I can’t get religious about the Book

The younger students are much more hi-tech than we older ones. They move easily around PowerPoint and multicoloured computer presentations, and sit in lectures fiddling with their BlackBerries. My mobile phone doesn't do emails and photos and stuff. It cost £5 and has lasted nine months.
And they are all on Facebook. All the time. They tell each other when they are about to attend lectures, they post pictures of their weekends, they spy on former boyfriends (mostly it seems to be about that). They don't do Twitter. I've lost count of the number of times I've been told with an astonished look that I've got to be on Facebook.

We were in a statistics computer workshop and I was trying to explain to one of them why I didn't want a load of emails every day, telling me what my friends had been drinking the night before. But you don't get loads of emails, she insisted, and logged on to her university account. There were dozens of messages, all with alerts from Facebook, all from that day, all unread. "But I don't mind," she explained as she glanced through the list. "I don't really know most of these people." Exactly.


I suppose these things must look different from the perspective of someone who has never worked. Because anyone who has had a job knows what a bore emails are. I am still scarred by being on the Liberal Democrats' press release list for many years; there are only so many times you can be told that "Time for talking has passed", or "Willis should get off fence (maybe)", before you want to shut down your inbox and retire behind a nice, secure fence yourself.

I once asked Menzies Campbell when he last poked someone. The Lib Dems had been putting it about that he was the most popular party leader on Facebook. So, in the middle of an interview, my colleague and I asked "ming" (remember how the rebranding came with a lower case?) when he last poked somebody. He went red with fury before we reassured him that it was a technical term connoting the greeting of friends on Facebook. It was a mean trick, I suppose, but it proved our point.

And now I am on Facebook, too. It was quite easy to sign up, once I had also signed up to a fake email address so that all those posts can go somewhere else. Feeling a little like a spy, I checked the pages of a few of the students: one of them was religious, another had a link to a page called "When I'm drunk, I tend to ruin my life". It was full of late-night or hungover messages of self-loathing by other people. It also seemed to be very popular to post pictures of oneself leaping on a beach. They reminded me of those depressed people who dye their hair very bright colours, as if to jolly themselves up.

Sociologists argue whether Facebook, which overtook Google in March among US internet users, is a source of weak or strong "social capital", of making acquaintances or making friends. It seems to me to make people paranoid. The students count how many "friends" they and others have; they monitor the people they fancy. They check up on people they didn't like at school, and hope to find them in dead-end jobs. Two 12-year-olds I know were recently found posting late into the night about how much they hated a girl at school, goading each other on to deeper meanness.

A report in the US that surveyed hundreds of university students (average number of "friends": 150-200), and then conducted regression analyses to search for links between Facebook use and social capital, found that Facebook was particularly useful in forming weak social capital for those with low self-esteem. It didn't show a lot else.

Fake smiles

If Facebook friends do not make people socially secure, nor does technical know-how make them competent. I thought the whole point of wiring up schoolkids from the age of five was to teach independent learning. But these students seem a lot less independent than I remember being - or, perhaps, that is my memory playing tricks. They have lectures with slides, and then handouts of the slides, and the other day we had a handout of the slides with ruled lines down the other side of the sheet - so you could write your notes on them. It is infantilising.

There was one postgraduate last week who did clever things with colour codes on his computer (at which I was staring in horror) - and then asked the lecturer what he should do now, because he had finished early. Like a child. It's as if they have been taught how to do but not how to think, just as Facebook teaches you how to look happy, not be happy. It seems like a con. Although, as I have forgotten my fake email address, I don't suppose I shall be finding out.

This article first appeared in the 05 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, GOD