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The Peculiar Face of Facebook

16 Nov 2016

 

'Lay out the structure you already have, x-ray it for a hairline fracture, find it, and think about it for a week or a year; solve the insoluble problem.'

(Annie Dillard, The Writing Life)

 

This year I’ve been wrestling with an insoluble problem: What exactly is Facebook? I still haven’t solved it, not by half, but I continue to x-ray it. I’ve been on Facebook for nearly twelve months now. I continue to find this river run of words, pictures, digital threads and memes, which course down the middle of my screen when I log in, inexplicably compelling. And enigmatic.

 

Before I go on with this blog, I’ll be upfront. I take Facebook seriously.

 

And yet like any medium of communication, particularly social, doesn’t Facebook deserve to be taken seriously? Shouldn’t all our relationships in this world be taken seriously, digital or otherwise?

 

Facebook has become by now familiar territory - although some of the more adroit moves still elude me. And like life itself, it’s never to be presumed upon. But for me to this day, when I post, comment or Like, I still feel as if there is a shadow lurking to snatch me into a Dark Pit - no doubt because of past and present voices of warning about interactions with social media. And sometimes, I long to be that carefree witty sprite, lively dancing through waves of posts, just as some of my Facebook friends. They seem so resilient, light-hearted in their pirouette with words and emoticons.

 

But really, are they so? Being on Facebook is to be in a space dangerously charged with all sorts of projections. Rowan Williams, when he was Bishop of Monmouth gave a series of talks for the World Meditation Centre, which later became basis for his book Silence and Honey Cakes. He spoke about the ‘person’ as distinct from the ‘individual’. The person is the one before us with whom we are in relationship. The person has a wholeness, or at least an aware inner brokenness, that enables herself or himself to know connection with self and with others. And also, with God. Individuals, however, are governed by ideas about consumer choices; relationships are secondary to entity. For an individual, the world is seen in terms of market values, which are seen as more worthwhile than the search for deeper meaning. For a person, to move in the world is to journey with an evolving truth. For an individual, truth chops and changes according to fashion.

 

For me, this is one hairline fracture on Facebook. The flat glossy surface of the screen so readily veils the person. It belies truth. Persons can seem few; individuals many. Between you and me, I and Thou, there can feel to be (glossy though it is) a wall of impenetrable morass. This is not to deny the intricacies that already exist in other relationships. And not to deny there are persons who post and comment. But in the world of Facebook this distinction between person and individual is exacerbated.

 

I decided to go on Facebook to give St Peter’s Bookroom a profile on social media. A bookshop presence requires a personal account. So I now have a Carol profile, and operate a Bookroom one. When I started on Facebook I made rules for myself. Unknown landscapes need markers. The directive was one post per day, relevant to the Bookroom or Parish, on the Bookroom Facebook page. Rules certainly can be broken but only in exceptional circumstances. Sometimes I share a meme about libraries or bookshops or books generally. Nothing much was posted on my personal page until September. Something then shifted inside me. Now I feature what I have come to call my Splats, small haiku-like word poems. Deliberately, there are no pictures with Splats. It’s about the beauty of the word. A reminder as well that words don’t always need to be dressed up with an image to speak to the heart. And these words are ordinary, come inside from any one of us. These are my Splats - what are yours?

 

Friends don’t have to engage with Facebook posts and don’t have to post. Its landscape can be treated as a newspaper; simply read. There is no rule that states: Thou must post. But in posting my word poems I now feel even more like Alice falling down a rabbit hole. And Facebook seems to be all about falling and the journey itself, not so much the arriving. Plummeting down a tunnel of posts that can slow down or speed up, determined by where one stops the mouse or finger. My own mind can elongate or shrink depending upon which post portal I choose to engage and share time with at any given point. It’s an album that feels endless and transient. But the pixilations are etched firmly together. And Posts, anyone’s, can randomly reappear; months or years afterwards.

 

Facebook is not everyone’s cup of tea. Who comes to this tea party? My pixilated Facebook page is a world of incredible richness, diversity and wit, humour and generosity, alive to the spirit of life. It can be a listening place: helping people through loss, illness, loneliness. Prayers for healing can be asked for. It is a place of celebration: family events, personal accomplishments, birthdays, ordinations, weddings, reunions, anniversaries, trips overseas. It is a place to commemorate. It can be a place to share blogs, sermons, articles on politics and human interest to attract discussion. Current major world events, such as the recent US election, can dominate discussion. There can be confrontation too about these world issues, values, insights, plagues of opinions, longing, complaints. It’s a world certainly vulnerable to abuse. Vulnerable to the dissemination of misinformation, exposed to the emotional manipulation others; instructions to Share if You Care. Facebook itself has the power to moderate and ban users for a period of time. Usually this is for derogatory language. Most often though Facebook self-regulates. A Friend simply goes into reaction and withdraws for a period of time, or Unfriends another.

 

More hairline fractures. There are Friends on Facebook I haven’t actually ever met, the Friend whose real human face I have never seen, whose voice I have never heard, who is not wholly ‘person’ for me. And yet Facebook and I have colluded in constructing their profile and investing in them the power to Unfriend me. In this environment I too am categorised as choice. Facebook assumes by its very topography that Friends are disposable. Here, our views or differences, once expressed seem very quickly to become identified with our personhood. Judgements abound. In terms of abuse, we do need protection. The need for boundaries is unequivocal. However, the human factor, dispensations we have for known people’s moods, depression, grief reactions, and understandings of another’s foibles, are in abeyance when you haven’t yet met a Friend. We have only our known internal experience to move with. And judgements based on mutual Friends. Acquaintances on Facebook, those people we have met and know a little about already, are somewhat different. Sometimes they can be sensed like brushstrokes from an impressionist painting. More of their personality is coloured in by the lines they draw on the screen. But, just as with those not known, when I Like what they post, am I liking something only because it’s known in me? Whose face is it that I am actually seeing? Am I seeing only myself in this great swirl of social media? When I see a Profile image is it only my own face, again and again, in various multitudinous ways? When I Like, is it the post heading itself, the content in the post, the person, or the projected idea of the person that I am liking?

 

As in life itself, on Facebook there is no such thing as a level playing field. How heavily ‘agendaed’, fraught with power play or emotional needs, how wounded is it? Reputation and public standing precede, even Facebook. I feel dismay at myself when I realise that I have descended into jealousy when a Friend posts her afternoon trip into the countryside - and within an hour receives over ninety (90) Likes. Defensively, I boast that I have Friends in Liked places. Likewise my paranoia is quickened when I comment on a Friend’s post and receive no Like. Or I am mortified when I post a comment and can think of at least three different ways of reading that comment - only one of which was intended. And oppressed by the delusion that all my Friends are simultaneously reading that comment at that very moment. And, when I post a Splat I regularly ask, is this the Splat that will launch a thousand Likes? I confess to having phoned my husband on occasion to ask for at least one Like.

 

And that’s just it. Facebook is another mirror of the wounded self. Where is any one of us located in this billion, billion pixilated universe? Facebook is a public space but it really only exists inside the head. Sometimes it feels like a sort of restless heaving of the collective subconscious. Engagement with it is one more version of a First World hit, a caffeinated screen shot.

 

But Facebook can be more than this. Annie Dillard’s words and Rowan William’s distinction both point us back toward Jesus: Who is my neighbour? On Facebook I am asked: Look for the hairline fracture. Look for where the face of the person is revealed. Notice that thread where frisson and conflict ends with reconciliation - not shredded demented disintegration. Look for where vulnerability or brokenness is apparent, instead of the flashy. Celebrate and commemorate life. There are faces behind each of these posts - where is that face? I spoke to someone recently who has just culled his 2600 friends. How can anyone talk with even a quarter this number of Friends? How can I already relate properly to the fraction of Friends on my page? I received via Australia Post recently an actual hand written letter from a Friend and I had to look her up on Facebook to see who she was. On Facebook, where do the posts of a stranger sketch a face? I continue to be challenged to try and hear the voice of Friends I have never actually heard in the world as the voice of my neighbour. My Facebook Friends are multi-cut diamonds. They are facets revealing spectral hues and creating multiple rays of light. Annie Dillard and Rowan Williams challenge me to seek out how their comments, words and images point away from themselves and toward some greater coherent centre. There is a ground of God here where connection is dynamic. A place too, where Alice can simply travel down to Wonderland and be Alice for a bit, free to enjoy a Mad Hatter’s tea party with a wonderful variety of Facebook Friends and real life friends and family as well.