March 21, 2011

The Poetry of Mark Zuckerberg

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Mark Zuckerberg and I have almost nothing in common. He is a technological genius, with a preternatural gift for all things mathematical. I had to take Algebra three times in high school before I finally passed. And still, don’t ask me about Pythagorean Theorem. From an early age, Mark was a prodigy, while I was a romantic with visions of moving away from my “small” southern California hometown, to the east coast, where I currently reside. Mark, growing up on the east coast, made the opposite trek, to Silicon Valley, California. This is where we start to become similar. We both traded one coast for another in pursuit of our passion. Mark moved 3000 miles to further grow Facebook. I moved 3000 miles to further progress in my writing. Another similarity? Mark and I have attended Ivy Leagues. Mark went to Harvard, and I’m at Columbia working on my MFA in poetry. And the last, perhaps most important similarity, we both have a Facebook page.

Since The Social Network hit theatres, critics have been abuzz with not only comments about the movie, but about Mark Zuckerberg, the person himself. They ponder if the movie portrays his motives accurately. Was his motivation because he wanted girls to like him? Did he want the power? Did he feel rejected by Final Clubs? The verdict: all of the above, some of the above, or none of the above. In Zadie Smith’s recent review of The Social Network in the New York Review of Books, she posits that the boy-genius just wants to be liked: “Here’s my guess: he wants to be like everybody else. He wants to be liked.” Alexi Wasser of the famed IMBOYCRAZY blog admits to this very desire, stating in her “About Me” section, “Ultimately, all I really want is to be liked. There, I said it.” And I can’t help but recall a certain famous actress (Sally Fields) who in her Academy Award acceptance speech burst out with, “You like me! You really like me!”, which begs the question: is the desire to be liked really all that new, as Smith suggests in her review? I’m not so sure. In regards to Zuckerberg and his motives, who knows? It seems to me that it was a little of everything until it became none of it, a little at a time. What’s clear: Zuckerberg wants total autonomy over Facebook. He wants to be the master of his universe, and this I can relate to.

As an MFA student in poetry, we speak much about the construct of a creative world that we as poets inhabit in our poetry. We create our own logic, our own world with its own set of rules and ways. Wallace Stevens was notorious for creating intricate worlds of logic within his poems. And while we write this world, we also live in it. We are the master of our universe for the time that we are composing it. But I’m giving myself too much credit here. Some of the best poetry comes from a place that is often uncontrollable. I am the master only of my conscious self. But that primal element, the subconscious, has a mind of its own, and my job is to try and keep up with it as best I can. I consider myself lucky if and when I’m able to tap into it. When I do tap into it, I have visions of grandeur that this poem, my poetry, will become a new standard for living. I have to believe this. I have to believe that my poetry is the next big thing to happen to everyday living, the same way Zuckerberg believes that Facebook is the new standard for connecting and communicating with the outside world. And arguably, it has become just that with half the world currently on Facebook.

In Smith’s review of The Social Network , she speaks of the two types of people who make up generation Y, a concept originated by Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget. The concept is that there is a person 1.0 and a person 2.0 that make up generation Y. The former does not have a Facebook page. The latter does. Smith considers herself a person 1.0, while Zuckerberg is very obviously a person 2.0. Naturally, I couldn’t help but place myself somewhere in the stratum. Until recently, I had a blog, a tumblr account, twitter account, a myspace page (for which I have forgotten my email and password), an iphone, mac lap-top, harman/kardon speakers, and last but not least, a Facebook page nearly 5 years running. I am undoubtedly a person 2.0, a Zuckerbergian.

And I wouldn’t want it any other way. In her review, Smith criticizes Facebook for its superficiality: “Facebook: falsely jolly, fake-friendly, self-promoting, slickly disingenuous. For all these reasons, I quit Facebook two months after I’d joined it.” Facebook, in Smith’s eyes, is not a means toward a real connection, and in this sense is a true reflection of Zuckerberg himself. He has been described as socially removed and somewhat awkward. Only someone like this could see Facebook as a meaningful way to connect to others because its distance offers an emotional safety for those who are socially inept. Facebook lacks that vulnerability gene that helps us relate to one another. My Facebook page is a contrived set of answers to superficial questions. What do you look like? Here’s an album of my prettiest pictures with my prettiest friends. What kind of music do you listen to? The obscure, and current. Favorite movie? A director you’ve never heard of. And so on. And yet, I endlessly engage. Do these questions give way to a true revealing of self? Of course not. But it’s a start. And I have a choice. I don’t have to fill out my entire profile if I don’t want to. And certainly, many don’t.

I had an argument with my friend a few months ago about Facebook. He had informed me that he had deleted his account because he realized that he was spending far too much time on a site that he felt was superficial and meaningless. He hated getting event invitations and reading other people’s prosaic posts. I argued that I enjoyed my Facebook experience because I could control the quality of information. If I didn’t want to see a particular person’s wall posts, I could hide them. Or better yet, refuse to add them as a friend (because why pretend to like someone even in the virtual world?). As a consequence, my event invitations were mostly to poetry readings, book signings, or birthday parties. Similarly, most of the wall posts that popped up on my news feed were about books, articles that people were reading, or political events, interspersed with the latest youtube clip or John Stewart bit.

In other words, I felt that my experience was informative, and kept me connected to the literary goings on about town. But my friend refused to believe that this was my experience. He argued that my experience was equally vapid as his. Most of his friends were skaters, kids he went to college with, and kids with whom he worked on graphic design projects. I told him that his Facebook page was a reflection of his interests, and if he felt that his page was shallow, then he might want to take a look at his friends. Harsh? Yes. We didn’t speak for three months after this argument. I felt that he was projecting his experience onto mine, and in that sense, not respecting my point of view. In the end, the fight wasn’t so much about Facebook, as it was about the fact that he would not accept my experience as being true for me. He couldn’t believe that my experience on Facebook was a positive one, and I couldn’t believe that he couldn’t believe that.

If anything, what Zuckerberg has done so masterfully is make you believe that you are the master of your virtual universe, controlling your privacy settings, with the ability to add, find or delete friends, hide posts, and poke people that you like. It may not be a meaningful way of connecting, but it offers the opportunity for meaningful connections to happen. Because I know about four separate readings a week listed in my events section, I can go to any one of them and know at least five people there, and befriend another two or three, who I will probably later add as friends on Facebook. I’ve learned about numerous birthday parties that I’ve consequently attended, only to strengthen that friendship. And where do you think I heard about the Rally to Restore Sanity? Certainly not from my TV, because I don’t own a TV, another similarity that Mark and I share. Facebook gives you the power to control the kind of information you want to be exposed to. Can this be limiting? Of course, but it also solves the problem of information overload that one can experience while on the internet, a fear that once was the center of discussion for educators. So many sites! So little time! It was on Facebook that I learned about Smith’s review of The Social Network , which partially inspired this piece. So, Smith is a person 1.0, and I am a person 2.0.

I don’t think when Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” that he was imagining iPads and iPhones and Facebook, but the fear was the same: that the human experience would become less and less personal, “widening in the widening gyre”, our connection to each other depleting amidst industrial progression. Which is to say, there will always be something to threaten human connectivity. This is not a new fear. But I don’t want to go running scared of each new thing. I may be a poet with romantic tastes, but I will never be a luddite.

Facebook, for me, is a virtual metaphor of who I have always been. I have never been much of a phone talker, I prefer to text. But I don’t believe Facebook is a complete and accurate portrayal of who I am, but no metaphor, virtual or not, ever is. As Wallace Stevens said, “The imperfect is our paradise.” Facebook at best is a reflection of a single splinter taken from the rubble of our many-sized selves. I say rubble because like technology, our past is a constant ruin that we are always replacing or renaming. Before Facebook there was Myspace, and before Myspace, there was Friendster, and before Friendster, there was Lipstick and Cigarettes, and before Lipstick and Cigarettes there was the digital camera, and our single desire to see each other, even if only a glimpse. TC mark

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image – Brian Solis

Liz Dosta

Liz Dosta is a Brooklyn based writer and artist. She’s currently curating the tumblr site: 

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