Uncategorized | September 27, 2011

I like it

Towards the end of her article on The Social Network and Facebook in general, Zadie Smith says that for those existing in our current historical/social/cultural time, “not being liked is as bad as it gets.” Now, Zadie Smith is both a better writer than me and a smarter person. But I do wonder if it’s the fear of not being liked (and the desire to be liked) that made Facebook such a behemoth. Because it seems to me that Facebook’s great accomplishment has been in providing people with a forum in which they can attempt–several times a day, if they so wish–to be understood by all the people they deem fit to desire understanding from. And the format they have devised, which allows people to constantly edit and analyze and seek feedback from others and continually devise an online personality for themselves that is preferable to the real-life one. Which seems more elemental than a desire to just be liked.

I’m going to focus on the fact that Facebook, with its tools of status updates and “likes” and all the other changes they continually make to their website basically allows its users to try as many times as they want to post something that elicits a reaction from their “friends,” some sort of proof that “someone gets me.” Because human interaction is a constant negotiation, the price of being understood is the attempt to understand others–the most frequent users post copiously on their own profile and comment incessantly on others. And in so doing there is the fact that we are seeing something occur in real time–that is the creation of an entire personality in all its likes and dislikes and moods and quirks and minute shifts in their perception of the world. It’s trivia about people posing as a deep look into someone’s soul–and somehow becoming that. If one were to post every degree (or facet or angle) of their reaction to any cultural phenomena, personal interaction, or emotional state they are confronted with, the viewer of the profile gets the idea of a complex, rounded character that, even if they don’t like, they can understand and sympathize with. If one clicks “Older Posts” ad infinitum on a heavy user’s profile, it is possible to understand the changes in that person’s mind at the smallest level. And for someone like me, someone who’s very strict about what they put up on Facebook (nothing personal, no intimation of personal sadness or happiness) there’s always someone else to look at and study and gawk over. There are people I barely know in person but whose likes, dislikes, relationship ups-and-downs I am intimately aware of.

Now, I don’t want to write a polemic about the disappearance of that blurry line between personal and private space, so I won’t. I actually find it fascinating. Off hand I can think of three people whose Facebook profiles have drawn up for me the idea of a “whole person,” the understanding of whom is as close as I can get to understanding a person intimately. More than Leopold Bloom or Holden Caulfield or even Hamlet (and I took a semester long class on the Prince of Denmark). It’s an astonishing thing for a fiction writer to stumble across–a fully realized three-dimensional person who has created themselves very thoughtfully, and who has the whiff of authenticity. And this is despite the fact that the profile is a fictional device: even if we were to write down every one of our thoughts, it is still a performance for others. There is judicious editing involved even for those who post thirty status updates a day–but it more closely approaches the end goal of fiction: to present something on the page that is as “real” as a real person, because it is.

Evil Mage

So why am I writing about it? Well, for two reasons really. The first is that Zuckerberg is an evil mage who is making enormous profit from our deepest desire–  that we can be understood and that we are being understood. It’s a reversal of the powerlessness that the post-modernists found so much use for in explaining late 20th century life. Facebook allows us to think we have that control: we can decide what people think of us. It is even more potent when we perform that control subconsciously–by drowning the reader in minutiae we let them make their own decisions about us but are controlling their perception to some extent. We decide what minutiae, what pictures, what posts which people see. And for every whiny, self-serving post we force our friends to read, we can put up something happy and life-affirming. Voila! No longer are we being reduced to a one sentence caricature– Bob the guy who threw up at last year’s Christmas party, Ellen the girl who ate three tubs of ice-cream when her boyfriend dumped her. We are now everything we’ve ever done and for those people who weren’t there but still know us, well we can still tell them, but on our own terms and in completeness. Facebook allows us to think that we can no longer be reduced to mere judgment of one bad night or one rude interaction–we are a whole, complete, fully realized being, and (isn’t it great!) other people can see that too. We are free of reduction, at long last! We are the ultimate dream of every struggling writer staring at a blank screen in their mother’s basement.

Earnest Mage

How does this pertain to writing? Well, it does. Because, despite being an evil mage, Zuckerberg is not the first person to realize that we want to carve out our own space in the world, and the fear that we might not has led to those giant, trivia-driven postmodern novels that poor James Wood hates so very much. Of course, despite being a bit of a bad-ass, Wood misses out on the reason DFW and Zadie Smith and all the others write these ginormous novels–they are as perturbed as anybody about the fact that individuals are reduced to bits of trivia, but they want to represent both the impersonal system we exist in and the individual’s response to, and defense mechanism against it. Their attempt takes form in endless novels in which no detail is too small–perhaps we, the reader, can pick up some needle of meaning amidst the haystack of their details. Sadly, however, they are both human (though I have my doubts given the seemingly enormous sizes of their brains), and it is nearly impossible to cram enough into a novel , even if you make it 1,200 pages long. Here’s where Zuckerberg steps in: he provides the unlimited canvas of the social network and lets individuals paint themselves into it and show all their feelings, all their emotions, all the ways in which we can approach understanding them. It’s brilliant. And it sort of makes the idea of writing fiction even harder: how are we supposed to represent the reality of human beings when an enormous section of it (800 million users is a significant chunk of the human population) is already documenting their reality on a minute by minute basis, and how are we supposed to do it any better or in a more convincing way? And if we can, is it still real? Or is there a Facebook novel out there–one that brings together a million personal experiences full of tiny details and somehow transcends it into becoming a complex view of a whole society and species while keeping the constituent parts as its building blocks? And can those millions of bits of trivia somehow cohere into a thoughtful, full narrative, is there any way to represent that within the bound pages of a book? And how do individual novelists or writers represent that hysterical reality without lapsing into hysterical realism themselves?