Facebook has hit two billion monthly active users. That’s two billion souls united in sharing inspirational memes, stalking their exes, and engaging in nasty arguments with people they have never met. There are now more people active on this 13-year-old social network than were even alive on planet Earth a century ago.
In the heady, utopian early days of the world wide web, techno-evangelists used to argue that it would lay waste to all media centralization, liberating us from corporate control. Facebook is the dialectical reflux that came to crush that naïve hope, giving us a level of centralization more centralized than anything one could have imagined in the age of big top-down media. Everyone depends on the same site to get into the stream.
Facebook makes high-minded noise about the sacred principle of “net neutrality,” that there should be no pay-to-enter “fast lanes” to give anyone unfair advantage. But guess what? Facebook itself pads its bottom line charging media for “fast lane” access to their audience, compelling sites big and small to funnel money into its maw to boost posts.
“We’re getting to a size where it’s worth really taking a careful look at what are all the things that we can do to make social media the most positive force for good possible,” Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox told TechCrunch.
Just now it occurs to these guys that with great power comes great responsibility? Any teenager who’s read an issue of Spider-Man can tell you that!
Somehow, I think that Facebook’s ethical turn is less a result of any sudden revelation that the common good exists, and more about the fact that Facebook is, despite its seemingly unstoppable growth, deeply unpopular. As a company, the public distrusts Facebook more than “Large Corporations” in general or “Congress,” which these days is a pretty impressive feat itself.
With all this in mind, let us turn now to the personalized little video, in the cutesy style favored by terrifying internet monopolies, that Facebook dropped today into your stream to remind you how much you love the big blue social-media company. It features some peppy music, animated cartoon characters, and balloons, seamlessly stitched together with photos harvested from your posting history.
Oh look! There’s me smiling with my family! There’s me smiling with my ex-fiancé! There’s my face peeking out from the crowd at some kind of press conference! There’s me looking sad on a panel! There’s an overhead shot… of a table… at some kind of activist meeting? I’m not sure. It must have been very much “liked” at the time.
This is all intercut with title cards, which when you break out the text reads like a Hallmark card written for the Borg:
IT ALL ADDS UP
WHETHER SHARING A MOMENT
BEING A PART OF SOMETHING
OR GIVING SOME LOVE
THOSE LITTLE THINGS BECOME NOT SO LITTLE
TODAY YOU ARE PART OF 2 BILLION PEOPLE ON FACEBOOK
BUT IT’S NOT REALLY ABOUT THE NUMBER
IT’S ABOUT WHAT WE CAN DO TOGETHER
RESISTANCE IS FUTILE
OK, I added that last line. It’s implied.
The landing page where you find this is titled “Good Adds Up,” and scrolling down, you will find a series of well-produced, inspirational videos about how different communities use Facebook Groups.
Curiously, these do not mention Marines United, the Facebook Group where male soldiers gathered to share nude pictures and rape fantasies about their female colleagues, which caused a national scandal three months ago.
In any case, back to the important personalized message, which is, after all, at the top. Let’s put on our art-critic hats to look at what it’s doing as a piece of 21st century visual culture.
First: What a great metaphor for Facebook’s whole MO! It is, essentially, my own personal photos used for purposes that I can’t control and didn’t ask for, manipulated by goofy animated avatars that are trying desperately, desperately to make it all look somehow both deeply meaningful and comfortably harmless.
Second: I love the part of the video where a jaunty card attached to an animated child’s mobile comes up to tell me how many things I have “liked” (2,617!). This number gives me the thrill of some kind of hidden data point about myself, while actually telling me nothing.
It mainly furnishes a reminder of the ease with which Facebook data-mines its two billion monthly users, which may be an odd thing for the company to rub in your face. The gesture serves the purpose of taking this lurking, ever-present reality and dressing it up as a cute and fun feature.
Third, and most important: TechCrunch says Facebook’s new corporate mission is trying to boost “empathy,” presumably after all the negative press about how social media just encourages people to lock themselves into a prison of their own preconceptions. So logically they are kicking off that noble work of outreach by feeding me… pictures of me!
Well, thank you very much, Facebook, I am very empathetic, aren’t I?
The paradox of Facebook, and every other social-media service, is that they are platforms for sharing, say, images of art, while also being their own form of artistic experience, with its own kind of associated pleasure.
“Man’s desire is the desire of the other,” the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan once postulated of the human condition, in the opaque and probably sexist language of his day. If you want an illustration of what this aphorism means, well, Facebook’s triumph proves that what people really, really, really like is to see other people liking them.
That desire is near unquenchable, and has become ever more insistent as the starting point for engaging with everything, very much including art.
The curator of the Hirschhorn’s game-changing recent Yayoi Kusama blockbuster said of her mirror environments: “These rooms reflect all of her elements: her obsessions, her accumulations, her infinite repetitions.” But everyone knows that the insane popularity of Kusama’s mirror rooms are not about “her” as an artist. It is about the pleasure of posting mirror selfies.
Similarly, Ai Weiwei’s current, hugely popular team-up with Herzog & De Meuron at the Park Avenue Armory, “Hansel & Gretel,” purports to have something to say about surveillance, offering a very expensive surveillance-themed playground where drones fly overhead and infrared cameras repeat the ghostly images of your movement on the floor.
But based on the way the crowds actually interact with it—taking photos of their own reflected images to post, as Roberta Smith said, variations on the “snow angel selfie” (#aiweiwei #bigbrotheriswatching #surveillancechic)—it really ends up being less an educational experience that exposes high-tech invasion of privacy, and more an unintentional essay on how willing people are to particulate in surveillance if you frame giving up your data as a fun and social experience.
It recalls a classic Onion headline: “CIA’s New ‘Facebook’ Program Dramatically Cuts Agency’s Cost.”
Facebook is at once indispensable and loathsome. If that tells us anything about the direction of culture, it’s that you can expect the aesthetics of the reflected self to take over the museum and gallery experience more and more and more, whether you like it or not.
Which is too bad, really, because I might argue that art’s weird, difficult, local parts are more relevant than ever as a counterweight to all of that.
Going to the museum as a prop to see yourself being seen is quite the opposite of going to the museum to learn about another culture or an artist’s personal symbolic world. The latter is much less fun, and much less popular, but does involve actually cultivating “empathy” by getting into someone else’s world.
Facebook is quite right that the latter skill is what needs to be honed in the world it has created. But the inanity of the way they try to sell you on their new mission definitely does not convince you of its sincerity.
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