Theory Tuesday: Facebook and why college students hook-up a lot

April 12, 2011

Okay, so if I didn’t send this to you, you really ought to read this USA Today Life story about America’s favorite topic: HOOK-UP CULTURE.

“Men don’t have to work as hard as they used to, to woo a woman,” he says. “I’ve talked to various interviewees who had never been on a date, which doesn’t really make sense, given they’re pretty attractive. It’s just that less seems to be required to be in the company of a woman.”

Justin Garcia, a State University of New York doctoral fellow at Binghamton (N.Y.) University who conducts research on hookups, says this general lack of dating means many young adults don’t even know how to get a relationship started.

“For the majority of students, they’re not going to dinner and a movie unless they’ve hooked up with someone. Some physical interaction comes before the dating,” he says. Often, “dates happen after a relationship, rather than before.”

Those two statements capture it better than anything else, no? And this article even goes to lengths to properly use “hook-up” in sentences.

Anyway, their theory is the increasing gender imbalance has magicked girls into ABC Family’s Lord of the Flies 2: The Amazon Ho, which Andy Ferguson at The Weekly Standard also touched on as well a few weeks ago. Mike Warren and I threw around some theories as to what’s changed in the last decade that would engender such a shift in the way people…relate, and I settled on this one:

Facebook is a contributing factor.

I realize that sounds stupid, so you’ll have to let me stab Malcolm Gladwell for a minute.

Because, here: When you introduce Facebook as an appendix to an established social life, you get those bizarre stories about Gen Xers and Baby Boomers that become addicted to Facebook, like the woman with the plastic surgery in Brazil. But what happens when something like Facebook becomes an ingrained, white noise element of a developing social life? When you have never experienced entering into a new social environment without Facebook?

Well, things change, then. They have to, right?

You take your entering Class of 2015 freshman. He — but more importantly, given the Facebook demographics, she — has an enormous amount of information, easily accessed, affected by presentation that affords her an opportunity to develop a preconceived prejudice towards someone that may be inaccurate, and is certainly very superficial.

At least half of what once stood for small-talk for our girl enters into the nebulous Twilight Zone of Information You Already Know Because You Were Stalking Sam, Here, Earlier, and Which You Cannot Mention — Can You? — No, You Shouldn’t, That Would Be Weird, Dumbass. You’ve Now Been Silent for Three Minutes. New acquaintances already know who their mutual friends are (and that’s small-talk too!), which affects not only their opinions of each other, but their behavior — they know exactly who will know what they’re up to.

There’s that line in that USA Today piece about Gen Yers not knowing how to start relationships — and why would we? We have far more information about people we’ve never met before than we’ve ever had before, unless you were an IRS agent, or witch.

Zadie Smith (author of White Teeth and On Beauty) hit on this point last fall in an essay for the New York Review of Books that deserves a full read, really:

“It feels important to remind ourselves, at this point, that Facebook, our new beloved interface with reality, was designed by a Harvard sophomore with a Harvard sophomore’s preoccupations. What is your relationship status? (Choose one. There can be only one answer. People need to know.) Do you have a ‘life’? (Prove it. Post pictures.) Do you like the right sort of things? (Make a list. Things to like will include: movies, music, books and television, but not architecture, ideas, or plants.)

But here I fear I am becoming nostalgic. I am dreaming of a Web that caters to a kind of person who no longer exists. A private person, a person who is a mystery, to the world and—which is more important—to herself. Person as mystery: this idea of personhood is certainly changing, perhaps has already changed. Because I find I agree with Zuckerberg: selves evolve.”

College becomes a warped small-town, if you think about it long enough. Everyone can find out easily enough about someone. With texting, if who you want to be in the room isn’t in the room, you know where to find them, and how to make it happen — it’s insular in its connectivity.

Except, unlike the small town, Atticus Finch isn’t exactly roving around, wielding the moral yardstick like a samurai. There’s a loss of structure (for the most structured generation ever), and a flood of information. And vodka. It’s not quantum physics.