Carr on Social Networking

April 18th, 2009 by Chris

Perusing Andrew Sullivan’s blog I came across his post on Carr’s attack on social networking. I think Carr’s post is well worth the read. Extended money quote below the fold.

Carr’s attack is mostly focused on “Twittering” but his attack can easily be directed at “Facebook Status Updating”  given that it is really just an organized “Twitter” site now (isn’t this what most people use Facebook for now?). I realize that this post, by the way, will likely drag the Twitter/Facebook cheerleaders like Adam Potthast out of the woodwork to come to a passionate defense of these tools.

Here’s Carr:

“Narcissism is just the user interface for nihilism, of course, and with artfully kitschy services like Twitter we’re allowed to both indulge our self-absorption and distance ourselves from it by acknowledging, with a coy digital wink, its essential emptiness. I love me! Just kidding!

The great paradox of “social networking” is that it uses narcissism as the glue for “community.” Being online means being alone, and being in an online community means being alone together. The community is purely symbolic, a pixellated simulation conjured up by software to feed the modern self’s bottomless hunger. Hunger for what? For verification of its existence? No, not even that. For verification that it has a role to play. As I walk down the street with thin white cords hanging from my ears, as I look at the display of khakis in the window of the Gap, as I sit in a Starbucks sipping a chai served up by a barista, I can’t quite bring myself to believe that I’m real. But if I send out to a theoretical audience of my peers 140 characters of text saying that I’m walking down the street, looking in a shop window, drinking tea, suddenly I become real. I have a voice. I exist, if only as a symbol speaking of symbols to other symbols.

It’s not, as Scott Karp suggests, “I Twitter, therefore I am.” It’s “I Twitter because I’m afraid I ain’t.”

As the physical world takes on more of the characteristics of a simulation, we seek reality in the simulated world. At least there we can be confident that the simulation is real. At least there we can be freed from the anxiety of not knowing where the edge between real and unreal lies. At least there we find something to hold onto, even if it’s nothing.”

5 Responses to “Carr on Social Networking”

  1. Topics about Coaching-cheerleaders » Carr on Social Networking Says:

    [...] Books, movies, and Chinese Food placed an interesting blog post on Carr on Social NetworkingHere’s a brief overview…use Facebook for now?). I realize that this post, by the way, will likely drag the Twitter/Facebook cheerleaders like Adam Potthast out of the… [...]

  2. Adam Says:

    True to Chris’s predictions, here I am. I think this guy’s view is basically absurd, but there is some truth to part of it.

    The idea that Twitter and Facebook only create “pixelated simulations” of community is pretty demonstrably false. (At least any truth to it would have to be true about the internet itself as opposed to social networking.) Though I can see how one would think that if all of your friends or followers were just twittering about their bowel movements. We heard the same thing about telephones and email and blogs. I’m starting to think that these kind of reactions are some kind of natural defense mechanisms to new technologies.

    But there’s an element of truth to what he’s saying that I think should be somewhat familiar to Confucians or people who believe in a relational view of the self. To think that an experience doesn’t have meaning unless one uses it as one’s Facebook status is similar to thinking that an experience doesn’t have a meaning unless it has a social meaning. (Or if not Confucius, then MacIntyre’s view that value is only value in the context of a community.) In a way, I think it pinpoints what I don’t like about the extreme relational view of the self. If someone literally can’t believe something happened (let alone enjoy it) without updating Twitter, he or she has psychological problems. When any community starts to replace your whole life, it’s time to take a step back. Thank goodness the new Facebook allows you to hide the updates of people who are a little too eager to share. (I fully support, for instance, Merlin Mann’s idea that you should be able to put certain people’s updates on “pause”. See

    On a less radical, less relational view, hey, people like to share their thoughts and experience with others. It can make our lives better. That was much harder before Postal Mail, Telephones, the Internet, Facebook, and Twitter.

  3. Chris Says:


    I like your point about MacIntyre/Confucius here. I think that there is a sort of hyper-version of communitarianism going on here. The view that no behavior has meaning until it is given a public (i.e communal) forum.

    But I think the Confucians (and likely MacIntyre) would resist the claim that these are, in fact, communities of the type that they are talking about (in their own descriptions of communities). I don’t think either of them would put much stock in communities had merely via the phone either. Not that the phone (or the internet) is bad on its own. Rather I think they might believe that for some, this kind of strange perverted hyper-relationality (which is not a _real_ relationality) becomes actually a guise for one’s own extreme indivdualism.

    You’ve got to admit, by the way — there are a _lot_ of people who constantly, and I mean constantly, feel the need to update their Facebook status with utterly banal information (“I’m eating a hamburger” sort of stuff). It’s pretty odd. Also, I think about the parties that my students tell me about that are filled with people on laptops checking and updating Facebook statuses. Many times, the people you are reading about are in the same room!

  4. Adam Says:

    I think we’re basically in agreement than that for some people (I’d argue a minority, maybe a small minority, roughly a minority the size of people who have Narcissistic personality disorders or tendencies in the regular world), social networking can become an outlet for Narcissism. Narcissists need communities like parasites need hosts. So it shouldn’t be surprising that some people use community spaces to toot their own horn. All communities have Narcissistic warts. You just count your blessings that they don’t run for office.

    I’m curious what you think the difference between “real” and “hyper-perverted” relationality is. Because maybe we still disagree about that. And the point about people posting about their hamburgers (my recent favorite was someone posting about how many centimeters dilated she was) is well taken.

    But I think it shows something different than extreme individualism in these cases. It’s actually showcasing modern America’s extreme starvation for community. We’ve so successfully eviscerated the notion of a village, a public space, and even a family, that we long to keep others involved in our lives somehow. I really don’t need to know if someone is having lunch right now, but odds are the person posting about it is sitting at his or her desk, alone, wishing others were there with which to share the experience. I’m told that married couples will frequently as each other what they had for lunch that day. I’m guessing this isn’t because one needs to know so much as it’s a way of keeping connections established. When people from the rest of the world visit the US, one thing they often say is that Americans seem very lonely. I think that loneliness is the source of a lot of the triviality we see on Facebook.

  5. Chris Says:

    I think it depends on how you frame it. I guess you *could* read narcissism as a desire for social connection. Let’s call that the “happy frame.”

    Or, you could read it as a convenient outlet for allowing a person to prune their own feathers and engage in a whole lot of empty navel-gazing. The fact that people are using a social-networking tool to engage in an individualist enterprise isn’t that shocking to me.

    I don’t doubt that Americans are lonely. What would MacIntyre say (thinking of our other conversation)? Instead of reaching out and rediscovering their real constitutive connections that they share with others (and which would alleviate their loneliness) they focus on exchanges of useless information mostly meant to simply air preferences and dislikes. MacIntyre might say that this is just the natural extension of the modern liberal emotivist self, one that is highly alienated (due to its own self-imposed exile from constitutive ends) and now immersed in technology that allows for a greater expression of emotive ends.

    Basically, I think MacIntyre would be sitting at Notre Dame weeping for the alienated Facebook user lost in a sea of disconnection, getting small little highs from the (forever fleeting and thus the continual need to “use” over and over again like a drug) pleasures of emoting.

    Again, I’m not saying that all uses of these things admit of these things. It’s a cautionary tale.

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