Taking the facebook Pledge; or, The Allegory of the facebook Cave

I decided again to leave facebookland. I’m back on the facebook wagon. I spent too much time driving around in circles, and my time on facebook was beginning to feel like living on a freeway, not free, and only two ways, on and off, and I had to keep up with the traffic, stay out of the way of semi-posts, watch out for falling photos. True, the sky was blue, the windows down, the radio on, everyone waving to one another: life is good in facebookland.

I also ditched twitter, which had come to feel like reading in a nest of mosquitoes. When I left facebookland, I was detained by lures of questions asking why I was leaving, and I was distracted by messages claiming that my friends would miss me, specific friends: Jack will miss you; Jill will miss you. Twitter has a slightly different guilt driven, exit poll strategy: I was advised that I may never come back using the same name and address. It’s like going home again: you can go back home, but only as a different person. You may re-enter the facebook highway anytime you want; your friends may not even know you got off. If, when you exited, you de-friended them, that’s problematic, since they may not re-befriend you, but they’ll probably be happy to have you back, and say something like, I thought we were already friends.

Facebook has features I never used, like the real time chat, which must feel something like an electronic cocktail party rather than an endless freeway commute. It’s not facebook’s fault, my leaving. Facebook is a clean, well-lighted place that never closes, even if it is a cave. There is no night in facebookland; the sun never sets. Part of the reason I found myself soaking up more and more facebook light recently is my new laptop, a refurbished MacBook Pro I bought a couple of months ago. It’s a hovercraft. I love the way the keyboard lights up in the dark. The design is perfect, like a well-fitted, classical guitar. No viruses. As intuitive as a bicycle. It goes everywhere my backpack goes.

But the primary reason I left facebookland are the writing and reading projects I have going. There’s no pursuit more pleasurable and rewarding than reading and writing. Not that I’ll ever finish any of these projects (can one finish a blog? one might end it, but that’s not the same as finishing it), but that’s of no consequence, whether I finish a writing project or not. Abandoning a writing project is an experience very close to finishing one, though perhaps not as satisfying. One abandons books, occasionally, as ill-suited, poor fits, bad choices. Just so, one abandons one’s own writing projects. Perhaps we were not ready for them, the writing or the books we gradually let go of, until one day, they were simply gone, like past friends. One must read and write every day, without interruption, just as one must pick up the guitar every day, or the brushes or sticks, or the golf club, or the fishing pole, or the shovel or rake, or the hammer, or the ball and glove, or the pool cue, or the surfboard. And whatever distracts from these purposes, these pursuits, must be put away.

Perhaps facebook is a kind of reading and writing, some new electronic sub-genre, like texting, videos, and other sound bites. But at least facebook is what it purports to be, a social media, driven by advertising dollars, purposed to persuade users to continue, to keep on, to stay in. Facebook is a new rhetoric, a new art of persuasion. Here is facebook’s mission statement: “Facebook’s mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Does the world want to be more open and connected? Apparently so, given the number of facebook users. But what does open mean? How does one measure more? And connected to what? “Open Sesame” gets you into the cave of the thieves, but you don’t want to forget the magic words that unseal the cave so you can get back out. Those magic words might be “Deactivate Account.” Or we are back in Plato’s cave, and though it appears we are looking directly into the light, what we see on the wall of the facebook cave may not be reality, but shadows of advertisements passing before the fire of commerce that burns behind our backs.

Increasingly, we seem to live in two worlds, “in twosome twiminds,” as Joyce said, the electronics of visual perception (the charge of the light brigade, for Joyce, was the coming of television), and the philosophy of acoustics, and we are drowning in doubt.

Note: Meaghan Morris, “Chair Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney,” published a scholarly article titled “Grizzling About Facebook” in the November, 2009 issue of the Australian Humanities Review. The article is not what you might expect. For one thing, Meaghan resists the old journalist codger who would “urge me to spend more time off-line (‘making new friends and maintaining old friendships’) for the sheer good of my soul is a grizzle from those fairies at the bottom of the garden” (para. 9). Yet she acknowledges that facebookland does indeed have its back alleys and unlit corridors:  “I certainly do not mean to suggest that all criticism of Facebook is grizzling. Serious legal, ethical and political issues are arising from or being intensified by the ‘Facebook’ phenomenon (to use a typifying metonym myself), in the process sharpening some of the challenging debates of our time; free speech and its limits, censorship, the right to privacy, the negotiation of social protocols for a transnational economy that thrives on difference as well as inequality, the relations between semiotic and other modes of violence, tensions between legal, communal and performative models of identity, the foundations of community, the power of corporations in our personal lives, and the technological transformation of work are just a few of these” (para. 10). But while recognizing the traps in facebookland, Meaghan seems to think the risks worth taking, and this is what makes her scholarly viewpoint worth listening to: “…what Facebook does well is combine: you can write private letters, play games, send gifts, do quizzes, circulate news, post notes, music and clips, share photos or research, test your knowledge, join groups and causes, make haiku-like allusions to your state of mind and chat on-line with friends, all in one place and time—restoring or relieving, according to need, the pattern of an everyday life” (para. 22), and who among us, Meaghan asks, does not value these life on the street, at work, and at home activities? I’ve mentioned Meaghan’s article in a previous post, here. Meaghan’s article is a scholarly gem.

Where The Gutenberg Galaxy Wanes While the Zuckerberg Zone Waxes: How the Founder of Facebook is Destroying the Printing Press

At 18, a grunt at Fort Bliss, in El Paso, sitting knee to knee and cheek to cheek with my peers in a latrine of 12 stools, I learned that going to the bathroom is a business, and privacy does not work for us, we work for her. We had, in 1969, at Fort Bliss, neither laptops nor cell phones, though we were allowed books, periodicals, and letters, and if someone wanted to know the status of a constipated grunt in Fort Bliss, they would be updated in a few days via an APO address, not instantly in a Facebook post.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), a mosaic of blog-like posts illustrating the effects of print technology on the human environment, Marshall McLuhan explains that the printing press is responsible for the creation of the public. The printing press, McLuhan argues, created nationalism and the divorce of science from art, made the “marginal man,” the alienated individual, one who lives outside the margins (text boundaries) of society, and print is responsible for linear thinking. McCluhan’s 310 chapters each comprise a complex claim full of what today we would call “links” to other sources. Here’s one of my favorite chapters: “254 The typographic logic created ‘the outsider,’ the alienated man, as the type of integral, that is, intuitive and irrational, man.” And another: “258 Typographic man can express but is helpless to read the configurations of print technology.”

Can we read the configurations of  Internet technology? If McLuhan was right, and print technology traded an ear for an eye in its focus on the page, rearranging our sensorium, the eye now the dominant sense, and if the book, printed in one’s vernacular, killed Latin and created privacy, then will the global village created by the Internet reverse these sensory changes and take us back to primitivism? “187 Every technology contrived and ‘outered’ by man has the power to numb human awareness during the period of its first interiorization.” And when and how will we know?

A flurry of comments on these new directions, new configurations, filled the air this week. This week’s New Yorker (September 20) contains “The Face of Facebook: Mark Zuckerberg [founder of Facebook] opens up,” while CQ Researcher has just published a major report, “Social Networking: Are online social networks eroding privacy?” (Sept. 17): Marcia Clemmitt summarizes in her introduction, “For some the new world of ‘radical transparency’ will increase human understanding and encourage honesty and accountability. But some lawmakers and scholars [are] concerned about losing older notions of privacy.” Zuckerberg is also the subject of a new movie, The Social Network, which contains a largely unflattering view of him, but of the rest of us as well, according to a Newsweek on-line review (Sept. 20), “With Friends Like These.”

These new direction discussions follow [in my reading on the subject] a November, 2009 scholarly article in The Australian Humanities Review, notable for its overall positive viewpoint [as well as for the review taking the social networking phenomenon seriously) of the Facebook experience. In “Grizzling About Facebook,” Meaghan Morris, (Chair Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and Professor in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney) makes her position and thesis clear in her introductory remarks: “…anyone who thinks that social networking is a ‘superficial’ matter of clicking should explain to me (to begin with) in just what world the effort of making a photo album for friends and family does not involve emotional commitment; and in what kind of real world it counts as an evasion of contact to have an on-line party, or to send gifts, humour and words of comfort or affection to people across space and time. It would have to be a world without regard for writing and reading, obviously: no love of letters, no emotional responses to rock art and cathedrals; no crying over novels and poems, either. Come to think of it, it might be a world without great newspapers (a prospect which some pundits no doubt have uncomfortably in mind).” This was in response to a negative editorial in the South China Morning Post arguing that the virtual contact of Facebook is no substitute for “real” human contact.

But the mounting concern is not over how we spend our time, but whether or not we can spend it in private. To this question, Morris offers a number of questions, each of which might serve as the thesis for another paper: “I certainly do not mean to suggest that all criticism of Facebook is grizzling. Serious legal, ethical and political issues are arising from or being intensified by the ‘Facebook’ phenomenon (to use a typifying metonym myself), in the process sharpening some of the challenging debates of our time; free speech and its limits, censorship, the right to privacy, the negotiation of social protocols for a transnational economy that thrives on difference as well as inequality, the relations between semiotic and other modes of violence, tensions between legal, communal and performative models of identity, the foundations of community, the power of corporations in our personal lives, and the technological transformation of work are just a few of these.” Indeed, that’s enough to keep the Facebook scholars busy for a spell. In the CQ Researcher report, there’s a thread pulled out but not nearly unravelled to conclusion regarding the similarities and differences between Facebook and MySpace, a thread which suggests a social stratification, perhaps a tribal (in the McLuhan sense) response, ultimately, perhaps, a Marxist view of social networking.

But it’s those concerns about “older notions of privacy” that I find interesting. What is privacy? Where do these ideas of privacy come from? Is liberty synonymous with privacy? Are both the consequence of print technology, as McLuhan suggested, and as technology changes and changes us, will our notions of privacy also change? No doubt the development of self-consciousness in human evolution created some sense of privacy (when did we begin to sense a need to be alone with our thoughts?), but now, by privacy, do we mean secret, or do we mean control, or do we mean, as T. S. Eliot said in “Prufrock,” “To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet….” Or do we mean privilege, as in the private privy, the privy chamber, not a public place, hardly a Facebook page. Not for nothing is the stool called the throne. The king enjoys the privilege of privacy, and has the power to grant a private audience. Now with 500 million advertised members, control of the masses would seem but clicks away, but who shall be king? But if the king remains in his privy, who cares?