How The New Yorker Learned to Stop Worrying About Facebook and Love the Weak Tie

Sometimes a 'Like' Is Good Enough

By Published on .

To a certain kind of person, Jonathan Franzen going to the deserted island that served as the setting for "Robinson Crusoe" so he can write about David Foster Wallace is an intellectual SCHWING! moment. Being one of those people, I went over to The New Yorker's website and clicked on the story, whereupon I encountered a rather strange toll.

Here's the scheme: If, for a limited time, you go to The New Yorker's Facebook page and "like" it, you will gain access to a new essay from Mr. Franzen that is also available to paying print and iPad subscribers. There's no doubt the magazine should be using Facebook; what's interesting is how it's doing so. It strikes me as entirely representative of our time that a long-form publication that has published occasionally on social media's shortcomings is taking an essay written by a novelist with luddite tendencies about the idea of solitude as it relates to his dead friend -- also a novelist, who wrote often about technology's negative effects on culture -- and trading it for a click in perhaps the most social environment imaginable. It's so turgid with meaning, it could be an act of literary criticism in itself. It's either brilliant or idiotic. At the very least, it's deeply ironic.

At this stage, these types of marketing programs are far from unique. Facebook "likes" for brands have become shorthand for social-media savvy, even if there's not a lot of ready data demonstrating what they're worth as, say, a driver of sales. In a recent campaign, Capital One saw its legions of Facebook devotees grow by 720% in just two weeks, thanks to an NCAA sweepstakes promotion. I would wager an APR point or two that love for the credit-card brand and its monthly debt collecting did not blossom eightfold during that time period. A like is not a purchase and when it's done solely to get something in return, I'm not sure it can even be said to be an endorsement. By the time Facebook gets done with the notion of liking something, it won't have a whole hell of a lot to do with actual affection.

What brands from Capital One to The New Yorker are doing is exploiting the idea of "weak ties," as explored by Malcom Gladwell in The New Yorker. Up until yesterday, the magazine's relationship with social media was best summed up by Mr. Gladwell's much-dissected and, in many corners of the internet, feverishly loathed assertion that Twitter and Facebook do little to spark social change. Challenging the revolutionary cred that Twitter received over Moldova and Iran, Mr. Gladwell argued last October that online social networks mostly spawn relationships that don't ask too much of people. And so to call Twitter a channel for activism is to debase the term. The writer was, predictably, flamed, but that didn't stop him from taking on the subject again in Februrary, essentially repeating his argument for the context of Egypt.

It's worth noting that weak ties aren't necessarily bad. Their value depends on the context. Writes Mr. Gladwell, "There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances -- not our friends -- are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It's terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration, seamlessly matching up buyers and sellers, and the logistical functions of the dating world." His point -- that "weak ties seldom lead to high-risk activism" -- doesn't apply to all uses of social media and, as such, the articles were not blanket denouncements.

That qualification, however, was no balm for the many who expressed their anger in 140-character fits of rage. There was already plenty of hostility toward professional writers at big publishing institutions among bloggers and users of Twitter and Facebook. Some of this is well-placed skepticism about journalism process; some of it is jealousy. For most of us who aren't Justin Bieber, Twitter and Facebook are content ant farms, where space is limited and you need the whole community to get anything done. The New Yorker, where authors gallop like gazelles through savannas of tens of thousands of words, is basically the opposite. So it was fascinating to see the ecosystems overlap, as happened on Monday, when The New Yorker's editorial PR department ran its first Facebook campaign.

As anyone who's ever taken a peek inside the Google Analytics dashboard for a serious website will tell you, Facebook has become vital to publishers. For many, the social network is among the two or three biggest drivers of traffic, often eclipsing even Google searches and making Twitter look like a ghost town in comparison. More than a half-billion users wasting collective eons of time in an environment that promotes the sharing of links will do that. The New Yorker's stated goal of generating engagement on its page couldn't be more sensible, especially as the literary brand, which once seemed to regard its website as though it were a misplaced umlaut that made it into print, invests more and more in its digital operation through its iPad app, blogs and podcasts.

With all this baggage, it's impossible not to read Mr. Franzen's essay as a reflection of The New Yorker's embrace of the internet. Fried from publicity efforts for his cultural-event novel, "Freedom," he decides to recuperate by grabbing some camping supplies and a copy of "Robinson Crusoe" and heading to the near-deserted island of Alejandro Selkirk. Before the jaunt, he visits the widow of David Foster Wallace, the novelist who hanged himself in 2008. She gives him a little tin of Mr. Wallace's ashes, perhaps as a reminder of the dark side of solitude and boredom. Leaving civilization does little for Mr. Franzen's discontents. On the island, he is lonely and homesick and the thought of not watching the Super Bowl with "the Californian woman I live with" has him scrambling to peace out of peacefulness a week early. His last paragraph takes "Robinson Crusoe" author Daniel Defoe's strength and updates it for the 21st Century:

Nowhere was Defoe's psychology more acute than in his imagination of Robinson's response to the rupture of his solitude. He gave us the first realistic portrait of the radically isolated individual, and then, as if impelled by novelistic truth, he showed us how sick and crazy radical individualism really is. No matter how carefully we defend ourselves, all it takes is one footprint of another real person to recall us to the endlessly interesting hazards of living relationships. Even Facebook, whose users collectively spend billions of hours renovating their self-regarding projections, contains an ontological exit door, the Relationship Status menu, among whose options is the phrase "It's complicated." This may be a euphemism for "on my way out," but it's also a description of all the other options. As long as we have such complications, how dare we be bored?

Boredom, of course, isn't a challenge for publishers. But that radical individualism is. They might now "get" Facebook, but as they continue to wrestle with paywalls and walled-garden apps, so hostile to the social essence of the internet, it's just another way for that timeless tension between the individual and society to play out.

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