I got my Facebook Timeline sometime back in fall 2011. It didn’t offend me from an aesthetic point of view, and it seemed at the time like one of Facebook’s least offensive revamps. I could pretty up my wall a little, organize my photos and links, and no harm done.
Then I noticed that I couldn’t see other people anymore. I could hardly see anybody, in fact, but me.
It was weird, almost like I was getting in the way of myself all of a sudden. I knew people were out there posting, but I encountered them in the wild less and less often. I also noticed that comments and likes to my own posted content — particularly jokes, random thoughts or other text unaccompanied by photos or video — became far scarcer. (I’m funny and pithy as hell, ask anybody.) Other people in my friend/subscriber base complained similarly: There was a sudden dip in communication, even though we were all figuratively still in the same big room together.
I have no coding skill, no particular insight into how Facebook chooses what I will and will not see. So this rant is based strictly on anecdote and observation. I may be completely wrong and any close analysis might not bear me out. But I think in judging its own value, Facebook has decided that communication between users will be its secondary mission. What is more fascinating to the self than the self? And how can Facebook accommodate that fascination in a way that maintains longstanding users while inviting more new ones, whom it can use to carry out a distinct commercial mission?
Researchers at Western Illinois University studied the Facebook habits of 294 students, aged between 18 and 65, and measured two “socially disruptive” elements of narcissism – grandiose exhibitionism (GE) and entitlement/exploitativeness (EE). GE includes ”self-absorption, vanity, superiority, and exhibitionistic tendencies” and people who score high on this aspect of narcissism need to be constantly at the centre of attention. They often say shocking things and inappropriately self-disclose because they cannot stand to be ignored or waste a chance of self-promotion. The EE aspect includes “a sense of deserving respect and a willingness to manipulate and take advantage of others”. The research revealed that the higher someone scored on aspects of GE, the greater the number of friends they had on Facebook, with some amassing more than 800. Those scoring highly on EE and GG were also more likely to accept friend requests from strangers and seek social support, but less likely to provide it, according to the research.
— “Facebook’s ‘dark side’: study finds link to socially aggressive narcissism,” The Guardian, March 17 2012
We should have been forewarned in September 2011, when the tech guru lauding Timeline as “the best change Facebook has ever made” was Pete Cashmore, founder/CEO of Mashable, whose brand is as much his handsome face as it is his product. Of course someone like Cashmore would have no problem with a social-media optimization that emphasizes vanity … particularly not when there’s a fifth-paragraph disclaimer in his big sloppy kiss to Mark Zuckerberg that says, “Mashable is one of several news organizations partnering with Facebook on a social news app.”
(Cashmore dispensed that kiss on CNN.com, which is probably going to buy Mashable outright. If you need to know more about Cashmore beyond his attractive mien, heady balance sheet and entirely apropos surname, be advised he employs the kind of editors who think turning homeless people into walking WiFi stations is a capital idea. Want to comment on that assertion? Mashable will be needing near-total access to your Twitter, or, yes, your Facebook account.)
Facebook didn’t create Timeline for its users, though, not really. It did so for its vast array of partners and advertisers, hoping to create a so-called “frictionless” web interface where you constantly declare what you’re buying, wearing, eating, and listening to. This encourages other users to consume the same things, or at least consume things in the same way. We’re all being frogmarched toward Timeline — eventually, although target dates have shifted, every Facebook account will use the Timeline profile. The end result, from the standpoint of the advertisers and cooperations, is a far less chaotic, far more controllable, far more quantifiable and exploitable Internet. No one could make the money they knew was out there to be made off the web circa 1995 to 2003, because it was not standardized. Mark Zuckerberg is standardizing it.
And our vanity coaxes us to go along. Facebook was never about sharing (allocation of one’s resources to others) so much as disclosing (proclaiming one’s own inherent value). Now it’s even less about disclosing and more about acting as a conduit for sales and services.
Since adopting Timeline, my home screen consistently defaults to the Top Stories setting, despite the fact I continually refresh it to Most Recent. Top Stories is prioritized, I notice, to favor status updates that include links, pictures, videos, or a simple text mention of some media event. (ABC’s “The River” was a big one last time I logged in.) I see more status updates from people that I’ve interacted most frequently with in the past, fewer from those whose updates I’ve commented on less often. I see lots of notes at the very top of my feed about who’s consuming what and how (lots of my friends read stuff on Washington Post Social Reader, for example), not so many that are just folks talking. In my right-hand Ticker, I see people’s likes … even the likes of people whose likes I unsubscribed to months ago, sometimes more than once. The way Facebook makes us share information now turns us into one big Nielsen family — a metric for what’s selling, who’s hot, what are people talking about today?
Where I found myself clicking on Facebook, in sheer self-defense, was my own Timeline. From there, and only from there, I can see quickly and easily how other people are responding to information I’ve shared via Facebook. And in thinking about that act, I saw my own vanity, and the self-regarding loop in which Facebook kept me contained. I come to Facebook to validate myself; I stay on Facebook (Zuckerberg hopes) to act as a social-media mule — a sales vehicle, a living billboard, for billions of dollars in potential goods and services.
I, and all of us with a Facebook account, run the risk of starving to death even as we surfeit ourselves on our own rich inner lives. It’s not as tragic as it sounds, though … we could always look at ourselves from a different angle, or look away altogether.
What else is going on: My 2010 video essay “iMacGuffin,” about plot motivators in the age of infostorage, was the subject of the new column Audiovisualcy at IndieWire’s PressPlay blog. Many thanks to author Catherine Grant of Film Studies For Free, who’s long been a great encouragement to me and many others who think about film..