It’s Gone, All Gone – Part 2: Remembering Everything
Nowadays I remembered things constantly; I panned, I grubbed, I fished, I lunged for recollections with a net; I plundered my own thoughts as recklessly as any oil baron ramming his way through pristine landscapes, convinced there would always be more. – Egan, Look at Me
It’s Gone, All Gone is a three part investigation of the many instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how critically engaging something as an object of nostalgia is itself a nostalgic mode of thinking. Today: Social Media and Nostalgia. Later: Part 3 on Simon Reynolds and Retromania. If you haven’t already, read the Introduction and Part 1: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph
Last spring, Tina Fey paid a visit to the Google complex in Mountain View, California as part of Google’s Authors series. Ostensibly there to promote her new book Bossy Pants, the conversation tended (unsurprisingly) to revolve around technology. The most interesting moment of the entire conversation was Fey’s aside about scrolling through her iPhone’s photo album:
I look back, if I go through my phone and there’s these weird chunks of time where it’s, like – because I have, like, 4,000 pictures on my phone. And it’ll be, like, pictures of us at SNL doing the Sarah Palin thing, and then taking her to her first day of preschool, and then going to the Emmy’s. And then there’s things on the table. And then coming back. The phone is a good way to see what…you’re really actually doing in your life.
It’s a simple point, but a good one. In effect, an iPhone photo album is a reverse-chronological, continually updating, personal timeline that she always has with her. Human beings are alright at remembering individual “chunks of time,” but they are tremendously bad at organizing multiple chunks into an intelligible narrative. For example, I have vivid memories of my sister’s graduation party and my brother’s birthday party, which happened around the same time, but I couldn’t tell you which happened first. As Fey says, “The phone is a good way to see what…you’re really actually doing in your life.”
So before continuing, let me set up a key distinction between remembering and nostalgia. When Tina Fey scrolls through photographs on her iPhone she is not describing herself as lost in nostalgic reverie; she’s remembering. She’s not longing for the past, she’s organizing it. It’s the difference between “I wish I could go back!” and “Oh, right, that happened.”
I bring this up because somewhere along the way nostalgia and remembering became conflated w/r/t technology and social media. Sam Biddle, a writer for Gizmodo, asks in his essay The New Internet Will Make You Sad Forever: “When everything is worth becoming a memory, what’s that say about remembrance? If everything is the object of nostalgia and reminiscence then I don’t really know what those things mean anymore—it would seem to be nothing. We’re reaching that point.” Biddle’s concern is that social media has become nothing but an “empty nostalgia factory.”
However, the reason he comes to that conclusion is precisely because he assumes remembrance and nostalgia to be identical. Biddle’s assumption is that remembering something is equivalent to that something being worth remembering. It’s a familiar argument: social media is making us sad because it makes everything seem important, thus trivializing it. But is this actually anyone’s experience? Does using social media services like Facebook or Twitter make us sad? And can we pin the cause of the sadness on nostalgia?
It certainly doesn’t help that social media companies market themselves as nostalgia factories (which, as we’ll see, does not mean they are nostalgia factories). 2011 was the year that social media networks began to figure out how to manipulate, organize, and display all the information they’ve stockpiled over the years. Most notably, Facebook unveiled their state-of-the-art Timeline profile, which aggregates all of a user’s posts, friendships, photos, likes, locations and events into a scrollable timeline allowing you to, in their words, “tell your life story.” Prior to Timeline, all of a user’s photos, status updates, and comments would quickly fade away as newsfeeds regenerated. No one minded this because most of the data created on Facebook falls under the category of passing comments or fleeting moments: ham sandwich photos, birthday wishes, Spotify songs, and words played in Words With Friends. Do we really need to remember these moments? By curating these otherwise disposable moments into a coherent Timeline, Facebook forces us to remember these moments whether we want to or not. Timeline implies something like the following: if it’s not on Facebook, it’s not important; and if it is on Facebook, it’s a fact worth remembering. Indeed, it becomes a vital fragment of a person’s life story–or, more accurately, Facebook’s version of a person’s life story.
Writing about Facebook in her essay, “Generation Why?” Zadie Smith worries about the consequences of seeing one’s life filtered through Facebook:
Shouldn’t we struggle against Facebook? Everything in it is reduced to the size of its founder. Blue, because it turns out Zuckerberg is red-green color-blind. “Blue is the richest color for me—I can see all of blue.” Poking, because that’s what shy boys do to girls they are scared to talk to. Preoccupied with personal trivia, because Mark Zuckerberg thinks the exchange of personal trivia is what “friendship” is. A Mark Zuckerberg Production indeed! We were going to live online. It was going to be extraordinary. Yet what kind of living is this? Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn’t it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous? Your life in this format?
Much like Biddle, Zadie Smith worries that Facebook reduces our lives to a rigid set of Facebook-sanctioned guidelines. While I agree with Zadie that, yes, life in “this” format looks a little ridiculous, I think most users do not consider friendships on Facebook to be actual friendships; just as I think most users do not consider life on Facebook to be actual life. Put simply: while it’s true Facebook invites you to “share your life story,” I’d be surprised if anyone considered his or her Facebook profile to be an authoritative version.
Although I agree a life looks “a little ridiculous” when reduced to a Facebook profile, Zadie Smith–whose job as a novelist is to reduce and render, albeit vividly, human beings into words–should understand that there is no authoritative account of a person’s life. Any account of a life is a reduction. The goal is to render a life as real (read: not ridiculous) as possible. But Facebook’s most impressive feat was to convince you that you alone realizes how ridiculous Facebook is while the other 800 million users are simply too illuded by Mark Zuckerberg’s charms to see that they’ve been trapped in his web. Ultimately, Zadie’s claim is a moral one. She believes that Facebook is not just ridiculous, but that Zuckerberg’s rigid format is bad for human interaction because it emphasizes trivial traits and irrelevant identity markers. As Biddle would say, Facebook makes the wrong things seem important. This sort of moralizing about Facebook is as interesting as suggesting that television will rot your brain.
Ethical considerations must be bracketed if we’re to understand the effects Facebook might have on our lives. Jennifer Egan recently described Facebook as “a huge Soviet apartment block where they move around your furniture and artwork when you’re not there.” It is an apt metaphor because if you find yourself living in a Soviet apartment block, you can either curse the apartment (a la Zadie Smith) or study what it means to live there. Nobody likes Facebook, but what choice do we have?
The irony is that Sam Biddle and Zadie Smith’s despair, which they attribute to the rise of social media and the subsequent rise of “artificial nostalgia,” is actually a result of their own nostalgia: “I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic” (Zadie Smith) and “The web used to be about other people” (Sam Biddle). In other words, the world was a better place before we all logged on to Facebook. The lesson here is that often the people who point at things and derisively shout “nostalgia!” are themselves nostalgic. I’m reminded of the Alanis Morissette song “Ironic” in which Alanis gives a litany of ironic events that are actually just a series a coincidences (eg. rain on your wedding day). In the end the only thing that was ironic was Alanis Morissette.
So let’s make the best of our Soviet apartment.
(Un)Surprisingly, fifteen-year-old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson manages to do in one sentence what Zadie Smith couldn’t do in 5000 words:
“It’s really interesting how people, how the world, is trying to figure out what it means to have an extension of our identity, or a whole new identity, online.“
Where some see despair, Gevinson sees opportunity. Gevinson is founder and editor-in-chief of Rookie, a website described simply as “for teenage girls.” For Gevinson, and all teenagers for that matter, a person’s online life is another place to create–and try on–an identity. Identity markers that Zadie Smith found appallingly trivial (What’s your favorite band? What’s your favorite book?) are of paramount importance in high school. In a recent article for Grantland, Born for Reality: Courtney Stodden and Tavi Gevinson, writer Molly Lambert writes that “Young people are going through their mirror stage on Facebook, and bending the mirror to reflect what they’d most like to see.” Zuckerberg is not forming people in his own image; it’s the other way around.
It’s a trite point, but Facebook is largely what you make of it. In her editorial for this month’s Rookie, Gevinson writes: “I know that feeling the obsessive need to record everything is probably at least my biggest reason for using the internet as I do. I feel slightly less pathetic about it when I can assure myself that I am true to my obsessions in real life.” We record things obsessively not because we think everything is important, but because we simply don’t know what’s important. Some things are obvious–weddings, graduations, holidays–but the rest is just traces of life. Fragments that alone mean nothing, but together, as Tina Fey reminds us, point to what “you’re really actually doing in your life.”