Sunday, March 30, 2008

Facebook and Taste

An article in this week's NYT Sunday Book Review about the ways people judge lovers—potential and actual—by their taste in literature. Nothing insightful in the "essay"—really just a collection of things people said to the writer, Rachel Donadio—but it started me thinking about the way Facebook impacts our "search" for potential friends and/or partners.

I spent all last week listening to "experts" on search engines muse about the way social networking sites will interact with regular search, so I suppose the idea of "search" is one I've had on my mind a lot lately.

The silly thing about Facebook browsers (hereafter "searchers") with the intent to find someone whose interests/tastes/favorites align with theirs is that it lends the search process an artificial feeling of efficiency and of progress—you can eliminate undesirables quickly, without the bother of interaction, and you can mine some advance knowledge of a crush's interests for use in future (largely imaginary) conversations/chance encounters. This illusion of progress/efficiency acts as an encouragement to continue searching and actually deters action. Because the progress you feel like you're making is constant but rarely quickens to the point of impulsivity, search never feels like a total waste of time.

A question occurs to me: what would happen if we were to find someone whose interests and stated tastes were precisely ideal—perhaps even better than our own! Would we feel impelled to email them, "poke" them, at least friend them? Write a gnomic reference to an abstruse text on their wall, declare our existence somehow? I think we'd keep on searching—not for something better, but for inertia's sake. The logic of search is self-perpetuating; we fear its end more than we relish its success. Secretly we know that a successful search result isn't a perfect match, but rather a surprise, and a surprise is always forthcoming.

On the other side—what search engine people call the "publishers"—what we add to our interests follows a necessarily different logic: searchers are terrified of an ideal match/result, but publishers dream only of the ideal searcher. Searchers desire surprises, but publishers desire matches. Why else put anything down? To add any interests at all is to say "I want a searcher who will pause in recognition and interest at these names/jokes/quotes/things, who will be so drawn to this list that they will seek me out." Doing this lends to the publisher as well an illusion of efficiency and progress; as items are added, the publisher refines his/her ideal searcher and disqualifies non-ideal searchers.

The fact that the goals of the searcher and the publisher are not aligned—that they are in fact, opposed—insures the prolongation of activity on the site and inhibits action off-site.

Of course I am only speaking of those people who have highly specialized interests and favorite fields. There are (we've all seen them) persons who actively pursue banality in adding interests—"anything but country" is a common one, or "Friends" or "Da Vinci Code" or "The Bible." These non-discriminations do tell us a great deal about the person—they tell us that they don't read much or much care what they listen to, that taste itself is not something they seek to develop. It also tells us that they don't like leaving things blank, that they feel required to fill in the field despite their having nothing to add. I will let you psychoanalyze that one yourself.

Then there are the people who are cryptic, ironic or disjunctive in their statements of interest—their activities are witticisms or non sequiturs, and rather than listing favorite bands or books, they offer facetious meta-statements about their listening or reading habits (e.g. my favorite books field is "ones with big words"). Are these people—am I—being cagey or coy? Is it an attempt at being slightly enigmatic or at least charmingly droll? Aren't we really just saying, "I am so much more interesting than even the most interesting books, authors, bands, tv shows or films that I've consumed and liked."

I suppose given my inclusion in this group, it is difficult for me to say. I would say that this habit is in most cases not a statement of disinterest in literature or music or what have you, but rather a note of anxiety about the artificiality (and immaturity) of this whole search process.

But what do I know? At one point I thought putting "Sex and the City" in my favorite television field would show that I was a sensitive guy.


Anonymous said...

Very funny. So, what is your facebook page adress ?

Andrew said...

I think I've got my privacy set so people outside my networks can't see me, but I can tell you, I'm really not that interesting.