November 28, 2010 Los Angeles Times
The Zuckerberg Revolution
Social media have increased the volume of our communications yet diminished the
substance of them.
By Neal Gabler
America's favorite boy genius, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, has announced
a new form of messaging. E-mail, the last Internet link to traditional,
epistolary, interpersonal communication, is, he said, outmoded. Young people,
by which he meant younger than his own 26 years, desired something more nimble
for their iPads, mobile phones and other devices. What he proposed was a
"social inbox" where users could readily access messages from friends and then
sort them — sort of a cross between instant messaging and Twitter.
We are so accustomed by now to declarations of new
technological revolutions that another one hardly gets noticed, especially when
it comes to finding new ways of minimizing how we communicate with each other.
And it is entirely possible that this proposed geological change will be no
more geological than all those other alleged game-changers. But whether his
messaging system really transforms how people communicate or not, Zuckerberg
issued what amounts to a manifesto that in its own terse way conveys what is
already altering our lives — not only how we interact but also how we think and
feel. It may even challenge the very idea of serious ideas. Call it
It qualifies as a revolution because how we communicate
largely defines what we communicate. You know: "The medium is the message."
When Johannes Gutenberg invented the first movable-type printing press, it was
rightly considered one of the signal moments in human history. By allowing
books to be mass produced, Gutenberg's press had the immediate effect of
disseminating ideas far and wide, but it also had the more powerful and less
immediate effect of changing the very construction of thought — through
The social theorist Marshall McLuhan, in his book "The
Gutenberg Galaxy," posited that the printing press resulted in what he called
"typographic man" — humans with a new consciousness shaped by the non-visual,
non-auditory culture of print. He felt that print's uniformity, its
immutability, its rigidity, its logic led to a number of social
transformations, among which were the rise of rationalism and of the scientific
method. In facilitating reason, print also facilitated complex ideas. It was no
accident that it coincided with the Renaissance. Print made us think better or,
at least, with greater discipline. In effect, the printing press created the
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Writing scarcely 20 years after McLuhan, in 1985, Neil
Postman, in his path-breaking book "Amusing Ourselves to Death," saw the
handwriting — or rather the images — on the wall. He lamented the demise of
print under the onslaught of the visual, thanks largely to television. Like
McLuhan, Postman felt that print culture helped create thought that was
rational, ordered and engaging, and he blamed TV for making us mindless. Print
not only welcomed ideas, it was essential to them. Television not only repelled
ideas, it was inimical to them.
One wonders what Postman — who died the same year Facebook's
precursor went online — would have thought of Zuckerberg's Revolution. Facebook
is still typographically dependent. Its messages are basically printed notes.
But contradicting Postman, these bits of print are no more hospitable to real
ideas than the television culture Postman reviled. Indeed, in making his
"social inbox" announcement, Zuckerberg introduced seven principles that he
said were the basis of communication 2.0. Messages have to be seamless,
informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short.
As Zuckerberg no doubt recognizes, these principles are all
of a piece. The seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and
short communication is not one that is likely to convey, let alone work out,
ideas, great or not. Facebook, Twitter, Habbo, MyLife and just about every
other social networking site pare everything down to noun and verb and not much
more. The sites, and the information on them, billboard our personal
blathering, the effluvium of our lives, and they wind up not expanding the
world but shrinking it to our own dimensions. You could call this a metaphor
for modern life, increasingly narcissistic and trivial, except that the sites
and the posts are modern life for hundreds of millions of people.
Which is where the revolutionary aspect comes in. Gutenberg's
Revolution transformed the world by broadening it, by proliferating ideas.
Zuckerberg's Revolution also may change consciousness, only this time by razing
what Gutenberg had helped erect. The more we text and Twitter and "friend,"
abiding by the haiku-like demands of social networking, the less likely we are
to have the habit of mind or the means of expressing ourselves in interesting
and complex ways.
That makes Zuckerberg the anti-Gutenberg. He has facilitated
a typography in which complexity is all but impossible and meaninglessness
reigns supreme. To the extent that ideas matter, we are no longer amusing
ourselves to death. We are texting ourselves to death.
Ideas, of course, will survive, but more and more they will
live at the margins of culture; more and more they will be a private reserve
rather than a general fund. Meanwhile, everything at the cultural center
militates against the sort of serious engagement that McLuhan described and
that Postman celebrated.
McLuhan understood that print would eventually give way to
electronic media, and that these new media would create his famous "global
village," though it is nevertheless ironic that typography, which he thought
engendered isolation, would in digital form lead to tens of millions of people
calling themselves "friends."
Postman was more apocalyptic. He believed that a reading
society was also a thinking society. No real reading, no real thought. Still,
he couldn't have foreseen that a reading society in which print that was
overwhelmingly seamless, informal, personal, short et al would be a society in
which that kind of reading would force thought out — a society in which tens of
millions of people feel compelled to tell tens of millions of other people that
they are eating a sandwich or going to a movie or watching a TV show. So
Zuckerberg's Revolution has a corollary that one might call Zuckerberg's Law:
Empty communications drive out significant ones.
Gutenberg's Revolution left us with a world that was
intellectually rich. Zuckerberg's portends one that is all thumbs and no
Neal Gabler is at work on a biography of Edward M. Kennedy.