Doing the math on Facebook

For many people, the Cambridge Analytica revelations are the last straw, leading them to delete their Facebook accounts or at least radically scale back their participation. And I am tempted. Facebook is often annoying, and it does tend to be a timesink — in fact, I sometimes find myself just scrolling and scrolling and scrolling without really reading anything. As a late adopter, who only joined after being forced from Twitter by right-wing harassment, I missed much of what made Facebook trying for others (constant contact with relatives and long-forgotten high school friends) and have found it mostly beneficial. It has given me a chance to connect with other academics, who are much better represented than on Twitter, and it has resulted directly in speaking invitations and other opportunities. And while we would all love to Make Blogs a Thing Again, the spell is broken: blogs and blog comments simply no longer function as the free-wheeling conversation they once were, and we can’t just will that back into existence.

For me, I’m not sure my outrage about Cambridge Analytica is enough to make up for all I would potentially lose. Some form of social media presence feels like a career necessity, especially given my somewhat tenuous situation. More substantively, I don’t see any other venue that allows for the kind of open-ended discussion that happens in the best Facebook threads. I can post about Haydn or obscure points of Hebrew grammar, and a lengthy thread will spring up that rivals the very best threads that I ever saw in the golden age of blogging. What am I gaining by quitting Facebook that would make up for that?

More broadly — and realizing that this can sound like a cop-out — I’m always skeptical of demands for me to change my personal behavior to solve systemic problems. People have come to expect the forms of connection social media makes possible, and simply demanding that they give it up without offering anything to replace it (or, even worse, making moralistic appeals to “get off your phone and participate in real life” or whatever) doesn’t seem like much of a solution.

The core problem is the ad-driven, click-counting model of the internet. Realistically, someone probably needs to create a range of competing alternatives that are not “free” and hence not ad-driven, which will then realign the incentives and give users a more direct way to influence corporate behavior. One reason Apple is marginally better on privacy than most tech companies is that they are primarily selling hardware, so you are not “the product,” as they say. If there was a moment we all collectively sold the store, it wasn’t when we clicked on the wrong news story or took a quiz on Facebook, it’s when we let ourselves be seduced by “free.” This whole fiasco is the price of the “free” internet. Even if Facebook as an individual company dies — and I would not mind it by any means! — the “free” internet will lead inexorably to another Facebook.

On “National X Days”: An ontological investigation

The era of social media has seen a remarkable proliferation of “National Days” dedicated to particular themes. Today, for instance, I learned from Twitter that it is #NationalFriedChickenDay. I enjoy fried chicken as much as the next guy, and so I understand, to some extent, the impulse to take some time out to focus our attention on its unique virtues. Yet why should precisely today be set aside for the purpose of reflection on fried chicken, not only for a chicken-loving individual but for the entire nation?

The designation of a “National Day” certainly indicates some level of official authorization. The clear implication is that we are not dealing with a merely local phenomenon like a hypothetical “Taco Tuesday,” observed only in a particular school cafeteria, with no expectation that anyone outside the immediate community should be expected to serve, or indeed even to think about, tacos on that or any other Thursday. In the case of “Taco Tuesday,” the source of the designation is clear: either the cafeteria staff or their superiors. Yet who has the power to declare the “National Days” known to social media? The President? Congress? Much as I would like to envision them plotting out a calendar of National Days rather than plotting to abandon the poor and sick to death, I doubt that there is a presidential declaration that today is National Fried Chicken Day. Is it some kind of industry trade group? Some guy at KFC?

What is interesting to me is how incurious we are about this question of authorization. We might ask about it, but it is always rhetorical and sarcastic. Though I am a prime candidate to do so given that I am wasting my time writing this post, even I am not going to waste my time searching for the source of National Fried Chicken Day. The very fact that it is trending on social media — especially in the form of a literal hashtag, as with #NationalChickenDay — is enough to make it “a thing,” or better, a meme.

Is it “really” National Fried Chicken Day? The question makes about as much sense as asking whether Kermit drinking tea is “really” a meme. Yes, it is as real as any meme is. This is not to say there are no limits. The series of foreboding images with the caption “I would like to add you to my professional network on Linkedin” (Killer Bob from Twin Peaks, etc.) that I posted a few weeks ago is not “really” a meme, because no one else joined in. Nor would it “really” be National Ontological Investigation Day if I simply declared it to be so. It would have to reach a critical mass, sufficient for the algorithm to pick up on it and create the self-reinforcing cycle of trending.

And so when we ask who decides it’s National Fried Chicken Day, there is a sense in which we all do, insofar as we entertain the idea once it is presented to us. There is a deeper sense in which no one decides, because the “decision” on whether a given National Day has reached critical mass to be distributed further is a function of the impersonal algorithm. Coming from another angle: presumably industry trade groups and fan clubs have declared such National Days from time immemorial, so to that extent there is probably someone out there with an investment in the topic who has declared the day. Yet who decided that such days should be taken seriously, that they should at the very least be presented as fodder for our cynical social media riffs? In other words, who decided that we should be fed a serving of meaningless bullshit every day? I don’t know exactly who, but they probably are determinate individuals with names and faces that are knowable. They decided that a good way to make money would be to get us talking about #NationalFriedChickenDay, and I bet they’re millionaires.

When shame works and when it doesn’t 

A while back, I wrote an article on social media as a platform for passing judgment. Now I’m thinking about the same problem from another angle — basically, social media often feels a lot to me like my evangelical church did growing up. There’s the same attempt to micro-manage people’s emotional responses. There are declarations that if you like a certain pop culture product, there must be something deeply wrong with you. The parallels exist even down to the level of fine-grained tropes. For instance, one frequently sees declarations that caring about one thing rather than caring about another thing makes you a bad person. This echoes the structure of one of the most famous lines in contemporary evangelical preaching, coined by Tony Campolo: “A lot of your friends are going to hell, and you don’t give a shit. In fact, you probably care more that I just said the word ‘shit.'”

What unites all these tactics is the overall strategy of shaming. It may seem counterintutive to build community bonds through shaming, but really it’s genius — if the community has an inside track on what’s wrong with you, they can also plausibly claim privileged access to the solution. Wrapping up a certain standard into someone’s deep emotional responses, which sustained shaming does, installs that standard as authoritative in a very deep way.

Continue reading “When shame works and when it doesn’t “

Social media as formation

Adam is right that what we do on social media has analogies with liturgy. But it’s that analogy which highlights the problems with his broader argument about the aimlessness of those liturgical practices. Liturgy is not merely vain repetition, dead ritual. It forms us; it trains us in particular habits of body, of affect, of mind. Liturgy is social, and so it is political. That’s not to say it’s good – for every politically radical celebration of the Eucharist there’s a counter-example of liturgy functioning to maintain an instrument of kyriarchal domination – or even necessarily transformative – it can function to maintain a status quo as easily as to create a new kind of social order. But it is formative.

In some ways it’s true that, on Twitter at least, I inhabit a kind of social and political bubble. It didn’t take me long to get over the liberal desire to ensure that my timeline was a nice balance of people I agreed with and people I disagreed with: I no longer think I’m going to learn anything of value from paying attention to Tories. But it’s also true that, over the last ten years or so, my Twitter community changed me than almost any other group I belong to. It’s not just that my political views are different. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way that Twitter rites have changed my affective response to the world around me. I no longer feel safer when I see police walking around my neighbourhood. I no longer feel sentimental and inspired by Christian anti-trafficking campaigns. And it has changed my practice: I read different books than I would have done; I teach different texts; I spend my time and my money and my energy differently.

Of course, Twitter didn’t have to change me, at least not as much as it has. I probably could  have joined a more familiar kind of community there, one where I already knew the appropriate words and movements by rote. But the problem isn’t routine as such. If there’s anything my charismatic evangelical upbringing taught me it’s that when you try to reject liturgy in the name of constant, personal and original engagement, what you tend to end up with isn’t spontaneous and authentic invention, it’s just shoddy ritual. Communities develop habits over time; they produce shared practices and affective responses. What if the choice isn’t between liturgy and meaningful action in the world but between good liturgies and bad ones?

Social media as liturgy

Hegel once said, “Reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.” For most of us, the role of the morning paper has been replaced by social media. It is our go-to site for world events and more intimate news alike. For most of us, it is the first page we pull up to read over our morning coffee, and our experience of the internet is increasingly intermediated through it. We visit other sites only when social media brings them to our attention, and we then return to social media to comment on them.

This latter aspect makes social media appear very different from a traditional liturgy, but there is a ritual aspect to the kinds of comments we make and the interactions we have. Only a few naive souls genuinely hope to persuade anyone of anything — we are all preaching to our respective choirs, which means performing our membership in a particular choir for all to see. The social media space includes competing choirs, but their interactions are routinized into something like harmony, or at least a predictable call and response.

Our proclamations express our particular form of piety, praising ourselves and people like us for our wisdom (though not for our power). This praise is coupled with prayer: prayers of thanksgiving for our achievements, “prayer requests” for ourselves or for those caught up in major public events. As Ted Whalen once pointed out to me, the concrete meaning of “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is to post about it on Facebook or Twitter. It’s what we do instead of lighting a candle.

This liturgical character of social media is clearest when the general public is mourning. David Bowie was seemingly the turning point in solidifying the ritual, and when Prince followed, everyone knew exactly what to do. Public mourning is now an established ceremony, and just like a funeral in a house of worship, it trumps all other issues. Similarly, a major tragedy like the Dallas shootings dominates the atmosphere to an extent where it feels somehow disrespectful to talk about anything else. A certain type of service is going on during those times, and our own personal concerns have to take a back seat.

Mourning and tragedy bring out the “high church” element in social media. Mostly we are dealing with a very low church, however. Facebook is more formal and top-down than Twitter, though Facebook still tries to give the appearance of authentic spontaneity — not so much a high church as a megachurch atmosphere. But even the lowest church has its de facto rituals, and every morning we line up in our various competing choirs to play our small part in the endless liturgy.

For this liturgy is truly endless: both in the sense that our so-called “conversation” can never culminate in decision and action and in the sense that it has no rational end or goal aside from its own perpetuation. One could object that these sites do have a goal, namely the accumulation of capital in the form of ad revenues, but that aim seems somehow secondary or extrinsic. What they are doing, far out of proportion to any conceivable monetary payoff, is demanding our attention. And we give it to them, day in and day out.

Philip Goodchild says that piety is a form of directing attention, and if that’s the case, then we are growing more pious every day. Our worship is not directed at a creator, however, because social media only aggregates what is created elsewhere, or else what its own users create for free on its behalf. Nor is it directed at the one who will judge the living and the dead — social media’s refusal to effectively make judgments is what has let the atmosphere of harassment become so toxic. We are worshipping nothing but the very act of worship itself, world without end.

#WellActually…

There was a time, not so long ago, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was univerally beloved as an icon of science and rationality. He made the rebooted Cosmos an unlikely hit, and his take-downs of scientific ignorance on Twitter were staples of virtually everyone’s feed. Then something changed. His Twitter feed became a series of exercises in #WellActually-ism, as he took it upon himself to take down views that no one held. #WellActually, New Years Day has no astrological significance — take that, person who… held that view, if you exist. #WellActually, the Earth doesn’t leap at all during Leap Year — apparently this is supposed to be a common misconception, rather than an idea that had literally never occurred to anyone. And now, the very worst depths of #WellActually: you don’t oppose Trump, you oppose his supporters — see, because you don’t want them to vote for… um, well, Trump. Zing!

This sad tale should be a warning to every academic who is tempted by the siren-song of Twitter. There’s something about the drive to constantly craft witty, counter-intuitive aperçus that is obviously corrosive to the mind. Inevitably one reaches the level of self-parody. Thankfully for Tyson, his self-parodic version is merely smug and too-clever-by-half. There are worse “worst selves” out there, such as the racist demagogue that Dawkins’ self-parody version turned out to be.

In retrospect, I can admit that I was reaching that level with the tweets that got me in trouble last year — too quick to opine, too cynically “knowing,” too self-indulgently sarcastic, too entitled in my assumption that everyone was somehow “in on the joke.” In retrospect, it may have been an unintentional act of mercy for the right-wing hordes to drive me away from Twitter, at least as a frequent improvisational tweet-crafter (I do like to retweet funny things and respond to friends’ tweets now and again).

The sad part is that I still feel a certain pride in my Twitter virtuosity. I look at Tyson’s decline and think: I could do better than that. But the end result would be the same — compulsively returning to the same tired formulas, gradually alienating more and more people. When my paranoia about fresh waves of harrassment drives me to search for my own name, it’s clear that there are people who are just vaguely annoyed at me, who use me as a byword for smugness or arrogance. It’s yet another way in which being good at Twitter produces only bad results. The better you are at crafting tweets, the more you get retweeted and the more people get sick of you. The more “exposure” you get, the more exposed you are to harrassment.

Twitter eats through the talent and reputation of its most dedicated users. Even more than Facebook, I think, it’s a “user” — and so it makes sense that the quintessential Twitter user turns out to be none other than Donald Trump, whose apparently unlimited supply of contempt and resentment renders him immune to the platform’s corrosive effects, which only make him even stronger. He thrives on the “hate retweet,” the “get a load of this guy.” Trump is the truth of Twitter.

Three thoughts on not having a Facebook account

Now that an anti-Facebook backlash seems to be gathering momentum, I feel increasingly vindicated that I’m one of those lucky few who never signed up in the first place. I will never be able to capture my objections to Facebook with the Adornoesque rigor of Rob Horning, but I would like to put three semi-related points forward:

  1. The last thing I need is another thing to “check” constantly. I know I’m basically an internet addict, and my initial reason for not signing up was precisely that people were finding Facebook so engrossing. I’m sure I would have enjoyed it, at least at first, but I also know that it would have crowded out things that are more important to me — or at least made me less attentive and focused while doing them. So to this extent, my initial choice not to sign up was driven by my recognition of personal weakness rather than by any overarching principle. BUT:
  2. I want to have control over how I present myself. It seems like every two weeks there’s a story about Facebook arbitrarily revealing things you thought were private, etc. This possibility always disturbed me. I am probably an over-sharer in many contexts, but at least when it comes to blogging and Twitter, it’s pretty clear what’s out there or not and how to keep things from getting out there — I’m not going to wake up one morning and find out that WordPress has arbitrarily published all my drafts, for example.
  3. I don’t want to be continually reminded of my past. Some relationships are for a certain time, and then it’s okay for them to drift away. I’m grateful for the friends I had in high school and college, and I’ve kept in contact with the ones I wanted to keep in contact with. I can understand the desire to see what people are up to, but it seems like many accounts of Facebook arguments, etc., are a product of putting people back together who don’t belong together anymore — so that all it produces is needless friction. This is compounded by the fact that I was largely miserable between elementary school and grad school. I’m sure everyone has turned out to be a wonderful person and I’m so happy for all of them — but my mental health is largely premised on not thinking about past eras of my life all the time.

I’ve been told that Facebook is a great way to do marketing and to get to know other academics — i.e., it can be future-oriented — but the concerns I list above incline me to just wait until it inevitably flops and we all move on to the next thing.