Kids These Days with the Facebook

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Nikola Milanovic wrote an interesting [column]( in the Stanford Daily today, making the argument, that, “Thanks to Facebook, I now know exactly how social I am, down to an exact number!” Ok, so it is a little tongue-in-cheek, but I think he is trying to make a serious point here.

Underscoring the irony in the piece is the idea that, “The introduction of numbers into our personal worlds seems to be creating an arms race of friend requests and pokes… Facebook has changed the playing field, to an extent, so that it’s all about the numbers.”

Really? Does anyone actually, really, really judge someone based on their number of Facebook friends, or on the quantity of wall posts they receive? Personally, I more or less regard this high volume Facebook wall postings between either Stanford students or worst of all, people who are dating as something of a sad cry for attention. Think of the person you know as having the most Facebook friends, or at least someone you know who has an inordinate number of them. Is it jealousy, or distaste for their shamelessness that comes to mind? Or is it indifference?

As to having people constantly doting on you on your page, it doesn’t really make sense–if you’re dating, just hold it in until you see the person, or, and this is a novel idea, email them. Otherwise, you have in the words of Andre 3000, cc’ed every girl that you’d see see round town. If it’s a fellow Stanford student, go to and find their email address (it may even be right there on their Facebook page).

That said, there of course are reasons to put something in a public forum. Sometimes it’s useful to share a link or comment where you reasonably expect a relatively large, but not indiscriminate network of people might see it. Some people just like to vent publicly. Nikola points out that the instinct to gather lots of friends, or acquaintances predates Facebook. And it does.

As to what Facebook really does, it’s not so much that it’s changed the way people interact so much as increased it. Increased exhibitionism, increased sharing, increased interaction. People like people, and Facebook is nothing but another way to look at and communicate with the people you (usually) know. The peripheral things such as friend totals don’t strike me as all that important.

The oft-proffered idea that our generation replacing our real friends with cyber pals is silly. In fact, the impact of technology has, if anything made it much easier to interact with people. As a fun challenge, try to coordinate your plans for this weekend without anything that became massively popular in the last 15 years (cell phones, laptops, email, the Internets). If you have friends across campus, you’ll find it quite difficult.

Nikola closes his article arguing that The Facebook’s numbers should be removed because, “Maybe without numbers, we can get back to living our lives.” Sometimes witnessing a phenomenon (people have different numbers of Facebook friends!) does not require a grand conclusion. I seriously doubt that The Facebook’s friend totals are truly affecting Nikola or anyone else that much, but if it’s any consolation, he has nearly twice as many as I do.

If one wants to look at a potentially graver problem, I would point to Thomas Bertonneau’s Pope Center article titled, “Can’t Read, Can’t Watch, Can’t Comprehend,” which makes a rather serious assault on the idea that, “although students respond less than acutely to the demands and subtleties of the printed word, they possess keen understanding when it comes to images, especially moving images, and the spoken word.”

Still, his signs of modern decay are somewhat dubious as well. Here, he sets up the experiment:

There is a moment in *The Maltese Falcon*when the hard-nosed detective, played by Humphrey Bogart, paying a visit to con man Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet), must feign chagrin and simulate a loss of temper. His purpose is to  misdirect  Gutman into thinking that he (Gutman) has gained the upper hand in their dealings. As Spade leaves Gutman’s hotel room and takes a few steps along the corridor, all the exasperated tightness in Spade’s face—seen in his scowling mouth and narrowed eyes—relents and he breaks out in a broad and satisfied smile.

I cannot imagine that any ordinary audience member in the film’s first run, some seventy years ago, would have mistaken the signs

And the results:

In a class of fifteen or sixteen students, hardly any indicated, in writing, that they had understood the tactical artificiality of Spade’s anger. Only the older, “non-traditional” students and one or two of the younger studentscould see Spade’s display as a critical technique formisleading Gutman in order to put him at a disadvantage in trying to locate the storied objet-d’art of the film’s title.

Later, he more or less replicates the results with a different classic film, Things to Come. Still, I’m not sold. For one thing, both movies are seventy plus years old. Without getting into detail, one would expect that audiences from then would understand them. The movies were talking to them.

Second, the movies are both adaptations of books, and in many cases, such adaptations end up choppy and because of the drastic cuts required to turn a novel into a movie, can end up being somewhat confusing.

Third, despite Bertonneau’s claim that an audience 70 years ago would have comprehended, there’s no evidence that they actually did (this would be known as a control group, and it’s noticeably lacking in this admittedly informal experiment). Do you think if people seventy years from now watched, say, Precious, they would understand the intricacies of the film to the same extent as current audiences? My guess would be no. Movies are in a lot of ways a product of their time.

Still, some facts are on his side. It seems likely that people read fewer books than they did half a century ago, but they also write much more too, as the Stanford Study of Writing showed. This may represent a meaningful tradeoff, and maybe it matters that more of our information is consumed in shorter, smaller bits than it was half a century ago, but maybe it doesn’t. Bertonneau doesn’t really answer it other than to assume the worst, and then extend his conclusion even beyond where most of the harshest critics are willing to go, to argue that we can’t even read faces anymore, presumably as a result of our illiteracy in the more traditional sense.

What we have here is the argument that we’ve always had, which is that the youth is in some way different, or worse. Still, considering that Flynn Effect, which points out that IQ test scores invariably move upwards (causing relatively frequent efforts to “renorm” the test), arguing that the next generation is truly in some way fundamentally different from the last one requires surmounting a rather large burden of proof, and despite making intriguing arguments, neither Milanovic nor Bertonneau pull it off.

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen move forward [

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