Friends Indeed

Most everyone knows that bit from Thoreau on technology and communication in his time:


“Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. […] We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. […] As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough.”


Social media is the obvious villain now for a technology that fosters talking at and past each other. But that is only a problem if communication, not performance, is the goal. If we can assume a large number of Facebook posts are about people’s need to be seen to be, the only thing left to react to is our own perceptions of what David Foster Wallace calls “Total Noise.” It is, he says:


“ … the sound of our U.S. culture right now, a culture and volume of info and spin and rhetoric and context that I know I’m not alone in finding too much to even absorb, much less to try to make sense of or organize into any kind of triage of saliency or value… [The problem is] the seething static of every particular thing and experience, and one’s total freedom of infinite choice about what to choose to attend to and represent and connect, and how, and why, etc.”


That is, we swim in data, but instead of escaping ignorance are drowned.

Wallace says, “In sum, to really try to be informed and literate today is to feel stupid nearly all the time, and to need help.”

But maybe you have Facebook friends who serve as compilers of reliable, interesting, and unique information, like some of mine. Four, to be exact, out of 800 friends: The middle-aged daughter of a famous novelist; a well-known poet and retired professor and editor; his former student, an award-winning poet himself; and a professor at Columbia. There is an old saying (popular in Liberal Arts buildings) that while English majors may not know anything, they know where to go to find things out. This likely applies to my friends (who are only acquaintances) and certainly to me.

All four follow current events and insider politics, and their reposts of the news are prescreened and link only to the most insightful articles from a wide range of reputable sources. They are more reliable than any News app but do not get to benefit from subscriptions.

Each then has his or her own thing, which is always interesting and sometimes surprising—cutting-edge science; literary quotes and passages that apply to today; historical photos, art, and other culture (including the most intelligent sarcasm in the world); and comparative literature, history, and gossip from their more famous friends.

I am grateful for these people I have never met in person, and for the magnetic telegraph that brings them to my broad, flapping American ear.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.