The Facebook phenomenon succeeds thanks to three factors. It promises us eternal youth. It virtualizes the Christian faith. It allows us to play at life without getting too beat up.
Twenty: Facebook is the Global Campus for Perpetual Twenty-Year-Olds
In a world ruled by the ego trip, short-term interests and the compartmentalization of perspectives, we feel ourselves ever more alone and crushed by social norms. We’re under the impression that certain conventions are imposed in every domain. Facebook capitalizes on our desire to have friends, soul mates, far from competition and unabashed self-interest. It’s an illusion, a lure.
Among youth, friendship is vital. It’s the great subject of our teenage years, the getting beyond the feeling of being alone, misunderstood, of not knowing in whom to confide, whom to trust. Facebook originated in American universities. When one gets to college, one has to weave new alliances, sometimes on a campus far from family, often far from the friends with whom one has grown up – when one goes to school in a new town. We would like the West to be like a vast campus, a giant college, governed by the imperatives of fun, pleasure and perpetual enjoyment, with its parties, its competition without any real life-or-death stakes, even though one must graduate some time and go to work. The global campus spirit allows the ultimate putting off of the sense of entering the sad, objective reality of gray cities and boring anonymous careers. Facebook is the promise of always being 20 years old.
2000: Facebook Is the Latest Avatar of Two Millennia of Christianity
Facebook capitalizes on the Christian foundation of the West; that is, the repressed, outmoded, but for many always guilt-inducing injunction to love one another, to be equal and empathetic, to have faith in a world where we would all be brothers and sisters, joyous, sympathetic, connected through one and the same essential current, sharing the affects of our souls. Hence, this permanent and complete confession on the home page and in one’s profile and the feverish and constant expression of a mimetic low-cost compassion. On Facebook, we are all simultaneously priest and sinner, the disciplinarian who pardons and accepts and the troublemaker who displays her vices. That can go quite far, as in the case of the murderer who recently boasted about his crime on his profile, probably to distinguish himself from others.
But which is the god of Facebook? There isn’t one; it’s a religion without transcendence, a hollow religion of the desire for distinction and seduction. It’s an iconology of the brand where the individual becomes a product that counts his popularity by the numbers of comments he elicits. It’s a clinic of loss, of absence, a greed where fantasy takes the place of the absolute, assisted in that by the electric addiction to clicks. One never knows, perhaps a miracle is hiding behind each connection. In any case, the expectation is there. Moreover, one is under the impression of having all the more beautiful friends for never having met them, for never having looked them in the eyes, with all the true risks that entails. Like the saints, we know them only by some details into which we may project all our fantasies.
There is, on top of that, the drive to messianism that this medium allows. One can no longer count the number of members who, like so many pocket gurus, distill pearls of wisdom every day. There’s a bit of the ambiance of 2000 years ago Judea where a crowd of false prophets fought for the attention of the public until Jesus won out with the simplest and most effective message.
Two: Facebook is the Simulation Game That Splits the Real World.
Facebook is also a simulation game for teenagers that prepares them for the real world. It’s a practice and training for social life with all its codes and hypocrisies. It’s the social mask gone global. There, one may test what attracts and what repels. There, one may create alliances and foment phony guerrilla actions. This game of simulation is supposed to prepare us, to train us, for the real game of life.
But we’ll have fewer friends in this so-called “real” life. There, where psyches are serially produced and formatted, including in their artificial delirium of originality, friendship is ever more difficult. For friendship is not the mirror of the “I like/I don’t like.” It has always been rare. Like love, it requires courage, a sense of risk, of putting oneself in danger and of going beyond oneself. It assumes souls in correspondence, that is, paradoxically, different souls that feed one another with their dangerous otherness. The true friend is first of all a stranger, even an apparent enemy. All great conquests are dialectical.
In a world where we fear the Other, the negative (on Facebook, one may like or remain indifferent only, but not – with a single click – “not like”), everything that is not within the soft norm; in a world where we want to pass for originals by walking a tightrope above the nets of mimicry, where the quantitative plebiscite elects itself and where we glorify success for the success (people click on me, therefore I am), Facebook risks contributing, like television, to the standardization of our characters and to killing the poetry, the beautiful monster of the unexpected, the chimeras of renewal. The consequence: there is more and more larval hatred, a bit like the frog who puffs himself up in front of his mirror, taking himself for an offender.
The catch with respect to the Facebook phenomenon is that we’re all in there, even when we haven’t signed up. The game is only apparently played within a restricted space. Facebook is not separated from the world. It influences it; models it; and it reflects the world’s contradictions. Social networks even risk becoming more important than reality little by little. In becoming the antithetical mirror of our solitudes, they feed our narcosis, our artificial urge to dream reality rather than confront it: the time we spend in front of the screen is the time we no longer spend in the – now reputedly hostile – streets. The more the virtual contains pseudo-friends, the less reality supplies us with real ones. Users accustomed to the comfort of simulation have less and less courage and patience in nonvirtual situations. Yet, it’s by forging that one becomes a blacksmith, not by watching – however beautiful it may be – the fire dance.
Post-script: After reading this article, thank you for friending me.
Luis de Miranda has published “L’art d’être libres au temps des automates ” [“The Art of Being Free in the Era of Automatons”] (Max Milo, 2010) and is a philosopher, novelist and editor.
Translation: Truthout French Language Editor Leslie Thatcher.