It’s deadly quiet in the bar. Where are the customers? Isn’t anybody thirsty? Ah, right. They’re home “doing” Facebook.
You can see why Facebook is popular. It makes personal two of the core themes of American culture: broadcasting and advertising. It enables you to broadcast your life to an audience, graciously idealizing yourself – and them – through “favorite” photos and edited accounts of everyday news. Like tattoos and piercings, the process displays you. It gets you shelf space as friends and other customers troll the aisles of the interpersonal supermarket appreciating “my” familiar and admired products. You can make yourself a feature page in a virtual number of People magazine. And it’s a marketplace, a form of eBay, where the transactions can go both ways.
Since the number of your “friends” can be calculated, it keeps score of your expanding personality and its deepening confirmation as folks notice you and confirm that, yes indeedy, you do exist. In the process you’re expanding the boundaries of your life and maybe forming up your life story by getting in touch with long lost childhood pals.
And unlike the nattering here at the bar, there are no unpleasant reminders of what you don’t want to think about.
You hear praise but also complaints about Facebook in the bar. It keeps personal life superficial and airbrushed, and it keeps it vicarious. In massaging your life story for your army of friends, you’re accepting that your personality is an enabling fiction. In a small way you’re your own PR agent, offering yourself as a local “Lady Gaga” or some other invented celebrity.
To be fair, you do have to keep the fictionalizing within the unspoken limits of manners and polite sanity – though your friends may not have reliable ways of checking up to see if “you” really is the “you” you say are. Not that you can’t be an attractive liar or sociopath in nose to nose conversation. The critics fear that you’re making people endlessly distractible and trivial. They fear that your techno-infatuation over the internet is symptomatic of The End of Robust Real Life. As in the 1890s, the fear is that all this virtual reality and facsimile is making you effete, spineless, and infantile. Men are no longer real men, and women are – well, you get the picture.
Are the critics onto something?
What do we know? We’re psychic bartenders, not psychics. Instead of crystal balls we have only a sink full of unwashed glasses. What interests us as we rinse the butts out of last night’s glasses is the underlying fear out there that selves are becoming trivialized and emptied out.
In particular we wonder what it means that Facebook seems to be showing us people frantic to celebrate — or prove to the world — that they’re real. After all, Facebook has become the multibillion dollar device for exclaiming “Look at me! I exist! I’m me!”
I know, I know. You’re wondering if this fear is related to the popular fascination with autism, especially Asperger’s syndrome, in which the sufferer can be “almost” social: capable of facsimile intimacy with you. Asperger’s folks are “almost” real. In one direction they’re a marker for our fear that everything’s turning into a facsimile of real life. If you’re autistic, in theory you can’t understand other people’s motives. But even with Facebook friends, you have to keep everybody’s motives pretty simple. You airbrush your life to mask some of your embarrassing pimples and shameful motives.
While you were surfing the internet, the Matrix has taken over. That’s the worry.
Look around you. Lots of bruising competition for jobs and status in a sick economy. Whose elbow just bloodied your nose? The rich and powerful pull a lever and you jump through a hoop to pay the rent. People who invade other countries and kill education budgets call themselves “conservative.” The headlines show you “kill team” soldiers — Support Our Troops — grinning over the corpse of an innocent Afghan kid that they bagged like an elephant in order to feel heroic. The manicured newscaster reports another workplace or schoolyard rampage motivated by WKW (Who Knows What). Prime time will spotlight yet another serial murderer who could be living in your garden shed or under your bed.
So yes, maybe the bipeds are all becoming psychopaths or sociopaths or superficiopaths, insensitive to other people. Maybe our genes are degenerating or poisoned. It’s a street of random killers out there.
And the rage to make things right again can be potent. If you enjoy rage for revenge, watch Dexter, the autistic TV vigilante, who exacts cruel vengeance on tacitly austistic predators.
But wait a minute. Maybe this preoccupation with autism and psychos is a sign of our raised expectations. We live in psychologized societies, with all sorts of reminders to be worried about our mental well-being. We take mood vitamins, psychotropic elixirs, payment holidays. Erotic life is more explicit and voluptuously advertised than ever before, so of course it’s also more superficial and rubber-stamped, which can give you gnawing hunger pangs and make everyday intimacy a romp with a sex doll or a replay of The Stepford Wives. Who isn’t worried about “commitment”?
And to add insult to injury, everything is insured these days. You’re continually told that, as the merchandisers put it, everything comes with a “lifetime guarantee.” If you find that you’re not insured — if you lose you health or your house or your family — you feel like a loser. You’re a failure. You’re nobody, socially dead, and maybe enraged enough to go on a rampage like one of those psychos we were just talking about. Or maybe Facebook will make you feel connected and worthwhile again.
In a way there’s nothing new about the activity. When have people not advertised themselves? True, Facebook tends to be trivial, but that’s nothing new either. Our swapping of little gifts and gossip is a form of grooming such as our primate cousins enjoy. It relaxes and affirms the ephemeral self of the only animal on the planet that is burdened by awareness that everybody dies and that communication is never more than approximate. In this sense Facebook is another face of the denial that makes life possible. So in this bracing context we’re all looking for “lifetime guarantees,” and Facebook is part of the fine print.
The problem of course is that denial always has its limits. Once you become aware of denial, it’s harder to keep it going. Once you become aware that the fine print is just fine print, and the warranty is unlikely to save you, then you need some other sort of network to sustain you — say, friendship, or maybe a spot at the bar, with the other curious customers and your good-natured psychic bartender.
Call it face to face book.