Macaroni and Montaigne

My Facebook page is looking very macaronic these days. Forget pasta; I’m talking language here. I am not an expert on Flemish vocal music from the Renaissance period, but I sometimes listen to a CD of music by Ockeghem and Josquin des Pres. That is how I learnt that ‘macaronic’ denotes a text that is a mixture of languages, such as the Latin/German mixture of the 11th/12th century Carmina Burana manuscript (made famous much later by Carl Orff’s musical setting of part of it).

As  Steve Caplan said about his love of bilingual jokes, appreciation is helped if you can understand both languages. Unfortunately I am only fluent in English, with just a few smatterings of words and phrases from other languages. Not so my Facebook friends. I have one German friend who mainly posts to Facebook in English but also in German, Spanish and Portuguese from time to time.  I see French, Catalan, Italian, and Turkish in wall postings from other friends and occasionally some Sinhalese.   My partner is originally from the Philippines so I have many Filipino in-laws and friends. They post and comment sometimes in English but more often in Tagalog, which is the main language of the Philippines, or use one of the other languages or a mixture of languages.  My biggest problems are trying to understand some of the younger family members who post in some kind of Filipino textspeak/youthspeak.  I think this may be Jejemon but I am not too sure.  Suffice to say, some days my Facebook wall is quite impenetrable.

I love it though.  I love to see photos from friends, whether in London or Manila, and odd snippets about what they are up to. I feel some kind of connection that way. It’s also helpful to be reminded when their birthdays are coming up.

Facebook gets a good deal of criticism from tiresome critics to the effect that it isolates people from the real world. Sherry Turkle is the most recent critic.  I have some respect for her – I heard her talk some years ago about the time that her book Life on the Screen came out. She was very persuasive and clearly a thoughtful person.  I haven’t read her latest book, Alone Together, and I would not dare to challenge whatever data she brings to bear in it to support the claim that technology is

actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world

I only know about myself and my own experience of using technology and how it has affected me.  I admit that sometimes one can get a bit obsessive about it, but mostly it has had a positive impact on my life in the past 20 years. What annoys me about the critics of Facebook and its ilk is their assumption that in the real world everyone is highly sociable and socialised. They seem to think that use of Facebook and other social media is displacing real-world interactions.  How dare they assume that I am at ease in real-world social situations and would be out gallivanting every night if I wasn’t so attached to my technology? Why do they think that sitting in a cafe or pub fiddling with my phone is worse than sitting there reading a book or newspaper?  If you deprive me of technology you don’t miraculously make me into someone who is happy to start talking to strangers; you just take away the communication tools that work best for me.

I read another critique of Facebook recently that didn’t annoy me so much, though I still thought it was wrong. Saul Frampton harked back to Montaigne and his recognition that

our inbuilt capacity for sympathy depends on our physical proximity to others

Intuitively this feels right – sympathy is higher for someone in the room with me than if they are at the end of a phone line.  But I can still feel sympathy for someone on the end of the phone, or at the end of an email etc. Often I don’t have the option of being in the room with them, so technology really does help to connect me to that person. I think it is hard to feel a sympathy for someone you have never met.

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne-Delecroix, 1533–1592

Jill Foster was a pioneer in the UK of using networks in academia. She started Mailbase, NISP and Netskills among other things and she was partly responsible for getting me interested in such things.  She was always adamant that face-to-face meetings were important as a way to cement relationships and that electronic communication was easier with people you had actually met.  I have found that to be true.

Maybe some social media users are just diving in and having conversations with random online strangers to the exclusion of all real-world experience. That is certainly not my experience and I resent being told that technology is doing me harm.

I think I may be whining too much here. If so then I apologise but I feel I have to defend something that has been important in my working life and now in my life too.

On a more positive note, I haven’t been able to listen to this BBC Radio three part series yet but it looks fascinating. The secret history of social networking goes right back to the 1970s when “hackers met hippies” in California and the first community bulletin boards were born.  You can find it on Facebook of course.

Finally, this cartoon seems apposite.

About Frank Norman

I am a librarian in a biomedical research institute. I've been around a few years, long enough to know that exciting new things fall into the same familiar patterns. I'm interested in navigating a path for libraries as we slip from print through to electronic information resources.
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12 Responses to Macaroni and Montaigne

  1. chall says:

    You put the finger on something I’ve thought about before with the “are all people who are social online really social IRL”? Like some people who are social IRL who aren’t at all interested in being online….

    As for the language, it’s funny with all the mixed languages, some of my friends on FB* have the same thing (and I’ve recieved some questions when I write in non-English) and it makes me more curious and eager to pick up another language, or slang.

    I remember those happy times with BBS and modems when most people I met up with playing games were people I never met, or never would meet, IRL. Only names and helpful chatter, and some friendly conversation.

    *having mixed feelings about the whole FB/Twitter thing every once in awhile, something to do with different modes of using depending on ppl. Some behaviours aren’t always what I like etc… picky me ^^

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Facebook is great if you’ve moved around a lot, and have similarly itinerant science-geek friends scattered all over the world. Some of my Vancouver-based friends like to make snarky comments about how active I am on there – but most of them have never lived anywhere else, at least not since they were kids, and don’t understand what it’s like to live such a long way from most of your friends and all of your family. I feel much closer to my cousins, in particular, than I ever did before Facebook – we’re part of each others’ days in a way we never managed before, and I love seeing photos of their kids!

    The whole thing of being Facebook friends with blog buddies you’ve never met is a different kettle of fish, and much harder to explain to “outsiders”!

  3. cromercrox says:

    Lovely post, Frank – and I agree, up to a point. Sure, one can augment an existing friendship online, but on the other hand, some of the people I consider my bestest friends are people I’ve first met on teh interwebz – including but not exclusively all the people on OT who used to be on NN, and some others in the blogosphere, on NN and elsewhere. The first SciOnline meeting in London was the first time I’d met many of these people face to face – and it was a very curious experience – a bit like, I guess, meeting a penpal for the first time. I’ve had people to my house who I’d only known through Twitter – and they’ve been lovely! I expect it’s easier than one might think because we’re a self-selected bunch, belonging to the relatively small number of people who write blogs, tweets and so on.

  4. Jenny says:

    I would never stay at home from a social engagement to play on the internet, so I feel that internet tools only enhance my social activity.

    p.s. I adore Ockeghem and Josquin des Pres, though it’s been years since I’ve listened to them – which reminds me that I’ve only ever had their music on cassette tapes (remember them?), all since lost, and really do need to pay a visit to iTunes. Can you recommend any albums?

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    Very interesting, Frank. Overall, I tend to agree with you regarding social interactions- that people should “pick their poison” (spoken like a true sociophobe). For some individuals who tend to show agoraphobic behavior (such as myself), social contact through the web seems like an ideal substitute for the stress involved in actually meeting people one-on-one. Of course, for me it may be a luxury, as work often makes it necessary for such real life interactions. My only concern is that (my) children do not become computer-bound, as they probably inherit enough normal social genes from their other parent to develop normally…

  6. KristiV says:

    Interesting post, Frank, and thoughtful take on social media. I would probably like Facebook if I used it, since I have moved around a lot, have a number of friends and relatives scattered all over the US and Europe, and generally enjoy updates and seeing photos. But all of the students I interact with daily are on Facebook, constantly (apparently), and I need some time away from them and the possibility of encounters in their “world”. I know that sounds introverted and reclusive, but … well, I won’t deny that I tend towards introverted and reclusive sometimes. Much of the time, in fact.

    Obviously I enjoy other forms of social media, such as blogging and blog communities, and my current favorite is Ravelry, which is a remarkably well-designed online community of knitters, crocheters, spinners, and other fiber artists. Ravelry is my Facebook, I guess, and if dental and medical students from my university are also members, then I don’t know who they are.

    As a (related) aside, did you read that Zuckerberg’s Facebook account was hacked yesterday? Lots of Schadenfreude floating around teh interwebz, I’m sure.

  7. Frank says:

    Thanks, Kristi. I can see there are problems for people in educational roles, and not wanting your private life to seep into the classroom. But you could just refuse all invitations from students. In FB you can carve your own little niche with as many or as few connections as your want.

    I have another favourite social site, that’s been around 15 years or so, well before social networking took off. There is an advantage in a site with sufficient critical mass in a particular area, and where you know what you say will find a receptive and understanding audience (more or less).

    Yes, I saw that about Zuckerberg. I thought it was a joke at first! Nicolas Sarkozy’s FB account was also hacked:

    Hackers left a message saying he would not be seeking re-election

  8. ricardipus says:

    ^What Henry said.

    I have “friends” (acquaintances? colleagues?) I’ve only ever met on teh intarwebz, including I think everybody I “know” here at OT. I spoke with RPG on the phone once, and there’s a non-zero chance I might actually meet Cath in person next month, but that’s the extent of in-person/non-internet-based communication.

    (I could, in fact, have gone to see Henry lecture, live and in person, but he was an hour away, in the middle of a Friday. On the Saturday following, he was mere minutes from my office – but I was an hour away at home, in suburbia. Such is life I suppose.)

    I think it’s perfectly possible to feel sympathetic and supportive of people you’ve only ever met electronically… strange though it seems to “say” (ok, “type in a comments box on a blog”) that.

    @Jenny: the Josquin des Prez Missa Pange Lingua is fabulous. I can recommend this excellent recording by the Ensemble Organum and the Ensemble Clement Janequin:

    http://www.amazon.com/Desprez-Ensemble-Clement-Janequin-Organum/dp/B000027NUZ

  9. Stephen says:

    Nice one Frank. FWIW, I agree with much of what you and Cath have said about facebook but also think that Henry, echoing Montaigne, has a point. I had a similar experience at the Science Online conference that I went to back in 2008.

    There was an interesting piece on Montaigne covering the point about proximity in The Guardian last weekend.

  10. Frank says:

    Stephen – as always, I think there is no hard and fast truth about this. Sometimes an e-only relationship can work, sometimes meeting the person changes your views about them (I know this has happened to me).

    The Guardian piece was what alerted me to the Montaigne proximity thing (I do link to it in the post actually!). I haven’t read his writings and only know him thanks to Alain de Botton’s Consolations of Philosophy where he devotes a chapter to Montaigne.

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