Why are we more excited by Facebook than by Google? I thought about this question a couple of weeks ago when the media ran stories about the rivalry between these two corporations. At that time, the most popular figure in Google’s new social networking service, Google+, was Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, who had 10,000 more followers than did Larry Page, the CEO of Google in the early days of the service.
What’s the story here? Maybe the story is the story. We have before us is a battle between the database and narrative, between the archive and social experience. And the latter wins hands down.
For Facebook has become associated in our eyes with friendship and with a compelling tale. This is what my children mean perhaps when they tell me that Facebook is cooler.
In providing the means to stay connected, Facebook addresses the human need for conversation, warmth, and empathy. You know that you can always find someone on Facebook to talk to, no matter when and where. Even though Facebook has reduced the possibility of privacy and intimacy, it speaks to and helps fulfill the human capacity to form links and associations. How can the impersonal, dry, and terrifyingly expansive Web compete for our emotions?
On top of that, of course, is the story of Facebook that became popular in last year’s film, “The Social Network.” We witnessed the opportunistic Mark Zuckerberg, willing to do anything to promote his new company, even deceive his best friend. The irony did not escape us—a film about friendship had no real friendships at all. So here is the old story of betrayal and if love. The last moment of the movie shows Zuckerberg refreshing his friend request of his former girlfriend. We may communicate digitally with one another, the movie says, but deep down we still search for closeness.
Indeed, we may have the capacity to move millions of bits of information in a second, to store vast columns of knowledge in our smartphones, yet we still rely on good old-fashioned tales to make sense of our lives. It is not an accident that the appearance of Google+ was represented in the media as a duel, a rivalry between two corporations made more accessible as the personal combat between Mark Zuckerberg and Larry Page.
There is a certain universal aspect to narrative, much like language itself, which binds us as people no matter where we live. Information technologies may come and go. We may get our news on the web, read books on electronic tablets, and download songs into our phones, but we cannot part with stories. We live our lives through narratives and often can’t tell the border between invention and reality.
What is the truth, after all, in the founding of Facebook and what is fiction? We may never know. But this is beside the point. What is important is the indestructibility of narrative, which lives on despite the transformations of technology.
It is important to keep this mind when we hear the dark prophecies around us, foretelling the disappearance of novels, poetry, and of literature in general. No technological innovation has ever wiped out our reliance and enjoyment of narrative. Individual genres may indeed disappear. But we cannot live without tales, both real and make-believe.
Wayne C. Booth has written that a narrative is an invitation to friendship. It asks us to spend time with a tale, to engage with it, to become its companion, so to speak. We enter someone else’s world or we ask them to come into ours.
The success of Facebook is that it promotes both – friendship and the sharing of stories. It’s coolness lies in its warmth. And stories allow us to grasp the awe-inducing vastness of the web around us. This is why narrative will outlive Facebook.