I supposed I just believed the hype. All through 2009 and 2010, cable TV and newspapers told me that the “social media” was behind the student uprising in Iran, then the Arab Spring, then the occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building in Madison. After the eviction of Occupy Wall Street in November of 2011, I finally signed up for Twitter and Facebook accounts. I would “friend” every person I met in Zuccotti Park, and we would all have the last laugh on the NYPD. Like the Jews in their Babylonian Exile, Occupy Wall Street would reconstitute itself on line. When the time came, we would rebuild the temple, reoccupy Zuccotti Park, and hang on until the inevitable revolution.
We all know how that worked out.
If a large part of Occupy Wall Street did reconstitute itself online, it had a lot to do with how Occupy Wall Street had never been offline. The original “call” for a “Tahrir Moment” near Wall Street was placed on the Adbusters blog. Occupy Wall Street was a hashtag before it was a occupation of physical space. Tweeting and “live streaming” were central to the movement that began in downtown Manhattan and spread across the United States like wildfire. “Event” pages on Facebook made it easy to find meetings and demonstrations. Younger photojournalists like Jenna Pope published their work almost entirely in the social media. Giles Clarke, her more experienced and better connected colleague, fleshed out his coverage of atrocities like Bhopal and the conditions of prisoners in El Salvador in a way he would not have been able to do only a decade ago.
But something had changed. No amount of internet savvy, “anonymous” hactivism, live streaming, no website, hashtag, viral video or flash mob could change how easily the traditional alliance of big city newspapers, militarized police, and local business elites crushed Occupy Wall Street in New York City. The kids in the Guy Fawkes masks were no match for the NY Post. In only a few weeks, a creaky old, right wing tabloid had transformed the Occupy Wall Street “brand” into something toxic. Occupy Wall Street activists, once the darling of the America left, were now rapists, dirty hippies, scuzzy homeless people, and just plain assholes who were too lazy to get jobs.
A hard core of Occupy Wall Street activists did hang on through most of 2012, protesting at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, organizing a “Guitarmy” that marched from New York to Philadelphia, staging one final big “Occupy” protest that May Day. But the bigger and more sophisticated a presence the “Occupy” movement had online, the smaller it seemed to get in the real world. If, during the occupation of Zuccotti Park, you could get a march of 100 people going in a few minutes, events publicized on Facebook for months struggled to get a few dozen. Occupy Wall Street was dead, and it wasn’t coming back.
So why did I stay on Facebook?
I should have known better. My time on the Internet goes all the way back to the 1990s. The first time I ran a web browser it was on Windows 3.1. I’ve worked for both online advertising companies and ISPs. I spent many hours on Usenet, the social media of its day, and entirely too much time on blogs and message boards all through the late Clinton and George W. Bush years. I knew full well that the most important reason you access a particular website is often simple inertia. Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked. You’ll keep reading long after you stop getting any useful information. I still read the Daily Kos, years after they banned me for “antisemitism” (criticizing Israel), even though I know full well it’s just a pro-war, anti-Civil-liberties front for the DNC. I should have known that once Facebook — a gated Internet community just like the original AOL — sucked me in I’d never get out.
What makes Facebook so insidious is the illusion of reality, the false sense that you’re not talking to strangers on the Internet,but to your “friends.” It’s a tempting idea. Anybody who reads newspaper websites knows full well how easily anonymous comments turn into digital Klan meetings, full of gun nuts, white supremacists, bitter misogynists, homophobes, and paid, corporate trolls. Cocooning yourself in the Facebook gated community does at first blush seem to be the solution. On Facebook you only talk to people with real names and real identities — and you learn very quickly on Facebook never to “friend” anybody without a recent photo — people you will eventually meet up with in real life. It’s just like putting your name in the phone book.
There’s no question that online behavior is fundamentally different when you sign your name to what you write. But interacting with people inside the Facebook gated community is not the same as interacting with people in real life. The separation between the “real” individual and his or her person’s online persona on Facebook might just be even more insidious because it’s so much less obvious. As much time as I spent online in the 1990s, I always knew I was spending time online, that it wasn’t real, that I was talking to collections of bits and bytes, that even though those bits and bytes were being generated by flesh and blood humans just like myself, they weren’t the same as flesh and blood humans like myself. There’s no body language online. There are no non-verbal cues. There’s no tone of voice. There’s no threat.
The last one is very important. On a superficial level, the Internet is the great equalizer. I’m not going to insult someone in real life the way I would insult someone on the Internet because in real life there’s always the chance I could get punched in the mouth. Yet, on Usenet in the 1990s, the geeks could turn the tables on the jocks who bullied them in high school. Detailed knowledge of pop culture trivia, the ability to notice when someone types “your” instead of “you’re,” and a gift for a sarcastic turn of phrase can often turn a 98-pound weakling into a football star and a football star into a 98-pound weakling. The radical feminist addiction to Twitter continues the tradition. A woman with 10,000 followers is a 900 pound gorilla. A man with 100 followers is weak and vulnerable. The NYPD found out the hard way how all this works when they attempted to improve their “brand” with the now infamous myNYPD hashtag. Suddenly, all those ex-Occupy-Wall-Street activists had their revenge. The same people who were bullied out of Zuccotti Park by the NYPD bullied the NYPD out of their own marketing campaign.
But who are we kidding? I posted dozens of Tweets in the myNYPD hashtag. I insulted every top cop in lower Manhattan I could think of. But if I ran into Deputy Inspector Winski or Chief Purtell in Zuccotti Park, I’d grovel like I always do. In real life, bullies with pepper spray, guns, and state power always beat a sarcastic turn of phrase or an angry rant. The bravado I showed on Twitter would evaporate in the blink of an eye or the tap of a night stick on a policeman’s jackboot. For radical feminists it’s even worse. As a man, I don’t get death threats or rape threats online. For women, the Internet is a double edged sword. It’s the great equalizer. Yet it’s not. You can humiliate sexists with a hashtag, but you never quite get rid of that fear you could run into one of them in real life. For a woman, especially an activist or a public figure, the Internet is a dangerous game that always threatens to get real. Unlike a man, a woman doesn’t have the luxury of fading back into anonymity. Constant, nail biting anxiety is often the price you pay you pay for being a badass online.
Facebook is a bit like your fantasy high school. I always had two or three friends as a teenager (usually misfits like myself). On Facebook, I had 350 friends, and some of them, judging by their photos, time lines, and own circle of friends, were the “cool” people I never got to be friends with in high school or college. All I had to do was send a “friend request” and almost everybody who recognized me from the Zuccotti Park days would accept it. Facebook let me pretend I was popular. I could pretend to be anyone I wanted, rebel, poet, “bad boy” who got the girls, jock, sensitive loner, film critic, witty cynic. I didn’t have to go to the “cool” alternative concerts the way I would have had to in the 1990s. All I had to do was link the right Youtube video.
But it was all fake.
In fact, it was worse than fake. By letting me “perform,” act the role I always wanted to on the digital stage, Facebook divorced me from my “real” identity. I become, simultaneously, better and worse than I really am. I was either a genius or an idiot, a sensitive, misunderstood man who had been wronged by the female sex, or a sexist “bro,” a righteous misfit too pure to succeed in corporate America, or just a loser. I got lazy. Facebook is like a diary that talks back, a journal that gives you immediate feedback. It’s instant gratification. Post a status and someone is guaranteed to reply. You might even get a little circle of fans and admirers. But unlike the hard earned reward you get from writing fiction or from any kind of disciplined creative endeavor, instant feedback drains instead of empowers you, falls flat and does not reveal new possibilities. It dumbs you down. It makes you think in memes, slogans, bumper stickers. It rewards the most popular thought, not the most honest. That instant feedback becomes addictive. In order to get it, you become shallow, conformist. You tell people what they want to hear so they’ll “like” your comments and follow your time line, not what you really think. Facebook uses your own narcissism, seduces you, ropes in your imagination, captures your mind. You become the perfect little corporate slave, producing content for their advertisers for free.
Is there anything more pathetic, for example, then the Buzzfeed Quiz, that data mining project in the form of high school yearbook superlatives you can give yourself? The joke is on you. Back when you were young and idealistic would you have ever imagined in your wildest dreams that you would have been willing to spend 5 minutes of your time answering a marketing poll just so you could find out what kind of cheese you were. I think I got “Swiss.” Better yet, “American,” fake, processed, manufactured, not even cheese enough to be cheese, but a “cheese product.” Or maybe it wasn’t about cheese at all, but about how what kind of cheese I liked determined what kind of Dickens character I was. Munster? Oliver Twist? Can I have some more?
Does anything I’m saying about Buzzfeed quizzes even make sense to you? If the answer is no, hug your children, and count yourself among the lucky ones. If the answer is yes, there’s only one solution. Get out of the Friend Zone. Nuke Facebook. And do it now.