Facebook and the brutal economics of connection

Social media applications facilitate the trivial and meaningless -- and help us stay afloat in choppy waters

Published August 25, 2009 8:59PM (EDT)

"Economics," writes Edward Glaeser in the Tuesday New York Times, "should be seen as a discipline that has spent centuries chronicling the enormous gains that come from people connecting with each other."

There is much to unpack in Glaeser's thesis, but before we do so, let's also bring the antithesis into play via an article published in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal by Elizabeth Bernstein: "How Facebook Can Ruin Friendships." Too much exposure to the trivial or unnecessary details of our friends' lives, says Bernstein, "can hurt our real-life relationships." When people connect with each other, they suffer losses as well as gains. Developing nation software engineers use new communication technologies to undermine the earning power of developed world programmers, while yet another status update about your cat's latest hairball undermines the social contract.

Glaeser's piece is smart, while Bernstein's is dumb -- a classic example of the handwringing that accompanies any new tech phenomenon. Woe is me, she declares, bemoaning the fact that people are too busy to "even write a decent e-mail." Bernstein doesn't want to know what her friends ate for lunch and she doesn't want to be bored by their nonsensical one-liners: "Amidst all this heightened chatter, we're not saying much that's interesting, folks."

But is that the point? Are we all supposed to be entertaining each other with dazzling repartee, or are we supposed to be connecting?

I joined Facebook a month or so ago, constructed a network of friends and family who are meaningful to me, and immediately recognized something I first saw when I joined the online conferencing system The Well in 1994. As a fulltime freelancer working at home with a new baby, I didn't have much of a social life -- and I found enormous value in an online community that allowed me to nurture relationships in an asynchronous, distributed fashion. Sure, there was plenty of fluff, of trivial interaction that offered no lasting value, but there was also a sense of community. Real friendships resulted from online contact -- as did career opportunities, and exposure to new sources of information about all kinds of things.

Facebook, I realized instantly, was just like the Well, only with a slicker interface and far better integration with the Web. As a blogger who had been working at home for too long, I suddenly felt a much more vibrant connection to former colleagues, friends who had moved away, or even people who lived just across the Bay.

Maybe I mocked Bernstein too quickly for her nostalgia for the days when people took the proper time to compose their e-mails. Because the common thread between the Well in 1994 and Facebook in 2009 is the hustling nature of existence in an extraordinarily complex and competitive globalized world. Those awesome mechanisms of interconnection -- the Internet and globalization -- keep us constantly on the go. The barriers that previously separated work and home, work and play, Bangalore and Silicon Valley, are all been smashed to smithereens. We are too busy -- we're working parents without enough time for our kids, or wage-slaves being asked to do more for less, or students overwhelmed with homework and extracurricular activities.

Edward Glaeser writes about the benefits that accrue to humanity from trade and the division of labor, of how a group of people all cooperating with each other but at the same time specializing in individual tasks can be far more productive than a group in which every person strives to be a self-contained master of all trades. Communities undoubtedly become richer through interconnection.

But they also become poorer, when the connections metastasize, when entire populations are pitted against each other, when the possibilities offered by new communication technologies know no restraint -- when the Twitter feed starts pumping into your mobile phone and the Blackberry e-mails can only be ignored at your peril, when technologically pumped-up forces of competition require us to be ever-more productive.

In that world, Facebook -- or any other social media application -- hardly ruins friendships. Instead its a coping mechanism throwing out a lifeline allowing us to maintain those friendships we're lucky enough to have.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Economics Facebook How The World Works Social Media