“A primary method for studying the effects of anything is simply to imagine ourselves as suddenly deprived of them.” — Marshall McLuhan, Essential McLuhan
There are two ways that new technology is received: we love it or we hate it. The shock of the new drives many to denounce it, mourn the passing of life as we know it, and predict a bad end for all of us. On the other hand, the beta testers and early adopters bubble with enthusiasm: the new (fill in the blank) will make life easier, more fun, more efficient, and . . . more fun. But once we traverse this familiar territory we find ourselves in rough country without maps and only a general sense of the terrain.
That is where we are right now with Facebook, the social media phenomenon that recently announced it would go public in May, reportedly raising some $5 billion in the process. When Mark Zuckerberg began Facebook at Harvard in 2004, MySpace was already the place to be online. Rubert Murdoch and News Corp bought MySpace in 2005 and by 2007 MySpace was valued at $12 billion. But by 2008 Facebook overtook MySpace and quickly eclipsed it as the leading social network. In its recent SEC filing for the upcoming IPO Facebook reported over 800 million users world-wide. If you do a search on Amazon for “Facebook” you’ll get over 4, 600 results, and Facebook is now considered essential for corporations, start-ups, and public figures. If there aren’t any dissertations about Facebook yet, I’m sure there will be soon.
But it’s the effect it has on families and friends that I find so intriguing. Although I am no Luddite I am perhaps slower than some to adopt new media. I can fully appreciate the power of Facebook to bring people together, but it’s how people use it to punish and harass one another that’s so disconcerting.
Facebook has become Everyman’s bully pulpit, a megaphone to the world. We’ve all heard stories of employees getting fired, students expelled or otherwise disciplined, marriages breaking up, and people’s secrets being exposed on Facebook. It’s simply wrong to blame Facebook for this, but it’s naive to imagine that this medium does not have the power to ruin people.
I recently saw a video on YouTube which brought all this into sharp focus. A teenage girl had used Facebook to rant about all the housework she had to do, how oppressive her parents were, and how her life generally sucked because of her family. Apparently, this was the second offense of this nature: the first time she had been grounded for months, and her laptop and cellphone were confiscated by her parents. But this time her father decided to carry through on his threat to do much worse if the girl broke the rules again.
So he made a short video and placed it online so that his daughter and her friends and suffering parents everywhere could learn from her mistakes. We see a man in jeans and a cowboy hat, settling himself in a chair in the backyard, with a sheet of paper clutched in his hand. In a voice tight and high with rage he reads a letter addressed to his daughter in which he quotes at length from her Facebook rant of the previous day, complete with obscenities and the kind of whining and exaggeration which makes parents apoplectic. He recalled how he worked two jobs when he was her age, put himself through college while working full time, and how just the day before he had taken time off work to buy and install $130 of software on her laptop—the very laptop she had later used to complain to the world about her cruel lot in life. “I’m going to post this to your Facebook account,” he said, “so all your friends and parents everywhere can learn from it.”
I thought it couldn’t get any worse—but then he walked toward the camera and moved offscreen as he directed our view to the ground near his feet. There lay the girl’s laptop and in his hand was a .45 pistol. “I told you last time that if you ever did this again there would be something much worse than grounding—and this is it!“ And with that he pumped six bullets into the offending machine. “These are hollow-point bullets,” he yelled over the echoing gunshots. “They cost a buck apiece and I’m going to charge you for them, and for the $130 I spent putting software on this thing yesterday. Oh, and by the way, for what you said about your mother, she said to save a bullet for her. So there’s the last one from your mother!” And with that he clumped back to his chair and signed off with a strangled, “Have a nice day.” Fade to black.
Okay. . . let’s see where things stand, shall we? We have a grown man, a father and a husband, shooting a laptop in his backyard, while ranting at his daughter for ranting about her family on Facebook. I guess it didn’t register with him that his movie wouldn’t be seen by his daughter on Facebook since he’d just blown her laptop to bits.
The video has received close to 4 million hits—it’s gone viral, in other words. There are thousands of comments, 95 percent of them in favor of the father’s disciplinary methods. If this had happened in the village square things could have gotten ugly. But that’s the thing: Facebook is the public square, as is YouTube. Together they make the world into a village—much as Marshall McLuhan predicted decades ago. Bratty teenagers and fed-up parents now fight out their problems on a global stage, and everyone is invited to watch, listen, and join the brawl.
By responding we become changed, an irony not lost on me, by the way. When all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players, it’s hard not to think of it as sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it is something and it does no good to blame Facebook or YouTube by shooting the messengers.
But by the same token, some reflection on these channels, these media, remind us that McLuhan also famously said, “The medium is the message.” It’s not just what is being said, but where and how the saying is transmitted and received.
Those words between father and daughter, spoken or even screamed inside the walls of a home, remain the private property of that family, to be dealt with in their own way and time. But putting them on Facebook/YouTube turns them into a spectator sport, like bear-baiting, dog-fighting, and witch-dunking.
And the troubling thing is that many will not see this as a moral failure, a betrayal of the fundamental sanctity of the family. Indeed, many of the comments cheer the father on for his “honesty,” “for telling it straight,” for giving his daughter “tough love.”
Technology built to bring people together can do precisely that. It is not neutral in the way we mistakenly think that a gun can be used for good purposes or bad, depending on the person wielding it. A gun is designed to stop, maim, injure, and kill no matter who is using it. Mass media is designed to communicate to the masses. If it’s done right, if it works, — like Facebook and YouTube unquestionably do — then what we say and do can be shared with millions.
As a species we’re still evolving, and having tools this powerful can seem like a Faustian bargain. But I’m hopeful that we might even learn from the past. We survived the pen, the printing press, the telegraph and television. If we don’t kill each other first we may survive YouTube and Facebook too.