Back to Facebook

[To appear in Issue One of Magasine, “Memes”, 2012]

I closed my Facebook account for a couple of months, and the overwhelming feeling was relief. I wrote more, read random stuff on the web less, and generally enjoyed a less regulated life. My thoughts stretched further into the past and future than Facebook’s contemporaneity encourages. I missed people’s posts, for sure—oddly, perhaps especially my partner’s posts, even though she’d tell me about them over breakfast. But I also had some nice emails with people, and even enjoyed asking the previously defunct question “What have you been up to?”

I left Facebook because I was sick of it pushing my writing around. New technologies have always brought about novel ways of inscribing and archiving the material traces of life, and these can be described as writing in the broad sense. Spivak defines writing in this sense as “a position where the absence of the weaver from the web [of being] is structurally necessary.”  Platforms such as Facebook become mechanisms for condensation and distribution of experience, a hyper-connected version of the fanzine’s informality that launched my own writerly beginnings.

This shared platform for the inscription and distribution of material disrupts the historical relation between subjective interior and exterior worlds that writing held through the modern era, and messes with the concept of genre as we understand it. The French philosopher Bernard Stiegler describes  this as an extension of “grammatisation” to the affects and behaviour through user profiling and modelling in the system. In order to achieve economies of scale for capital, a market must be created through the synchronisation of modes of attention. In Marx’s terminology, a process of proletarianization, the loss of know-how is extended to the loss of ‘know-how-to-live’.

In The Law of Genre, by way of an intriguing reading of Blanchot, Derrida places genre in the feminine principle, an ineffable multiplicity that both calls forth and grounds the singular “identity” of the masculine author-figure. [Remembering that the masculine/feminine will be enacted by all sexes, differentially.] In this psychoanalytic formulation, the writer is birthed by genre, seeks to escape it, and is inevitably drawn back to it. The writer of literature does not/cannot/must not think about genre at the time of writing: that will be reserved for the diagnostic mode of reading and editing, where one asks, “what am I actually doing here?” This back and forth process, of repression and differentiation in relation to genre, is how one learns to move to what Stiegler calls the “outside of the outside”, escaping the category of the default through the development of a writing practice, readable as a style. Each written work makes a call to an audience, but one voiced in the register of genre, a register that brings about the audience and structures the relationship with the reader. Historically, these works sequentially set out a named personal archive and perhaps modify the genre in whatever smaller or larger ways that are unknowable to the author, through the adoption of works by a community of readers. The cycle of life goes on.

Within this residual logic, a platform like Facebook intervenes in the technical structure of production in unhelpful ways, through a sped-up cycle of production and feedback, punctuated by transformations of the entire Facebook genre itself. These transformations (e.g. Timeline, the ticker) do not occur through the creation of individual works in the historical mode, but through Facebook’s aggregated (privatised) reading of the collective works of its users into the social graph, the database of “people and the connections they have to everything they care about”. Facebook then makes a calculated change in the interface for the purposes of network growth and monetisation. This can perhaps be staged as the intervention of the masculine principle of rationalisation and utility in the feminine “soft law” of genre.

[This reading may or may not take on greater potential due to the empirical dominance of women on Facebook. Remembering Cixous’ discussion of L’écriture féminine in The Laugh of the Medusa: “If the New Women, arriving now, dare to create outside the theoretical, they’re called in by the cops of the Signifier, fingerprinted, remonstrated, and brought into the line of order that they are supposed to know; assigned by force of trickery to a precise place in the chain that’s always formed for the benefit of a privileged ‘signifier.’” Ironically, this is perhaps most palpable in the genre of anti-Facebook rants among men in the comment sections of major news websites whenever some story about a Facebook-related event appears: “Facebook wrecking relationships as usual”, i.e. the economy of intimacy against patriarchal law.]

From this gendered reading, Facebook finally succeeded in producing of a format for sharing intimacy in a relatively de-composed fashion. The geeky social networks of the preceding eras were based on an identifiably masculine subject with an instrumental/intentional approach to sociality: “I want to contact this person/group of people with this material, what is the best way to do it? I will use that.” When I got sick of Facebook fucking my archive around, Google+ immediately appealed as a much better way to share annotated links, one of my previous activities on Facebook. Google+ is still technically better for that and almost everything else you’d want to do, perhaps even more so because no-one is there to get in the way. Google are the poster child for the internet as tool, which is perhaps why their various forays into media have always fallen flat. Back in my misspent youth consulting for the nascent online advertising sector, I remember being baffled at the lack of interest among agency types in what Google were doing with advertising in the 90s, given its rational “effectiveness”. In retrospect, it obviously smelt like geeky direct marketing, which in agency-land was a whole other world, housed on a different floor or preferably, in a different building.  Google are perhaps like a well-meaning sexual partner who has done too much research, who would do anything you wanted as long as you specified it exactly. There is nothing mysterious about them, in fact mystery itself is a threat to this order.

Facebook does emerge from a geek culture, but where Google’s founding principle was to “organise the world’s information”, Zuckerberg’s was to stalk hot chicks, and that happily turns out to also be a lucrative proposition for him. It also accounts for Facebook’s relative skill in the economy of intimacy: the voyeur, after all, never really wants the object of their vision, for then the vision is lost. From the user side, Facebook’s basic material is the paradox of identity, the principle of self-presentation that can be undone by others, the self as a product. It is as if they took to heart Marx’s analysis of the commodity, “A commodity appears, at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties…”. Most other online platforms have not allowed these mysterious “subtleties and niceties” to circulate in an integrated way – thus I spent much of the late 1990s doing user experience design in an attempt to “humanise” these platforms through socially recognisable genres of interaction, to reduce the burden of “intentionality” for the user on commercial websites. For better and worse, Facebook could finally put you in a community that you didn’t have to keep re-deciding to join, therefore at some level they cracked the problem of capitalising on online sociality. What Myspace started within the subset of life called music fandom, Facebook took to life in general.

The double-bind of community is at the heart of my predicament with Facebook. On the one hand, I came to art to escape the banality of a real-life community organised around the values of secular-protestant capitalism. Genres of aesthetic and political production invited me to become someone else precisely due to their positioning just out of reach, their lack of determination by existing circumstances. On the other hand, within any given community of aesthetic aspiration, as feminist critique shows us, there is an inter-personal ethics of interaction that is primarily structured by the political dynamics it seeks to escape. For the last decade or so, I have oriented my thinking and writing toward these “ethics of politics”, building a community not simply out of those working toward the same professional or political goals, but with a network of individuals sharing some kind of compatible ethical spirit. This has involved a focus on the politics “behind the scenes”, reading and writing with people for sentimental reasons that relate to my own attempts to learn new ways of living, loving and learning; a practice that has been highly “unprofessional.” Facebook’s circulation of intimacy facilitates these relationships in ways that more public networks (Twitter, lists) do not. But Facebook has also confronted me with the commoditisation of that affective labour in an entirely new way, decomposing my utopian fantasies of communities of practice finding their own form.

During my break from Facebook,  I realised that while it is not the diary, archive or discussion platform I had been using it as, it can still keep me in ambient and relatively intimate colocation with many of the superb people around the world I love, in a way that no other platform really does. And if that most basic labour of human attachment is increasingly the interest of capital, it seems important for me to stick with it to find out exactly how that is happening, however irritating the constraints. But now, rather than inhabiting a Facebook practice by default as I did for the first five years, I hope to approach it more experimentally, to affirm and intensify the currents it sets in motion, rather than trying to bend it to my will in my usual old man style. Back to Facebook, then.