Roberto Simanowski on the Facebook timeline as a “diary”
Roberto Simanowski is giving the second keynote at Remediating the Social. It is titled The Compelling Charm of Numbers: Writing for and Thru the Network of Data, and you can read the full paper in the PDF of the proceedings or watch the video at Bambuser.
Facebook’s timeline is the first time Facebook breaks its positivity, with “like” buttons and no “unlike” buttons, “friends” and no “enemies”. In Timeline, death is always implicit, even as you fill in your birthdate, as you can see in the video that launched the feature:
The detail is the enemy of perspective and reality, Simaowski says. What Baudrillard said about the photograph may apply to Facebook as well: “The eccentricity of the detail blogs out hte view of hte world”. Photographs only documents the appearance of objects, not their inner truth. If an algorithm selects content and we look at raw data, we lose their inner truth. Of course, you can control your Timeline on Facebook, for instance by adding life events with narratives, photos and so on. The sublist of kinds of life events are reminiscent to Vladimir Propp’s morphology of folk tales, but seems more arbitrary – for instance, why can you enter weight loss but not weight gain, or quit a habit but not gained a habit? With Propp, the arrvial of a hero is followed by certain events, whereas Facebook’s database does not allow you to link events. Simanowski correctly says that Facebook wants your data more than your narrative. But then he says that the main feature of the shift from narrative to data is about making sure that people know less about themselves. I would certainly disagree with that.
Simanowski goes on to talk about the Quantified Self movement, poking fun at the obsession with tracking data about seemingly mundane things. He also brings up Lev Manovich and his familiar statement that database and narrative are natural enemies. Although Timeline has “pockets of narrative”, it does not undermine Manovich’s thesis, because Manovich also writes that new media doesn’t radically break with narrative, it just redistributes. In the Timeline, Simanowski says, life events are subordinated to the database element, and the narratives are subordinated to the life events.
Narrative gives meaning to temporal events by identifying them as part of the plot, according to Jeremy Bruner in his book Acts of Meaning. Simanowski continues, moving through Ricoeur, Goethe, postmodernism and object oriented ontology. Facebook Timeline a response to postmodernism and the death of God, end of grand narratives? Promises new positivism.
Narrative is disappearing in literature and culture as well, Simanowski says, referring to arguments by people like Nicholas Carr on the “shallows” and ideas of hyper-attention, loss of deep reading and so forth. So we should hack Facebook, Simanowski argues. We should reinstate narrative, write long narrative descriptions of our life events on Facebook!
I think Simanowski is clinging to an idea of narrative that we might not need, or that might be doing just fine on its own despite the Facebook timeline and the Quantified Self movement. Doesn’t narrative change? The epic of Gilgamesh, the old testament, the old Norse sagas: none of these are easily read as narrative for today’s readers. In fact, the aspects of the database are rather heavy in them with their long lists of who begat whom. The Dreamtime stories of the Australian aborigines are also, and perhaps most importantly, maps of the land. Should Facebook be narrative? And might this simply be a change in what narrative is?
Friedrich Block is the respondent. He notes that there are few e-lit works that use Facebook, and there are few or no critical papers about e-lit that discuss Facebook. Art disrupts, timeline conceals.
A question from John Cayley: I agree (John says) that something has to be done about Facebook. But I think that it would take terrorism or attacks, because detournement is, well, it’s too late, that would be like trying to detourner architecture. The problem is that the timeline isn’t meant to be a service for users, it’s supposed to gather data. But is it possible to have good databases, or are databases always wrong?
On Twitter, Tim Hutchings pointed to a brand new article by Manovich arguing that the database no longer dominates the web. Manovich writes:
I want to suggest that in social media, as it developed until now (2004-2012), database no longer rules. Instead, social media brings forward a new form: a data stream. Instead of browsing or searching a collection of objects, a user experiences the continuous flow of events.
Definitely more to think about here.