Who needs friends when you have Facebook?

Facebook killed the counterculture, if you believe what Time tells you. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg—Facebook founder and 2010 Person of the Year—the final frontier of anonymity and equality, where anybody could be everybody or nobody, has given way to digital suburbia. “All that stuff that the Internet enabled you to leave behind, all the trappings of ordinary bourgeois existence—your job, your family, your background? On Facebook, you take it with you. It’s who you are.”

Lev Grossman’s cover story made a credible case for the everyday virtues of social networking: “Facebook makes cyberspace more like the real world: dull but civilized. The masked-ball period of the Internet is ending. Where people led double lives, real and virtual, now they lead single ones again”—as more than one congressman from New York has discovered to his regret.

But the world of Facebook and Twitter, and the BlackBerrys and iPhones that keep us connected, is not just a mirror of real life. It’s the proletariat in your pocket, the majority whose tyranny over taste is everywhere, even in your own face and profile.

•   •   •

She is an attractive woman, I think to myself—blonde, with strong bones and gorgeous blue eyes. She is dressed in a sexy ensemble that shows just enough cleavage to be tempting. She sits upright at her desk, daintily sipping her coffee with her left hand, her chin resting on the back of her right, her eyes—those comic-book blue irises—peering down at the open magazine before her. I can’t get a make on the her reading. I’m sure it’s something like Cosmo or some other nudeless pornography. At any rate, I know it’s not National Review—the page-length glamour shot of a half-clad male model makes that evident enough, unless Mark Steyn has had a makeover.

Her cell phone begins to ring. Naturally, she has a ring tone—a pop hit, the lyrics of which are catchy but asinine. She picks up the device and begins chatting. Based on the “Hey, hon” with which she greets her caller and the diamond on her ring finger, she is evidently talking to her husband. For the longest time, she doesn’t speak, but it is obvious that she is in some sort of astonishment. “Oh my God,” she finally says. “No she didn’t!” Her mouth is agape, and I can’t help but notice that she has pretty lips. Nevertheless, I begin to wonder: When did all women start talking like Valley girls? And, more importantly, why?

“Well, her status says that she’s going to the mountains this weekend. I bet they’re going together.” Pause. “I know!!! Right!?! Scandalous!” Longer pause. “Okay, email later? No? Alright, then I’ll call you on my way home. Okay. Lovyabye!”

She hangs up and almost on cue her boss, the managing partner of Lou, Seifert Beezle, & Bulb, emerges from his office, asking if I’d like to step back into their conference room. I want to say no, but I’m here for an interview and, even though I wouldn’t take this job in a million years, I need the interview experience. I follow the attorney into an adjacent, mahogany-lined room, where I endeavor to bluff my way through a barrage of questions about my personality, my strengths, my weaknesses, where I see myself in ten years.

Passing behind the receptionist’s desk, I see that she is now using her computer to peruse Facebook, doubtlessly facestalking the poor soul who moments ago was subject of the scandalous conversation.

When the interview finally ends and I’ve explained for the umpteenth time why I wasn’t on Moot Court or Mock Trial—because I didn’t want to be, goddamnit!—the attorney and I return to the reception area. Small talk for a minute. Then he disappears into his office to retrieve one of his business cards. He answers his landline, which is ringing off the hook. Suddenly, he’s caught having to schmooze his way through a conversation from which he can’t break away. I am left waiting in the reception area, alone. Mrs. Receptionist is away from her desk.

Listening closely, I think I hear her in the bathroom—the distinct sounds of a paper-towel rack faintly echo through one of the closed doors in the far corner of the room. I can also hear her whispering. I realize that she is on her cell phone again.

I find myself getting fidgety and notice that her browser is still open to her Facebook account. Talk about lost productivity—my interview lasted an hour and she stayed logged on all that time. I start to peer closely at the screen, realizing it’s displaying her personal profile…

I know what you’re thinking. And you’re right—this is a bad idea. I’m bound to get caught snooping, and frankly, I don’t really care about what Mrs. Receptionist says or doesn’t say on her Facebook page. So why am I being so nosy? I don’t know. But something is bugging me. I can’t say what, exactly.

As I peer at the screen, it’s not her profile pic—a Stepfordesque family of four—her photo albums, her member groups, or even the messages on her “wall,” that jump out. Rather, I am obsessed with the time-stamps of her conversations; most are held at night between 6:30 and 8:00, with some follow-ups much later. I scroll down and see that this volume of late evening activity is typical.

I find this… troubling. After all, I know she’s married. When does she find time for husband and wife activities—cooking, cleaning, copulating, and the like? Between her profile picture and the photos strewn about her workstation, I also know that she has kids—when does she find time to nurture and teach?

No longer hearing the faint whispering in the bathroom, I lurch away from the computer just as the receptionist opens the door. Back at her desk, she engages me in conversation. I tell her that it was a pleasure meeting her and ask her about some of the framed photographs around her work area.

“Oh those are my kids. They’re just now in middle school. This is Matthew—he’s 13. And this is Becky—she’s 12. They’re so rotten!”

Oh, really? Can’t imagine why.

“Matt, he keeps bothering me about getting his own cell phone.”

“You don’t say.”

“Yeah, I think I’m going to give him mine. It’s about time for me to get an upgrade.”

She tells me that Matt’s friends are all starting to get cells and that there’s some sort of scandal going on at their middle school, where the kids are apparently texting risqué photos to each other. But she vows her son wouldn’t do that—he’s too sweet.

Mrs. Receptionist wants to know where I went to law school. I tell her. Against my will, we then start playing the do-you-know-so-and-so game. I finally lie and pretend to remember Paul What’s-His-Face.

The attorney re-enters the room with his business card and thanks me for coming by. I take the card and thank him for taking time to see me. Neither of us means anything we say. On my way out the door, I glance at the card. Below the firm’s heading is the phrase:

Visit us on Facebook.

And to think, once upon a time lawyers didn’t solicit clients because it was beneath them.

•   •   •

Wednesday nights are a special occasion for the motley assortment of friends and acquaintances known, in the more un-influential circles of Athens, Georgia, as The Mad Hatters. Our name derives from the mascot of one of Athens’s older saloons, a place where we partake in copious amounts of bourbon and speak of important things, as men do.

Of course, the group is half-comprised of women as well, so all too often we also speak of sex and fashion and other maddening banalities.

Because of my interview (and Atlanta traffic), I am running late, so when I pop in at half-past seven, I find the Hatters—there are eight of us this evening—finishing their beers and gossiping. I swing by the bar to streamline my order. Yuengling in hand, I sit down with the rest of the Hatters, catching the tail end of a conversation that I was better off having missed entirely.

“I want to see him,” cries Lauren, sitting across from me. “Let me see a picture!”

No one seems to have acknowledged my presence yet. Turning to Elizabeth, sitting next to me, I ask: “See who?” Elizabeth is an old acquaintance of mine. Her name isn’t Elizabeth, but it should be.

“But I’m not friends with him on Facebook,” Elizabeth responds. Lauren looks dismayed, but at least she’s being acknowledged. I, however, am still persona non grata.

“Wait, you’re not even friends with him on Facebook, and you’re setting him up with Terrie? No way! How well do you know him? What if he’s, I dunno, like creepy or something?!?!” There it is again. Valspeak.

“I mean, we’ve hung out a few times. So I know he’s not creepy.”

“Then why aren’t you friends with him on Facebook?”

“I just haven’t gotten around to it yet. I have, like, 32 friend requests pending.”

“Who the hell,” I ask, “are we talking about?”

“Henrik!” the girls chime in at once, whereupon Elizabeth tries to elaborate. “He’s a psych major studying abroad here at Georgia. I’m setting him up with Terrie, so she can tell me what he’s like. I mean, I can’t have him, but I want one of my friends to at least. He’s so hot.”

“He’s Russian,” Frank informs me.

“No, he’s not,” Elizabeth snaps. “He’s Danish.”

Frank: “Whatever. He’s a European socialist. As far as I’m concerned, he’s an Ivan.”

Lauren is nothing if not persistent. She insists on seeing pictures of young Henrik. Apparently, word has it that his profile and picture galleries are quite revealing, exposing the young man as a shirtless, bare-chested, gel-haired, orange-tanned, dedicated fan of hip-hop and Barrack Obama. (Never mind that these women, most of whom are college educated, are self-professedly averse to Obama’s politics; one shouldn’t let politics get in the way of sex—nuptials, perhaps, but not sex.) “Do we know anybody that’s friends with him on Facebook?”

“Hold on.” It’s our friend Kenny, bar manager at The Hatter, to the rescue. “I’m friends with him on Facebook.”

“Wait,” Elizabeth asks, “why are you friends with him?”

“I was with you when you met him, remember? At the bar. The reason he came in there to begin with was because he wanted to talk to me about booking him for some shows.”

“Oh, yeah. That’s right.”

Lauren again: “You mean he plays the guitar?”

Kenny: “Yep.”

The girls collectively giggle at the prospect of Henrik’s talents—musical and otherwise—as Kenny reaches into his front jeans pocket and retrieves his smart phone. Within minutes he has accessed his Facebook account and the table is passing his phone around from one person to another, like kindergartners at show and tell, each taking turns looking at the Facebook page of one Henrik Bjornson, which lives up to all its shallow hype.

Henrik!” cries Elizabeth.

One of the other girls is carnivorous: “He looks so delicious.”

“I know, right?” Elizabeth can barely contain herself. “I would eat him up if I could.”

“Oh my God,” blurts Lauren. “He does look delicious. Look at these pictures.”

I start to roll my eyes, but a thought begins to form, distracting me from tactfully informing my friends that they are idiots:

Henrik is being digitally portrayed before me on a hand-held electronic device. This device, if one desired, could house the equivalent of a library’s worth of information. Looking at his Facebook page, I see his picture, his name, his birthplace, his likes, his dislikes, his peculiarities; I can even observe pictures and comments of his friends, which reveal his tastes in women, his wealth, his social caste. If I wanted to, I could follow his brainless thoughts on Twitter, too. In other words, via this little hand-held gadget, I have the ability to fully debrief myself on the enemy alien race known as the Delicians. And so it occurs to me:

I’m living in a Gene Rodenberry teleplay. Minus the space exploration.

It all makes sense, really. Rodenberry, after all, long ago envisioned iPads, iPhones, and ring tones. That said, he didn’t envision tweeting or tagging. Nor could he have imagined the efficiency with which yesterday’s most outlandish science fiction could become today’s science fact. Sometimes, for instance, it took the Starship Enterprise’s computer a great deal of time to give a reading on a planet’s condition or an enemy’s constitution. I, however, can retrieve Henrik’s vitals instantly.

But it’s Gene Rodenberry’s world, I realize. I’m just living in it.

Looking outside, I see a man walking down the street, holding his car keys out. He is starting his car remotely. Science fiction indeed.

Turning my attention back inside the restaurant, I notice the flat-screen, high-definition television attached to the far wall; it resembles the main screen on the Enterprise’s bridge. A reporter is commenting live from Soldier Field on the week’s upcoming playoff game. The mesmerizing picture makes me feel like I am there, in the snow and wind and Chicago chill. Who needs holodecks?

Most Rodenberry-esque, though, are these women. Oohing and aahing over Henrik, they are about as alien as the Borg and about as soulless. Of course, they are blissfully ignorant of this fact, but that is beside the point.The feminist movement was consummated at least two generations ago, but the aggression continues. Eventually, the post-feminist woman, believing that she epitomizes equality and choice, will assimilate all men into her collective, until we all resemble either the metrosexual Henrik or the spineless runts that these women dominate at home. (Like Ms. Receptionist’s poor hubby, whose wife is having an affair with the Facebook.)

The modern man is a perfectly emasculated descendant of his ancestors. In fairness, men are to blame for the defeat—men like Henrik, for example, who think “poking” is some kind of foreplay. Maybe we really are the weaker species; maybe we deserve to be eradicated.

The barmaid asks if I need another Romulan ale. Of course, I tell her. Better make it two. In no time, she’s brought me the drinks and I consume one right after the other, watching as the girls clamor over Kenny’s cell phone.

Elizabeth turns to me and says, “We’re going to a movie tonight.”

“What are we seeing?”

“‘The Social Network’. We’re going right after dinner. Kenny’s got the night off, so he wants to do something. You in?”

“Sure.”

“Great. I’m driving, so if you and Frank want to stop at the liquor store, just let me know.”

The rest of the table is still taking turns passing around Kenny’s tricorder. This entertains them until the checks are brought and everyone prepares to leave. The barmaid comes by with my tab. I try to convince her that we don’t have money in the 23rd century, but she seems unpersuaded. I leave her a twenty and head for Elizabeth’s shuttlecraft.

•   •   •

“The Social Network” was written by Aaron Sorkin. His talent is immense, but he seldom taps it. You know an Aaron Sorkin movie, like a David Mamet film or play, when you hear one. Their dialogue has a distinct, intelligent ring to it, sometimes corrosive, sometimes vulgar, always rhythmic, even if in Sorkin’s case it is verbose or in Mamet’s case cryptic. Sorkin’s problem, unlike Mamet’s, is his tendency to make every conversation reach dramatic crescendo. Subtlety often seems a sentence too far for him.

At any rate, it’s the middle of the third act and my attention is waning. The dialogue’s sharp and immersive, but after two acts of Sorkin’s pacing there are only so many more condescending retorts I can appreciate.

Someone’s cell phone begins to ring. A gentleman down in front shifts in his seat. He’s put the phone on silent, but in a darkened theater a recurring flashing blue light is hard to miss. The gentleman—whom we will call the Gentleman, a loosely applied moniker—stands and walks out of sight, but he doesn’t leave the room; he’s only walked behind a large wall that separates the entrance from the seating area. The Gentleman assumes, I guess, that being behind the wall is the same as being out of earshot because he begins subjecting the audience to a painful conversation.

“Where you at…? I at da movies. Yeah da movies. The Facebook movie. Yeah, it pretty good… Tell Rita I get it. Yeah, that’s right. The children whitchyoo…? Then where dey at…? Dey with Rita? A’right. That’s cool. I gotchya… Later.”

Angry, I peer back at the empty seat. There is a lady there, one seat from where the Gentleman had been. Presumably, she is the Gentleman’s date (rendering Rita the ex-wife). Ma’am, perhaps we should discuss the possibility of you seeing other people…

Moments like this make me wish I were still a card-carrying member of that now-shunned minority known as smokers. Once upon a time, you see, you could smoke in movie theaters. And right now I would like nothing more than the soothing, healing powers of nicotine.

If you lit up in a theater today, the audience would come after you with pitchforks. But if your cell phone goes off, most people will simply ignore you. Even though cell phones are twice the irritant. Think about it. You can sit through even the most tedious of scenes while breathing the faint aroma of cigarette smoke. You cannot, however, sit through a scene—any scene, no matter how riveting—while one horse’s ass is speaking to some other horse’s ass over a cell phone.

These interruptions are invariably conducted loudly and in broken English—nobody ever interrupts a movie with a conversation that sounds like Aaron Sorkin wrote it—and it takes all of your faculties and strength to resist the urge to imitate Sorkin and give a rant that ends with a firm invitation to shut up.

Only a culture as confused as ours would stigmatize tobacco while celebrating innovations like cell phones, social networking, text messaging, tweeting, and all the other so-called improvements that only intensify our lust for instant gratification. Cigarettes may kill you, but they don’t do it immediately. And they taste delicious. BlackBerrys, on the other hand, do not taste like blackberries.

The Gentleman comes back to his seat. His phone starts flashing again. But the Gentleman does not get up this time. He hunches over; he’s sending text messages. This wouldn’t be so bad, if not for the damn light… Except that it would, in fact, still be annoying: it is a distraction in and of itself that someone would go to a movie and not watch it.

I nudge Frank with my elbow and ask for one of his cigarettes—he’s a hard-pack Camel Lights man, the last of a breed. He looks at me like I’m nuts. I appeal again, to no avail. He, of course, informs me that smoking in the theater will get us kicked out.

Elizabeth appears quite perturbed that Frank and I are talking during the movie. She disposes of any Sorkin overtures and simply tells us to shut up. Unfortunately for me, her attempt at hissing in an inside voice fails. Suddenly I can feel every eye in the house staring at me, as if I—and not that jackass down front—am the worst offender in the room.

Staring back at her, I notice her cell phone in her lap, dimmed so the touch-screen doesn’t give off that same distracting light. She does have class. Straining to see what she was doing—texting, perhaps?—I find that she’s accessed her Facebook account to see what Henrik uploaded to Twitter. She may be one of my closest friends, but I’ve lost her to the war of modernity.

I reach into my jacket pocket and retrieve the last of the airplane bottles that Frank and I purchased prior to the movie. I lace my Diet Coke with Kentucky’s finest export and make a toast, not only to man’s inevitable decline, but to what increasingly seems to be my inevitable future: Advertising, via Facebook, my law practice, which you will be able to follow on Twitter, and which will specialize in procuring divorces for couples who date their cell phones instead of each other. Once divorced, my clients will eventually move on to newer, younger spouses, though in the end their subsequent partners will prove to be woefully inadequate since, unlike the Internet, no man or woman is accessible 24 hours a day.

•   •   •

Nothing I have written is meant to suggest that mankind should give up modern conveniences. Forsaking all or even most social technology is a bad idea. But not all communicative technologies have to be embraced, nor do social networks have to be as intricate a part of our lives as they have become. For some users, sites like Twitter and Facebook promote narcissistic behavior, fueling shallow vaunting. For others, the social-media experience is belittling. (Someone should inform the pope that if both he and Charlie Sheen have a Facebook page, it makes one of them seem less papal.)

At most, the foregoing tales are a lament on an enduring conundrum: how to reconcile progress, which corrodes culture, with conservatism, which seeks to preserve it. Of particular concern for conservatives in the onslaught of social technology is its effect on masculinity; for modern man is not man in any real sense of the word. He is gender neutral and void of all chivalrous notions, save for vestiges in door-holding and table manners.

Social technology also presents another, larger concern, one that Alexis de Tocqueville warned about—the individual’s retreat into solitude. Democratic despotism is the greatest threat to ordered liberty today. And there is no aristocracy or religious environment to combat its expansion, no authority to which the masses—collectively believing in their own individuality—can look to check their desires and delusions. There is only the Internet and other technologies that promote these passions, unbridled and unfettered.

I don’t offer a solution to the problem; I have none. I am not even sure that the withering of our culture necessarily is a problem—it may merely be inevitable. Besides, it is not as if Twitter will bring down the whole of our Roman empire. The road from tweeting to tyranny is neither steep nor straight. But it leads downhill all the same.

Stephen B. Tippins Jr. is an attorney in Georgia clerking for the Piedmont Judicial Circuit.

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