Back in the pre-Facebook days of the early 2000’s I was living in Somerville, Massachusetts. It’s one of those dingy mid-20th century looking towns set on the edge of a more important city, that being the educational stronghold of Cambridge. I was out of college, but I had some friends at the time who were Harvard students — crazy smart, mature-beyond-their-years young’uns who, refreshingly, socialized outside the usual Ivy League enclaves.
At some point, in passing, they happened to mention this fun website they were using to share vacation photos with each other, The Facebook. I was intrigued, so I continued asking about it as the platform started expanding to include other colleges. By the time it was available to the general public, I was quite familiar with what it looked like and how it functioned.
I find myself recalling those early days in the wake of this year’s cascading Facebook controversies. From Cambridge Analytica and data privacy issues to the increasing censorship of dissident ideas from across the political spectrum. All of it has me thinking of a couple bigger-picture issues that have made Facebook at the very least lame, and at the most toxic. And, like many realities in life, they’re mixed up with each other.
The first thing that made Facebook lame is frankly, us.
I know that’s a shitty thing to say, so let me explain. The original way people were using Facebook was actually pretty cool. Groups of people who knew each other relatively well used it to stay connected with each other. They’d coordinate meet-ups, share ideas, photos, funny memes, update each other on trips they’d taken, and things like that. It really was a kind of communal digital space.
But as Facebook jumped the college fence, broke wide and started gaining caché, it became common for even people you’d meet on the fly, at work, or went to high school with eons ago to send you a friend request. Of course, you’d accept them, why not? You certainly didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by excluding them. So these little groups on Facebook started expanding, but now not everyone knew each other that well.
Compounding this, another phenomenon started to crop up — the often unspoken belief that the more Facebook friends you had, the more worthwhile a person you were. Late western capitalism is a lonely, alienated time in history to live. Feelings of isolation become more acute for a lot of people when the natural camaraderie of youth starts to recede after high school or college. Amassing a large group of virtual “friends” became a kind of cultural palliative, a buffer against loneliness, or worse, a substitute for genuine human connection, a simulation of community. Click To Tweet
Maybe we didn’t mean to, but gradually we shifted Facebook from a way to maintain a select set of personal connections we’d formed in the physical world (what felt like private groups, essentially) to an ever-widening collection of tangentially connected people operating in the same virtual space (doesn’t that sound more and more like being in public?), many of whom you never saw in person at all, ever.
This shift in the nature of the Facebook experience coupled with the alienation of modern living (and compounded by the company’s shady approach to our privacy) contributed to another set of dynamics that quickly became norms. One, an unleashing of id on Facebook that we would never allow ourselves when dealing with people face to face. Just as happens on news sites and blogs that permit comments between disembodied strangers, there’s a tendency to forget that the people in your Facebook feed are real, that they have histories, struggles, vulnerabilities, emotions. When you forget someone else’s essential humanity, shit gets ugly fast.
The other dynamic, scoped out by science fiction writers like William Gibson who anticipated the advanced Internet back in the 80s, is the digital version of what we tend to do when interacting with groups of people we may not know well or trust. We protect ourselves with a persona. Black Americans know this dynamic intrinsically as a form self-protection in an inherently untrustworthy white supremacist society: a reality eloquently expressed by Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.”
“We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,- –
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be otherwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see thus, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!”
In the context of Facebook, this simply means that people started performing as a manufactured identity on the platform, an avatar. In business terms, to which this behavior is connected, they began, I suspect without fully realizing it, marketing themselves to their peers as “brands”. By simply omitting the parts of your life you don’t want others to see, it became almost natural to flatten yourself, in some cases present yourself like an idealized you, which is, of course, nonexistent but totally in keeping with one of the most ubiquitous aspects of life in late capitalism that does something similar — advertising.
Oh dear. See how preexisting issues in our culture simply transplant themselves into the social media petri dish? As I learned in middle school science class, matter is neither created nor destroyed, it just changes form. Caveat: these dynamics are in no way monolithic. Everybody uses Facebook a bit differently. But these trends were and are real and definitely significant.
The second thing that made Facebook lame, is the great American pastime of making a buck.
So many of the most interesting and engaging aspects of the Internet don’t mesh easily with what comedian Chris Rock has famously called our religion: money.
Sure, maybe Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts could have simply charged a small subscription fee for use of the platform and then figured out the rest later. But his investors — and I suspect he, himself — were looking for a lot bigger return than that. How do you make real money, billionaire money, off of friends sharing photos and comments and funny memes?
The answer is the same answer that newspapers, radio and TV networks arrived at in the 20th century. Advertising. Bring in the brands!! Bring in the publishers!! Give them their own pages. Give them access to everyone on Facebook (for a price). Shit, people are treating it like a public space already, right?
And here’s the horrible symmetry of it all. It makes perfect sense. We’ve got these expanding networks of people who are increasingly behaving like commodities. They’re wonderfully primed to be sold to. Remember back in 2012 when Mitt Romney told a group of voters “corporations are people, my friends”? Well on Facebook, corporations get to do just that. They get to be people.
With this topsy-turvy dynamic, genuine flesh-and-blood people on Facebook become less three-dimensional and messily human while fictions like corporations gain an illusion of depth and humanity they don’t actually possess. It also makes the process of sharing content more inorganic (read, less human).
No longer does a friend you know — through their own interests and research — share an article, a video, a recommendation, or an idea. Now everyone’s got advertising-driven, algorithmically determined content being shoved in their face every day. So that’s what they share. And that’s what they react to. In public. With groups of people they don’t see often, don’t know very well and don’t trust that much. It’s a recipe for non-constructive conflict. And that’s what we get.
It’s in this environment, built on this foundation, that all of today’s controversies are occurring. And invariably, in terms of solutions, it’s not the real people connecting on Facebook that Mr. Zuckerberg is beholden to. It’s the manufactured institutions that now drive the business (corporations) and government entities that set the parameters of acceptability with the content (the police, Congress, the NSA, the Pentagon, The Atlantic Council, etc.) In turn, all of these groups are beholden to Facebook because they want access to our brains and our data—and we’re on the platform in massive numbers. Finally, Facebook itself collects, slices and dices our data and shares it with these bastards.
To be sure, the power dynamic between Facebook, corporations and the government is constantly shifting like windswept sand in the desert. But, ultimately, this is who Facebook has ended up belonging to…Them.
There isn’t much that Facebook’s users can do about it. Except, of course, the obvious and arguably best course of action. Starve them of the one product they (Facebook, corporations and the government) absolutely need. Us. We’re the product. We let our need, our narcissism, and our loneliness turn us into the product. And, while astute writers like Caitlin Johnstone have argued that we should raise a free-thinking ruckus on Facebook until they metaphorically drag us out of the building, I’m not sure it’s the kind of public square we need to accomplish anything culturally or politically worthwhile. After all, how can addicts take down a system that provides them with their drugs? Judging by our behavior, we’re far too implicated in the system to be terribly effective. As poet Audre Lorde observed many years ago, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house“.
But truly, we can and should check ourselves into Facebook rehab. Walk out the door and, unlike Orpheus in the old Greek myth, don’t look back. Perhaps if we get out, we can think a little more deeply—and make some conscious decisions about how to relate to each other constructively online.
It’s not that big a deal. Can I tell you? There’s grace in just being a messy old imperfect beautiful alienated human out in the world. Let yourself be that. Chuck your avatar self. Go all Lloyd Dobler. Refuse to be bought, sold or processed. Refuse to buy, sell or process yourself. Go spend time with your friends. Relearn the art of conversation. Like, in person and shit.