Life Online - It's a Beach

Life Online - It's a Beach

A Metaphor

How I use and regard Facebook is similar to the experience of driving alone down a very long street. A person alone in a car is isolated from society by the physical barrier of the car, but that person must still carefully abide by certain rules. The street, called Facebook, is crowded with a mixture of people, from acquaintances to those with whom I have grown up; either way, each person is someone I have personally selected or accepted as my “friend.” Like in a nightmare, however, all of these people are wearing masks, depicting their own interpretations of the best version of their faces.

Driving down the street is like scrolling through my News Feed. I view the world passing by with mindless complacency and contradicting insecurity. Most of my selected “friends” don’t notice or interact with me and remain deeply engaged in social experiences that either I wasn’t invited to or couldn’t attend. Occasionally, a closer friend will recognise me and yell at me using nouveau-gangster language. I will yell back with a similar response. As my friend and I briefly wallow in our ironic use of language (which only serves to perpetuate our privileged position in society), a few people will walk by giving us the thumbs up. Some may even pause to participate in our language jerk-off.

Sometimes, people who sit on the periphery of my selected friends will arbitrarily appear, causing me to pull the car over and (embarrassingly) spend hours analysing why that person chose to make his or her existence apparent to me. This thought process often ends with me erroneously assuming that I am famous and talked-about in my wider social circle.

At other points of my journey down this street, I will swap my own carefully constructed mask for a new face that represents and summarises my existence. If I am lucky, an unexpected crowd of people will surround me and I will suddenly become popular. On another day, when my mood has inevitably diminished again, I will repeat the same mask swap and sit in desperate anticipation for the crowd and their thumbs up. On these days, I allow the obscurity of it all to spread through my veins, fuel me and eventually engulf me. It is miserable.

The more I return to drive down the street of Facebook, the more I rely on the mostly inane interactions occurring on this street to validate my existence and define me. It is ill and yet I keep going back. Is this me? Is this my generation?

Your Face

People like to fantasise that when the brilliant and socially awkward Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in 2004, he envisioned it purely as a means to “connect with friends.” However, even those with a vague understanding of Zuckerberg’s history will realise that the network’s origins and inspiration stem from much darker elements. Before Facebook, Zuckerberg created a website called Facemash by hacking into Harvard’s databases of student IDs. Facemash allowed visitors to the site to select the best-looking person from a choice of photos, which quickly created a ranking system of hotness. Although the website only lasted a few days before being shut down, Zuckerberg identified people’s perverse desire to freely and arbitrarily rank the people around them; he also created an accessible tool by which people could do so. Underlying all these so-called “friendly connections” is a concept that unifies all of Facebook’s 1.1 billion users, and this concept is judgement.

While growing paranoia about our online presence can seem exaggerated, I am certain that the value we place in how we present ourselves online is exponentially increasing (while at the same time diluting the meaning of “value”). Like the time when the Cat in the Hat came back, the negative aspects of maintaining an online social presence start off as a pink ring around a bathtub. In haste, someone uses his or her mother’s dress to clean the stain and eventually everything becomes covered in this awful pinkness and we’re all standing around, shaking our heads and murmuring things like, “that escalated quickly.” A dramatic comparison perhaps, but things have escalated quickly. Since Facebook was launched in 2004, there have been a total of 1.13 trillion “likes,” which averages out at 4.5 billion “likes” a day. These are astronomical figures.

A Den Made of Mirrors

Before we get lost in these astronomical figures, it’s important to work out where our heads are at when we use social media. In two studies by Humboldt University and Darmstadt’s Technical University, involving 600 people, it was discovered that one out of every three people was more dissatisfied with their life after visiting Facebook. As mindless as our use of social media platforms may be, how many times do you leave a site like Facebook with a sense of motivation and life positivity? How many times do you end a session with the fear of missing out after mirthlessly “liking” several photos and statuses? How many times does the guilt experienced after wasting time cause you to exit the website?

Writer and researcher Daniel Gulati identified three fundamental issues created by our use of Facebook. The first issue Gulati identified is what he described as Facebook’s creation of a “den of comparison.” Daily, we are confronted by people’s successes in the form of status updates on professional goals achieved, newly purchased items and new relationship statuses. These updates cause us to reconfigure our own interpretation of success in line with what we interpret our Facebook friends’ view of success to be.

Research from the aforementioned German universities found that the den of comparison becomes particularly gloomy when people are confronted with photos of their friends on holiday. Imagine the scenario of Facebook friends who turn the cogs of the mundane corporate machine all year long, then for five days they take a trip to Samoa. On their Facebook page we are not confronted with photos of their bosses scalding them with tea and throwing tomatoes at them as they weep in their corporate barracks. No – what we are bombarded with are these Facebook friends posting 50 photos of themselves looking radiant on a beach. If you have 450 friends who each post 50 photos of themselves on holiday once a year, then over that year you face the trauma of 22,500 photos of happy people being happy without you. That’s approximately 61 photos a day. Life on Facebook is a beach – a yeast-infected beach.

The Value of Like

The second-largest cause of Facebook envy, as found by these German studies, occurred when people compared the number of Facebook birthday greetings they received, as well as the number of “likes” and comments on their Facebook pages, with their Facebook friends’ pages.

In our online worlds an accumulation of Facebook “likes,” Twitter “favourites” and Tumblr “loves” defines the value we place in certain moments, people and feelings. In the quest for “likes,” we learn to create and ruthlessly edit our ideal personalities online and in this way we embrace judgement. By extensively documenting our experiences online, we allow our “friends” and their “likes” to be the final say on the value of our experiences.

A few years ago, while at school, I had a friend who lived her life like this. At events we attended together, she would spend the whole time taking, deleting, then re-taking photos for Bebo (later Facebook). She made an effort to allow non-participants of these events to decide the value of her experience and her net social worth. She never seemed happy taking copious numbers of photos, but rather exhausted by it (as was I). But the worst part, like a self-fulfilling prophecy, was that it worked. People began to believe she was popular because of her excessive online presence and therefore, to a certain extent, she became popular.

I Can See You But You're Not Here

The second issue Gulati identified is the “fragmentation” of our “real” time due to the time we spend online using multiple devices. Most social media takes a variety of forms – from websites to apps on smartphones – which maximises accessibility for their users.

This “horizontal” strategy is pushed particularly hard by Facebook. As Mark Zuckerberg described in an interview with Michael Arrington on TechCrunch, “we’re trying to build a social layer for everything. Basically we’re trying to make it so that every app everywhere can be social whether it’s on the web, or mobile, or other devices.” This strategy encourages users to be active online on range of devices from smartphones to iPads to laptops, creating a warped understanding of the idea of being “present.”

The decline of close relationships caused by our exponential use of social media is another issue Gulati identifies. As Gulati observes, “gone are the days where Facebook merely complemented our real-life relationships.” As Facebook spreads its reach, it defines a model of how we interact online. The risk is that the more we use Facebook to socialise, the more likely that this online model of interaction will become a model for offline interaction as well.

While the ability to communicate online with friends and family around the world is wonderful, each time a Facebook interaction is used instead of an in-person meeting or get-together we miss opportunities to connect with people on a deeper level. In this way, social networking is creating and spreading its own type of isolation. Late at night, scrolling through my News Feed with the only light in my room coming from the sterile shine of my laptop screen, I’m not sure if I could feel lonelier.

Interactions on Facebook are filtered through a layer of plasticity that ought to separate our online personae from our real selves. However, unless we consciously acknowledge this layer, Facebook can make us believe that this plastic skin is really our own. Current-day revolutionaries demand deactivation, but realists suggest less extreme measures to alter how we use social media and strengthen our real-time, real-world relationships. Some measures Gulati has described included “blocking out designated time for Facebook rather than visiting intermittently throughout the day, selectively trimming Facebook friends lists to avoid undesirable ex-partners and gossipy co-workers, and investing more time in building off-line relationships. The particularly courageous choose to delete Facebook from their smartphones and iPads, and log off the platform entirely for long stretches of time.”

Snap Out Of It?

Recently, a novel interpretation of social networking has gained momentum in my friend group and the rest of the world. When I explained Snapchat to my Dad and ran him through the process of taking a photo (or video), drawing moustaches on it, writing a quirky one-liner, setting it to a time under 10 seconds long and then sending the “masterpiece” to one or all of my absurdly-named contacts, Dad found the concept bizarre. But for my generation, who have grown up leaving endless trails of our lives all over the Internet, the ephemeral nature of Snapchat comes to many of us as a relief.

In an interview conducted by The New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan with Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel, Spiegel couldn’t conclude whether Snapchat was part of a bigger movement against the permanent nature of our online worlds, but he did state that the service allows users to “free yourself from an amorphous collection of who you’ve been forever.” As Buchanan remarked, “Snapchat highlights the power of deletion in resisting the gentle totalitarianism of endless sharing. Deletion pokes holes in these records; it is a destabilising force that calls into question their authority, particularly as complete documentation of a person’s online identity, which Facebook and Twitter increasingly purport to be.”

A Boot Stamping on the Human Face

36 years ago, in an essay entitled “The future of the future,” J.G. Ballard predicted the very forms of social media in which we participate daily. In the essay Ballard speculated that new devices, especially “video systems and micro-computers adapted for domestic use” will achieve what he takes to be “the apotheosis of all the fantasies of late twentieth-century man – the transformation of reality into a TV studio, in which we can simultaneously play out the roles of audience, producer and star …”

Ballard further speculated that “every one of our actions during the day, across the entire spectrum of domestic life, will be instantly recorded on video-tape. In the evening we will sit back to scan the rushes, selected by a computer trained to pick out only our best profiles, our wittiest dialogue, our most affecting expressions filmed through the kindest filters, and then stitch these together into a heightened re-enactment of the day. Regardless of our place in the family pecking order, each of us within the privacy of our own rooms will be the star in a continually unfolding domestic saga, with parents, husbands, wives and children demoted to an appropriate starring role.”

Ballard’s dwellings on the future and how we presently use social media are uncanny. But before we swoon, it’s worth pointing out that Ballard was known for his novels about post-apocalyptic, dystopian worlds. Like Zuckerberg, Ballard recognised humanity’s inherent obsession with judgement and control. Ballard predicted a world in which developing technologies could take our obsessions to the next level and, knowingly or unknowingly, people like Zuckerberg are fulfilling his predictions.
This article first appeared in Issue 14, 2013.
Posted 6:05pm Sunday 7th July 2013 by Loulou Callister-Baker.