Facebook Society. Does it Matter?

The following is an excerpt from Roberto Simanowski’s recent book, Facebook Society: Losing Ourselves in Sharing Ourselvesfrom Columbia University Press and translated by Susan H. Gillespie.

I’m so sick and tired of it! The hoary old complaints about how spoiled the younger generation is today. The decline of culture. Moral decadence. The alienation of human beings. The technological takeover of communication. Narcissistic flaunting of the self. Restlessness combined with apathy. Arthritis of the thumb and neck. I really don’t care. Do U?

What was it like, 20 or 30 years ago, when they were sitting on the subway or in the waiting room, buried in their books, in another world, as if no one around them existed? Those addicted time managers who even read standing up. Even while they are walking. Like the student in a French film about university life who is walking down the street engrossed in a book and sinks up to his knees in a pond. That was amusing. For it inspired sympathy when students, in trying to understand the world, completely forgot the world around them.

In real life, all that readerly zeal felt more like a kind of pressure. As if it would be a waste of time to be looking around at one’s surroundings in the bus station or staring out the train window and chatting with the passenger in the next seat, or being open, at the café, to whatever might come next, always holding their books between themselves and the world, as if they didn’t have a minute to lose. And today those same readers complain that young people don’t see the world around them!

Yes, admittedly, it can be uncanny to see everyone around us lost in their devices. You could pick your nose, make hideous faces, or murder someone in full public view without anyone noticing. On the other hand, how lost one could feel, staring straight ahead on the bus. How depressing, listening to the idle talk of colleagues over lunch. How menacing, the silence of the married couple in the restaurant. Instead of curvature of the spine, we should be talking about the happy faces that the smartphone is producing every day, shining eyes all over the world — the elated eight-year-old sending a selfie to his friend on his mother’s cell phone, the happy taxi driver getting a WhatsApp message while stalled in a traffic jam. Even the elderly wax enthusiastic when their grandchildren appear on Skype. And what is more beautiful than a young woman looking contentedly at her smartphone? The sex appeal of a person who knows what she wants and doesn’t have a moment to lose? How much more compelling she is than a student up to his knees in a pond!

Why, then, the outcry? Why from the very same people who did the very same thing with the iPhone’s prototype, the paperback? How small-minded to insist that there at least be something educational on the device, not just Facebook or Candy Crush. How dishonest to grant approval only of focused reading of “worthwhile” texts? The fear of technology comes paired with cultural conceit — unconsciously coupled with the mad hope that after you die life will have lost all its attractiveness anyhow. It is not even clear why a serious book should still be preferred to distraction. All the criticism of young people and new media is based on an understanding of the world that was already obsolete decades ago. One that still places its bets on critique and the future instead of the present, the right now. Let them complain all they want about spoiled young people and cultural decline; let them insist that their rock ‘n roll was better rock ‘n roll; let them rant that their youth was the best decade — I cannot and will not hear any more of it.

So much for the understandable millennial rant. Meanwhile, it is ubiquitous: passersby who stare into their phones the way their grandparentsonce stared at books. Resistance — defiantly (head back, eyes rolled heavenward) blocking the path of pedestrians who think they can make it across crowded intersections using only “ambient attention” — seems helplessly aggressive. They simply avoid you without looking up. The only possible responseis to turn it into a kind of game: Who will be the first to see an unbroken row of ten hunched-over, phone-absorbed passengers in the subway car?

What is it that bothers us (if it does bother us) when we see everyone immersed in their devices? What are we missing when they ignore us? Are we disappointed that they so brutally avoid an encounter with us? Are we concerned that they are running away from themselves? Why do we think differently about the student in the pond than we do about the smartphoners in the street? Is the value we ascribe to the obsession with media dependent on the number of people who succumb to it? On the type of medium and its contents? On the social model of its marketers? Historians of media know that almost every new medium was met with skepticism and disapproval from older generations. The complaint about the cultural decline of the young predates the Christian era. Yet everyone who has ever given a smartphone to a parent also knows how enthusiastic one can be, even as a skeptic, talking about new technology. How one really feels is anything but clear.

Thus, more educated among new media’s detractors try to hedge their bets, resist the impulse to condemn it too quickly. There are so many obvious criticisms: capitalizing on emotions, commercializing communication, self-marketing and self-surveillance, training in narcissism and banality, time wasting… It is not as if these criticisms were wrong in principle. But we need to reflect on the arguments that support them. The reproach of time wasting, for example, only makes sense if there is a normative concept of time utilization, as there was at the height of the Enlightenment, when it was written: “Reading merely to pass the time is immoral, for every minute of our lives is filled up with duties that we may not neglect without besmirching ourselves.” What sorts of duties fill up our lives today? Is there still a sociopolitical goal for which we ought to be putting ourselves on the line every day and every hour? Does the Enlightenment’s famous Sapere aude! — possibly rendered in today’s terms as Fuck Authority! — still call us to continuous self-perfection? Is political and ideological communication really better than the banal and commercial kind?

The value ascribed to the cultural forms that come along with new media is inevitably politically determined, but it is also determined by a person’s philosophy of history and — no less important — is generationally specific. Teenagers talk about Facebook differently than retirees, just as they think about consumer culture differently than critical theorists. When we look at the present, we find a decreasing willingness to feel unhappy under circumstances that, from the perspective of critical theory, are catastrophic: a culture of consumerism, loss of the private sphere, alienation of the subject, environmental destruction, social ills, world-political tensions, rampant authoritarianism… The trend toward acquiescence receives philosophical support from the self-help industry’s calls for positive thinking, affirmative emotions, and a childlike embrace of the world. Even the restrained pleasure of a selfie is enough to neutralize the impulse to oppose the status quo, as critical theory aims to do. Society as it exists is far more popular than its critics like or admit, and the same is true of new media too.

One of the main points of contact for all the smartphone users who people our urban landscapes is Facebook. Here, too, the critical values (or lack of them) assigned to such problematic areas as advertising, privacy, and banality are indicative of an individual’s attitude toward society as a whole. And here as well, too hasty criticism only obstructs the view of underlying problems.

For Charles Taylor, the philosopher and political scientist, a given culture, no matter how odd its views and practices may seem to observers who hold different values, is legitimated by the simple fact of its existence over a long period of time. The cultural values represented by Facebook (self-representation, transparency, interaction) are relatively young, but they undoubtedly enjoy broad acceptance. It may be too early to accord Facebook the legitimacy of long duration, but it is time to ask questions that are not satisfied by all the usual answers. The question is not by what dishonest means and for which impure purposes does Facebook persuade its users to publicize their private lives? The question is rather in what does the charm of this disclosure consist?

To understand Facebook, it is necessary to look beyond Facebook. We need to understand it as the answer to a problem that perturbs the (post)modern subject more or less consciously, as the symptom of a cultural evolution (or devolution) that should be thought through the lens of a philosophy of history and not be too quickly reduced to scenarios of political oppression or economic exploitation. The political-economic consequences of the Facebook system lie deeper. Through the accumulation and analysis of personal data Facebook generates knowledge as a tool of domination; it advances the process of commercialization. Through its invitation to post about yourself — preferably pictures — rather than reflecting, it produces precisely the subjects who are no longer dismayed by this process. It follows the trend of affirmative social relations, which it simultaneously promotes. Facebook is as popular as it is because it makes it possible to love the society we have.

The way it achieves this result needs particular attention from a combination of psychological, narrative, and political perspectives. The issues to be discussed, the theoretical frameworks to be used, the historical references to be made within these perspectives would need more space than this essay allows. What can be said here is this:

The typical explanation for obsessive sharing on social networks is our addiction to positive feedback, represented by “likes” and “shares.” A deeper take is Douglas Rushkoff’s notion of “present shock,” though read against the grain with Giorgio Agamben, who has said: “Standing face to face with one of the great wonders of the world (let us say the patio de los leones in the Alhambra), the overwhelming majority of people have no wish to experience it, preferring instead that the camera should.” Agamben refers to Benjamin’s reflections on the loss of longer-term experience (Erfahrung) and its replacement by merely incidental lived experiences (Erlebnisse) in the essay “Experience and Poverty.” For Benjamin, the problem of experience was solved by the souvenir brought home from the scene of the event, a respectable form of liberation from experience. Agamben’s photographs become an expanded form of “respectability.” But a machine is no adequate addressee for outsourcing perception, unlike the real people on social networks. Behind the narcissism of restless Facebook users is the fear of their own experience, which is delegated to the network community through communication of the given moment. The permanent talk about oneself on social media is flight from the events occurring in a person’s life; we are exhibitionistic not because we are narcissists but because we cannot bear our lives in the present. Sharing on Facebook should be understood as a stopgap; it gives us a decent option for delegating our own experiences to others. It is the perfect solution to an anthropological problem that was phrased by Blaise Pascal as early as the middle of the 17th century: “all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.”

As for the narrative perspective, self-representation on Facebook does not happen in a way that is narratively reflective but rather as a spontaneously episodic and documentary event. Rather than a meaningful whole, combining past, present, and future, we experience our life as “point-time” only seen as a coherent line when the results of our tracking devices are translated into a graph. The outcome is a quasi-automatic autobiography whose central narrative authority is the network and its algorithms. The self-image that is presented by Facebook is pointillist, postmodern, posthuman, and numerical, the counter to the false appearance of an individually determined, coherent, and meaningful life so inherent to the genre of autobiography.

The political perspective, finally, recognizes that information management on Facebook and on the internet suppresses collective memory. The result is an important pillar in Zuckerberg’s mission to build a global community. With its lack of narrative points of reference within a framework of phatic communication, Facebook creates a quasi-cosmopolitan community that transcends local cultural values and national barriers. If this sounds absurd, think of Jean-Luc Nancy’s famous concept of a community without shared convictions, beliefs, and values, which shares only the “ecstasy of sharing.” Such “being-with” demands nothing more than a gesture of conversation that turns chatter into the central means of sustaining a being together that does not presuppose a common being. Is Facebook Nancy’s theory in practice, a promising example of “vernacular cosmopolitanism”? Is Facebook the space in which we — as members of a virtual community without any binding foundation — experience ourselves more as human beings than as citizens? Where it is precisely the postings drawn from concrete life that point toward the abstract humanness of the communication partners? Where politics take a back seat to a “being with” and “being next to” that has no meaning?

We become aware that this is not always the case when the exchange of banalities is disrupted, now and again, by conflict between different political or religious viewpoints and when the busy quiescence of general indifference gives way to a completely unironic, often self-righteous, not infrequently aggressive style of discussion. Such moments reveal the opportunism of phatic communication, which achieves the utopia of common understanding only by excluding everything that is in danger of drawing boundaries. The avoidance of discursive interaction prevents the development of skeptical, metareflexive thought as a long-term defense against the outbreak of new “truths” whenever the flight into hyperactive distraction no longer succeeds.

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