If a tree “tweets” on the internet, does anyone “follow”?

January 10, 2011

I warned you. I said that once we stopped eating animals it was a slippery slope. Next thing you know plants would start getting all high and mighty. Well, it’s happened, and now there’s a tree on Facebook.

No, really. There’s a damned tree on Facebook.

a tree with a face, from Lord of the Rings

What you can't see is the Macbook Pro he's typing on.

Yes friends, trees have officially entered the social networking (oh, it’s on Twitter, Flickr, and YouTube too) circle. We’re not talking a fan page or a tree group. This eighty-six year old tree is posting and tweeting like a boss. Scientists in Brussels have rigged up a tree with environmental sensors, a microphone, a camera, and a digital camcorder, giving us human folk a chance to expand our ecological horizons and find out what trees “think.” It’s a cool and playful idea, and certainly pretty impressive for an eighty-six year old plant with no prior technology experience (or central nervous system, for that matter). Of course, you’ve got to think of the flip side: while this may be a landmark accomplishment for a tree, what does it mean for human beings?

Facebook: So easy, a tree—an entity with no functioning brain—can do it.

Ok, ok. So the tree isn’t actually doing anything besides rocking its inherent tree-ness. It’s technically the computers attached to the tree doing all the work, and we certainly aren’t talking critical thinking here. We’re talking straight data aggregated into readable information, devoid of purpose or substance. It’s not like the tree is generating wisdom or even knowledge, for that matter. That’s all okay, provided we’re still talking about trees.

Facebook: Have all the depth of a tree.

But we’re not, and if Facebook were a gauge for sentience, there’s little separating the plant and animal kingdoms. Sure, the tree has generally better grammar and spelling than its human friends, but they also say “to err is human.” Beyond that, the tree has proven to be our equal in the ability to post inane drivel in a public forum. In an honest assessment of the depth of our Facebook correspondence we’re slightly above seagulls (by using of multi-word phrases), but a smidgen below The Sims. It’s harsh, but at least Sims creatively express aspirations.

tree facebook status and comments

My favorite reply would probably have to be: "i love horses."

As we see above, every time the tree updates its status, it receives dozens of replies (and hundreds of “likes,” whatever that means). One can draw one of two possible conclusions here, both of which are concerning for very different reasons: 1) people actually believe they are talking to a sentient tree or 2) people want others to see they’re talking to a tree. I assume if they had something important to say, they’d send the tree a message instead of posting on its wall. Of course this would violate Web 2.0 rule #7: why say something privately, when you can say it very, very, publicly?

Facebook: It’s all about you. Your “friends” may as well be plants.

I’m not sure how to assess the quality of online social interaction, and I’m not sure it can be done in any meaningful way. I’m fairly convinced that the answer would be meaningless anyways. I’m only asking you, dear readers, to take an honest look at your online correspondence and ask yourselves in what way(s), if any, have you shown more depth than a tree?

Reality: Separate the folks from the trees.

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