O Youth And Beauty; O Facebook And Twitter

5 min read

This weekend, My Beautiful Wife and I saw two movies: The Social Network, the celebrated film by David Fincher that purports to tell the story of the creation of Facebook; and Youth Knows No Pain, a small, independent documentary by Mitch McCabe about our obsession with youth and the industry built around it. Both made me queasy–weirdly, for the same reason.

The Social Network is very much worth seeing and pondering. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as a sort of sociopathic innocent. He’s not motivated by money or the possibility of doing good in the world or sex, drugs, and rock and roll so much as by a blank desire for power. If you have something he wants, he’ll find a way to make it worthless.

Which is why, it seems, he created (or stole) Facebook. There’s no question that Facebook has changed the way we interact with the world. Zuckerberg couldn’t handle interacting with actual human beings, so he developed a way to interact virtually. It was perfect: he could be revered and loved by thousands, even millions, of people who didn’t even know him; in fact, if they knew him, they’d probably think him an asshole. Facebook made him the world’s youngest billionaire–ironic, since Zuckerberg appears to care for money not at all.

Facebook is pretty damn wonderful in a lot of ways. It helps you reconnect with friends from your past. It lets you share bits of your life–photos, ideas, passions–with all of your friends all over the world. It helps you make friends all over the world; among my 600 friends on Facebook are lots of people I have never met who live in cities I’ve never visited. They’re people I know online only–people who share my passions and want to stay in touch.

But Facebook also fosters the shallower connections I recently dinged Malcolm Gladwell for misunderstanding. Facebook can widen your ring of influence, which is great if you’re a writer looking for a bigger audience (guilty) or a marketer with a product to sell (guilty) or an activist with a cause to promote (guilty) or a politician looking for votes (umm…no).

But if you’re looking for true, human connection, you won’t find it on Facebook. It’s a great way to interact virtually–which, we would all do well to remember, means “almost.” As a friend (ironically, an online friend) commented recently, “try twittering a casserole.”

It makes me wonder whether what we’ve gained is worth what we’ve lost. Even those of us who spend lots of time in the real world dealing with real people can be seduced into feeling as if we need to connect it all online; yes, we go to events, but we spend half our time facebooking and tweeting so all of our online friends can see where we are and what we’re doing. The latest wave of social networks, the check-in services Foursquare, Gowalla, and Yelp, are all about letting your friends track you and your fabulous life. Remember in the movies when spies used to slip tracking devices into each others’ jackets? Now we attach them to ourselves. Our inner lives matter less. Our public lives matter more. That feels like a big loss.

Youth Knows No Pain brought up similar feelings. The filmmaker Mitch McCabe is an attractive 38-year-old woman, the daughter of a plastic surgeon who, it seems, came by his specialty as a way to help accident victims and people with disfiguring conditions. Mitch’s obsession with aging is, in a scary way, normal. She wants to look better, which invariably means younger.

The film’s selling point is McCabe ambiguity. She shows us very clearly that all the ointments and treatments and injections and surgeries do, in fact, make people happy. But the happiness is fleeting. The effects of aging can be disguised, but aging itself can never be reversed. The people who have long-term obsessions with youth end up looking very, very scary, and cannot help being unhappy.

Again, the question: is what we gain worth what we’ve lost? Is the “beauty” of false youth worth the dignity and wisdom of age? It’s not an easy question to answer–particularly when we afford our elders so little dignity. The movie’s lone aged person is a shriveled 89-year-old crone in a nursing home bed who “once had an affair with Tyrone Power.” Her family of plastic surgery addicts vows to never end up like her–and who could blame them?

I submit, however, that’s there more than one way to “not end up like her.” One way is by trying to fix our outward appearances. Another is to actually treat our elders with respect and compassion, to celebrate their lives, to learn from their successes and failures as human beings and not be so damned interested in how they look. Or, perhaps, to find them beautiful in their own way.

This takes actual connection and actual casseroles. It’s naive to imagine, now that it’s part of our everyday lives, that we can shove the virtual world back down the Internet from whence it came, any more than we’re all going to actually turn off our TVs in spite of knowing how bad they are for us. (Take a look at Jerry Mander’s classic Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, written ‘way back in 1978, and see if you don’t agree.) The benefits and the costs will have to coexist. If nothing else, we have to be aware of the costs. Because gaining Facebook friends isn’t worth losing real-life friends. Even Mark Zuckerberg learned that.