Malaise, Kittens, and Why Facebook Isn't a Verb

Photo Credit: Stephan Brunet

Photo Credit: Stephan Brunet

Malaise is the new big thing.

We don’t trust Facebook, and it makes us feel anxious. Michelle Goldberg writes, “Twitter is like doing cut-rate cocaine at a boring party where a lot of the guests dislike you.” LinkedIn is “an Escher staircase masquerading as a career ladder,” says Ann Friedman. Louis C.K. has achieved prophet status for his remarks on the negative impact of smartphones.

All of this makes it easy for us to be cynical, but it can be hard to explain how we feel about the depravity of this brave new world or why we feel that way beyond pointing fingers at aforementioned culprits.

I found something while reading Hyperbole and a Half the other day that helped me understand this malaise (you should read the full post for the wonderful illustrations):

I remember being endlessly entertained by the adventures of my toys. Some days they died repeated, violent deaths, other days they traveled to space or discussed my swim lessons and how I absolutely should be allowed in the deep end of the pool, especially since I was such a talented doggy-paddler.

I didn’t understand why it was fun for me, it just was.

But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren’t the same.

I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared…I could no longer connect to my toys in a way that allowed me to participate in the experience.

Depression feels almost exactly like that, except about everything.

I related to that feeling of disconnection and wondered what part existing social media play in feeding that feeling. The sites that we seem to complain about most exist to help us connect with one another. If our complaints have any truth to them, they’re not succeeding—they might even be doing anything but connecting us with one another.

Nobody complains about Kitten War, or webcomics, or poetry. (Or What lesson does that teach us? That we should only build websites for kittens, comics, and poetry? Probably not.

We visit those websites (use those apps, etc.) because, in the moment of our visiting them, we want to see a kitten, or a comic, or a poem. Facebook operates on the basic premise that people want to connect with one another online. Now we can. But when we connect in the real world, we connect by doing things. We go out for drinks, go hiking, make dinner, dance, play with legos, whatever.

That’s the problem. Facebook isn’t a verb—it’s a noun—but it’s trying to be. Facebook sees that people use verbs to create meaning with other people, that verbs link subject and object, but instead of using verbs like “paint,” or “bee-keep,” or “bungie-jump,” it uses the sterile verb, “connect.” In reality, then, Facebook is just a place. Hanging out on Facebook is functionally equivalent to milling about in a plaza where hundreds of other people are also just milling about.

So let’s get [back] in the habit of building online communities that are focused on doing.