Sunday 1 January 2017

Happy Anniversary, Darling

In 2017, I will celebrate – if that is the right word – ten years with Facebook. No doubt Facebook will let me know about this in no uncertain terms when the momentous day arrives. A video with plinky-plink John Lewis commercial-type music will appear, showcasing my most-liked photos, statuses, posts, shares, my best friends, most important memories and maybe a few suggestions for new friends – other folk who joined Facebook on the very same day. Wow.

Ten years in the traditional anniversary calendar is the tin anniversary. In literature – children’s literature at least – tin is tied up with characters who appear human, or humanoid, but are found wanting in the emotion department. Or are they? There’s the Tin Woodman in The Wizard of Oz who goes off in search of a heart. And the Steadfast Tin Soldier who yearns for the (similarly) one-legged ballerina and after a series of misadventures ends up cast into the fire, his melted remains forming the shape of a heart. The mystery of tin, the paradox of something non-human which nevertheless has the capacity for yearning seems central to my relationship with Facebook. But more of that later.

Do you remember the first time you went on Facebook? No, I don’t either, but then again I don’t remember the first time I went on the internet, sent an email or watched TV for that matter. It’s a different kind of thing to knowing where you were when you heard the news about Kennedy, or Princess Di, or your pick of the celebrities that have bitten the dust this year.

However, Facebook has an answer to all that in that I can easily look it up and see what I posted. Excuse me just a second while I hop into Safari and find out.


Well, it’s disappointing. My first status was as follows: ‘out all day researching and IKEA-ing.’ The second: ‘working at home: last day of school today!’ The third is an attempt at wittiness: ‘half watching Live earth, half watching Tour de France and half baking birthday cake! Too many halves don’t make a whole.’

My first year on Facebook contains all the social media behaviour I love to hate in others. The first photo gallery is a carefully edited collection of shots of a family holiday hiking in the Austrian Alps. There are humble brags (‘doing a 10km run/stagger today’), not so humble brags (‘off to documenta on Monday’) and vaguebooking (‘mortified’ – with no further explanation). And there are photos of homemade cakes. Lots of photos.

In my defence, I was just trying it all out. I had 38 friends, and they were all people I knew, face-to-face. We were early-ish adopters, and although it wasn’t quite as shiny and new as thefacebook in 2005 (‘an online directory that connects people through social networks at colleges’), it felt like a private playpen for overgrown students. On my profile from the time, three lines seem to sum up the 2007 ethos of Facebook:
‘Send Susan a flower’
‘Write on my FunWall’
‘Susan has 3 beers.’

But perhaps the oddest aspect of 2007 Facebook is the complete absence of links to other websites.

I won’t deny that Facebook has been a huge boon to me socially. I’ve resumed contact with so many old school friends. I’ve become closer to pals in far-flung areas of the globe, to whom contact had previously been limited to the annual Christmas card. On top of that, using Facebook has enhanced my writing, through contact with other authors, promoting my books and maybe the most fun part: researching. I have joined all manner of obscure interest groups with gay abandon, from ‘The Gloster Meteor Appreciation Society’ to ‘RAF Steamer Point, Aden.’ It’s all there, at the click of a key.

Having said that, I do sometimes yearn (in a steadfast tin soldier type of way) for the early days of Facebook – or even the pre-Facebook days. Douglas Coupland ‘misses his pre-internet brain’ and I’m there, too. Not because of what Facebook is, but because of what it has become: an echo chamber where views and angles on stories are homogenous, exacerbated by an annoying recent development of inserting 'posts you may like' into my news feed. I presume this is the way Facebook want to cheat the ad blocker.

It goes back to the change in the way we use the internet. In the 90s, a few intrepid souls were surfing - adventurous, dangerous, even, and not for everyone. By the early 2000s, the pace had slowed down somewhat, from surfing to stumbling. The internet had become a giant, but rather jolly, obstacle course with people good-naturedly bumbling around and occasionally tripping up on something interesting.

And the last ten years? Sometimes it takes being away from something to notice changes that are, to the rest of us, imperceptible. Which is precisely what happened to blogger Hossein Derakhshan, author of a thought-provoking and very readable article: The Web We Have To Save

Derakhshan was imprisoned, in Iran, for his blogging among other things, between 2008 and 2014.  In the article, he points out a number of developments that have taken place on the internet during his incarceration, but that with the greatest impact is the growth of social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. As he says, ‘lots of people start their daily online routine in these cul de sacs of social media, and their journeys end there.’  Social media is characterised by what Derakhshan calls The Stream – ‘...getting fed a never-ending flow of information that's picked for them by complex - and secretive - algorithms.’ He adds: ‘... and not only do the algorithms behind the Stream equate newness and popularity with importance, they also tend to show us more of what we've already liked. These services carefully scan our behaviour and delicately tailor our news feeds with posts, pictures and videos that they think we would most likely want to see.’

This is a fundamentally important point. People want an easy life and they want to be entertained. Nothing wrong in that except when it's to the exclusion of the way people used the internet, predominantly, ten or fifteen years ago: ‘The web was not envisaged as a form of television when it was invented. But, like it or not, it is rapidly resembling TV: linear, passive, programmed and inward-looking.’

The very expression ‘newsfeed’ says it all – Facebook and other social media are feeding people a pre-determined (or is it pre-digested?) stream of pap and bile. Calling it ‘curated’ doesn't make it any better. When I look at my Facebook newsfeed with its fake news, ‘You Will Be Amazed’ and ‘People Are Sharing This Incredible Tweet’ articles, big shouty font, witch hunts, ill-informed opinions, rants, photos whose captions plainly don’t match the visuals (usually posted by people who should know better), strangely homogenised language and expressions (that most people wouldn’t dream of using in normal speech), angry outbursts and tantrums interspersed with unnaturally fluffy puppies and kittens and adverts that ‘Will Make You Cry,’ the bullying, the boasting, the boring and the begging – then I do sometimes wish I had never signed up for this. It takes me back to my university days and the idea of a homunculus.

A sensory or motor homunculus figure shows proportionately how much of the cortex area is taken up by various body parts. If you’ve ever seen one of these little characters, you’ll notice that it’s recognisable as a human figure (just) but some parts are distended or atrophied in comparison to reality. The overall effect is grotesque. This is, perhaps, the relationship that my Facebook newsfeed bears to what is really going on out there.

Derakhshan’s article is now 2 years old, and maybe it took the double-whammy of Brexit and Trump to punch his points, and the phrase ‘echo chamber’ into the public consciousness. I hope it will also prompt a return to proper journalism, rather than a lazy regurgitation of someone else’s digital diarrhoea (couldn’t resist that visceral mixed metaphor, sorry.)

And my answer to all this? Am I going to continue my relationship with Facebook? Well, yes and no. What I really want to do is change my attitude to Facebook.

I must stop anthropomorphizing Facebook. Facebook, as such, is inanimate. It has no heart and no soul, and never will have. It does not even yearn for a heart in a strange Tin Man sort of way. It does not annoy me deliberately, it does not spy on me, it does not tell me things, it does not manipulate the way I think. Nor does it know my innermost feelings.

Facebook is a digital platform. No more, no less. It’s a medium in the same way that the TV is a medium, or the radio. A medium that everyone in the world potentially has access to (except the countries that ban it, but that’s a whole other story.)

I can choose which people I connect with via Facebook, and if I don’t like their opinions, I can switch them off, in the same way we used to switch off the TV, or change channels.

If you’ll allow me one last anthropomorphic metaphor in relation to Facebook, I won’t be ending our relationship in 2017, but I’ll make sure I am the one wearing the trousers.

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