What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

So I did that Facebook “Year in Review” thing a week or two ago even though I’m moderately sure it serves up some extra layer of data-mining capacity on a platter to Zuckerberg’s new personalized learning minions. Encapsulated in ten photos, my reductive 2015 in review looked…nice.

Really nice. A lot of travel, a lot of family time, a Ph.D earned, a conversation on Twitter with David Bowie’s son. Some excessive (expletive deleted) snow, but otherwise nice.

It left the rejected papers out. The time my son wore the same socks for four days. My posts about alcohol and fascism and friends leaving town all stayed conveniently out of the frame, presumably because Facebook knows these are not the prettiest things upon which to reflect fulsomely at the close of the year. Or perhaps Facebook only *knows* that because nobody much liked those posts.

All in all, it made me appear more or less like an amalgam of the identities I aspire to. Yeh, yeh.

You already knew that about Facebook.

But I think there’s more going on there. Today, on New Year’s Eve, my Facebook feed is a radiant orgy of Auld Lang Syne recollecting the year gone by in (mostly) tranquility and (mostly) appreciation, with a smattering of don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out, depending on what kind of a year people had & also where they self-identify and perform on the emo-to-chirpy spectrum. It is also, increasingly, a site of exhortations to do better as a society in 2016, a space for calling out the broken social contracts and structural underpinnings that differentiate individuals’ life chances so drastically even in some of the wealthiest countries in the world.

It occurred to me this morning that a thousand years hence, should archaeologists or aliens dig up the remnants of bourgeois North American “civilization,” such as it is, they will be sorely challenged to understand a damn thing about who we were and how we lived without our Facebook feeds.

If we cared about the future, people, we’d be chiseling this stuff into stone.
***

I got a book for Christmas – thanks Santa Dave! – called A Colorful History of Popular Delusions. Like all good gifts for fledgling academics, it has me thinking about work, even while I appear to be lolling in sloth over the holidays.

The book is a cultural history – without excessive depth, but this is not a peer review – of mass phenomena that overtake pockets of society at various intervals: fads, crazes, urban legends, mass hysterias. It details examples of each of these phenomena, from the tulip craze in Holland through the Salem witch trials and McCarthyism, and some of the extenuating cultural factors that generated them.

Two things strike me:

  1. We, as humans, are profoundly adaptable – we have, historically, in matters of weeks and even days, on occasion adjusted the norms and compasses of our societies – in ways that seem almost unimaginable later on – in response to triggers that prey upon particularly cultural powerful fears, aspirations, or repressions.
  2. We, as cultures, are profoundly vulnerable to the narratives that we circulate and enact as members of our societies, particularly surrounding fears, aspirations, and repressions.

What does this have to do with Facebook?

Facebook – and more broadly, social media in general…but Facebook remains for the moment the space of the widest participation across demographics even while targeting ads designed to keep people IN their existing demographics – is the stage upon which the battle over dominant cultural narratives is played out.

Social media is where we are deciding who we are, not just as individual digital identities but AS A PEOPLE, A SOCIETY. Or perhaps, as we haven’t quite acknowledged yet, as almost separate societies within the same geopolitical entities, subject to laws and policies that have differential effects on different bodies and identities. Day-to-day, social media is the battleground for the stories we live by. It is the space where our cultural fears, aspirations, and repressions circulate.

Previously, at least as my book loosely outlines it, these narratives tended to be nursed and cultivated through a combination of institutional and moral edicts, generally protecting whatever the status quo was except in times of upheaval wherein individual voices – or, occasionally, intentional power gambits – destabilized those normative belief systems and identities and galvanized new ones around them, even if only for a brief window of time.

I’m not naive enough to think this means we’re free from our institutions, the media perhaps most outsizedly and dangerously powerful among them in terms of narrative capacity, but as any of us who have had any level of professional media exposure via social media participation can attest, even the media now draw their sense of the tenor of things from social media, even if they insist on repackaging them in binaries in the process.

This is why hashtag activism matters, and why social media visibility is risky and why posting about mass shootings draws out your weird uncle (who otherwise never acknowledges anything you say) in full Gandalf “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” mode, even if Gandalf wouldn’t approve of his from-my-cold-dead-hands politics.

Facebook and the rest of social media are our day-to-day archive of who we are trying to become.

These are our times and they are fraught and sometimes ugly and we move too fast from fad to fad and whiplash to whiplash in the outrage generator that social media creates, absolutely.

Still, I watch people get a little bit more media literate all the time, make the wizards behind the curtain a little more visible, push back against witch hunts in ways that I’m not sure were possible in closed and isolated societies like 17th century small-town Massachusetts.

Sometimes I have hope that maybe this isn’t all just a one-way sinkhole. Sometimes.
***

Which brings us back to the New Years posts. We live lives of inexorable and relentless change, amplified by the bucket lists and planned obsolescences and precarities and excesses the kinds of lives Facebook seems designed to reflect. A lot can happen in a year of living one’s Best Life (TM), after all, and if one fails to reflect on it all with sufficient attention, one is committing the ultimate sin of those aiming for Best Lives. My thoughts on the pressure to live our Best Lives are not pretty.

But when I see our collective New Years wishes and reflections and updates and hopes less in the vein of the “yay me” holiday update of wonderfulness and more in the spirit of a mass ongoing narrative conflict in which we try to influence our peers’ understandings of what has meaning and value, of what our repressions are and what our fears and aspirations *should* be…I’m less cynical.

Bring on the New Years posts and wishes and wrap-ups. Maybe these little outpourings help us focus on bits of hope as we cross into a new turn around the sun, bring collegiality to spaces and identities that are often fraught. Even if the aliens and archaeologists never see it all, maybe it makes a difference to the rest of what they dig up someday.

Happy New Year, friends. :)

7 Comments What Your New Year’s Facebook Posts Really Mean

  1. Pingback: Dissertation isolation: It doesn’t have to be this way | Katia Hildebrandt

  2. Neil

    You said it in an uplifting way, but what I hear you saying in the subtext is that facebook has become a power struggle between alternative visions for society. That is not going to lead to much intellectual discussion. The best skill anyone could have for influence online is understanding PR.

    Reply
    1. bon

      Yep, I think this is what FB has become. But that’s the part that I think of as a good (ish) thing…because that power struggle has always been there, always most open to those with an understanding of whatever counted as PR for the times. We live in an amplified, divided soup of PR. This is not entirely the product of FB or social media.

      Social media just gives us a way to participate, to an extent. To shape how our networks of peers see the world. I think about how much I’ve learned over the past few years from social media contacts whose lives – as people of colour in the US – are very very different from mine. The whole last year would have looked very different to me had I not been part of those conversations…and in turn I hope a little of that learning has filtered out through my words, too. I think it matters.

      Reply
  3. Vanessa Vaile

    I forgot to look at my FB year in review so did just now for context. The result was 40% on point, 60% WTF. Granted, I’ve been on a lot less since July. Even so, I am either successfully hiding from FB or I don’t exist. How Dune.

    I think I find that amusing. It also explains why I recently had to tell someone more invested in FB (which sounds marginally better than obsessed with) that not being visible there did not mean I was not online (or unwell) just that I was online somewhere else

    Reply
    1. bon

      Thanks for the comment, Vanessa…lol to the 60% WTF. This is where critical sociological as well as mathematical examination of algorithms strikes me as a nascent but awfully important science.

      I think my own FB algorithms served me reasonably well b/c I’m trained & conditioned to present myself in the space in ways that are legible to others…probably at the expense of other more complex forms of self-presentation (some of which I save for Twitter and my blog). There are identity issues around this, for sure. So maybe your WTFs are a good sign?

      Still I think the space itself matters – especially as I watch this whole Oregon terror unfold, and recognize how our cultural narratives simply aren’t sufficient for it, as the mainstream media have made clear.

      Reply
  4. Steve Schremp

    If I looked at my fb yir it would be blank but I started this year with a post and am girding my loins to feed the monster just to see if my hand gets bitten. You’re brave to look into the face of our Ford, stay resolute.

    Reply
  5. Lisa Hubbell

    Your present from Santa (Dave) sounds great. If you want a delightful fictional take on fads and academic think tanks, try Connie Willis’ Bellwether. It’s one of the ones I’ve given as a gift more times than I can count.

    Reply

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