Monday, December 12, 2011

You and Mark Aren't Friends

Timeline is the story of your life.

(Mark Zuckerberg)

Nine beef consommés, one iced cucumber soup, one mussel soup…

(Georges Perec, 'Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Ninteen Hundred and Seventy-Four')

As of last week, New Zealand is again the site of an experiment. I’m not sure why Facebook decided to launch Timeline here, four months after Mark Zuckerberg first introduced it to the media. I guess we’re a relatively small control group, and we speak English, which is nice. We’re also marginal enough to be unlikely to become an international centre of outrage, as it so often the case with the company’s innovations once it becomes clear that they are the place where your privacy goes to die.

This is not literally the case with Timeline, at least not since a couple of notable problems were rectified. However what the profile does is to fundamentally reorganise your information and make it vastly more searchable, albeit by the same people whom you have given permission to view the information in the first place. This is no small difference. Previously Facebook worked as a diary that couldn’t be browsed except by turning its pages backwards one by one, in an extremely laborious and time-consuming manner, meaning that for all intents and purposes your old data wouldn’t be accessible except by somebody who took an inordinate amount of interest in it. Now Timeline places the things you have shared with Facebook along a chronological axis that can be navigated quickly and intuitively, allowing users to, say, jump back to somebody’s life in 2008, or view all the information they have put up in a particular category over time.

The easiest way to make sense of the change is to understand that your Facebook profile is henceforth no longer your (public) diary: it’s your biography. To underscore this point, Facebook invites you now to fill in the time before you joined the site. Consider my timeline:

The time between ‘born’ – that’s 1971, folks – and late 2008, when I joined Facebook, is currently blank, but I could fill it by uploading and dating photos from my childhood, or creating announcements and events to mark key moments in my life, say, my high school graduation, or the time I moved to New Zealand. Facebook would like me to do that very much. That’s not just because the more information they have about me, the more valuable their product becomes to their advertisers, but also, and on balance I suspect more importantly, because the more emotionally invested I become in their product, the deeper my engagement with it is likely to grow. Google+ has millions of users, yet nobody uses it. Facebook is used daily even by some of its most ardent critics. It’s always been its paradox.

The current promotional video for Timeline features a studiously ordinary subject. American, white, male, professional, married, one child: the typical default person that technology products and the contemporary way of life are marketed to and through. The montage technique used in the video sutures the conventional style of presentation of such lives in cinema and especially advertising with the design of Timeline itself, which becomes therefore the film of you, the multimedia portfolio/cv of who you are (bearing in mind once again that in the current zeitgeist the personal is the professional, and vice versa).

The chap in the video, Andy Sparks, is listed as working for Facebook but is a fictional construct. However when the company gave the first glimpse of Timeline at the f8 event in September, its capabilities were illustrated by the CEO using his own profile. This ought to have spoken of an all-but-ordinary life, yet there Zuckerberg was, spending time at work, travelling for work, getting a dog, minutely recording the food that he cooks himself. ‘Ramp and bacon omelette, breakfast pizza, shaved asparagus pizza, roasted curry chicken thighs…’

The lingering of this detail on the big screen behind Zuckerberg at the Timeline launch reminded me of the Georges Perec piece, originally published in Action Poétique, purporting to be the inventory of the foodstuffs he had eaten in the year 1974. For what is that model Facebook profile about if not an elevating the ordinariness of life into a work of art?

Recording minutiae, and the kinds of things that would happen to anybody, is what Facebook has always been best at – and by the way, I think it is extremely churlish to criticise it for it. Note however the two very different modes of input (and therefore of writing) of one’s story on Timeline. On the one hand, there is the regular accretion of the status updates and assorted daily activities, which up until now were never meant to form part of a permanent biography, but could be assumed to have a very fleeting lifespan; on the other, there is the more carefully selected and presented information that the users supply in order to fill the gaps in their digitally documented past thanks to the new feature. ‘It’s really cool,’ said Zuckerberg to the f8 crowd. ‘It’s really fun and easy to fill your timeline with all the stories from your past.’ And cool and fun and easy it may be, but it’s qualitatively and conceptually very different from having all of your updates republished as part of the new profile, which is the first thing that will happen to every single one of the 800 million existing Facebook users during the roll-out of Timeline. And if you don’t like that, if you don’t wish in fact to have your biography go to print without so much as an opportunity to have a look at the proofs, I’m afraid you’re going to have to go back and edit it, bit by excruciating bit, as soon as Timeline lands on your profile.

This is a far from insignificant demand, and not just because the older, more active users will find it a very time-consuming and fraught task, but because it amounts to a sudden repurposing of personal information that was entered in a different writing space under very different assumptions.

Needless to say, there is, as is customary with these ‘free’ services, no way to opt out from the redesign. You can only opt in sooner, if you’re especially eager.

‘Zuck’ has.

The cover of Zuckerberg’s life story is the quintessential ingratiating device of digital social networking: a pet's photo. Rather more surprisingly, however, and contrary to the f8 presentation, the CEO hasn’t really bothered to fill in his life before Facebook. He writes that he was born in 1984 in the helpfully geolocated town of Dobbs Ferry, New York, but without posting a baby picture. Then nothing until 1998, when he ‘started school at Ardsley High School’. Then, in 2000, the first picture, from his time at the Phillips Exeter Academy. In 2004 he starts work at Facebook, with the intent of ‘making the world more open and connected’. Finally, on 11 February 2004, he joins the actual Facebook, and the rest is, well, not quite history, apparently, because even from this point onwards Zuckerberg’s profile appears uncreditably sparse. Did he not use his own network? Has he purged it for public consumption? And if so, when, and why? Remember, this is the person who wants you to share more, and for whom ‘having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’. So what happened? One clue may be in the wonderfully pointed reminder right under the Timeline cover.

You and Mark aren’t friends, and furthermore you cannot become friends with Mark seeing as he is one of those super-users (ordinary users can’t have more than 5,000 friends. Zuckerberg has over ten million), therefore feel free to subscribe to his updates but be mindful that’s how far as it will ever go.

If Zuckerberg’s profile is in fact sanitised – and I want to believe that it is: nobody could be this uninteresting in real life – this would make his public positions on privacy hypocritical, to no-one’s surprise. Nor is it surprising or in fact in any way noteworthy that this so-called ‘Mark Zuckerberg’ is in fact simply the face of the company, a PR construct, just like Andy Sparks. But the effacing work that goes into that, well, that is something.

There is another Mark Zuckerberg out there who must be quite a remarkable person, with quirks and oddities and a personality that is likely to match his consuming ambition and his fabulous wealth. With darknesses, too, with secrets beyond the amount for which his lawsuits were settled, with kinks, perhaps, even, certainly with relationships whose history is not exhausted by acts of friending and unfriending, loving and ceasing to love. But we don’t get to see any of that. Instead, we get to subscribe to the updates of the authorised Mark Zuckerberg, Timeline’s model subject, at once a consumer and an object of consumption, who, like the type of the well-adjusted, shows us the aspects of ourselves is okay to put on show, and who it is okay for us to be, if we wish for success, acceptance, and soon – who knows – citizenship itself.

Except lives are never that transparent, therefore cannot be made that opaque. For Perec had it right: there may be a depth of political, existential meaning in the seemingly insignificant details, say, in the food that you cook or consume, in the places you visit in your free time – what you reveal about them, how you write them – and there is no amount of templates that will erase that. That slightly clichéd fear, that no matter how careful we are on the networks, we cannot hide our true selves, is nonetheless real.

Ramp and bacon omelette, breakfast pizza, shaved asparagus pizza, roasted curry chicken thighs…

George Perec. 'Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Ninteen Hundred and Seventy-Four'. In Species of Spaces and Other Species, edited and Translated by John Sturrock. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1997.


Ashleigh said...

Great stuff.
A few weeks ago I went to an event where one of the speakers, Peter Burnett, gave a talk about his year of writing down everything he'd eaten and drunk - in the spirit of Perec's 'Attempt at an Inventory ...'. Eventually this account was published it as a book. He said that one of the reasons he wanted to do it was that he was a bit disappointed with Perec's obvious omission of crucial details - there were some days when he hadn't recorded EXACTLY what he'd eaten, like what had been in the sandwich or how many asparagus spears there were and so forth. Perec wasn't being true to the spirit of the challenge. But what Burnett found when he did his own attempt at an inventory was that he sometimes felt uncomfortable writing down exactly what he'd eaten - a lot of sandwiches and slices from Greggs - and seeing all of that information together painted a picture of him that he hadn't really seen before. His food had exposed him! And it was too late to turn back. He couldn't go and un-eat it.
Anyway, just a thought.

Unknown said...

Diaries are cool :-)

wv; petiol, small anger.

Philip said...

Two lovers sat on a park bench, with their dongles touching, holding Blackberries in the moonlight. So profound was their love for each other, they needed no words to express it. Finally she txted. omg yr not lk yr TL @ all!!!1! When he had completed his latest wave of Angry Birds, he txted in return duh!!!!!!! th@s my CROPORATE self Once more there was silence between them, as two lovers sat on a park bench, with their dongles touching, holding Blackberries in the moonlight.

And that, little hatchlings, is how babies stopped being made.

Word Verification: condspe, the result of a random rebranding of a nefarious netizen.

Dougal said...

i>Recording minutiae, and the kinds of things that would happen to anybody, is what Facebook has always been best at<i

Part of what's churlish about people disdaining Facebook's trivialising aspect is that this was also one of the great breakthroughs of the novel form; there's just something rather more open about being interested in recording your own instead of having the distance of pretending you're just interested in others' meals.

A really interesting post, and one which has clarified something for me: in the introduction to narrative theory course I teach students have inordinate difficulty with the idea of 'narrative units' or micro-narratives and 'narrative wholes'. Each tutorial I give on the basic terms of narratology ends up much more fraught and complex than I'd expected.

One reason for this, I suspect now, is that Facebook's a proliferation of micro-narratives, but that they're integrated into so-called real life much more thoroughly (what we all had for breakfast, and those oddly-worded roast curry chicken thighs).

So the event / representation of an event distinction -- crucial for classical narratology to get on its feet, letalone start staggering anywhere -- gets much trickier to think through.

Ben Wilson said...

Just checked it out. Wow, nothing happened in my life until 2009. After that, despite extremely intermittent updates, it looks like a rich tapestry of playing with my kids, and going out on my boat. Never mind that I've felt like I haven't spent anywhere near enough time with the kids, and sold the boat last Monday for a huge loss because I need the money, having lost my job contract many months ago.

I haven't kept a real diary since I was 14, when my brother found it, and annotated it with rude comments. Indeed, when asked to do so for 5th Form English, my gut feeling was "fuck off, as if I'm going to tell a fucking teacher about my innermost thoughts".

I did, however, recently rummage through an old, old stash of mine, every exercise book I had written in since I started school. Fascinating. With an adult eye I can see a massive intellectual explosion happened during the 7-8 year old period.

You'll never find that out on Facebook.

Giovanni Tiso said...

And that, little hatchlings, is how babies stopped being made.

I loved that.

Giovanni Tiso said...

So the event / representation of an event distinction -- crucial for classical narratology to get on its feet, letalone start staggering anywhere -- gets much trickier to think through.

Or possibly interestingly easier, insofar as Facebook apps (the one used by 'Mark Zuckerberg' in the f8 presentation is called Social Cooking) provide a template and a set of conventions for the representation of events. Timeline itself is a biographical engine. It's a pity that it is so tightly locked within the platform, because I think it would be wonderful to use it to create the biography of, say, a literary figure.

Another recent innovation that made me think of Perec, incidentally, is passive auto-sharing.

Unknown said...

For Biography, and novel writing it would be pretty good. I used to use postix on the wall for that sort of thing, mind you the real meat of biography, the making things up bit, we would still have to do ourselves ;-)
Disclaimer, I used to be a biography fiend, until someone started doing me (small thing for school) and I realised, hell, I don't even know myself that well.

grati, free thanks?

rob said...

In a way, it would seem that timeline may offer one a new option: deleting and editing what is there. (Maybe I already can- hey, that would be neat!)
I'm preparing to go back and delete pretty much everything, since I can't recall ever making a 'comment' I wanted to stand for more than a short period.

rob said...

This is more of a concern...