Sunday, October 2, 2011


At its recent F8 conference, Facebook introduced some new features and announced its future plans. The presentation of one of the centrepieces of this new Facebook, Timeline, went like this. As I watched that, read a little more around the web, and listened to Chris Cox's presentation, a more appropriate introduction to the new Facebook came to me:

It's been a little over a week since I deleted my Facebook account. After the F8 conference and hearing Facebook executives candidly talk about their goals for not only users' experience of Facebook, but of the internet as a whole (see, for example, this account: "Facebook's goal is to become the social layer that supports, powers and connects every single piece of the web, no matter who or what it is or where it lives").* I decided that as I'd been increasingly unhappy with Facebook for a few years and had been toying with pulling the plug on my account for close to two years, last Thursday was the time. More than one person on the internet has compared the new Facebook to a digital panopticon, and while I can understand that comparison, I think there are slightly more interesting (and perhaps more accurate) comparisons to be drawn, ones that shed light on the active dangers that Facebook could pose (the video above is a good start). More on those comparisons in a second.

My immediate experience of getting rid of Facebook was one of relief. I'd done it: I could quit Facebook. Of course, conveniently, Facebook allows you to return to your account at any time. Just log back in. It's so seductively easy. For most of the past week and a bit, I've lived with a pretty constant, low level amount of guilt: I should be checking Facebook. Why aren't I checking Facebook? What am I doing on a computer if I'm not checking Facebook? Why did I delete Facebook? The first time I felt these questions welling up in my subconscious, I knew I'd made the right choice.

I'm not entirely cut off from social networking, though. I'm an active tweeter, and I have a Google+ profile (which, at least among the people in my circles, seemed to be slowly coming to life in the wake of Facebook's announcements, only to return to its ghost town feel by the end of the weekend). More knowledgeable men than I have pointed out that Twitter and Google aren't that much better than Facebook: really, "all the things that matter will be controlled and owned by a very small number of Big Web companies. Your identity will be your accounts at Facebook, Google and Twitter." Nevertheless, I feel more comfortable with my remaining social networking services than I did with Facebook. While Twitter and Google may yet be planning to dictate the way that I experience the internet, they've the advantage of not being quite so open, so proud about it as Facebook (well, perhaps Google is as proud, but in something of a different way).

My displeasure with Facebook had been growing for almost the entire length of my membership. I had been a late, and involuntary, adopter of Facebook when it arrived at my undergraduate institution. The initial round of excitement had faded and Facebook was not much more active than is Google+ currently. This state did not last--a new round of users boosted the amount of content, Facebook continued to develop its platform--and I became a fairly active user. However, when games, quizzes, and other apps started to appear on Facebook, I began to find it increasingly frustrating. Site redesigns seemed to make it impossible for me to get any meaningful content from Facebook. When you became able to block individual categories of posts (say, all those that had to with Farmville, to pick a particularly odious part of the Facebook experience) I briefly became more active on Facebook, but the inundation of information about others' lives (many of whom were, at this point, complete strangers to me, regardless of the educational institution we attended together) continued unabated. I realize the latter is partly my fault--the number of people I was "friends" with on Facebook was probably larger than it needed to be (though it never approached the thousands that others have--I think at its height my list contained ~180 people, and I'd scaled back considerably in the final few months)--but it became oppressive, and there seemed no standard social protocol by which to deal with that situation. Privacy concerns that were increasingly the focus of any and all news about Facebook and its services and Facebook's own push to convince people to document their lives in an increasingly up-to-the-minute fashion (much like how some people use Twitter) just became too much for me. I had come to the end of the relationship I was willing to have with Facebook.

Some of this has already been taking place on social network like Twitter, as Laura June points out, with the result that "the people Tweeting as they experience [an event] are not experiencing in the traditional sense: they are sharing as they experience the experience, which in turn alters the experience. If you always see yourself through the eyes of a perceived crowd, your experience is altered, as is your behavior." This, it seems to me, is the digital panopticon. As at any moment we could become the focus of the crowd, our experiences and behaviours could come under scrutiny, we must consciously modify our behaviour. Farhad Manjoo's complaint that "My problem with 'frictionless sharing' is much more basic: Facebook is killing taste" because "On Facebook, now, merely experiencing something is enough to trigger sharing" highlights the extent of Facebook as a digital panopticon: without being able to avoid sharing our experiences, we must be increasingly self-conscious of what experiences we are having. Complete surveillance means complete self-consciousness; or, as Joe Moon puts it: "removing friction from sharing just displaces that friction. If everything I do on the web is under the public gaze, I have to reflect for a moment before I take any action . . . It simply moves the friction from sharing onto the activity, in the worst kind of self-censorial way."

However, the new Facebook--and more importantly the Facebook to come--do not stop at this digital panopticon. For Facebook, even that self-consciously mediated auto-sharing leaves too much to an individual who may be unwilling to share everything. Mark Zuckerberg has been vocal about his belief that "'You have one identity. . . . The days of your having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly. . . . Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity,'" and it's easy to see the new Facebook as a way implementing this belief as a kind of social/cultural law or structure of power. If an awareness of frictionless sharing leads me to mediate my online behaviour--if I make sure that I'm only sharing what projects and maintains a certain image of myself--I am, in Zuckerberg's mind, demonstrating a lack of integrity (it seems like existentialists could--and should--be going to town on this idea).** The subject of the digitial panopticon, the digital disciplinary society, still needs to be disciplined and punished for deviance. There can be a private self that attempts to escape the strictures of that disciplinary society (until that private self is, and one should read this in Delbert/Charles Grady's voice, corrected). Thus, to return to Laura June, "The changes Facebook is on the cusp of making push us over that cliff, so that you don't even need to Tweet the experience; you're just along for the ride, with other people watching as you go. The experience isn't yours, not fully."

With the new Timeline and Ticker, two services that would on the one hand catalogue and organize our lives for us according to Facebook's algorithm--one that "understands that some moments have resonance that lasts through the years. . . . that comes eerily close to emulating human memory"--and on the other hand turn our lives into a real-time record of all of our web activity, Facebook is no longer presenting itself as a representation of reality, or even a manager of reality, but rather the creator of reality--a reality fed by our ids and projections, a reality we can only accept as existing when that very existence covers over the manufactured and managed nature of its construction (were Baudrillard alive to see it, I think he might call this the perfect crime). Thus, even if I attempt to mediate my online existence, Facebook will ultimately be creating my digital identity (one that it sees as synonymous with my offline identity). My identity will be my account at Facebook, and I don't even get to choose what that identity is anymore: Facebook will do that for me. At the moment I join Facebook, I become interpellated; I am a subject of its ideology and its structures of power, and I exist only within the rules of those structures: outside of Facebook, I am nothing because Facebook cannot see that and tell me what I am.***

The new Facebook is part of a control society, not a disciplinary society, to use Deleuze's terms. In place of the organization of time and space in rigid and discrete units that characterizes a disciplinary society, the control society is made up of controls that "are inseparable variations, forming a system of variable geometry . . . controls are a modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point" (is there a better description of apps spread across the web that link back to Facebook?). Within such a system, there are no longer individuals or masses: "Individuals have become 'dividuals,' and masses, samples, data, markets, or 'banks.' . . . The disciplinary man was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network" (the button that invites one to share, that greets every web browser at the bottom of every web page [or so it seems]). Up-to-the-minute, frictionless sharing achieves the goal of the control society, knowing "the position of any element within an open environment at any given instant;" for Facebook, this is not just a physical position to be known, but a mental and a psychic one as well. In the face of this, Deleuze suggests we might "create vacuoles of noncommunication, circuit breakers, so we can elude control." What that might look like in the context of Facebook's proposed omnipresent social layer is a question of vital importance, I think. Not being on Facebook will not be enough to create these vacuoles, these circuit breakers.

There are other dangers as well. This conversion of life into a machine-curated archive for which the present and future only exist to provide materials that will be constructed into a narrative geared for maximum emotional impact--one that "takes these thousands of seemingly inconsequential events, discards the irrelevant ones, finds the most emotive, the most visual, the most striking and emotionally touching moments and pulls them into sharp focus"--is a digital end of history. As Mark Fisher points out, via T. S. Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent," in his discussion of Children of Men: "the exhaustion of the future does not even leave us with the past. . . . A culture that is merely preserved is no culture at all. . . . .A culture of commemoration is a cemetery." Or, to put it another way, Facebook can remember it for us wholesale. Facebook wants to be our Rekal, but it's even better than a fake trip to Mars: Facebook will turn our lives into the exciting, arty, sexy things we've always wanted them to be here on Earth, no memory implants required (yet?). As McClane tells Quail: "'You're not accepting second-best. The actual memory, with all its vagueness, omissions and ellipses, not to say distortions--that's second-best.'" Facebook, through its instantaneous (re)construction of the event, gives us an impossible reality we cannot but accept as the real, though a reality we can only experience in retrospect. This is the seductive promise of McClane and Rekal, Inc.: "'You can't be this; you can't actually do this. . . . But you can have been and have done. We see to that. And our fee is reasonable; no hidden charges." There is of course a difference between these two things (the impression of having done something and actually doing that thing), but Facebook might be able to overcome that gap through its control over our identity; for Joe Moon, the archive model is "a conflation of the record of the event with the event itself, or even a privileging of the record over what gives the record its meaning and power. At the same time it (ingeniously) adds to the pressure to record all meaningful events on Facebook in order to make sure it becomes part of your identity."

Zizek notes that The Truman Show (along with PKD's Time Out of Joint) is an example of "The ultimate American paranoiac fantasy . . . that of an individual living in a small, idyllic Californian city, a consumerist paradise, who suddenly starts to suspect that the world he lives in is a fake, a spectacle staged to convince him that he lived in a real world, while all people around him are effectively actors and extras in a gigantic show." There is something seductive about this fantasy, though, which elevates it beyond simply belonging to the paranoiac: it is the scenario in which one is a star whose every action is invested with significance and who thus lives in a kind of narcissistic utopia in which he or she is the most important anything in the universe. We do not all live in a small, idyllic Californian city, though, so this fantasy can only ever remain just that.  However, consider the pitch made to Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in Total Recall (the film adaptation of "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale"). The seductive promise offered by the new Facebook might be said to be the fulfillment of the fantasy of not being ourselves. "What's the same about every experience you've ever had?" Facebook asks. When we, just like Quaid, can't answer, it tells us: "You!" Something like Facebook's new algorithm for structuring our lives and experiences offers us that fantastic self and his/her idyllic consumerist paradise life--but only, of course, in retrospect. This scarecely matters, though, as only the Facebook version of reality will count as reality. One will have been Truman, which is enough to be Truman. In a society of control that is increasingly aligned with the needs of capital--even and above the needs of capitalism--the pressure is mounting to meet those fantasies for the denizens of this society of control. In Capitalist Realism, Fisher points out that one of the major points at which capitalist realism can be challenged is through an appeal to "the desires which neoliberalism has generated but which it has been unable to satisfy." The new Facebook, it seems, could quite conveniently be set to work satisfying some of those desires, removing a key form of resistance to capitalist realism and all it entails. Deleuze's call for vacuoles of noncommunication seems ever more important in this sense.

In the face of all the potential for messianism here--some kind of Morpheus figure to offer us a pill and set everything right--it seems much more likely that we'll be Rachel without a Deckard, never knowing if there is anything behind our digital selves or not. And if there isn't, what would we do?

*This, I think, sets up the science fiction scenario that capital has been waiting for the internet to deliver for some time. Facebook, as the sole social layer of the internet (should it achieve its goal), makes deals with companies to promote their apps on Facebook. Soon, as Adrian Short points out, it makes no sense to have a traditional website anymore--the real action takes place via a company's Facebook app. Given that frictionless sharing makes it impossible for a person to hide his/her online activities (provided that they allow an app/website access to their Facebook account, which seems like it will become part of the standard terms and conditions of any web-based activity before too long. In the process, frictionless sharing will become mandatory, not optional), and given that the new Facebook algorithms seem designed to know its users better than they know themselves (in terms of organizing content according to emotional resonance, significance, etc., etc.), capital will have unprecedented access to the consumer's life and experiences. If the goal of capitalism now is to sell lifestyles not products, Facebook's services essentially package its users as lifestyles-in-waiting. The spatial aspect of this is also fascinating: will Facebook (in becoming the social layer of the internet) become the sole space on the web? Will people surf? Will there be any need to leave one's Facebook page?

**Interestingly, listening to the Spice Girls is the example given of a piece of information that one does not want to share in virtually every piece about the new Facebook. Quite what the Spice Girls did to deserve this level of opprobrium I'm not sure. While their later career was perhaps not as successful as their earlier ventures, surely their reputation as part of the "girl power" movement in the 90s--however facile it may have been--should place them above the level of shame that requires one to actively hide or lie about the act of listening to them, shouldn't it?

***This calls to mind a chilling possibility. Michael K's terrifying statement "[M]y father was Huis Norenius. My father was the list of rules on the door of the dormitory" might be equally true for users of the new Facebook: their father is Facebook (and its terms of service, and its policy toward the internet and digital personas, etc.). Yet, if Facebook becomes the new "father" for its users, does its digital nature--Facebook has never been the body of the father that could be killed--always-already render it phantasmagorical, in contrast to the symbolic father of the Law-of-the-Father? As Zizek points out, such a figure projects a "phantom-like, spectral omnipotence," unlike the symbolic father, and is "perceived as uncastratable: the more [its] actual, social, public existence is cut short, the more threatening becomes [its] elusive fantasmatic ex-istence"--Facebook has, in some ways, never had an "actual, social, public existence;" is its authority of this phantom-like, omnipotent, uncastratable type?

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