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Facebook, Gatsby and the need for real human connections

Catholics have known but perhaps forgotten that words alone cannot replace flesh and blood

  • Tom Hoopes
  • International
  • May 29, 2013
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The Great Gatsby (the book; I haven’t seen the movie yet) describes a particular kind of life that used to be the sole property of well-heeled WASPs. They were the privileged ones who came from all parts of the country to convene on The East—New York, Boston, New Haven. They could afford all the new technologies—the telephone, the telegraph, the automobile—that allowed them to leave the undesirable portions of their past in the past and form new, tenuous connections with the beautiful people in the fabulous places.

And so they lived in a party atmosphere where everyone knew each other but nobody knew each other, where a man could draw a thousand friends to his house but leave no one willing to come to his funeral.

It occurred to me reading it that F. Scott Fitzgerald probably thought he was witnessing an unreal world falling apart and resolving into its final tragic end. How right he was about the tragedy, but how wrong he was about its end.

Along came Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest and the party goes on.

Think about what social communication does: It opens big noisy rooms where everyone pretends to know each other but no one really does. None of us were invited—most of us were simply brought along (to borrow a Fitzgerald character’s phrase). We are strangers and friends at the same time. Our conversations are at once too intimate and too superficial; too specific and too random.

“Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day in the year and then miss it.”

“I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.”

In the Facebook/Gatsby world, life is just something you talk about. It is conversation—or the disconnected one-liners that have taken conversation’s place—that counts. As Gatsby himself puts it: “What was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do?”

So many details in the novel are reminiscent of social media connections:

  • Daisy’s child is a Facebook child who exists to be shown at her best and bragged about.
  • Gatsby’s life is an elaborate Facebook stalking scheme, gathering friends so he can get to one woman through them.
  • In Tom Buchanan, the novel even has the Political Meme Guy who relishes sharing startlingly dark facts about politicians and extremist conspiracy theories.

And in James Gatz—who renamed himself Jay Gatsby—the novel presents the quintessential Twitter persona: A man with an impressive handle and lots of followers who has carefully selected the information and image he presents to the world.

Gatsby is the mysterious character for whom the novel is named. He is a man with a thousand “friends” but no confidant—8.2K  “likes” but no one to love. What people say about Gatsby reveals a lot about themselves. They wonder who he really is, where he is really from, what parts of his persona are true, and what parts he invented. They know to ask, because they work at constructing their personal identities, too.

“That’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool,” says Daisy. The quote is meant ironically, but it could just as well be a Facebook motto.

On Facebook, it’s best not to get too deep. It’s best not to be too real. It’s best to stick to the shimmering surface of life. It’s best to be a beautiful fool.

“Twitter and Facebook can be a godsend, helping us connect and deepen friendships that have been fractured by technology in the first place,” I once posted on Facebook, feeling clever. “Or they could be a tool of the devil turning us all into narcissistic self-promoters shouting out several times a day that we are the center of the universe.”

The writer Ellen Haggerty Rossini corrected my thought in a comment.

“Not narcissistic and ‘center of the universe’ so much as human and in need of others,” she wrote. “It’s a cry of the lonely heart (and we’re all lonely): ‘I am here, I need to give and receive love, to touch others to be real.’ The odd thing about technology is that it seems to deliver social connection exponentially. But people aren’t made that way. One conversation with another person, in their presence, is worth a thousand tweets or posts, or more.”

She is right. The beautiful people chattering at West Egg are looking for love, too. They don’t find it—large parties are not more intimate after all—and then life (and death) rudely bring the party to a crashing halt.

It is hard to know how real life will intrude on our social media party.

“If the desire for virtual connectedness becomes obsessive,” worried Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 World Communications Address, “it may in fact function to isolate individuals from real social interaction.”

We are Catholics so we should know better. We don’t believe in sola scriptura—the doctrine that says that words alone are a sufficient basis for a relationship with Jesus. Neither is the illustrated Bible of Facebook sufficient to know others. But sola scriptura isn’t wrong because it goes too far— it is wrong because it doesn’t go far enough. The words of scripture are necessary, but the sacraments—flesh and blood—need to complete the picture.

Full story: Great Gatsby's Facebook mansion

Source: Crisis magazine

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