our virtual social lives and start focusing on our real ones.

Admittedly, I was scared. I deliberated a full week before I even researched how to delete my account, and another week before I merely “disabled” it. It took me one more week to hit the official delete button. Then I waited for the fallout.

They say withdrawal is nastiest in the first few days, but my symptoms only increased over time. Like a smoker, it was initially the ritual that I missed most. A week after quitting, I was still wondering what to do each morning once I’d checked my email accounts and my blog feed and wasn’t quote ready to delve into work. Twitter suddenly got a lot more attention.

After two weeks I really started to miss my friends. I’ve lived away from them for nearly five years, but for at least three of those years I felt very much a part of their lives. My expectation that those friends would simply revert to emailing was seriously off base. My 15-year-old cousin informed me, “Nobody emails anymore.” And with the dearth of emails also came a drought of event invitations. Sure, in the past I had to turn them down due to distance, but I appreciated the thought no less.

After three weeks, panic set in. What was I missing?! What fabulous parties had passed? Who was pregnant? Engaged? Divorced? Who was at last night’s Canuck’s game? Who hates the new Sufjan Stevens album? Who was excited about the arrival of eggnog lattes at Starbucks? Wait, are eggnog lattes available already?? How would I ever know? And would my life be complete if I didn’t?

After an entire month I was faced with a serious existential crisis. Who am I apart from Facebook? Are my social interactions less valid because I do not document them afterward? Will everyone forget about me if I never again update my status?

My husband, who hasn’t missed Facebook in the slightest and is content to have three (real) friends in the world, reminded me that, indeed I am still a valid, complete person without an online profile. He also reminded me that dissolving a Facebook friendship is not dissolving a real friendship.

If Magritte were alive today, he would say, “Ceci n’est pas un ami”. These are not my friends. They are simply virtual representations of my friends. They do not “satisfy emotionally.” Just try filling them with tobacco.

Hubby also pointed out how much more time I now spend calling my family in the evenings, reading books on public transit, and working out on weekends. These are good things.

But while we’ve all discussed the shortcomings of Facebook (it’s a time vacuum, it’s voyeuristic, it violates privacy and lacks boundaries, it substitutes virtual friendships for real ones), how often do we discuss the downside of not being on Facebook? Point blank, it’s isolating.

I’m fascinated by my one friend who isn’t on Facebook. A busy schoolteacher and a mom, she always said she preferred real relationships to virtual ones. I was pretty excited to tell her about my own departure from Facebook. But the day after I quit, she emailed to say she had finally signed up—she was tired of feeling she was always missing out on things.

Facebook has become a casual, non-threatening way to make first contact with new friends. It’s how many of my wonderful real life friendships took root in the UK. Nowadays, calling someone you don’t know well can feel intrusive and overeager. Email can be inconvenient and slow—if I want to know how Kelly is doing, I have to remember to write her, and hope she finds time to email back. As a self-employed editor, I am hugely dependent on my personal network for contracts, and Facebook has often been a source of work. And though Facebook can’t replace my relationships, it is the easiest way to facilitate them.

I resisted cell phones for years, on principle, thinking I was preserving my independence and carefree lifestyle. But when I finally bought my first Motorola I discovered cell phones just make life easier. So while deleting myself from Facebook sounded like a liberating “eff you” to technology and the constraints of modern social expectations, in fact, it just made it harder to enhance that “real social life” I had idealized.

It’s no surprise my Facebook absence is unlikely to last much longer, but my time “unplugged” revealed the lack of constructive boundaries I had previously put on my use of it. When I do venture back into that digital abyss, it will be with new parameters—I’ll never spend time on Facebook when I could be spending it with real people; I won’t use it to kill time in public places; I will not accept friend requests out of courtesy; and I will prioritize deepening my existing friendships over being nostalgic about old ones. I’ll approach it as a tool to make my relationships better, not as a relationship in and of itself.

 

Insecurity, Creativity, and Superiority

At the end of The Social Network, David Fincher’s film chronicling the creation of the social networking site Facebook, I found myself asking the question, What motivates my own creativity? Why do I feel the need to make or say something meaningful? I know the answer isn’t all benign. Mixed with the joy of creating and communicating are feelings of insecurity and the need to prove my worth. In the film, ingenuity is sparked by a bruised ego, and creativity perseveres on the power of pride.

Advertisements for the film capitalized on audiences' conflicting judgements of Mark Zuckerberg.

The film version of Mark Zuckerberg desperately wants to be heard and is driven by a deep need for recognition. Zuckerberg is clearly self-centered. Although I doubt he was the only one without looks, ladies, or style, he fancies himself a social outcast among the rich and privileged on Harvard’s elite campus. The character on screen is not very sympathetic, but the onscreen story is so appealing because we all experience similar emotions. We might not lie or mislead people to get recognized, but everyone wants to be valued by others — it’s part of why we end up on facebook.com.

But the film is also about being a social outcast. When you are on the outside, it’s easy to sit there stewing and thinking up all the clever things you’d say if you were in that perfect, popular place. And that is just the kind of motivation that drives Zuckerberg’s character to program his days and nights away and arrive at thefacebook.com.

Typically, lead characters are appealing, but Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is far from flattering, and it’s no wonder the real life Mark Zuckerberg isn’t pleased with the picture that is painted. The film has other appealing characteristics — fast-paced editing, a little humor, terrific casting, and a clever score — but the film succeeds for a different reason. The Social Network illustrates the road to unfathomable wealth and success, but the man who gains the riches is no better off in the end. It’s a story we welcome while the economic downturn has most of us tightening our belts. We spend a lot of time daydreaming about how much better our lives would be if we only a little bit more — just enough to pay for healthcare, or just enough to fix the car. We don’t dream big these days; they are modest fantasies.

Still, while watching The Social Network, wealth and comfort seem like one lucky idea away. But instead of provoking our jealousy, David Fincher allows us to feel superior. We don’t want to relate to this character; we want to condemn him and his money. We see ourselves as the moral superiors to this billionaire. Not only would we not engage in the manipulations and deceptions we see here, but we can also look down on the petty injury that started it all. As a Christian, I am relieved that the film doesn’t stir emotions of jealousy and envy when portraying wealth, but on the other had, it does inspire some problematic feelings of moral superiority.  In the end, I am just as guilty as Zuckerberg when it comes to evaluating myself against others.

Facebook Exodus

From the New York Times: Facebook Exodus.

The exodus is not evident from the site’s overall numbers. According to comScore, Facebook attracted 87.7 million unique visitors in the United States in July. But while people are still joining Facebook and compulsively visiting the site, a small but noticeable group are fleeing – some of them ostentatiously.

Leif Harmsen, once a Facebook user, now crusades against it. Having dismissed his mother’s snap judgment of the site (“Facebook is the devil”), Harmsen now passionately agrees. He says, not entirely in jest, that he considers it a repressive regime akin to North Korea, and sells T-shirts with the words “Shut Your Facebook.” What especially galls him is the commercialization and corporate regulation of personal and social life. As Facebook endeavors to be the Web’s headquarters – to compete with Google, in other words, and to make money from the information it gathers – it’s inevitable that some people would come to view it as Big Brother.

Does Professional Journalism Matter Anymore?

A couple of weeks ago, a plane landed on the Hudson River, just a stone’s throw from where I was sitting at Space 38|39. I did not learn about it from CNN or MSNBC. I found out about the “Miracle on the Hudson” from Facebook, just minutes after it happened. My friend Peter’s status read, “Did a plane really just land on the Hudson?” and I immediately went to work trying to find out what he was talking about.

I went to all of the news sites I trust – CNN.com, NY1.com, MSNBC.com, and even NPR.org – to get the story, but none of them had anything about a plane landing on the Hudson. Finally, about an hour later, there it was, on all of these sites – complete with live video streams. But the scoop was on Facebook long before it was on any of these professional news sites. I learned about the Miracle on the Hudson from a minister sitting in his living room in Corona, NY.

Interestingly, just two days prior to this extraordinary event, I attended a dinner at the Harvard Club sponsored by the Committee of Concerned Journalists. The evening was centered on a panel discussion moderated by journalist and living legend Tom Brokaw on “lessons from an historic campaign.” The august panel included Nina Totenberg (NPR), Dan Balz (The Washington Post), Dean Baquest (The New York Times), and several others who have been covering the world’s news for decades, and one of the main points that kept coming up again and again throughout the evening was the changing face of journalism. Several times, the question was posed or intimated, does journalism, as we’ve known it since pre-Facebook days, still matter?

I had decided to attend this event at the last minute; I’ve been a member of the CCJ for several years, but rarely do I get to actually go to their functions, and I wasn’t even sure whether I belonged at this event. After all, I am not a real journalist; in fact, I like to say I’m an “accidental journalist.” Like a surprise pregnancy, my journalism career “just sorta happened,” but when I saw my first byline, a tiny little heartbeat on the ultrasound of a budding career, I was in love. Of course, I’m generally covering faith and artsy cultural things, like noteworthy leaders in the Christian community or photography exhibition openings. Politics is not my bag, and I wrote very little about November’s historic election (a few blog posts notwithstanding).

Still, the invitation came, and I felt curious. So I went. And I discovered upon entering the very crowded cocktail hour that I had been correct: I did not belong there. I perused the framed and autographed political cartoons up for auction (to benefit the CCJ) and had one very poignant conversation with a man in a suit and tie that went something like this:

(Me) “Where’d you manage to score that glass of wine?”
(Him) “Right over there.”
(Me) “Thanks.”

I sat down and checked my email about thirty-five times on my iPhone, trying to look like I was a very serious journalist on deadline (I was, in fact, typing on my friend Frank’s wall). The truth was, I did have a hard deadline, but my research was over and it was time to actually be sitting at my laptop writing, not scanning through my inbox on my iPhone at an event I really should not have been attending.

When they finally dimmed the lights – our cue to move into the banquet hall – I was so relieved; this was why I had come. My table was filled with fascinating people with long legacies in politics and journalism, and I enjoyed hearing them dish the inside scoop on the Madoff scam, foreign relations, and of course the election. A few times I got to give some input and I was delighted (and surprised) by how much I actually knew about these topics. (Though I admit, there were a few times where I pulled the old, “well, you know when he… yeah…” Nodding, wide-eyed, eyebrows raised, waiting for my counterpart to fill in the blanks and then, when he did, followed up with, “…exactly…”

Works every time.

The meal was delicious (mmmm, crab cakes), and as I was sipping my second cup of decaf, the lights once again dimmed in the banquet hall, and the panel discussion began. Tom Brokaw did a great job as moderator (I took notes, since moderating is one of my roles at IAM). The panelists went in several different directions, even, at times, disagreeing with him (like the time Tom Brokaw made the statement that “all reporting is investigative journalism to some extent” and then Dean Baquet took the microphone and said, “I totally disagree.” That was fun.)

Throughout the evening, I sensed a simmering discomfort beneath the surface of much of the conversation I heard. Those whose careers have been built on the tried and true elements of journalism are now frightfully aware that their skills may be irrelevant if they’re not first on the scene. It is getting harder and harder to be the first to report the news, because whichever Tom, Dick or Harry is closest by when news happens is going to scoop even the most ardent first-responders in the media with his cell phone images and Tweets.

The face of journalism is not just changing; it has changed. And from what I could see that night at the Harvard Club, the pros are aware that there is no more “business as usual.” In the old days, reporters showed up at newsworthy events or press conferences with a notebook and pencil. Now we have digital voice recorders, video cameras, and cell phones. We can research stories in seconds, thanks to Google and online archives. We can post our stories within seconds of the event happening, assuming we have the freedom from our editors to do so.

Of course, while we’re running spell check, Joe Blogspot is liveblogging in the corner, and by the time Professional Reporter has run his piece online, Joe has already blown their punch line on his personal post.

But with all this said, it is still vital for journalists to be there, fleshing out stories, getting the bigger picture, researching backgrounds, even if they’re not breaking the news. Even though I had already moved on to other news by the time all of the “Miracle on the Hudson” stories emerged in mainstream press, it was good to get some more specifics about the captain of the plane and the survivors on NPR’s Morning Report. As a frequent flier, it matters to me why the plane went down, and it will take good journalism to discover whether it was really a collision with an unfortunate flock of low-flying geese or something more sinister. If US Airways is letting planes with bum engines take off, I want to know about it. I am counting on journalists to let me know whether I can trust US Air; their reporting will influence my comfort level the next time the pilot tells the flight attendants to “prepare for takeoff.”

So back to the big question: is professional journalism obsolete?

Not by a long shot. The world still needs real journalists, but not necessarily to report the news first. People with iPhones just might start taking over that responsibility. But it will still fall to journalists to get the full story, and to report the meat of the matter. All I learned from Facebook was that a plane had landed on the Hudson. But an hour later, on a major news web site, I learned that all of the passengers had made it to safety, that they thought it was caused by birds flying into the engine, and that Capt. Sully was a highly respected pilot and, in general, salt of the earth type of guy. These are things the public wants to know.

At the Harvard Club, the general consensus was that the face of journalism is, indeed, changing, but the people who mattered – the big guns of the evening – did not seem scared in the least. In fact, they seemed totally at ease with the fact that their professional lives as they knew them were in flux. I think true journalists thrive on flux. Journalists are some of the most creative, innovative, resourceful people I know.

Gone are the days when the public would first hear the news from the six o’clock network news. Gone are the days of superstars anchoring the eleven o’clock p.m. hour. Instead, news is flowing 24/7, and with everything that is happening in the world, the world needs people to tell them about what is happening.

The whole story of what is happening.

And that is, and will always be, the responsibility of those who bear the title of “journalist,” a breed of professionals the world will always need.

Broken Windows and Internet Civility

Earlier this year, on my way to work, I opened the latest issue of the New Yorker and was drawn into an article entitled “Friend Game”, which covers the MySpace-related suicide of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier. You can read the full article here.

You probably read the story and were as outraged as everyone else; Megan was first wooed, then harassed by a fake sixteen-year-old boy whose MySpace profile was set up and maintained by neighbors, parents of a friend with whom she’d had a quarrel. The situation eventually came to a head, and Megan hung herself from a closet rod with a cloth belt. Months passed before the reprehensible details came out, and the community – and worldwide – reaction has been loud and clear, but the adults responsible for the harassment haven’t legally committed any crime and can’t really be prosecuted.

According to the article, Megan’s parents were very involved in her MySpace world. They approved friend requests and made sure they were in the room when she was on MySpace. The family lives in a “close-knit” neighborhood, but that closeness unfortunately devolved into cattiness. Two good things (parental involvement and community) that couldn’t prevent the sad occurrence.

There were two things brought up in the article, somewhat unrelated, that nevertheless made me think.

Firstly – the article characterizes MySpace in this way:

MySpace, with its cluttered layout, can suggest an online incarnation of the broken-windows theory-surface disorder begetting actual chaos. It works like this: a person signs up (all he needs is an e-mail address) and then constructs a profile by choosing text, songs, graphics, wallpaper, and video clips. Often, when you open a page, the music’s already thumping, as if you’d stumbled into a party in someone’s basement.

When I was reading this article, my husband was reading Malcolm Gladwell‘s book The Tipping Point, which mentions the broken-window theory in reference to the (successful) efforts to clean up New York City in the last couple decades. As I understand it, the broken-window theory posits that if a window is broken in a neighborhood, and it isn’t fixed, it will invite more broken windows. In other words, disorder breeds disorder. (Though the theory has occasionally been attacked by social scientists as incomplete, it holds up as a way to fight entropy, disorder, and chaos.)

One way this manifested in New York City was graffiti in subway cars. As the story goes, subway cars were covered in graffiti, sometimes elaborately drawn murals that would be worked on for days. I’m all for public art in moderation, but someone had a hunch that the graffiti, and the general feeling it engendered that one could do whatever one wanted on the subway, was contributing to subway violence.

So their solution was to paint entire cars every time they reached the end of the line. If the car wasn’t painted in time, it didn’t go back on the track until it was cleaned. Over time, this helped to contribute to the feeling that someone was actually in control in the subway cars; you could spend hours doing your mural, but it would be gone once it went into the last station. Someone was watching, and somebody cared.

Now, obviously, painting over graffiti didn’t solve all the problems in the New York subways. There were other contributing factors. But some old-timers will tell you that this was the first step toward subway safety. And today, when I read stories about subway violence (or see the trailer for that dismal Jodie Foster flick The Brave One), I can hardly believe it. The New York subways aren’t models of cleanliness, but the graffiti has mostly been reduced to scattered “scratchiti” on the windows, and the idea of a shooting or stabbing on the subway is downright shocking. I suspect you’re more likely to be injured or killed driving your car on a suburban highway than in the New York City subways.

This isn’t rocket science, but like many viable ideas, it stemmed from good, common sense. And so I wonder – if MySpace cleaned up its act more (and the New Yorker article goes on to elaborate a bit), would the general feeling around the place improve? Maybe this doesn’t translate to online venues, but consider for a moment the disparity between a standard MySpace layout and a standard Facebook page. Facebook exerts a bit more control over what you see – for instance, you can’t install customized stylesheets, and though individual “applications” may be flashy and ugly, they’re forced onto a profile tab, where a visitor would never have to see them. And as a result, you see more adults on Facebook; in theory, that may contribute to keeping it “safe”. I don’t have facts to back this up, but it seems reasonable to me.

I’m not sure what all to make of these ideas, but I have a hunch that the aesthetics of online space may contribute more to the friendliness and maturity level of a place than we suspect.

The other thing that caught my attention in the article was this statement:

“Pokin’s story threw first Dardenne Prairie and then everyone else-guidance counsellors, techies, First Amendment advocates, parents, bloggers, parenting bloggers-into paroxysms of recrimination. They were all certain that something sick, and distinctly modern, had happened, but no one could agree about whether its source was a culture that encouraged teen-agers to act too grownup or one that permitted grownups to behave like teen-agers.”

The more time I spend online, the more disgusted and/or saddened I am by the way people “act” online. I’m not convinced it’s the anonymity factor – after all, many people are comfortable revealing their name, occupation, educational details, and location, at least to a subset of their friends/readers. I’m fine with you having the information about me that you do.

But sometimes, especially now that political tensions are flying high, I wonder why we’re comfortable being sarcastic, angry, or just plain mean in our online dealings. Has the internet turned us this way (as some have suggested), or have we always been this way, but our sense of shame/propriety/social stigma has kept us from spreading it as far and wide as the Internet?

While we react to this story with a sense of outrage, what can we do to spread compassion, kindness, and just plain good manners around the internet? How might we “rehumanize” the internet by showing love, thoughtfulness, and civility, rather than snarkiness, arrogance, or hatred for those who are different from us?

I don’t know the answer, but I’m thinking about the question.


An earlier version of this article first appeared as a blog entry.