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Culture, Reality

Face it Boet

by Brandon Edmonds, illustration by Jason Bronkhorst / 20.08.2010

The horror of Facebook, the deepest one, the most lastingly wounding, lies in how it turns our intimates into information. We’re all confessional blurts to be processed. Rather than rounded selves full of complexity and difference. The closest people in our lives increasingly become the sum of their wall posts. We’ve turned into a proliferating scroll of bulletins. A metastasizing network of confessors.

It’s as if everyone in your world suddenly became an avant-garde art movement from the early 20th Century: issuing manifesto’s, declaring their allegiances, a billion Andre Bretons; or less pretentiously, a self-promotional news feed like the ones permanently running on financial shows. The constant info flow, that stream at the bottom of the screen, is both a reassuring reality principle: here this is happening right now, this is the world as it is, and its working, see, look at the numbers, everything is as it should be. And a metaphor for capitalist waste. It’s an info sewer. Gnomic data spew. Interesting to a coterie. Largely unnecessary. An affectation. Part of the shtick of cable news. Facebook replicates that info stream. But instead of data flows relating to cobalt production in Yemen, say, we get the mind droppings of our nearest and dearest. The daily reveries of those we love and like. This is how I feel. That is how I’m thinking. Here’s what I’m doing right now. It’s more than a little obscene.

The old Marxist notion of ‘reification’ is useful here. It is the amount of labor time congealed in a product. The actual work and relationships behind the shiny thing on the shelf. Objectified labour. Human properties turned into mass-produced things. The great struggle remains who these things ought to belong to, the people who make them, or those who control the ‘means of production’. On Facebook we’re sustaining a massive corporate entity (it’s demented twenty-something CEO is a billionaire) by divulging the minutia of our everyday lives online. It may not be the direct exploitation of coal miners in China, but the process of reification, of turning human properties into saleable things, is the same.

That recent wrangle over privacy on Facebook is really about controlling the ownership of intimacy. How much ought to be made public? Who ought to decide the parameters of disclosure, the site managers or the user? The relentless logic of Facebook is to burgeon by linking people. It insists on making connections. What this business is not interested in is the quality or usefulness of those connections.

Facebook may have tweaked its notoriously prolix and porous privacy settings recently, but what it can’t do is return us to social life free from the fiery ring of information. I know your week before you’ve even opened your mouth. I’ve flipped through your holiday snaps. I’ve assessed your lover’s smile. I know you’re estranged from your sister (she hasn’t posted in yonks) and that your dog has the runs. Actually talking to you now, in person, in real life, has the glum déjàvu quality of seeing a bad movie twice.

* Illustration by Jason Bronkhorst.

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