Maybe, in the same way that Benjamin says the difference between “follow[ing] with the eye, while resting on a summer afternoon, a mountain range on the horizon” and experiencing that same mountain range at a remove (imagine a picture postcard) makes it harder to appreciate the real thing (“Gosh, this mountain is beautiful! Just like a postcard!”), social-media technologies are creating simulacra of social connection, facsimiles of friendship. By ignoring that difference, as Shirky mostly does, we keep moving heedlessly toward a future where the basic human social activities that these new technologies are modeled on–talking, being introduced to new people by friends–are threatened.
These concerns probably aren’t foremost in the minds of Shirky’s readers, who are probably just trying to figure out how to wield more influence in the new world he describes. But it’s worth thinking about the kind of book that Shirky, a lucid enough thinker and writer, would compose if he were more concerned with the uses of online “love” and “freedom.”
And if we’re concerned about that, what can we do? What would Benjamin do, besides worry about what’s lost every time a Tumblr post is reblogged?
Here’s something to try as (trust me!) a pointless experiment: cease to log in to your instant messenger for a week. You’ll find out quickly that for some of the “buddies” on your buddy list, you immediately cease, for all intents and purposes, to exist. Or go one step further: delete your profile from Facebook and stop blogging. Stop reading blogs. Stop attending social events you find out about online. See how your world shrinks, and if you’re brave, see if you can stick with your foray into social-media abstention until you start to see your world opening back up again–maybe in different ways.
Temporarily pretending that the world hasn’t changed may be instructive, but it is neither Shirkian nor Benjaminian. As Walter Benjamin probably wouldn’t put it, there’s no point in clinging to what used to seem to be real. But I’m still waiting for the author who, without being like the guy who defended scribes in print, finds a way to say that we shouldn’t let this stuff run amok just because it can and it wants to. Because it does want to.
Emily Gould was an editor at Gawker.com from September 2006 to November 2007. In May, she wrote a cover story, “Exposed,” for the New York Times Magazine about her time blogging for Gawker. Free Press will publish her first book–of autobiographical stories–in 2010.