Facebook, People 2.0, and “Generation Why?”

I think Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?” in The New York Review of Books is one of the most thoughtful discussions on our sense of self in relation to how we spend our time online (thanks Ricky O’Paterny for the recommendation) that I’ve seen recently. It’s a little more sophisticated than the usual “Facebook is bad because blah, blah, blah” monologues we’ve all seen and heard many times already. Instead, there are legitimately philosophical issues considered. While Zadie’s discussion is prompted by reflections on The Social Network and Facebook (and the implications of Facebook as one’s chosen “interface with reality”) it’s the thoughts on the self (People 1.0 and People 2.0, as she calls it) in the age of social networking that are truly interesting:

“We have different ideas about things. Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate.

I wonder. I think there’s certainly something to the notion of a generation of Facebook users that could be (or, are becoming) more accustomed to different forms of self representation than a People 1.0 generation. But a more interesting question for me revolves around the in-betweeners — People 1.5, to keep with the current theme — that are certainly engaged in the technology, but might be old enough that the influence is somehow different. Could Facebook and similar online “interfaces with reality” also be changing their own self-understanding? We see phrases like “the social web” wending their way into our collective lexicon. And as more and more of our interaction with other human beings is taking place online, it’s important for us to consider our sense of self in relation to technology and in relation to other selves.

There is, argues Smith, something significant that happens in the representation of a self in software (also worth checking out are some of the interesting thoughts from Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, such as: “Information systems … need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality”). In things like Facebook, we encounter new forms of representation of a self. Not necessarily better, or worse — just new. Different. There’s an especially interesting parallel made between software on the one hand, and fiction, on the other: “Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees. Fiction reduces humans, too, but bad fiction does it more than good fiction, and we have the option to read good fiction.” A software self-representation is a form of fiction, and is necessarily reductive, as is fiction. Does fiction in general therefore create, or simply reduce, a sense of self?

There feels like some strain of technological determinism threaded throughout “Generation Why?”, but this is a thoroughly good discussion that encourages us to be thinking about how things such as Facebook are changing the way that we think about ourselves and others.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

tyler shores cambridge

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