Of course it isn’t a question of whether Facebook will die – only when. It might happen slowly as users gradually migrate to other social media platforms, or suddenly in the wake of some technological or financial meltdown. Either way, Zuckerberg will probably be safe with his millions (billions?!). But what will happen to the digital acres we have tended with such care.
At one level it’s a basic question of data – are my personal artifacts safe? What will happen to the megabytes that make up that picture of me and my mom at Niagara Falls in 2007, or that conversation with a friend in Vancouver back in 2010? Will it all simply vanish? Be sold off to a social media competitor – an estate sale of framed photos and vintage movie posters and so many bric-a-brac bytes?
What happens when Facebook dies?
But this is also a question of our identity. With the loss of those carefully maintained digital landscapes, do we lose a part of ourselves? And if so, what part of ourselves will disappear? Or perhaps this is a better question: Is there anything of great value on Facebook, whose loss we might or should mourn?
Contemporary culture loves to disparage the picket-fences of the 1950’s – those faithfully tended front lawns, those families perfectly dressed for Sunday church, and the apparent conformity to conservative ideology. But perhaps we should ask whether our carefully maintained Facebook walls represent an altogether different impulse. With our faux-aged photographs, the updates on vacation happenings, the emphasis on success rather than failure, and the posting of political sentiments with which we know all of our friends will agree, how far removed are we from the conformity and superficiality of earlier decades?
Now I realize that it is far to easy too bring the charge of superficiality against our Facebook status updates. And the charge is largely beside the point since most of us (though by no means all of us!) understand that Facebook is really only one small part of life – and that our most honest wrestling with self and others does not happen in that online world.
Even so, the truth is that the charge of superficiality can equally be applied to our everyday lives in the real world, too. In our flesh and blood existence we also tend to hide our inadequacies, buff the imperfections from our public persona, and try to give the impression that we have everything under control. Social media exacerbates the problem, but certainly doesn’t create it.
So the question remains: What happens when Facebook dies?
But now this question has morphed into a question of what happens when all of the resources we deploy (digital or otherwise) to shore up our public persona – all of the resources we deploy to project a sense of competence and togetherness – when all of these resources are suddenly unavailable to us? What happens when our projected confidence is revealed as a lie, when our happy demeanour is exposed as a mask, and when we have lost the capacity to present ourselves in any terms other than the most unvarnished ones.
These questions have been percolating in my mind since seeing this painting by Jules de Balincourt a few days ago. It is oddly entitled: “Untitled Billboard.” I came across this piece on a visit this week to the Musée des Beaux Arts, where there is currently a gallery dedicated to Balincourt’s works.
Without begin reductive, it is fair to say that Balincourt’s works play in the territory on each end of the utopia—dystopia continuum. And this untitled billboard – appropriately painted on wood panel – trends, obviously, toward the dystopian side. Some crisis has unfolded and this billboard stands abandoned, with a residue of announcements and pictures and colour and meaning. Everything that had its moment is now but a memory, or less…
Who are we when this is what our Facebook wall looks like?
Who are we when this is what our front lawn looks like?
Who are we when we have lost the ability to project the illusion that we have it all together?
I confess that (in my weaker moments?) I am drawn to such dystopian representations of human life and culture. This probably owes to my deep frustration with contemporary culture, in which so many have an overweening sense of their moral superiority, of their political enlightenment, and of their rational sophistication. I am fairly convinced that all of this superiority and sophistication will amount to very little in the face of a significant cultural or economic crisis. A realized dystopia will have a way of clarifying reality.
But getting beyond of my own (unhelpful?) annoyance with contemporary culture, perhaps there is a spiritual lesson to learn as we anticipate the death of Facebook – a spiritual lesson to be learned in anticipation of a day when we are suddenly bereft of all the resources we deploy to support our projections of success, happiness, and confidence.
When all that remains are the faded contents of a decrepit billboard, what is there left to hold onto?
In answer, perhaps we can borrow a phrase from Søren Kierkegaard, who speaks poetically and beautifully of the self that rests transparently in the power that established it – namely, in God. Indeed, for Kierkegaard this is the very definition of faith. More, for the Danish theologian this resting transparently is the answer to that despair in which we attempt to construct or establish our identity out of our own meagre personal resources and wisdom.
When the anticipated dystopia becomes reality,
when all that remains are the faded contents of a decrepit billboard,
and when we are honest about our failures, weaknesses, and inability to hold it all together
what is left is the possibility that we might rest transparently in God. What is left is the possibility that we may be honest with ourselves in relation to the one who has given the gift of life and who (as Kierkegaard is also fond of saying) would draw all to himself in Jesus. An honesty that might come to expression in relation to our friends and neighbours, also.
When Facebook dies – when our resources are depleted and we discover our despair – then there is an invitation to rest. To discover that we are loved by the One who is Love, and that there is nothing else left for us to do or become.