Facebook: My part in its downfall (I wish)

I remember when Facebook was first mentioned to me. I was in my last year of my art degree, using Myspace;  either to promote one of my art projects, the end of degree exhibition, or to apologise for some drunken rant or something at someone the evening before (one of the three anyway). Anyway it was early 2007. My first impressions of it then was that it was a more sophisticated alternative to Myspace, for ‘adult’s. Less ‘pouting’ and lists of favourite bands, and more “so, what are you doing with your life now?….oh me? I’m married now!…” blah blah blah, all that keeping up appearances shit of aspirational adulthood.

Inspite of the depression I suffered from in my early 20’s, my understanding of what was truly going wrong in the world was largely lacking the vocabulary to express the link between the physical and the psychological; it was much more “stop climate change” than “what’s preventing us from stopping climate change?”. This was beginning to appear in my artwork, yes, but overall my frustration over social networking was probably just mere annoyance with it, and the deleting of my Myspace accounts was then only understood by myself as due to depression, not that the depression may be partially triggered by commonly occurring anxieties from using the media form that I was attempting to cut my life from. To be truthful, inspite of my depression, at 23 I still had a lot of ‘young man’s’ hopes and excitements; the particles that combine to make my current life were yet to set and were free-floating, and far more easily pushed to one side when I need ‘a laugh’ (which is noticeable in my large drawings from this time; the subject matter then to now is the same, but it was more chaotic and free-flowing back then – arguably more joyous due to this).

Since then Facebook has gone from being a rival to Myspace to being something so large (over a billion users, more than a seventh of the entire world) that is has surely defined an all new era in our collective story upon the capitalist horrorshow-ride (it could also be called the Network-era, Internet 2.0 era, Broadband era). Myspace has increasingly come to look like some cyberspace graveyard; an eerie (non)place of friends’ profiles, that are like abandoned ships, found again, floating in an ice cold cyberspace, as if it was still 2007/2008. At the same time as this, our collective anxieties, whilst made to look isolated in dominant discourse, have become increasingly more audible as we passed through a seismic financial crash, to find ourselves in the grips of an even more bloody-thirsty capitalism, leaving an expanding carnage of wars and climatic devastation. A new reality; whilst most of the time we’re unaware that it is a new reality. But if we step outside of the world ‘enframed’ by cyberspace social interaction for a minute, even just to catch our breath (like I am currently doing, by ‘politely’ asking their admin team for my profile to be deleted, as if I was a paying customer or something), how is Facebook (especially) affecting our lives? And should we ask the questions: why is it here? Why has it become so big? Is it just ‘progress’, or can progress look different? And, would we prefer a world without it?

Where do you begin when talking about its conception? Prior to the era of social networking, for 70 years, almost an entire century in the US, we have been fed all day everyday with publicity. Publicity, that became the most dominant and omnipresent form of information during this time-period, telling us what we should like, how we should look, act, and what things we should talk about. Utilising genuine human needs, and using them in a way that benefits the publicity-maker, and benefits a system dependent on publicity by keeping the mass of people’s live orientated around trivia. Trivia that is only relevant to the day in hand, or in order to generate small-talk/to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’ etc. For well over half a century we have been clay in the hands of the interests that endorse the propagation of publicity. These interests being of ruling sections of western ‘democracies’, as a way of preventing democracy becoming what the word really means – not just the choice between different leaders every 4/5 years, as we experience it now.

The reason social networking can function now is because after half a century of the psychological assault, we are self-assembled publicity. Facebook is an inversion of 20th century publicity. Publicity has been at least somewhat successful during the past 70 or so years in building us into walking publicity, of trivia, obediently learning to enjoy being what a landscape drenched in publicity made us become. We now go onto social networking sites, libidinously-compelled to advertise ourselves. Everyone anxiously-driven to compete, once their eyes set on the waterfall of enforced self-entrepreneurship that is the newsfeed. Yet, whilst we compete against one another, all 1 billion active users, we are all speaking the same language, of publicity, of capitalism. Indeed there is no other language that can be used on Facebook, whatever you post it translates as publicity. When on Facebook the ability to imagine some other sort of human experience is as difficult as can be.

This is possibly the reason why posts critiquing capitalist system, and its matrix of injustices (from climate change to the bedroom tax) are hard-pressed to be of any use but to keep protest virtual and ineffectual. And this doesn’t apply to cyberspace technology across the board, but I am certainly more inclined to argue now that this applies to social networking in nearly all cases. Social networking is a form of communication born from ‘DNA’ taken from the ideological laboratory of publicity, which has the purpose of oiling the wheels of a capitalist world. At this specific moment I am very pessimistic about Facebook becoming a platform for a different mode of communication.

All this doesn’t mean that I think people who use Facebook are just walking advertisements for their atomised lives full stop, just that this is all Facebook seems to allow them to be. But not only does it prevent you from being anything else, it forces you, via feelings of status anxiety, inferiority, of being less than others, to promote what you have been doing/liking/feeling etc. This is incredibly psychologically distressing to many, especially those who feel dependent on Facebook for most social interaction due to having difficulties finding it anywhere else, because everyone else is staring at their screens. I have only been free of Facebook (this time around) for a week, and I’m hoping nothing drags me back on there, having to keep on reminding myself about an awful realisation I had a couple of months back that my quality of life has massively deteriorated since the rise of social networking influence in it, and that I do not believe it to be a coincidence.

So, if the first major factor in this worldwide socio-psychological experiment that allows for Facebook’s dominance is that the near-century assault from publicity has saturated everything so efficiently, then this is a matter of substance; what to things are now made out of. But there has to be another factor at play here that then makes us feel compelled by some invisible force to be adverts for ourselves which then causes so much psychological distress. To get to the roots of this I think we have to look at the direction society was directed towards in 2 of the most culturally and economically influential countries in the world (thus spreading to everywhere else soon after). The late 1970’s/early 1980’s saw ideas under the umbrella of Thatcherism take hold in the UK, and the same thing happen under the umbrella of Reaganism in the US.

If you imagine any given society as a test tube, imagine then Thatcherism/Reaganism as a massive syringe injecting into it market individualism. What could market individualism be described as? It has a double meaning: that business can, and should be allowed to do what it pleases, that everything should be run as a business, from the railways down to toilet facilities, with a belief that market freedom is best way to run things. But, more importantly regarding this post, the enforcement of individualism onto every human being in that society, but a certain type of individualism: that he/she must be an active player within a market-driven system. During the 1980’s social networking, early mobile phones and the like, were the preserve of a small professional class nicknamed the ‘yuppies’, by the 2000’s this was no longer a so-called ‘lifestyle choice, and had trickled down onto all of us until it was “a minimum requirement for mere survival”,  as it was always intended to be. This logical outcome leaves a person finding all their character ‘assets’ overcome by a compulsion to compete, to be constantly advertising themselves.

So, let’s return to the test tube comparison. Imagine that this market individualism, injected into society, took time to fully saturate the test tube. I would argue that it became fully saturated at the time when Facebook became fully ‘viral’, in both meanings of the world viral; (the contemporary usage of the word) it’s all over the Internet, and (the main meaning) that it may as well be circulating through our blood stream like a real virus. Without even beginning to question who gets the chance to go to these Havard school ‘genius’ laboratories in the first place, the fact is that they were/are very fucking clever, as venture capitalists; social networking platforms weren’t just a wild stab in the dark at creating something people might like to use, they are platforms that have been ‘plugged’  right into this ideological DNA’s mains supply, saturated by market individualism. Just at the right time when the technology allowed for social media to be used by (almost) everyone, but whilst the Internet was still a relatively new thing to us, and our guard was down.

The cultural saturation with the logic of self-advertisement has ambushed our thoughts; as Mark Fisher says in his book Capitalist Realism, “when we sleep we dream of capital”. The usage of ourselves as ‘human capital’, even though we’re usually totally unaware of being so, has some, if not most investment in our Facebook posts, whilst as a platform, Facebook translates all language into publicity anyway. Whilst the solution to the financial crash was ‘capitalist realist’, by giving the world an even harsher and more blood-thirsty model of the system that had supposedly just lost all its credibility by failing so fantastically, this has seemingly intensified our haste to self-promote, and thus the rise and rise in social networkers.

The misconception that “it’s just progress”, an inevitability that can’t be halted, and that to criticise it would to be “flogging a dead horse” would tell anybody (from the most revered thinkers throughout history, to the rest of us) who has ever tried to understand the logic from which industrial capitalism sprung that they too are flogging a dead horse. Indeed, maybe we all have been flogging a dead horse, but what choice do we have now when it is clear that this dominant ideology is dragging the world towards civilisational and ecological destruction? If we don’t challenge the dominant cultural logic, then we must resign ourselves to letting any children we produce grow up into a world even less worth living in than the one we currently inhabit.

As things stand I can only see our collective dependency on Facebook increasing. And I am more than certain that out ‘social networking’ dependency is getting more vicious as capitalism also becomes more viscous (both in an rapacious desire to make our character qualities ‘good publicity’, and in the way that people are increasingly turning on each other via social media), and for this reason it will continue to reduce the quality of the lives of many users. The problem here then is its addictiveness; because it has the ability to absorb the entire libidinal fuel reserve of publicity created over the past 70/90 years, it more or less grabs your finger towards ‘the big F’ on an interface (there’s been many times when I have found myself staring at a Facebook screen with literally no memory of opening it up).

I don’t know how to convince people that the quality of one’s life (and, thus, potentially the quality of everything) will decrease the longer they depend on it, but I am sure that attempting to quit isn’t regressive/Luddite in nature (even when you relapse and reactivate the dormant account again). I don’t think cyberspace technology has to be solely used to this effect, it is the platforms that have grown from the dominant idealogical DNA I am referring to. Whether a mass exodus will occur, it certainly won’t as things stand, maybe if the legitimacy of the ruling ideas is damaged beyond credibility during the next decade or so, but nobody can know if that will happen. Yet, I am convinced now that quitting these platforms is the right thing to do if we want to aim for a more bearable future. So, yes, “quit Facebook!”

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

2 responses to “Facebook: My part in its downfall (I wish)”

  1. Mikk Murray says :

    Great article John!
    I won’t however be taking your advice to quit facebook. I actually enjoy it and find it very useful.
    You have talked about many negatives which I understand, and perhaps My mind is set more optimistocally to yours in that I see many positives in social media. It also provides a platform to keep in touch with friends, some of whom I would never call or write, it can be useful as a calender for events, as entertainment even.
    Perception can swing either way.

    • johnledger says :

      Maybe I just find the negatives more apparent because I find myself compelled to check it all the time when I actually don’t WANT to do so. Maybe I just have an addictive, or obsessive, personality though. My other blogposts would probably hold true to this

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