Matthew J.X. Doyle

Facebook


ISSUE 29 | FACES AND MASKS | JUN 2013

Founded in 2004, ________’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected. People use ________ to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what’s going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.

It isn’t just how my face looks that changes with time. Have you ever tried to feel your face with your eyes closed in the dark? When I’m about to go to sleep, lying in bed at night, I sometimes try to feel my face from the inside without using my hands. It feels like a field floating under my skin. When it’s dark, it feels like my eyes are seeing and feeling the darkness inside of my nose, my lips, my cheeks. That presence only lasts for as long as I’m focused on it. Otherwise it slips away, and I’m left only thinking about it. The face I wear accumulates and sheds meaning just as readily as my own internal sense fluctuates in response to my awareness.

. . .

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time using my computer: editing videos, writing, checking my email, following the two or three blogs I keep up with, and using Facebook. I don’t use OKCupid, Tumblr, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Vine, LinkedIn, Yelp! or Snapchat (to name a few other current, popular social media platforms), but I probably spend two or three hours a day on Facebook. I check my notifications and messages often, and I scroll up and down my feed it for about 2-3 minutes every fifteen minutes to half hour. I look at other people’s profiles, what they’ve posted on their walls, and sometimes browse through all the pictures they’re tagged in. Occasionally, I’ll post a link to some event or thing that I’m interested in, a photo I’ve taken, or a project I’m involved with.

You don’t have to pay to use Facebook. It’s free because of advertising, like basic cable. Most Internet users pay a monthly fee for access, but due to the rapidly multiplying open-access or unprotected Wi-Fi hotspots in urban centers, the Internet is now effectively a free service for laptop users. Facebook was created in 2004 by a Harvard dropout who moved to San Francisco. Within one year, Facebook had 1.5 million users, and within three years it had an estimated value of 15 billion dollars.

Some criticize social media platforms for their near-universal dependence on venture capital, which Facebook was heavily reliant on for the 8 years leading up to their IPO. Since Facebook is generating value for its investors, so the argument goes, it should also be giving something back to its users. This fact rings particularly true when you consider that your clicks, scrolls, and time spent on Facebook create data that Facebook sells to advertisers. You are performing free labor for Facebook to sell more, better designed ads.

But it’s important to remember that Facebook is just one of many historical forms of self- representational media that serve to inscribe individuals in economic systems. There was a significant shift between the hero portraiture of ancient numismatics and the feudal insignia of the middle ages. With the birth of the spiritual, rational individual in the Renaissance, there developed a new poetics of portraiture, in which the exaggeration of certain qualities functioned as an index of, among other things, the relationship between artist and patron. The world we live in today may be more open and communal than it was in previous eras, but Facebook is hardly a progressive force. Simulating social, humanistic and democratic goals, the company aims only to extend its reach while reproducing the conditions of its profitability. Our self-portraits are simultaneously amorphous impressions of ourselves and extensions of our behaviors and actions: the cloud’s ambient inscription in which our debt to the system is public and private, semio-capital.

. . .

In 1973, Richard Serra made a single channel video called “Television Delivers People.” The six minute video consists of white text (“Television delivers people to advertisers. You are the product of television.”) scrolling against a neutral blue background, set to elevator music. The message of the piece is unambiguous. Television networks operate using money from advertisers. Thus, the interests of advertisers determine the content of television, not the writers and directors of soap operas and sitcoms. The television shows you watch are paid for by your time spent as a spectator of advertisements. You are the product of television.

Strikingly reminiscent of Facebook’s color scheme, the cathode ray blue and white of Serra’s piece is a surprising contrast to the steel and lead of his imposing freestanding sculptures. Instead, the blue of Serra’s video threatens in its overbearing safety and neutrality. It’s not dark enough to be Yves Klein’s blue, the blue of the void. It’s the blue of bottled calm, the consensus of American Democracy, Wal-Mart and Jeopardy. It’s the apotheosis of artificial light.

. . .

Using Facebook was never what I’d call a conscious lifestyle choice, so sometimes my participation can feel coerced or mandatory. Self-loathing Facebook users usually say they want to delete their Facebook accounts but don’t because having one helps them stay in touch with people they wouldn’t be in touch with otherwise. People from your deep past suddenly re- materialize and become part of your collection. Because most users use their proper names, it’s easy to reconnect with, say, your long-lost high school sweetheart. They’re all easy to find!

I know a lot of people who use Facebook, but I know very little about how they use it: the way their mouse clicks reflect their desires, their eyes flickering across the screen; what they look at, what they don’t look at, what they choose to post, what they choose not to post. I remember once ending up isolated at a party with someone I had just met. She showed me the Facebook page of her ex-boyfriend, who was still her closest friend. I watched her as she narrated his life, clicking and scrolling through every image of him. From the haphazard assortment of life-fragments comprising his profile and photos, she somehow managed to assemble a coherent story about him and their relationship. Her experience of Facebook at that moment was both absolutely familiar and something intensely private. Its focus was screened from me, something I had no direct access to.

Of course, other types of media also invite intense, private experiences. Books often present themselves as artifacts of and for solitude. Even the most academic texts constitute themselves by reference to a more or less hermetic sphere of relevance. Facebook, by contrast, was developed for the sole purpose of simulating and enhancing a particular aspect of the enlightened academy: undergraduate social-life—more specifically, the freshman year experience. These days, a diploma from an undergraduate institution is far less important than the connections you make and the people you “friend.” The intense solitude of the written word has given way to a complex interplay of word and image illuminated from within by the glow of a computer screen. Have you ever tried to read a book in the dark?

I used to stalk people on Facebook more frequently. I remember when I would become “friends” with someone I just met out at a party or opening or whatever, I would almost automatically go to their photographs and scroll through from the oldest to the most recent. If I was especially fixated, I’d go through their wall posts too. And I’d almost inevitably end up back at my own. It’s a way of comparing, of imagining what they would see if they paid me the attention I was paying them. This kind of surveillance is necessarily self-surveillance, where simple desire turns into a kind of infinite fascination through the digital mediation of self and other.

. . .

Brad Troemel and Artie Vierkant draw attention to what they call (following Hegel) Facebook’s “bad infinity.” Because each of our data-filters is increasingly personalized (Facebook suggests who you should friend based on your pre-existent friends, friends-of-friends, etc., in the same way that Google provides search results based on search history), the horizons of cyberspace gradually constrict into an inescapable self-similar black hole. Filter sites like Facebook restrict our movement and delimit our perspective on the web, overpowering our originally nomadic tendencies and drawing us towards the singularity that lies beyond the event horizon of a handful of internet portals.

Facebook also lets you “like” particular pages, which are different from individuals’ profiles. Anyone can create a page for anything, so Facebook has gradually become a catalog of practically everything that it is possible for someone to like: Coca-Cola, Žižek, New York City, Avatar, Nirvana, My personal favorite is the Solo Jazz wax paper cup, a staple around office water coolers everywhere. What I’ve always found strange about “liking” the page of a dead philosopher is how contrary it is to actually befriending the philosopher and vivifying his or her thought—that is, engaging in dialogue with them instead of relegating them to the graveyard of taste. But just as the logic of the “like” turns people into objects, it also animates things like the Solo Cup, situating them within a networked ontology. The Solo Cup exists only as long as we maintain, ironically perhaps, the history of these representations, collectively writing and maintaining their significance.

. . .

Is there any way to use Facebook subversively? Some users invent pseudonymous personae in order to be able to stalk others without being recognized—a rather perverse (but hardly subversive) habit. Others use it in wholly idiosyncratic ways, like my friend who only posts obituaries from the New York Times. It seems to me that a genuinely subversive use of Facebook would have to involve defying one of its structural presuppositions, like the singularity of the user/subject. Some use it as a channel to create a decentralized or plural subject—giving log-in information to multiple people—perhaps scrambling the algorithmic data that governs Facebook’s revenue.

In November of 2011 I started working on a novel called Facebook. This was the first paragraph:

The first picture is of two people ice skating. There are Christmas lights hanging from a tree in the background, but, since the tree isn’t well lit, the lights look as though they are scattered or draped on the darkness in the upper right corner of the frame. Directly below the canopy of Christmas-light draped trees, there is snow lit red by the lamplight’s glimmer that extends to the left and right of the photograph’s frame. The camera’s flash illuminates the two figures and the scratched ice at their feet, as well as a low wall about ten feet away from them. Behind the wall there is a pile of grey-white snow, beyond the pile of snow there is more, dirtier, brownish snow, though this may just be an effect of the light. On the left is a girl with an olive green 3/4 length jacket on, tight black jeans with the ankles rolled up and red ice skates. She has short hair, and she has turned her neck to stick her tongue out at the camera, in a defiant facial contortion. The other figure is not facing the camera, but looks slightly more masculine. He is wearing a mustard green knit cap, a darker olive green jacket, and black jeans. His feet are obscured in the photograph, but it looks like one of his ankle cuffs may be rolled up as well. Around their feet, the ice is scuffed and marked by the contact of skates, forming a sort of drawing or map of the ways in which countless others, or perhaps just the two of them, have traced endless routes about the ice. In the background, beyond the rink’s low wall, a dark figure walks towards the left side of the frame. The three human figures in the picture form a receding axis; if one were to draw a line through them, it would recede at approximately a 26º angle from the center of the boy’s jacket off towards the reddened snow in the background, and at an oblique angle intersecting this axis there are two bright yellow lights on lampposts that look like floating jack-o-lanterns with translucent skin.

The conceit of the novel was to describe—objectively—every self-portrait that had appeared in connection to my Facebook identity: photos I was tagged in, profile photos, photo albums I had created. I had deleted my account a year earlier, and I created a new one, a tabula rasa, just as I began writing up the old photos. The novel (which is as yet unfinished) is an attempt to arrest Facebook’s domination, or impersonation, of my identity. At first I simply tried to uncover and re-appropriate the objective reality of each image by obsessively describing their smallest details. I soon discovered, however, that the most meticulously described face is virtually impossible to visualize. The limits of realism are located where objective reality itself is suspect. In the era of hyperreality, where simulacrum reigns supreme, the “real” is verified only in its hallucinatory resemblance to itself, seen in double vision: as representation and reality simultaneously. When this kind of description becomes a fiction’s only narrative, the text becomes unstable, and objectivity becomes surrealism.