Selfie w/ Reflecting Lamp, an ode to the great Escher.
Selfie w/ Reflecting Lamp, an ode to the great Escher.
Sometimes I fantasize about kicking the Facebook habit. It alters mind and behavior, I have no doubt. But how? Why? Can it be contained or controlled?
Sometimes I want to shove away this digital decadence in disgust, proclaim a return to the new asceticism: the analog life (LOL ya rite!!!) Maybe I’ll start a band called Rage Against The Facebook.
What I’m really interested in is pulling apart the psychology of having and maintaining a social media profile. Specifically one on Facebook because it’s so all-encompassing. I’m hoping that over the course of writing social media critiques, I’ll eventually find my way to a tempered optimism. Fingers crossed that I don’t find myself railing against what I secretly want to save myself from, a la ‘moral majority’-type politicians, Pastor Ted Haggard, etc. Anyway, my first concern has to do with identity and Facebook’s demands on our attention. Later pieces will deal with other aspects, but I want to start with this one, which I call:
‘Near-future’ literally means ‘the not-so-distant future.’ Writers and filmmakers often tell stories set in near-future worlds to make political points and create a surrounding sense of moral urgency. Whatever the impending problem in the artist’s view– global warming, war mongering, outsourcing, some creeping horror of culture decay, anything– the hope invariably is that viewers will research, rethink, and react in service of the cause.
The near-future technique must make an implicit argument: Focus on this, because this is worth your attention. The argument must be made, and made forcefully, because human attention is the most precious resource in the entire milky way galaxy (if not the entire universe, but I hope not).
With a major assist from wisely acquired artsy-sheen-provider Instagram, Facebook inverts the art of near-future. The platform directs its one billion users’ attention toward their own not-so-distant history. That is to say, their own near-past. Pics, vids, messages of last week, last month, and last year are all on continuous display just a few clicks away, reminding us where and with whom we just were. Read: who we just were.
When it comes to the argument for attention, it’s already won: It’s me, and I’m worth it. Devil’s advocate anyone?
David Foster Wallace wrote in Infinite Jest (Little, Brown, 1996), ‘We are what we walk between.’ I think I agree with that. Self-expression at any moment can be broken down into what began and what will end the journey (or journeys) we’re on. And just so do we reply to the battle hymn of HR personnel, which goes (the battle hymn): Tell me about yourself. The answer is, guaranteed, a mix of where we’ve been and where we plan to go. But crucially, the question of identity is a matter of the weight we hang on either end of the psychic balancing scale.
Do we identify more heavily with the containers holding our last endeavors and prior escapades? Or do we look to the containers of to-be-explored possibilities? Indeed with this metaphor I ask you to imagine yourself a shipping crane, and to ponder the true significance of yesterday’s cargo.
Anyway, the point is that our attention is restricted to a narrow field. Were we to attend to all–mind in overdrive considering past and future–the splayed self would stretch into an unthinking membrane. In terms of the Wallace quote, it’d be like trying to walk in opposite directions simultaneously. Gotta pick, because where we choose to focus our precious attention makes us who we are. The larger the origin looms or the future horizon magnetizes, the gravity of our journey is thus oriented. In consideration of this, Facebook and Instagram’s emphasis on reliving the near-past is problematic.
Social media spaces have today become the environments in which an astounding degree of self-expression and self-image generation takes place. This is ever truer as the internet-enabled individual gets younger.
Barring temporal lobe issues, it’s impossible that someone thumbing through photo albums or whatever social feeds would not experience waves of nostalgia. Reminiscing is a peculiar thing humans have done for millennia, it’s true, but we’ve done so sparingly until social media made photos infinitely portable, instantly and always available on all devices.
It’s seductively costless to switch on a gadget and relive last month’s meals, last year’s relationship, last weekend’s bar crawl, last professional conference, so on and so forth. How rosy those already-lived moments can be. Maybe it’s related to ‘good old days’ syndrome, a condition I just invented. But the misperception of the known past is well known, and pervasive. So grows the weight of our near-past in its mental magnitude.
This makes me ill at ease because the mountain-movers of this new topography have every incentive to push this trend to it’s limit, i.e. What The Market Will Bear. Facebook is designed for effortless content spurting, and also to be a total bitch to remove anything. How do you post a comment anywhere? Type into the comment box and press ‘return’.
How do you delete a specific comment from your archive? Whew. Here goes: Click ‘Timeline Activity.’ Click ‘Comments.’ Click to the correct year. Click to the correct month. Scroll, then click ‘More Activity’ if/as needed, repeat until comment is found. Click the tiny pencil ‘edit’ symbol. Click ‘Delete.’ Prompt: ‘Are you sure you want to delete?’ Click ‘yes’ or press return.
Holy shit. That’s not even counting scouring time for comments with date unknown. No search bar here, suckers. But hold on to your panties because something Mark Zuckerberg calls frictionless sharing is well on its way, where every very read, every view, each click and comment on any Facebook sign-on site or app can (i.e. will) be auto-broadcast to your Facebook friends. The energy to prune that overgrowth of social profile data is shocking to consider. Celebrity or not, that’ll be a job unto itself.
I might summarize what’s going on this way: the upkeep of a Facebook profile perverts an individual’s grasp of his or her own identity development, by anchoring conscious attention in the mushrooming volume of records chronicling his (or her) own near-past.
What’s wrong with that? Well, I’m want to think that if nature is constantly in flux, so self-image and self-expression should be free to move about. These are the tools by which the fleshy vehicle of our being consciously explores the world and discovers a true self in the process. When I sat in on a meditation session recently the guru spoke about happiness being tied to our own sense of whether the thoughts we have and the actions we perform are progressive rather than regressive. That is, are they in line with our goals? Do they move us toward or away from our destiny?
I know that this sure as hell would sound woo-woo to a previous me, especially the destiny bit. But it’s interesting to note that Wikipedia implements a model very like this to establish trustworthiness of editors. Over the course of entry’s evolution into its final, stable version, those editors that moved the article toward its final version score trust points. Editors who pulled it away from its final version suffer a hit to their reputation. It’s a simple matter of whether a collaborator’s efforts make the final cut or not.
When I think about that in terms of personal development, we want to be mindful of whether we are good or crappy collaborators with ourselves. If we’re moving ourselves in the direction we’ll ultimately end up. It’s a purer form of the weird political idea of voting for the most electable candidate. Instead, it’s your body politic and you’re the most special interest. Go win your future, or you know, something like that. Dwelling on the past takes time and energy away from distilling the final version of ourselves, and Facebook and like applications rack up serious excess-dwelling time. It comes from some where. We can either look toward the future or get stuck in the past, and no one has ever gotten stuck in the future, not even Marty McFly.
Getting Facebook-hooked on the past can only be an impediment to identity cultivation. In some cases, a cause for crisis. We’re burning up valuable attention resources in service of looking backward, to the detriment of the energy we’d otherwise devote to inventing the near-future, to plucking up the courage to bound toward it without craning our necks for approval. This is the point of nearly every motivational speech ever: fight valiantly against that awful tendency to debit the account named ‘where to next?’, while the frantic ‘who am I?’ account gets more credits than god at the Grammys.
What I’m getting at is simply, social media has the power to sacrifice dreams of the future for an identity crisis now.
In the good old days, dusting off a physical photo album was reserved for special occasions, holidays mainly. Also to be embarrassed in front of a significant other for parental mirth purposes. We’d all marvel at how much we’ve changed without realizing it: Wow, I’m a totally different person now! That whole developing-without-realizing thing is a matter of not worrying Who am I? all the damn time. If mid-life crisis is a sudden and hysterical onset of What have I missed out on?! then the bogus and too-chronicled pop-disorder called Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) stinks of way-too-early-onset midlife crisis.
Middle-age men mired in the aforementioned psychic calamity are known to saunter down to their local Harley-Davidson dealership and claim any wind-blown Route-66 tours rightfully theirs. Facebook aims to be the limitless Harley lot for us FOMOd-out digital natives, pacing and racking our rearward brains to answer the unanswerable: What am I missing out on right now?!
I use the state of the art
Supposed to make for better livin’
Are we better human beings
We’ve got all our wires crossed
Our tubes are all tied
And I’m strainin’ to remember
Just what it means to be alive