Facebook Adé

The author in an Odessa pensione. Photograph by Maxim Grigoriev

A German-language version of this essay was previously published in Die Literarische Welt.

The average Facebook profile, with its many status updates, commented photo albums, notes, and posts, contains approximately 65,000 words of text. If you assume a friend count of 300, the available reading playground for a typical user is close to 20 million words. This amounts to a small library of books.

While photos quicken the game, a Facebook user is primarily a reader of text. It would be absurd, for purposes of analysis, not to consider Facebook as a literary form. Sixty-five thousand words is the length of a short novel; “profile” suggests already something character-driven; “status” may track the throes of heroes and antiheroes, “in a relationship”—a romance.

When I joined Facebook in 2005, part of the first great American wave, I was entranced. I had no quibble with Facebook as a panopticon of surfaces. Seeing surfaces was my pleasure. Making surfaces was my joy. The artifice, the theater, the show of it seemed fun, an ingenious pastime. Rather than a novel, it struck me as akin to what I had always considered the greatest American art form: the MGM musical. Like musicals, Facebook was glitz and glamour and pageantry, and the sweeping passage of time. This, I thought—this is what America does best.

At the time of Facebook’s rise, I was living in Berlin. My German friends made manifest that matters of national character were not irrelevant. Within my international circle of friends, the Germans were noticeably slowest to join, slower even than the Japanese or the Russians (who were only slow because they, unlike the Germans, had local Facebook equivalents).

When the Germans I knew finally did throw in the towel, a good five or six years into the hype (and they all finally did, down to a man) their manner of taking part was idiosyncratic. No one had fun with it. Far from putting on a show of surfaces, the Germans hid themselves, their Facebook names invariably pseudonymous, only sneaking out occasionally under cover of darkness (their chat-profile set to “invisible”), to gawk surreptitiously at the sacrificial few who had offered themselves up for exposure. Their comments on photos were generally in a private code—staccato, abbreviated insider jokes—they didn’t care if even those who were meant to understand missed the punch lines. Allergic to self-stylization themselves, they were reluctant to accept or even correctly perceive self-stylization in others. Sitting in the audience, they thought they were eavesdropping. On stage, they thought they were in bed at home, with the blinds pervertedly open.

And so the first people with whom I was friends on Facebook were not my aloof German comrades, scornful and paranoid, but rather the young Americans with whom I had gone to boarding school in New England. By 2005, two years after FB was founded, everyone I knew from school already had an account, and I struck up not merely one or two old acquaintanceships, but hundreds. These were preppy people from old-moneyed homes, whose lives seemed free of oblique influence, instead deriving vertically from their parents and horizontally from an America I had left behind.

I had been, traditionally, mildly impatient with these schoolmates. But it could not be denied: on Facebook their world was rich. There was so much to see when their lives were taken together and edited into a single website. Strapless wedding gowns designed by Vera Wang, limpid lawns stretching down toward blue waters beside palatial estates on the Connecticut shore; the bride being prepared for the ceremony, a garland of flowers placed on her head in an untidy hotel room. The images were strong. I watched friendships from boarding school, which had seemed casual and contingent at 15 years old, blossom, to my surprise, into cherished, insular ties. Rows of all-too-familiar forms dressed up in identical one-shoulder silk-mikado plum-colored bridesmaid gowns, cleaving together, faces smiling with the serene, empty clarity of sisterhood. With Facebook, there was a lot more on show than there had ever been in the dorms. Great hordes of people I had previously barely perceived—the extras in the film of my life, filling the crowd scenes at dining halls, dorms, and sporting events—were yielding up texts.

Nor were the texts monologue. Facebook provides one of the satisfactions of both small-town life and fictional structure: heteroglossia. Each photo had its comments; most likely to comment were those people featured in the photos, and these, like a kind of echolocation, pulled you into a knowledge of hidden dimensions. At best, it was a Greek choir; at worst, it was a pre-recorded laugh track for a sitcom.

Keepin’ it classy! ♥♡♥

December 31, 2013 at 9:58pm via mobile · Like · 1

He’s the man! Too cute.

December 31, 2013 at 10:06pm via mobile · Like · 1

Pimp daddy!

December 31, 2013 at 11:24pm via mobile · Like · 1

he looks very relaxed!

December 31, 2013 at 11:25pm via mobile · Like · 1

She is a beauty and so sweet. Hopefully all his future GFs are like this!

January 1 at 12:34am via mobile · Like

The kid’s a stud – following in the long line of Davis men.

January 1 at  3:50am · Like · 1

As for me, I devised and shaped and edited myself as never before. My profile was packed with photo albums. Soon there were over seventy-five—of Venice, Athens, Kiev, Belgium, Obama’s address in Berlin, Christmas in the alps, Fårö, Porto, a homemade gingerbread house, Kansas, Moscow, London, scanned photos of myself as a very small child, Cincinnati, a Peter, Björn and John concert, New York City—in every album I was featured in at least one photo. Through Facebook, I had what one might call in Lacanian terms a late-onset mirror stage. As my own spin-doctor and publicist as well as the single most important consumer of the brand I was trying to launch, I bought into myself. Early—around 2005 or 2006—I had some of my greatest victories: photos of myself that became instant classics in my own mind, personal mythologies; both the principle source and the principle engine of a precarious glamour that existed nowhere offline.

In particular, I think of the self-soothing that took place during repeated viewings of a photo of myself in a 1970s-era Paris-made Céline pencil skirt, sitting on a twin bed in a dilapidated room in a pensione in Odessa, Ukraine. Under my feet, point-d’hongrie parquet; behind me, fleurs-de-lys wallpaper; to the left, the white sunlight from the high window as in a Vermeer painting; to my right, a black leather-bound book on the second twin bed, not a Gideon’s bible, as it might appear, but rather a bilingual edition of Nabokov’s short stories—this last, impossible to discern. The photo was a triumph, but not as a photo. Its charm was in its capacity for spectacle, in its knack for indiscretion, its talent for delivering up secrets in plain view.

For several years, my love affair with Facebook was full of such thrills. But a format devoted to braggadocio and admiring, showing off and envying, comparing and carping and patting each other on the back—everyone knows, or senses intuitively that Facebook, for the urbanized masses, is small-town life come home to roost. Thus, in describing the first ripples of discord in my love affair with Facebook I do not mean to suggest a new kind of alienation, but rather an alienation intimate and ancient.

First and foremost, I give you the humble-brag. A “friend” (one I don’t know, but whose friend request I have dutifully accepted) gets a book contract. The status update is as follows:

I’m incredibly excited to announce that Graywolf Press will be publishing my second book, TITLE OF THE BOOK IN ALL CAPS. I’ve been sitting here for a few minutes trying to figure out just how to say how thankful and honored I am, but I think it might take me a while yet to get it right.

Lou Reed dies. A friend posts:

When I was at Yaddo, Laurie Anderson was there and we all fell in love with her. She had to leave almost immediately to put her dog to sleep and we were all a little resentful and kept asking each other, “Why couldn’t Lou do it?” I think we just got off on thinking about them as a domestic couple. Rest in Peace, Lou.

Another friend receives a half million dollars in a MacArthur Genius Grant: “What else is there to say other than a long, relentless, thank you to family, friends, strangers, acquaintances.”

The tone is humble, sometimes playful, sometimes piquant, self-effacing, grateful even to strangers. Notice that, in the case of the greatest success of all, the name of the honor is not even mentioned. The more rarefied the laurels, the less viable to flaunt them. After all, a friendship—“friendship”—is not maintained on Facebook unless another’s posts are genuinely non-irritating. There is no choice: you de-fang and de-claw yourself voluntarily. The more successful you are, the more carefully and adeptly you deflect the evil eye. Those who refuse such cultivation gradually ghettoize themselves into networks of their own kind, places where people gloat, preen, and say nasty, hideous things to each other—the Jerry Springer circles where the gloves come off. Yet that is not the Facebook I know.

My Facebook friends are modern, humanist, enlightened; it’s impossible to hate them or rebel against them. It’s impossible to launch, in a competitive fury, any sort of campaign to get even with them or surpass them. Soft and smooth and supportive, their “likes” evenly distributed, they are not available as enemies or rivals, and yet to what degree are they friends? The humanism that prevents cockfights also precludes transparency, and, relegated to the genteel opaque over-layers, I am wretched in my envy, trapped, turned inward on myself, unable to claw at anything but my own eyes.

The illness of envy hardly needs to be described. At some time you may have known it equally well, in the same way that few people go through life without once or twice living through a stomach virus that leaves you pushing your face against the cool bathroom floor, wishing to die. I divide envy into two categories, so distinct from one another that calling both “envy” is nearly a semantic failure. One feeling is reserved for people I feel do not deserve their rewards. The other is reserved for those who do. The first sort of envy leads to disillusionment with the world—anomie and fury in the face of society, in the face of the reward-system. It is above all a kind of rage. The second envy leads to disillusionment with the self. It is a form of disappointment, and an ineffable and inconsolable sadness. Why haven’t I had the strength to live?

The Vermeerish photo of myself wearing a Céline skirt in an Odessa pensione—did it achieve, outside of my own psychology, the desired effect? I will never know for certain. Yet I can say that it received a record number of “likes”: thirty-five, which is more than any other photo on my profile has ever enjoyed. A success? Only a few weeks later, an unremarkable snapshot of a novelist friend of mine, a hand-held “selfie” of herself and her husband, smiles broad and cheeks ruddy before a background of autumn foliage, received 105 likes—three times as many.

It would seem that all along, I have been courting the envy of others, asking them, defensively, to envy me in the same way that I envy them. And because, of course, I hope for the second kind of envy very particularly, I am indirectly asking these people to hate their own lives. This is what, I suspect, my Facebook friends sense and dislike in me.

This is not a state of affairs I can blame on Facebook alone. Looking back, I can discern thousands of minuscule occasions when I turned away from people, from their overtures of friendship, from their efforts not to lose touch, moments of lost opportunity when I did not pursue what might have later become a human bond. People have pained me. They have seemed barbarian, criminally stupid, grotesquely unkind to one another.

A woman who insults her husband in front of mutual friends; a man whose girlfriend looks like his twin sister, although he doesn’t perceive it or care to know its meaning; a person who delivers ignorant, fatally insensitive opinions in a brassy voice that seems to tell you it knows more information would have been wise, but isn’t it cute for having formed an idea without it?—all of them, and more, I have found impossible to bear. I have rejected people on the basis of their ways of speaking, their ways of dressing, their ways of decorating their apartments, their ways of dismissing philosophers, their ways of cognitive processing tout court. There are so many different stylistic modes that make a person appear both stupid and violent. And yet, I have not offered an alternate model. On Facebook just as elsewhere, I have been exactly like them.

A recent survey around the web finds the following: “15 Excellent Reasons to Quit Facebook”; “7 Reasons I Dumped Facebook”; “5 Reason Millenials Are Quitting Facebook”; “These are the People Who Are Quitting Facebook”; “The REAL Reason to Quit Facebook (and 10 what-ifs)”; “Quitting Facebook, Why Everyone is Doing It”; “Facebook Users are Committing ‘Virtual Identity Suicide’ and Quitting…”; “Top Ten Reasons You Should Quit Facebook.”

If, in the next years, there is indeed a gradual abandonment of Facebook, I believe it should be understood in terms of a correction. A survey of historical cycles suggests that cultural blossoming in the realm of ornament, extravagance, mannerism, and show will be gradually corrected by a turn toward the sleek, a vogue for sobriety and all its cousins: naturalism and authenticity, as well as modesty and severity. After Charles II, Cromwell; After Rococo, Classicism.

In my search for Facebook’s antidote, I was struck by the words of the literary theorist Ian Watt, who regards Puritanism as the novel’s original psychological paradigm. In The Rise of the Novel, he writes about the novel in its 18th- and 19th-century forms:

[W]e can say of him [Defoe], as of later novelists in the same tradition, such as Samuel Richardson, George Eliot or D. H. Lawrence, that they have inherited of Puritanism everything except its religious faith. They all have an intensely active conception of life as a continuous moral and social struggle; they all see every event in ordinary life as proposing an intrinsically moral issue on which reason and conscience must be exerted to the full before right action is possible; they all seek by introspection and observation to build their own personal scheme of moral certainty; and in different ways they all manifest the self-righteous and somewhat angular individualism of the earlier Puritan character.

If the classical novel is an instrument of moral introspection as here described, my troubles reframe themselves. The novel is concave; it allows you to spy on the interior realities of fictional people. Facebook is convex; it allows you to spy on the exterior fictions of real people. The opposition, far from being complementary, implies a crisis of the human heart. A reward for looking into the depths, the novel is a catalyst for empathy. A punishment for seeing only the surface, Facebook is a catalyst for envy, and therein lies its inevitable moral exhaustion.

“There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion,” writes Emerson in Self-Reliance.

Taking myself as my own portion will mean, for me, the unequivocal renunciation of all efforts to engage with the world on Facebook’s terms. This will entail a reconsideration of the position of my Berliner friends, whose paranoia and scorn in response to Facebook was always defending itself with arguments in favor of modesty, small-flame warmth, and personal quiet.

Facebook’s baroque surfaces are a taunt; the envy one feels as a result is not an incidental personal weakness, it is intrinsic to the structure of the form. It is a form that loves the flamboyant displays of half-truths, and encourages half-truth commentaries to float around them. No individual moment on Facebook, no photo or comment or “like” is any more artificial, any more derivative, than innumerable moments that have accompanied me otherwise, as I, along with the rest of you, have been dragged through a world not always able to organize the trenchancy of expression apposite to its condition of love and suffering. But Facebook, I will insist, is a literary genre. As such it is a cognitive mode, a consciousness-for-hire in which the mind can swim. And it is on these terms that I call it out. It is not its artificial moments, of the kind I live out every day, but its artificial mode, that would steal from me my mind’s meditative, contemplative force, my Puritan spirit—my life lived as a better novel.

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