As a masterpiece and a cultural catastrophe at once, Facebook is distinctly American. It represents a social regime that’s scintillating and hideous. The values intrinsic to it—velocity, wit, growth, exhibitionism and “connectivity”—can seem superficial, but they’re ours.
This week, the Facebook brass are making housecalls to investors, using razzle, dazzle and astral projections to justify valuing the eight-year-old company at a big, round $100 billion. This comes in preparation for Facebook’s midmonth initial public offering—what’s expected to be the biggest I.P.O. in the history of the Internet.
At the same time, government officials have started to cast a cold eye on Facebook, making sure it—and Apple and Google—don’t get a regulatory pass from Washington just because they’re cute. Facebook not long ago had to agree to a 20-year settlement with the Federal Trade Commission over allegations that the company violated users’ privacy.
Many consumers are even wary of Facebook. A recent poll put Facebook’s favorable rating among Americans at 58 percent, well behind Apple (74 percent) and Google (82 percent).
Just as the company prepares for its close-up, Facebook is the subject of near-hysterical anxiety. “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” asks this month’s Atlantic cover story, only to answer “you’re damn right”—and then heap on the freestyle condemnation in the way that only a fact-free, full-tilt cover story can. Facebook, it turns out, makes us sick, narcissistic and mentally ill.
Facebook—and its 901 million users—should take this alarmism in stride. The great American cultural accomplishments have always been the result of our national tension between appetite and anxiety. At the moment, Facebook is the apotheosis of this dynamic. A vast, conceptual frontier—one with no known outer limits on population, size or revenue—the social Web sometimes seems to exist to worry about itself. Is it costing us our humanity? Our dignity? Our communities? Our attention spans? Our politics?
But the Internet is no longer the Wild West. It looks more like the so-called Postbellum West, when the Homestead Act had established some order, and borders, public institutions, railroads and agricultural colleges were being erected. This is precisely the kind of radical transition in American history that engenders panics—financial panics, about what companies or dollars are worth, and moral panics, about what in the world we’re all doing here.
Just ride it out. Since the Revolution, two opposing fantasies have defined the creation of moral, aesthetic and financial value in America. The first is the fantasy of promiscuous, wanton appetites and ambition. This fantasy is so integral to national operations that everything in our culture—from advertising to monetary policy—is designed to stoke hunger and keep satiety out of reach.
Against the monstrous and glorious and neverending ravenousness that is our birthright, the scolding voice of temperance can seem bearish, soul-smothering and European. But it exists in productive tension with the first fantasy. This second, contractionist fantasy of restraint and restriction—often styled as more sophisticated than naked greed—makes much of processes like restoration and “right-sizing” and comeuppance.
Its exponents evince a nostalgic longing for an imagined past when the genie was in the bottle; when everyone knew where and who and what he was. On this reasoning, “the value of a dollar” is intrinsic and not a function of strings pulled by economic architects and market forces.
This tension between expansiveness and restraint ought never be resolved. That’s a safe argument to make because it will never be resolved. There is no America (and thus no Internet, and no Facebook) without this tension. We Americans are frontiersmen and immigrants who live to go too far while we’re also puritans who are cross with ourselves for doing it.
Of the many arguments for why French women eat croissants and stay slim, while Americans diet and get fat, the most appealing one has it that Americans gain weight because we worry about gaining weight. We fret over our hunger. Calories + cortisol = America.
Recently in Slate the sociologist Eric Klinenberg made the same point as he skillfully debunked the Atlantic article, and the tenacious myth that the Internet engenders “alienation,” that modernist phantom. Surveying the history of alienation hysteria in American social science, Klinenberg wrote, “What distinguishes Americans is not that we are more isolated, but that we spend more time and energy worrying about whether we are.”
No more worrying! Facebook is right where it should be. It’s a free and vast global enterprise in conflict with forces (governmental, cultural, popular) that want to inhibit it. Sounds like the perfect time for an I.P.O.
Maybe, in fact, the company should host a beautifully designed Federal Trade Commission fan page, and allow the government to post Facebook’s privacy infractions on it. Then they should have a running roll of “Is Facebook killing us?” articles and let everyone chat about them online. It will pass, the high moral tone of our era—but hopefully not too soon, giving Facebook time to take its place among the great American public companies.