Facebook makes visible the futility of life, but also the marvel that appears in-between the banalities.
Not only do social networks like MySpace and especially Facebook make the primary channels for keeping informed about when people close to you break up, or have other important changes in their lives (losing their jobs, being pregnant etc). Sometimes you’re apprehending things not through what is actually said, but through what is left out. The “relationship status” indicator is all of a sudden taken down. The ever-present “wall” is temporarily suspended. Or nothing happens; the page remains immutable, inert, suspended in that void which life crises often generate.
In effect, here the social network does not mean anything; it doesn’t taint or colour reality, neither positively nor negatively; it just is, like life itself. Does it feel cheap to break up via text message? Does it feel equally cheap to let one’s mates know only through automatized Facebook feeds? Social facts remain; their charge is not in how they are mediated – whether they are gripping or banal lies in their own nature, not with the messenger.
The other week a thing happened which happens sometimes: a colleague – I barely knew him – died suddenly in a tragic bike accident in south London. He has got a Facebook page which when I last looked was still up, now apparently administered by his widow and in practice a humble memorial, a moving tribute to the person that he was.
When the most heart-rendering but at the same time unavoidable happens – that we die – the Facebook or MySpace page remains as a potential obituary, but if treated more clumsily, it just as likely remains as a mortifying gap in time, caught in some kind of morbid stasis, with SuperWall spam trickling in long after the passing of the deceased.
What is striking is how we cannot predetermine whether this is an essentially good or bad phenomenon; what is left could just as well be beautiful, annoying, or downright tasteless, depending on the circumstances. There is since a couple of years back a site, MyDeathSpace.com, which archives links to the MySpace pages of deceased people. They even have an interactive map where the deaths and the corresponding ages of the deceased are kept up to date. (Obviously they have a clear disclaimer: “This website is not endorsed or affiliated with MySpace in any way”.) Probably there isn’t much you can do as next of kin if you are annoyed or offended. The question is if you could even contact MySpace and apply for a removal of the profile page in question; in any event we could assume that the circumstances are many and the bureaucracy quite exasperating. So the profiles remain, in accordance with the oddly reversed entropy of the web, where ghost pages remain rather than get taken down, since the latter would often require more active work than just leaving them be.
The passing of an individual and the automated upkeep, the sustainment of the social nodes and traces that he/she leaves behind through the profile pages of these networks becomes a fact – regardless what ethical or aesthetic meanings this gives rise to. These pages do not necessarily have a function or purpose: once again, they just are.
The French philosopher Michel de Certeau writes about how the everyday is full to the brim with processes of making do: what we all have in common is that we’re left on this planet and try to make the best of what we are given. Here de Certeau also places consumption, and likens its movements more with tactics than with strategy. A momentary ducking and acclimatizing, an adaptation to the given situation. The whole do-it-yourself thing, to tinker with and hack technologies could in this way be seen as tactical.
But the Internet turns much of this on its head: when the alternative tinkering and the do-it-yourself ethos that much of the file-sharing and social networks are all about become the norm, the commonly accepted ways of doing things, then the process no longer emanates from a disadvantaged position. When acts that each on their own are banal become accumulated materially, then they start forming mighty institutions. When the invisible practices that make up our everyday are made visible, documented, embedded in concrete feeds and texts, then they are invisible no more.
The everyday changes from being a tactical exercise of adaptation to become a strategic display of lifestyle choices. Look at me, this is how I lead my life!
After a suicide wave in the small British town of Bridgend, where youths were documenting their suicides on the net, to the contemplation and – some people imply – mimicking of other youths, Martin Moore writes about the speculations that these suicides would have been influenced by each other, mediated in detail as they were not only through mass media but through social networks and memorial sites like GoneToSoon.org. His standpoint could be said to be typical for the conventional, old-fashioned paradigm within media studies, where media content is thought to have direct, causal effects on the audience in a relatively unproblematic way. Still, the problem remains: how can you argue that a suicide would have one and only one cause, and how can you argue that a media narrative would constitute the primary trigger in a certain person’s life? The starting point for the whole line of reasoning becomes skewed; it assumes that the media come first and people’s actions later. When it really should be the other way around: we all lead lives that are very complex, sometimes thorny, affected by things small and large. And here “the media” is but one of the tubes that nurture us, connect us, and pump out little fragments – news feeds – about our lives. Sometimes in an almost banal way, but that is also the way of life.
Update, 21/2 2008: Beyond the digital divide lies a new world of intimacy
Update, 2/6 2009: Webwill – a project by Lisa Granberg (Beckmans College of Design, Stockholm)