In its salute to Mark Zuckerberg, its “Person of the Year,” Time observes that the “bigger social networks get, the more pressure there is on everybody else to join them. . . . It’s going to get harder and harder to say no to Facebook and to the authentically wonderful things it brings, and the authentically awful things too.”
Electronic community has its virtues, but the morbid craving for it evident in the success of Facebook reveals the degree to which actual community has collapsed in much of the West. A multitude of causes have brought the civilization closer to Tocqueville’s prophecy of the last democratic man, shut up in “the solitude of his own heart,” but among these the war a number of our elites have waged against traditional town-square culture is surely not the least. Social planners have gradually eviscerated the agora sanctuaries which once brought people together in face-to-face community: they have replaced the rich artistic culture of the old market square with Le Corbusier–style functionality; they have marginalized its spiritual traditions; they have supplanted its charitable institutions with dehumanizing social bureaucracies; and they have made its schools, the transmitters of its ancient civic culture, ever more morally and culturally vacuous. Hannah Arendt warned that the social imagination which has largely superseded the civic imagination could well result in the “most sterile passivity history has ever known.” Yet even as the crumbling of the common culture of the marketplace has resulted in new forms of dejection and isolation, too many of our elites continue pathologically to insist on the virtues of the social approach. Which leaves us, alas, with Facebook.