Originally published in Berfrois, May 2019
When I was still quite young, eight, nine, ten years old perhaps – this was deep in the pre-computer, pre-Internet era – a friend of mine and I took up the idea of making little magazines for each other. She would make a magazine for me and I would make a magazine especially for her. My friend had an encyclopaedic mind and enjoyed building up collections. I remember filling my magazines for her with lists and snippets of random information, clipped from whatever means were at hand in the Netherlands: daily newspapers and a youth-oriented magazine about pop music called Help!, which I would buy, especially if ABBA or Boney M was on the cover.
Years later, when I was studying abroad in Germany, I received a letter from her saying she had returned my magazines to my parents’ house and requested that I return hers as well on my next visit back home. The request took me by surprise and was followed by a deep disappointment. Had we not made the magazines for each other? I had. Whereas she – well, I now had a reason to doubt it.
I came to think of this disheartening fragment of memory lately, when I started to grow more and more uneasy about my presence on social media. I had been a reluctant latecomer to Facebook, lured there by the sole purpose of raising money for a film and a book I was working on. The Facebook posting and advertising became a strenuous endeavour that eventually contributed to the success of the crowdfunding campaign which was to cover the gap between the real cost of the project and the amount of institutional funding – thanks to Facebook’s extremely developed algorithm options for advertisers.
But as soon as I had an account – “a profile” – it was a matter of no longer than a couple of days until people would find me there. I got friend requests from people I had worked with years back, people I perhaps had talked to once or twice somewhere, from my friends but also from their friends, and from my secondary school classmates with whom I had lost contact right after our graduation, thirty years ago.
Then one platform led to the next, and soon I found myself not only on Facebook, but also on Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest and, after quitting Pinterest, on Instagram. Then on Vimeo, for the sake of the film project, and naturally on WhatsApp, because as a parent, I seemed to need to contact with my dearest ones at any moment, if only to know which chores were done and which not, or where my daughter was hanging out.
I felt always a bit uncomfortable with the intent to be at everyone’s reach at any moment of the day. But the real uneasiness started when I scrolled my timeline and came to read about the football match of the son of an ex-colleague, the wedding of the nephew of a friend of a friend, or the latest travel of the mother of one of my daughter’s friends to the far East. Did I really want to know it all? As for myself, I seldom displayed my family in my own posts, but preferred somewhat more distanced material like links to articles I thought might interest my “friends”, but – and this is where it got tricky – also to articles I thought intriguing and clever.
When we share on social media links to artworks or writing by others whom we admire, are we not also a bit inclined to show how well informed, cultured and intelligent we are? Aren’t we trying to show how interesting we are? Our posts are overtly positive, we haunt followers, or even buy them – the first 10,000 Twitter followers cost no more than some 100 euros – and make deals with others to connect with each other.
I did that at one point, when I was looking for a new job in the midst of my crisis years. I knew that if I were to have good standing as a communications professional, I would need to have at least 501 contacts on LinkedIn; any less would make me look like a loser.
It took me only a brief breath to reach that magical number and even go far beyond it. All was needed was to follow the rules of the deal and connect with others who were as desperate as myself, many of them freelancers faced with waning commissions. Having passed the 500+ threshold, I realised I had become not only demonstrable “in” on LinkedIn, which was to result even more people wishing to contact with me – success attracts success – but was perceived at my new job as someone who knows how it works with social media.
This is nothing to be proud of. It is simply an example of how difficult it is to resist personal branding.
The grand finale of my carelessly expanded social media involvement happened around the turn of the year when I visited the David Lynch retrospective exhibition at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht.
Many know Lynch as the cult director of Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet. But while he was arranging fake blood on Isabella Rossellini and plotting Dale Cooper’s next steps to unveil the murder of Laura Palmer, he had also been painting, and it is as painter that he likes to be seen nowadays. However, for the wide audience he remains the man behind Twin Peaks, and it was probably thanks to that fame that visitors seemed only marginally interested in his artworks. Instead, they were busy posting images from the exhibition on whatever social media channel they might use. The Bonnefantenmuseum even catered for the social media frenzy by providing visitors with a special space for their Lynch selfies.
Call that a win-win situation: people got the message down to their followers – Look At Me Cultured Here – and the museum got plenty of free publicity when people tagged it in their posts.
It took me only a couple of rooms until I realised I too was hunting for the perfect angle for an Instagram picture. It may have been Lynch’ mocking art or his quotes on the walls praising “bad painting” that made me return to my senses. What was I actually doing? Not looking at art, but using art to make my presence known to my social media followers.
At that point I realised that if I wished to regain some personal integrity, there was only one thing to do. Quit the social media.
If you have seen the excellent HBO documentary The Facebook Dilemma, you may remember the online specialist, a serious academician, who very plausibly sums up the way Facebook breaks into people’s privacy and ruthlessly uses their personal details for money-making. After her careful analysis, she looks straight into the camera and says: Whether you like it or not, Facebook is all we have. I’d like to quit, but as long as all my friends and family are there, there is no alternative.
There is no alternative.
A couple of years ago, a short-lived quit wave hovered over Facebook. Also some of my Facebook friends said boldly bye-bye and moved to Signal, an ad-free and privacy secured platform. But it took only a while and they were back on Facebook. The reason: there was nobody out there.
It has also become popular to “detox” from social media for a while, or to have “offline weekends” with the whole family, after which the brave ones cannot but wait to boost over their suffering and persistence on the same social media they so have avoided. For some freelance journalists, reports on their periodic abstinence from social media seem to provide a nice income, as it is exactly the kind of content that both online and offline magazines are eager to publish – and to share on social media.
Jaron Lanier is a programmer-turned-Internet critic (sort of, he still works for Microsoft), he is also a professional musician, and something of a universal hippie. He has seen the Internet come about, and, as he says in his 2018 TED Talk– which is just one of his many TED Talks – he believed that it would provide humans with a fully new kind of universe full of creativity and beauty, where ideas and information would be freely accessible to everyone and everyone could contribute to them.
While he says to still believe in that utopian vision, he has also came to acknowledge that he, and many other Internet pioneers with him, have contributed to the growth of what he now sees as a monstrous being stuck in algorithms that have the sole purpose to direct people where they do not want to find themselves.
The early 00s look of his website and the titles of his books speak for themselves: Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, or You are Not A Gadget. If it were on him, social media were put behind a paywall and communities would be accessible only for people who really share the same interest, like in the early days of the Internet, as he nostalgically recalls his years in the online community of people interested in the oud, a Middle Eastern musical instrument. That was a time before Facebook and Google discovered the power of the algorithms and started making big money out of them.
The Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now vary from pointing out to waste of time and distraction to a growing unhappiness as others always seem more successful out there than yourself, or, more dramatically: “You lose your free will.” He launches a compact acronym to sum up his argument: BUMMER, which means in his context: “Behavior of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent.” And BUMMER relies on an extensive use of algorithms.
It is no secret that Facebook has done too little and far too late to restrict the spread of fake news and extremist content, and that it sells detailed personal information of anyone using it to third parties. In a recent research, two Dutch newspapers (de Volkskrant and De Correspondent) looked at YouTube, one of the most popular social medium among youngsters at the moment, and discovered that films and vlogs there tend to radicalise people towards more extremely right positions than they had earlier.
They interviewed people who used to be moderate or even leftist in their political opinions, but gradually had turned to more extreme racist, anti-feminist, anti-immigrant opinions after having watched that kind of films on YouTube, and started to react to those films in an ever increasingly radical way.
This is all bad, very bad, and even worse is that, as The Facebook Dilemma shows, Facebook has no slightest intent to change this strategy. In Lanier’s words, the two companies that are the main culprits of BUMMER, Google and Facebook – and the Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp – soak up your personal details and the details of all your contacts and convert the information for commercial use. You are in fact unprotected, how well ever you think to make use of the privacy settings. His advice is clear: Get Out.
He did. I did (for a large part at least).
But what worries me even more is how easily even careful use of social media starts to mould our personalities, and how the very media we thought provide us with a platform for sharing what interests us and what matters us most, in fact create divided worlds.
If the world appears different to everyone on social media, we all find ourselves each in our own online universe, thinking that we are being, well, social. This is where personal branding has become an end in itself and empathy disappears. You may be resistant to such behaviour; I am not.
How then, faced with the inescapable need to have a professional profile on LinkedIn and maybe the will to see what is happening on Twitter, or just to contact with friends and family, on Facebook indeed – how to do it in a way that feels at least a bit right? The answer depends on yourself, and the parameters you set for your own social media behaviour. I think that there is a fine balance between becoming overtly cautious of every step you take in public, and not losing your spontaneity. The point is, you do need parameters, and you need to act on social media in a way that corresponds to those parameters. For the rest, the choice is yours.
Let me end with Lanier’s suggestions. In You Are Not A Gadget, he gives a surprisingly mildly tuned list for coping with the escalating urge to keep on posting. My favourites are:
- Create a website that expresses something about who you are that won’t fit into the template available to you on a social networking site.
- Post a video once in a while that took you one hundred times more time to create than it takes to view.
- Write a blog post that took weeks of reflection before you heard the inner voice that needed to come out.
So slow down, and see what you really are looking at. Otherwise the title of Lynch’ exhibition is all too true of the way we are present on social media: “Someone is in my house”. And we have no slightest idea of who or what it is.