Oct 112010
Authors: Jim Sojourner

When Mark Zuckerberg gave our generation a face in 2004, it wasn’t his own but the face of hundreds of millions of profile picture faces.

Over the weekend I went to see the new film “The Social Network.” The movie depicts 26-year-old Zuckerberg’s rise to billionaire status through the creation of his ubiquitous social networking site Facebook.com in a Harvard dormitory. Over the course of the film, Zuckberg’s genius, determination and lack of real interpersonal skills push him to create what has become the most successful social networking website ever, one that now has more than 500 million active users.

The story’s true brilliance –– and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin admits to taking creative license with facts –– is not in the rise of Zuckerberg’s technological leviathan but in the paradox between the college student’s digital and financial success and his failure to create or maintain real, meaningful human relationships.

Throughout the film, though, I couldn’t help but wonder if the real theme in the film is not in the way Facebook defined Zuckerberg but in the way it has come to define each and every one of us.

One of the reasons Facebook has been so successful is its ability to take the drama of real life and project it onto the Internet. On Facebook, it’s easy to have friends, to tell everyone what we’re thinking, doing and feeling, to organize ourselves into interest groups and to share details of our lives with other people.

Facebook creates drama, broadcasts our relationship status and provides a place to share photos of our vacations, families and daily activities. Facebook also plays to our selfish side; our profile is all about us.

Facebook has benefits. To name a few, over the Internet it’s easier to coordinate activities, to connect with people who have like interests, to feel included and important and to keep up with friends all over the planet. We’ve become better versed in other cultures and can experience the world in a way our parents could never have dreamed of. And a growing number of social scientists argue that the relationships we form online may be just as important as those we form in real life.

But while I’m not a technological dystopian, it’s clear that we need to be mindful of the influence social networking has on our social skills lest we each suffer Zuckerberg’s fate.

Some critics blast Facebook and other forms of computer-mediated communication for the damage they do to real-life relationships, and I share those fears. By and large, Facebook is eroding the need for real communication and hurting our ability to have real human relationships outside of the digital world.

To learn about someone’s interests or family or to find out if they’re available to date, it’s no longer necessary to have an actual conversation. Instead, we can hop on the Internet and all of that information arrives at our fingertips. Acquiring personal information doesn’t take time, effort, interaction or social skills; all it takes is a computer.

The social norms that once dictated how people develop friendships or dating relationships are disappearing. In a world of text and photos, it’s harder to learn the nuances of interpersonal communication –– vocal intonation, facial expressions and verbal subtly –– that allow individuals to develop deep, meaningful relationships.

To put it more simply: Facebook makes it harder for us to talk to other people.

True friends aren’t gained with the press of a button. Real friendships are cultivated through shared experiences and deep, meaningful conversations that only real life can provide and that no technology can substitute for.

In “The Social Network,” Zuckerberg’s technological savvy cannot save him from the alienation and loneliness that result from his social ineptitude. Zuckerberg is a tragic hero, a symbol of Generation Y, who shows us that keyboards, computer screens and HTML, PHP and CSS code can’t bring happiness.

In a brave new world of status updates, like buttons and Facebook stalking, Zuckerberg’s story might be a needed reminder that it’s our humanity, not the Internet, that really links us together.

Managing Editor Jim Sojourner is a senior journalism major. His column appears on Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

 Posted by at 2:49 pm

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