First Monday

Life on automatic: Facebook's archival subject by Liam Mitchell

Facebook’s ideology rests on and results in a particular ontology: Mark Zuckerberg wants the site to help create an “open” and “connected” world. This paper explains the implications of this world–changing mission by examining services that map the Facebook user’s path across the Internet (like Connect) and archive the user’s life (like Timeline). Reading these services through the psycho–ontological claims of Baudrillard and Derrida suggests that Facebook’s open, connected individual — the archival subject — is bent towards convenience and interest. Pairing these readings with a reinterpretation of Heidegger’s philosophy of technology in terms specific to Facebook, the article argues that the archival subject provides evidence of a view of the world characterized predominantly by an orientation toward browsing rather than use or control. Facebook should be analyzed in terms of this pre–theoretical understanding of the world — one that it both symptomatizes and institutes. In advancing this argument, the article calls attention to the broader (ontological) and more intensive (subjective) correlates of more traditional (politico–economic or ideological) criticisms of social media.


Social missionaries
Spatial expansionism: Connection as simulation
Temporal expansionism: Timeline as archive fever
The archival subject and the digital reserve




2012 was a banner year for Facebook: the company launched its IPO, passed the billion user mark, and gradually normalized Timeline. Users raised the usual complaints about the latter, but the new format for profiles eventually won out. The change in format does not radically alter the principal ways that users engage with the site — they can still chat with friends, post photos, and browse updates — but it presents the clearest picture yet of the vision of the world that the site’s directors hold and that its users may be coming to accept. As an archive of a user’s activities that is, in its ideal form, automatically updated, Timeline (and associated Facebook services) is symptomatic of a technological understanding of the world common to many companies in Silicon Valley. This world picture is part of what is enabling the massive adoption of social media and the emergence of a particular sort of individual — one characterized by an important modification to the usual understanding of the liberal subject [1] involving, but not restricted to, CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s ideals of “openness” and “connection.” The open and connected subject of Facebook valorizes the convenience of an automatic archive and a browseable world.

This convenience is not politically, ethically, or ontologically neutral. To demonstrate its significance, I move from the explicit comments concerning Facebook’s vision of the world made by two of its key figures to the implicit ways in which that vision is being installed in services like Timeline. In the first section, I demonstrate how Zuckerberg’s advocacy of the virtues of openness and connection constitutes a modification of Barbrook and Cameron’s (1996) “Californian Ideology” and how it rests on a much wider set of ontological assumptions about the informational character of the world that find expression in the browseable archive. In the second and third sections, I explain the mechanisms by which this ideology in turn informs ontology. Examining spatial techniques like Connect and temporal techniques like Timeline by drawing on arguments concerning mediation (Baudrillard, 1994) and the archive (Derrida, 1996), I demonstrate how Facebook’s mission to “make the world more open and connected” should be understood literally but without being taken at face value.

Turning, in the article’s final section, to Heidegger’s (1977a) characterization of technology as a mode of disclosure according to which the world is revealed (only) as a standing reserve of valueless things, I argue that Facebook’s growing importance calls for a narrowed application of the concept of Ge–stell: “enframing” should emphasize convenience and automaticity as grounding ontological values over use or control. In modifying Heidegger’s philosophy of technology, I claim that the subject that Facebook is helping to institute indicates a shift not only in cultural hegemony (Gramsci, 1971) according to which individuals would be more susceptible to the ideology of openness and connection, but in ontology. Facebook’s archival subjectivity indicates a societal change in the pre–understanding of things in general.



Social missionaries

As the founder, CEO, and largest shareholder of Facebook, Zuckerberg exerts an extraordinary degree of control over the direction of the company. He is unusual in that he has never focused extensively on the company’s profits [2]. He has rejected offers to sell in the past and has placed little emphasis on monetization schemes, preferring to devote Facebook’s resources to the development of its design and the applications that have helped the company grow to over a billion users — a number growing by around 45 million with each passing quarter. And Zuckerberg himself makes his ostensible disinterest in profit for profit’s sake explicit: “Unless I feel like I’m working on the most important problem that I can help with, then I’m not going to feel good about how I’m spending my time” [3]. Zuckerberg’s claim should obviously be treated with some skepticism — his goals as a CEO are undoubtedly guided by a capitalist framework, even if he genuinely believes otherwise [4] — but I would like to treat it generously for the time being. This is in part because of the consistency of Zuckerberg’s public statements over the years and in part because his claims resonate with the broader attitude concerning the allegedly emancipatory power of technology that obtains in Silicon Valley [5]. If we take Zuckerberg at face value, the question is this: what is Zuckerberg’s “problem”? What does he want Facebook to achieve, and what do his non–monetary goals suggest about the ideology helping to guide Facebook and the deeper ontological assumption informing that ideology?

In 2012, Zuckerberg issued an explanation of his goals that clarifies the details of the company’s mission as well as its scope, basis, and method. Facebook “was not originally created to be a company. It was built to accomplish a social mission — to make the world more open and connected” [6]. This social mission should be understood in terms other than those of the normal corporate mission statement — something created to justify, post facto, an enterprise designed to create profit. Instead, Facebook’s mission should be understood in terms of missionary work: Zuckerberg wants to change the world [7]. This desire is evident in the mission’s stated scope: “[t]here is a huge need... to get everyone in the world connected” [8]. People can be understood as metaphysical units that can and should be connected. As a metaphysical unit, the individual is open to the possibility of connecting with another individual, and such openness requires accurate, transparent self–representations. Perhaps unfortunately, people tend to guard their privacy and misrepresent themselves. For Zuckerberg, this is a learned behaviour that can be unlearned: “[b]y helping people form... connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information”; “our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate” [9]. The neural metaphor suggests that the repetition of particular behaviours will fundamentally alter the way that people think, and that people will be happy about this change, provided that Facebook guides it in a socially responsible fashion [10].

The attitudes of other Facebook luminaries extend Zuckerberg’s ideology. Sean Parker, for instance, has played a pivotal role in Facebook’s history [11], and his investments in a number of different media projects illustrate three important aspects of Facebook’s corporate culture. Parker co–founded Napster with Shawn Fanning, kicking off the digital music revolution; a few years later, he invested heavily in Spotify, a service that allows users to stream music for a monthly fee. These investments show Parker to be a believer in individualism and the market: seeing an opportunity to minimize the influence of the music industry on the distribution of music, he provided services that would let mp3s move freely. Two more projects — Causes and Votizen — suggest that Parker has faith in the power of collectives as well. With Causes, Parker saw the potential for philanthropic mobilization that the then–new Facebook offered: by connecting non–profit organizations with Facebook’s users, it would “empower” people “to change the world” (Causes). Votizen operates on a similar premise: people can impact the political world by learning about issues and coordinating their actions online. For Parker, individuals might not be able to effect political or philanthropic change on their own, but collective mobilization can produce change when social media removes extraneous influences from politics. He thus believes in individuals, but also in collectives; in markets, but also in non–market solutions where possible. These appear to be contradictory items of faith, but technology is supposed to reckon them in a sort of Hegelian sublation. (The specific operation of the dialectic is unclear, but the faith that its believers hold in each of its parts is not.) In this view, social media is a substantive technology that tends towards openness and connection in and of itself [12].

Taken together, capitalism, collectivism, and technological determinism form what Barbrook and Cameron (1996) call the “Californian Ideology.” Raynes–Goldie (2012) connects the Californian Ideology to Facebook, demonstrating the ways in which the site can be thought of in a capitalist, collectivist, and technological determinist fashion. Additionally, she draws on Turner (2006) to produce a genealogy that shows how the Californian Ideology itself emerges from cybernetics, and shares additional characteristics with it. This origin is significant because it explains some of Zuckerberg’s missionary zeal:

Computers, as systems, can be seen as sources of “moral good” as they can solve these problems [of inefficient, closed communication] ... If the entire universe is code ... then the conversion or merging of the analog with the digital would turn the physical world into a manageable system, one that can be indexed, managed, sorted and redistributed (and of course aggregated and datamined as well), thus making the world ordered, open, efficient and transparent. In other words, better. Sound familiar? (Raynes–Goldie, 2010)

Facebook’s ideology, then, is based on the ontological assumption that the world is made up of individuals who can be “connected” with one another into an aggregate of sharable information. Not only that — they should be connected. As Zuckerberg puts it: “People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others” [13]. At best, this ideology is naïve. At worst, it is helping to create a transnational, colonial, capitalist subject who is alienated from the product of their production/consumption, disillusioned with their mode of self–representation, and ironically disconnected from their friends — a set of contestable claims that I cannot interrogate here, but that should be taken seriously given Zuckerberg’s totalizing ambitions: “The real goal is to connect everyone in the world and help people map out everything that there is” (Zuckerberg, 2013) [14].

The mechanisms that Facebook uses to “rewire” individuals are based on ontological assumptions about the world. At the same time, however, they have been designed explicitly to change the world. Subjectivity and ontology are modified in tandem. To demonstrate how this works, I turn now to two sets of means by which Facebook is attempting to fulfill its mission, one principally spatial and the other temporal.



Spatial expansionism: Connection as simulation

Facebook’s expansion has been fuelled in part by the introduction of features or services for its users, from the introduction of the Wall in 2004 to Timeline in 2012 and its more recent advances into the mobile market. These services capture attention and extend Facebook’s reach as part of a strategy to “literally colonise virtual space” (Patelis, 2013), and their success clarifies the character of the subjectivity proper to Facebook and the picture of the world it implicitly accepts. Facebook’s spatial expansionism is necessary for the generation of an automatic archive that renders the world conveniently available.

In 2006, users who were interested in finding out what was happening in their friends’ lives needed to navigate to their friends’ Walls. The slight inconvenience of this prompted Facebook to tackle the creation of News Feed, an algorithmic aggregation of the different things that users do on Facebook. With News Feed, information for which users once had to “dig” was now easily available. In Kirkpatrick’s account, the service revolutionized Facebook and social media in general:

It was the harbinger of an important shift in the way that information is exchanged between people. It turned “normal” ways of communicating upside down. Up until now, when you desired to get information about yourself to someone, you had to initiate a process or “send” them something, as you do when you make a phone call, send a letter or an email, or even conduct a dialogue by instant message. [15]

Sharing information with one’s friends in this way took effort; the process was not friction–free, so it impeded expansion. News Feed reduced this friction, since a user could now “stay in touch with many people simultaneously with a minimum of effort” [16]. News Feed, then, made it easy to read things about one’s friends. In a sense, it took the initiative away from the people who might be interested in sharing something and gave it to the people who were interested in simply reading. Saying that Facebook removed the initiative might be overstating the case; another reading would suggest that News Feed just displaced the initiative, and in fact opened up further opportunities to make contact. That said, Facebook’s own description of News Feed’s effects highlights effortlessness: communication on Facebook is “somewhat less taxing” because “everyone is passively engaged with each other” (Marlow, 2009).

News Feed is populated with stories drawn from sources outside of Facebook through a service called Connect. Its antecedent, Beacon, was introduced in 2007 to help users share activity on third party sites with friends. The news of a purchase on Amazon, for instance, would be communicated to a user’s friends via News Feed, helping advertisers provide more targeted advertisements, drawing users to external sites, and helping to extend Facebook’s presence on those sites (thereby generating revenue for both parties). The service was designed to be invisible [17] — opt–out rather than opt–in. Savvy users complained, prompting Facebook to turn the service off [18]. In 2008, the company modified the service, changed its name, and reintroduced it. Like Beacon, Connect transmits users’ activity on external Web sites back to News Feed, given the users’ permission (which often means clicking the “Like” button on that Web site — a more complicated act than it might seem) [19]. Additionally, Connect allows users to log into external Web sites using their Facebook profiles, in a sense taking Facebook with them across the Web.

Facebook uses Connect to extend its reach over the Internet. The service extends Facebook along a sort of spatial axis, ensuring that its users take their identities with them across the Web, that they collect information on their activities, and that they have more reasons to return to News Feed. Eventually, Zuckerberg hopes to take Facebook beyond the Web, both to improve the service that it already offers on mobile devices and to extend Facebook’s reach into the “Internet of things”:

Zuckerberg imagines Facebook as, eventually, a layer underneath almost every electronic device. You’ll turn on your TV, and you’ll see that fourteen of your Facebook friends are watching “Entourage,” and that your parents taped “60 Minutes” for you. You’ll buy a brand–new phone, and you’ll just enter your credentials. All your friends — and perhaps directions to all the places you and they have visited recently — will be right there. (Vargas, 2010)

This reading certainly captures one aspect of Facebook’s expansionistic ambitions, but Facebook is not only a layer underneath users’ electronic devices, communicating with itself and simplifying their lives; it should be understood as a layer on top of users’ understanding of the world — something so close to the source of their perception and so effective that it alters their experiences in advance, like a pair of glasses. As a layer on top of the world, Facebook is a condition of possibility of the experience of the world. When it operates effectively, users think of the world in Facebook’s terms, and do so without giving this mediation much thought.

The spatial expansionism of News Feed and Connect recalls Borges’ (1998) “On exactitude in science”. Much like the map of the Empire that lies across the surface of the world, the map of Facebook lies across the surface of the Internet. This, at least, is the company’s ambition: Facebook intends both to map the connections between users [20] and to be the medium through which an Internet user accesses the (digital) world. At the least, it should be present across the Web — a continual reminder of a coherent unity at the heart of a browsing experience based around Facebook. Baudrillard (1994) understands the Borges parable prophetically and descriptively: it announces the hyperreality of postmodernity, a state in which the map does not simply lie over top of a world that comes before — for if this were the case, the map could be peeled back to reveal the world underneath. Since this world cannot be revealed, the map alone constitutes “reality.” It is therefore the map that “engenders” the territory rather than the other way round: simulacra precede that which they are supposed to simulate [21]. The precession of these simulacra changes the subject’s relationship to “reality,” either insisting that reality conform to the simulation or abandoning reality entirely as a world lost beyond recovery under a perfect map [22].

Baudrillard’s description of the hyperreal also describes Facebook’s spatial expansionism. In its extension over the Internet, Facebook, as simulacrum, precedes it. In order to gain access to a news story on a site like the Guardian from Facebook, for instance, users must authenticate their identities through Connect. This does not annihilate the “reality” of the content hosted on the Guardian, but it does change the ways that content is framed and information is presented and processed. If users know that Connect will send a message to News Feed when they navigate from Facebook to an article on the Guardian, they may think twice about navigating to that article, worrying that it might not reflect well on them. Framing an article through Facebook introduces panoptic, or synoptic [23], effects that change the way that users engage with it. Similarly, framing the rest of the content of the Internet, not to mention the Internet of things, in Facebook’s terms will change how they engage with the Internet as a whole. At a minimum, then, Baudrillard’s simulacrum suggests that Facebook’s spatial expansion will change the way that users access the Internet. The more provocative conclusion of this line of thinking is that users’ sense of reality as such — the condition of possibility of action — is shifting thanks to this spatial expansionism.

In addition to this virtual meaning of space, of course, is a physical one. Facebook has clear ambitions in the physical realm as well, and they indicate an entrenchment of a simulacral conception of reality. In 2011, the company introduced Facebook for Every Phone in order to give people without smart phones — i.e., users in “developing” markets — the ability to connect, and in 2013, it introduced a free family of mobile apps called Home that replaces a smart phone’s default interface with an all–encompassing Facebook environment. Home has a number of features: from the moment that the phone is turned on, for instance, users receive messages and notifications of the sort that they would normally get only by loading the separate Facebook app; Facebook’s messaging service Chatheads is constantly active, allowing users to chat continually with friends (“so no matter what you’re doing, your friends are right there with you” (Theofficialfacebook, 2013)); and the phone’s background, called Cover Feed, cycles through photos and stories of the sort that would normally be displayed on News Feed [24].

The initial marketing campaign for Home speaks to the kind of person whom Facebook expects will be drawn to the app family. A series of videos depicts users escaping from the tedium of daily life by turning to their phones — a girl avoiding a boring dinner table conversation, a young man casually rebelling against an airline attendant’s request that he turn his phone off, and, in a clever self–parody, a Facebook employee ignoring his CEO’s announcement of Home’s launch. An easy critique of the first of these (theofficialfacebook, 2013) would point to the girl’s selfishness: she ignores her “dull” relative in favour of “the interesting” provided by the phone, to use the commercial’s own language, and this indicates a disrespect symptomatic of narcissism. Selinger (2013) extends the critique by imagining a set of long term consequences in which those who know they are being ignored become irritated with the phone checker and start to pay less attention in turn. This hypothetical reaction to being snubbed comes down to a recognition that, while the “dull” family member and the “interesting” young person might not hold the same interests, it might be worth trying to overcome that lack of commonality — but the young person will not bother to try. For Selinger, the ad depicts

the end of connecting through effort. Because unlike the entertaining and lively Chatheads the ad recommend we put on our personalized network interfaces and Home screens, we don’t get to choose floating family members. It’s a dystopian situation when everyone matches our interests and we don’t feel obliged to try to connect with those folks: people with whom it’s initially difficult to find common ground.

And as before, Facebook’s own discourse concerning the product also emphasizes a diminishment of effort. As Facebook designer Justin Stahl puts it, “I woke up one day ... and had the brand new trailer for Iron Man 3 I was totally into [on my Cover Feed]. It was delivered to me. I didn’t have to check a bunch of feeds and bounce between apps” (quoted in Constine, 2013a).

In each of these instances of spatial expansionism we can see a drive towards convenience and interest. News Feed makes it easy to read things by concentrating interesting information in a central location; Connect ensures that Facebook has access to an array of information generated not just on Facebook’s own domain but anywhere on the Internet that a like button appears, some of which it presents to its users in the way of automatic updates and shares; and Home gives users the easiest way currently possible to stay connected, and therefore an easy way to avoid boring situations, while away from the desktop. This survey is certainly not an exhaustive list of the features on Facebook that make it convenient to use, but it does demonstrate my claim regarding the way that Facebook is encouraging a particular kind of orientation to the world. For Baudrillard, such a widely, implicitly accepted re–orientation constitutes not just an attitude but a change in the character of the world as such. Before returning to this contention, I would like to examine a set of mechanisms for extending Facebook’s ambitions along a temporal axis.



Temporal expansionism: Timeline as archive fever

With Timeline, Facebook touches not only on where a user goes, but records that information for archiving. Where News Feed marked a shift in how users share and access information, Timeline marks a shift in how they present their lives. The older style of profile presented users with boxes into which to place information, and these boxes were automatically lined up with one another so that someone browsing the profile could click on different sections — profile picture, Wall, photos, and so on — to access different information. Though this profile did not present users with an easy narrative, they could piece one together with a little effort. Timeline, however, automatically generates narrative coherence. The service is a sort of digital scrapbook that collects “your most memorable posts, photos, and life events” into a single historical line, placing photos that were taken in 2007, for instance, down towards the bottom of the profile, and those that were taken yesterday at the top (Facebook, 2012b). If users are curious to see what happened in a particular timeframe, they can navigate to that period, where photos will be juxtaposed with events, comments, videos, and so on [25]. The presentation is smoother and more coherent than the old profile, since it is now easier to get an impression of the story of someone’s life. It is easy to tell one’s own life story, too, since Timeline requires no more work from its users than the old profile did: Facebook automatically adds new information to the right spot on Timeline, collecting a series of small moments into “the story of your life” (Zuckerberg quoted in Siegler, 2011). Users can curate this information if they so choose, but Timeline does not require substantial effort to function.

If Timeline were only to promise narrative coherence, it would be no more significant than any other scrapbooking or journal site, but the service adds an automatic element to Facebook’s monopolistic market position, bringing a complicated data collection apparatus together with the Internet’s most formidable collection of personal data and photos. In addition to Timeline, for instance, is the less visible Activity Log. Very little of the information that Facebook tracks actually makes it onto a user’s Timeline. The Log is a private tool that lets users see some of these activities, including posts made to others’ walls, pages that have been liked, and searches that have been conducted in the past, and it gives a glimpse at the sort of data that Facebook keeps on its users — a much larger wealth of proprietary information that Facebook does not disclose at all [26]. Facebook pairs this data with “vast troves of information” about users’ off–site purchases gathered by data management and marketing firms like Acxiom, Datalogix, and Epsilon, using it to bundle the site’s users into saleable demographics (Rusli, 2013). If the Log is the tip of this data iceberg, Timeline is only the snow. Facebook creates informational pictures of individuals’ lives, displaying only some part of these pictures publicly in the form of Timeline. The more complete these biographical pictures become, the more profitable Facebook can be, and the better posed to fulfill its mission.

Tag suggestions contribute to the automatic population of Timeline. The feature, originally announced in 2010, makes use of facial recognition software to automatically identify faces in photographs and then pair them with likely matches from a user’s list of friends. This relieves users of the “chore” of tagging, Facebook claims: “we’ve been working to make this process [of tagging photos] easier for you. First we added group tagging, so you could type one name and apply it to multiple photos of the same person. Now we’re announcing tag suggestions, which will make tagging multiple photos even more convenient.” The service was improved in 2012 with the acquisition of the facial recognition software company (for around US$60 million), theoretically “allow[ing] you to upload a photo to Facebook while on the go, instantly receive suggestions of whom to tag, and confirm the tags with one click” (Tsotsis, 2012). Tag suggestions gives Facebook another way to automatically capture a picture of the user’s life, archiving it as it takes place.

The discourse of convenience in automaticity is clearly visible in this language of instantaneity and ease, and even clearer in three newly awarded patents (US 20130104080 A1, US 8437500 B1, and US 8442265 B1) that users may see deployed in the future. The first and second concern location–based image recognition and tagging. If the proposed software works as intended, Facebook will be able to recognize a user’s location on the basis of GPS information, a familiar landmark, or the presence of another friend (available thanks to their shared GPS information). This might not be of any immediately obvious benefit to the user, but it will help Facebook process and sort images or video “for easy sharing,” as TechCrunch puts it: “Whether or not you display the [automatically generated] tags, recognition of [t]he presence of these objects and locations can tell Facebook what the most important frames of your video are, exactly where you are, and what types of businesses might want to reach you” (Constine, 2013b). The third patent proposes automatically identifying moments of significance. Facebook could, for instance, use the phone’s motion detection hardware to pick out shaky periods in a video, de–emphasize those frames, and then select the “best” frames from a video as suggested thumbnails along with a list of proposed tags. In all of these instances, automaticity is described in terms that appeal to the user’s ostensible desire for convenience. TechCrunch reinforces this narrative: “These patents could redefine how we share. You wouldn’t need to search for people, locations, or things to tag. They’ll just be there waiting for your approval” (Constine, 2013b).

Automaticity works through services like the above that are native to Facebook, of course, but it also works through third party apps. If a user installs Nike+, for instance, and goes for a run with a GPS–enabled smart phone, that run becomes informationalized: the distance covered, their average speed, the path they took, and so on are all recorded and added to the application’s database. Additionally, however, that information can be automatically added to their profile. The same goes for other GPS–based third party applications and applications restricted to the Internet — thousands of them. In Facebook’s video explaining the role of third party applications on Timeline, it demonstrates how services like Spotify automatically notify users when their friends listen to a particular song via Open Graph and Ticker [27], giving them the opportunity to listen to it as well; Foodily does the same with food, and Nike+ can notify friends when they are running in the same location at the same time (Facebook, 2012b). This third party sharing is supposed to automatically create a more complete “story of your life.”

It is clear that Facebook’s temporal expansionism should be understood in terms of the automatic population of a digital archive. This automaticity constitutes an intensification of the general process of archiving (personal or social) information, which, according to Derrida (1996), should be understood in psychological terms. People are compelled to store (and share) information; they are “in need of archives”:

[T]o be en mal d’archive ... . is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there’s too much of it ... it is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. [28]

For Derrida, then, the archive is so appealing because it provides an origin. This origin might once have had to be deliberately constructed by an archivist — fabricated in parts, fuzzy details turned into clear representations [29] — but this is no longer exactly the case: services like Timeline take the place of the archivist, replacing the unconscious function of the origin–creating psyche with the technical function of the algorithm. The world (understood foundationally as information) and its people (understood as informational nodes with the potential to connect) can be automatically recorded, an origin continually provided.

This change in the nature of the practice of archiving does not entail a loss of the “passion” to archive; if anything, digitization suggests an even more “compulsive” and “repetitive” return to the archive, to use the Freudian language that Derrida interrogates [30]. Baudrillard, writing media theory more directly, would agree with this psycho–ontological claim about the status of the archive. The “obscenity” of “systems of information, communication, production and memory” that compulsively put everything on display issues in “obesity,” or “the endless, unbridled proliferation of the social, of the political, of information, of the economic, of the aesthetic, not to mention, of course, the sexual” [31]. The “obscene” collection and display of information in the digital archive is the precondition of a “compulsive” return to it. Today, Internet users can certainly return to the archive more quickly, sometimes immediately after an event has taken place, thanks to the instantaneity, in principle and increasingly in practice, of services like Timeline. And the nostalgia for events that have only just occurred becomes just as instantaneous (June, 2011).

When users turn so frequently to Facebook’s easy archive, they alter that which is archived. Derrida notes that “archivization produces as much as it records the event” [32] — that the process of archiving influences the character of that which is archived. Baudrillard is more provocative: for him, the archive destroys that which it records, just as the simulacrum destroys the real. This is not a destruction from which reality can recover. Mapping in general, and the temporal and spatial mapping of the sort in which Facebook is involved in particular, replaces reality with a real–that–has–been–mapped [33]. Even if the simulacrum were not to destroy reality in this Baudrillardian sense, it might still become privileged over the real. People might pose for photos, for instance, simply so they can be recorded and browsed [34]; they might spend less time catching up with friends because a quick glance at their profiles is informative enough; they might check their e–mail accounts in order to get a picture of they lives — and they might not want to give any of this up [35]. At a minimum, Facebook provides evidence of an archive fever, and the precise way that it archives data influences the data itself.



The archival subject and the digital reserve

Now, even taken as a whole, Facebook’s format, features, and apps do not add up to a truly automatic or complete biographical picture of the user drawn from across time and space, but it is clear that this picture is the ideal towards which Facebook is working. Zuckerberg understands this captured, transparent, happily sharing Facebook user to be an inevitable product of history. For instance, applying Moore’s Law to sharing, he claims that “ten years from now people will be sharing about a thousand times as many things” (quoted in Kosner, 2012) and asks: “What things are going to have to exist in the world, what kind of services are going to have to exist for that to be possible?” Clearly, the kind of services that will “have to exist” in this future will be automatic in nature, operating quietly and constantly in the background without input. This automatically archived subject that is Facebook’s regulative ideal, and perhaps the ideal of many of the last three decades’ technologists [36], serves Zuckerberg’s vision of a more open and connected world: as Facebook captures more and more information, it becomes easier for users to transparently reveal who they really are and facilitate connections with friends. Coupled with other services and apps that conveniently capture and archive information, Facebook hopes to extend its reach across physical and virtual space and throughout its users’ lives, thereby enhancing the radical transparency that its mission requires. If Zuckerberg’s narrative could be believed, this would lead to more information, profit, authenticity, empathy, and happiness, and, in the end, to a better world.

But easy sharing is not an unadulterated virtue; it is in fact burdened with problematic psycho–social consequences that are increasingly coming under examination. Turkle (2011), to take just one prominent example, claims that people use technology more and relate to one another less because technology partially satisfies a foundational human vulnerability [37]. They connect more and more easily, but “in the process ... set [themselves] up to be isolated. How do you get from connection to isolation?” (Turkle, 2012) Part of the explanation here comes down to the way that social media like Facebook makes connection such an effortless state. Sharing requires very little effort, and browsing virtually none. This effortlessness is built into the structure of Facebook, as evidenced by features like those discussed above; effortlessness is the essential goal of the Web site. Additionally, users tend to share and browse without any awareness that they are doing so: they may begin by deciding to go on Facebook, but they often come to be unthinkingly captivated by the site. Facebook’s founders noticed this process at work in the site’s very early days, describing the way that students used the site as “the trance” [38]. Since 2005, the hypnotic power of Facebook has likely grown, benefitting from the site’s attention capturing services and the content provided by hundreds of millions more users.

Burning for the archive, or privileging the archive over the event, is symptomatic of contemporary western, affluent culture in general, but the archive should also be seen as a reaction to the disposability of the digital world in particular. Baudrillard, Derrida, and Turkle all hint at this claim. Applying their arguments to Facebook suggests that the Web site, in turning people into profiles and friends into connections, has contributed to that transformation of interpersonal stability. Users react to that transformation by looking for something permanent — the archive in general, which provides the illusion of a return home, and Facebook’s archival subject in particular, which provides a permanent place there. The archive, however, does not simply grant permanence, or the picture of a return to the origin; it also grants something that lies there available — something not to be used, controlled, or made an instrument, but simply browsed. Users characteristically browse Facebook as they browse the Internet, skimming News Feed for interesting stories, sometimes clicking through to interesting links, and infrequently leaving what they hope will be interesting comments. Facebook archives this collection of interesting things alongside major life events, thereby rendering these things coherent and extending itself across time as well as space [39]. It carries out this expansion in accordance with its mission to make the world more open and connected.

Beyond ideology, then, Facebook’s expansion suggests a change in the way that we think about the world. Norms like openness and connection can only obtain given a world conceived in informational terms, and the patterns of use apparent in the automatic archive suggest an ontological pre–understanding of the world as something to be browsed. Browsing Facebook indicates a general comportment to (the things of) the world that circumscribes the field of possibilities open to the user. The extension of this ontological circumscription (along, for instance, the spatial and temporal lines of Facebook’s expansion) suggests that the most subtle consequences of Facebook’s expansion are not the degradation of privacy norms or the spread of liberal individualism or the rise in immaterial labour, but the alteration of what is taken as given and the subsequent establishment of a subject who will browse and do no more.

Heidegger’s philosophy of technology (1977a) provides a productive critical basis for the ontological analysis of a site like Facebook. For Heidegger, technology is neither neutral nor substantive, but a mode of disclosing the world that indicates what we take for granted. As a particular mode of disclosing, (the essence of) modern technology (Ge–stell, often translated as “enframing”) is characterized by the generalization of Bestand — a standing reserve in which the things of the world are understood and treated as disposables, or things that stand waiting to be used and discarded — from particular objects to the world as a whole. There is a sense in which these disposable things are always already disposed of: predestined for use, they have no value in themselves (Rojcewicz, 2006). The discussion of Facebook amplifies and clarifies this idea: with the site’s expansion, the world changes from a standing reserve of things to be used — controlled in an instrumental fashion so that a particular accumulative end can be achieved — to a standing reserve of things to be recorded, narrativized, and shared. Users value the things of the digital reserve for their nostalgic value, or the value that they hold for momentarily absorbing interest. (Simultaneously, Facebook and its advertisers take advantage of this revaluation by collecting data that facilitates more and more perfect “control” — i.e. advertising, sales, profit, and so on. Facebook helps institute a browseable, passive comportment on the one hand and a controlling, active comportment on the other.) Users’ principal concern, in fact, is less the archiving or dissemination of information than the browsing of it.

This concern can be clearly discerned in the longstanding push to automatically collect and arrange the details of one’s life. In collecting and arranging personal and social details, Timeline generates a record of users’ lives: it poses their selves in front of themselves as browseable collections of interesting information — and because Timeline does this automatically, the entire process requires a minimum of effort. Temporarily distracted, users can interest themselves in pictures of themselves (since they have “a new technology of subjectivity at [their] disposal” [40]) or of their friends (since “the relationship ... is just there”, part of “a ‘depository of people you once used to know’” [41]). It is in this sense of aiming for the distraction of the digital reserve that Facebook’s users have already disposed of the things of the world. These things are, in the medium term, less important than users’ ability to reflect on or be distracted by them. As services like Facebook enhance their reach, they enable users to organize the world as a series of interesting (and eventually, ultimately, boring) distractions that are always available, thereby establishing a fundamental distance from the world in what Hammer describes as a “pure beholding” [42]. Taken to its Heideggerian extreme, this distantiation would mean that Facebook does not so much offer yet another set of technological “affordances” (boyd, 2010) as it contributes to a reorganization of the technological, discursive conditions of ontology.




Why organize the world in this fashion? Why emphasize browsing over use or control? The problem with applying the language of use and control to the view of the world engendered by modern technology is that it suggests an agential investment in the world that is belied by users’ browseable comportment to the digital world. When it comes to social relationships, the language of use and control would constitute an investment in the lives, or at least the projects and interests, of others. This would accord with the ideological vision of people like Zuckerberg and Parker, but it runs counter to the browseable engagement of many of Facebook’s users [43]. Social media enable a relational stasis, and the repetition and expansion of services like Facebook extend this stasis. This suggests that, in the case of Facebook, Ge–stell should be reconceived in the language of convenience, automaticity, and archiving rather than the language of control and disposal. The Bestand of the digital archive stands waiting to be observed.

An archival subjectivity accompanies this view of the world. Facebook provides its users with a single, persistent identity [44] that is connected to other single identities and openly disclosed to the world. It is a variation on the classical liberal, economic subject, atomistic, rational, and self–interested; connected and informational; narrativized and receptive; virtual in its tentative purchase on a world understood as a screen [45] to be browsed [46]. This subjectivity is constructed through a repeated engagement with the quotidian medium of the Internet — something casual and inconspicuous, to deploy Heidegger’s (1995) language of boredom, and something that works to so effectively construct subjectivity because it holds the subject in a state of temporal abeyance. This understanding of the world is seductive [47]; there is a pleasure in holding the world in reserve. Facebook is successful because it promises to deliver this world: its mechanisms symptomatize the ontological pre–understanding of the world as something that waits to be browsed. This pre–understanding takes the form of a map that renders reality convenient and interesting and an archive that renders it automatic and coherent. In both cases, reality is taken to be available. Facebook is thus the dream of an augmented, effortless, transparent world where technology will deliver some form of “freedom” through openness and connection.

When representations lie in front of the reality that they are intended to represent, they obscure that reality; the two begin to blend. Facebook’s archival subject browses the world by way of representations that lie in front of reality and thereby constitute it, minimizing the chances of inconvenience and chance encounters, moving toward a pre–conceived connection. Even when these chance encounters do take place, they are less likely to be the sort that inspire frustration or demand attention. In themselves, these changes in the way that people interact with the world may not necessarily be a “bad” thing, but when the convenient path that they establish becomes the only path that a user ever takes, this user loses some of the experiences that characterize communal living.

This is the real sense in which Facebook operates as a map on top of reality: it obscures the dirt of the world — those inconvenient “imperfections” that impede friction free movement. Facebook may map the world at a scale of one to one, but it remains a map, free of the imperfections of the people and places it maps; it helps its users present cleaner, better curated versions of themselves, and helps them avoid the difficult demands that they sometimes face when they navigate the rocky terrain of friendship. Insofar as users of social media turn to this graph of the world with greater frequency, they face fewer (social) inconveniences — something that is not in fact an unadulterated good. End of article


About the author

Liam Mitchell is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Studies at Trent University trained in cultural, social, and political thought. He is interested in the effects of our continual immersion in media, particularly those media that seem to fall under our control. He studies this immersion by bringing a phenomenological perspective to bear on everyday cultural practices (like social media and gaming) and their transgressive opposites (like trolling and griefing).
E–mail: liammitchell [at] trentu [dot] ca



1. I refer to the subject of Hobbes (1998), Locke (1988), and Kant (1991), for instance (though I could point to more contemporary incarnations) — one characterized by its atomicity, rationality, self–interest, and so on.

2. Carlson (2012a), for instance, claimed in early 2012 that Zuckerberg’s personal disinterest in money had become a problem, manifesting in declining revenues for its future investors. By October, however, Carlson (2012b) observed a shift in Zuckerberg’s attitude evidenced by changing public comments regarding the integration of monetization at the level of product design. The News Feed team, for instance, has been instructed to integrate ads, and the result is a series of sponsored advertisements interrupting the usual flow of updates. This might make it seem like Zuckerberg is moving away from his prior position on monetization, but the shift might have less to do with new values than with the desire to make these values financially sustainable.

3. Quoted in Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 330.

4. Facebook has introduced a number of relatively successful monetization schemes in the recent past, with Facebook Gifts and Facebook Exchange being two of the more notable. The former allows users to send gifts under US$50 to friends upon notification of an upcoming birthday without knowing address information or having to worry about shipping, and the latter is a system for real–time bidding that streamlines the process of delivering targeted ads to the right demographic (For an overview of real–time bidding, see Google, 2011.) As of the time of writing, there are also rumours that Facebook has plans to start selling “TV–style” ads for as much as US$2.5 million per day, but the company has not yet confirmed these plans (Lee, 2013).

5. Packer (2013) notes that “it’s an article of faith in Silicon Valley that the technology industry represents something more utopian, and democratic, than mere special–interest groups ... . The phrase ‘change the world’ is tossed around Silicon Valley conversations and business plans as freely as talk of ‘early–stage investing’ and ‘beta tests.’”

6. Facebook, 2012a, p. 67.

7. Facebook’s mission statement is extraordinary but not unique. Google’s mission statement — ‘To organize the world’s information and make it universally acceptable’ — is similarly far–reaching. Vaidhyanathan (2011, p. 55), characterizing Google’s mission as a “techno–fundamentalist eschatology,” argues that it should be read as a desire to help change the world — not to change the world alone, since that would indicate that history lacked a progressive teleology, but to assist in the eschatological process.

8. Facebook, 2012a, p. 67.

9. Ibid.

10. Zuckerberg understands that his vision will only come to pass if people elect that path for themselves. As Sheryl Sandberg, the site’s chief operating officer, puts it: he ‘understands that the way to get there is to give people granular control and comfort’ (quoted in Kirkpatrick, 2010, pp. 208–209).

11. As Facebook’s first president, Sean Parker identified identity as a “problem” to be “solved” (Bertoni, 2011). Edward Andrew, referring to George Grant, argues that this problem–solving attitude stems from modern technology, understood in Heidegger’s sense: “[o]ur technological world imposes an engineering outlook on us all; that is, we conceive our experience in terms of problems, adopt a one–dimensional perspective on the world, and reduce the world of work to problems of productivity, measured in profits” (Andrew, 2003, p. 483). Andrew reduces the problem–solving attitude to the pursuit of profit, but Zuckerberg’s and Parker’s pursuits suggest that profit is not their principal motivator. There is something appealing about problem–solving that cannot be reduced to productivity, efficiency, or capital. For more on this problem–oriented attitude, see Morozov’s (2013) discussion of “technological solutionism.”

12. Peter Thiel, Facebook’s first angel investor and a “mentor” to Zuckerberg, holds a similar view concerning the potential of technology to improve the world, as his projects, philanthropy, and writing demonstrate. The Thiel Foundation, which “defends and promotes freedom in all its dimensions” (Thiel Foundation, 2012), supports a number of organizations that add a few more “isms” to the Californian Ideology: the Thiel Foundation, for instance, supports Aubrey de Grey, a gerontologist known for his claims that death is simply a disease; Thiel is on the board of directors for the Singularity Institute, which coordinates efforts to bring about the technological singularity; and Thiel has invested US$500,000 in the Seastedding Institute, an organization devoted to establishing libertarian communities in the ocean. Thiel’s writing demonstrates that his transhumanism, singulatarianism, and libertarianism are held together by the promise of technology. When he was a student at Stanford, he attempted to bring about change through writing and political motivation, but found it ineffective. Since political methods cannot produce radical change, libertarians have to “find an escape from politics in all its forms.” The tool for achieving this escape is technology — a pure, unfettered technology guided by the successful libertarian. We “are in a deadly race between politics and technology,” Thiel writes, and we must use technology to win the race (Thiel, 2009). Technologies like Facebook are an anti–political means by which “freedom” can be achieved and our earthly limitations can be escaped.

13. Facebook, 2012, p. 67.

14. Some of Zuckerberg’s comments fall clearly into the latter category — his suggestion that terrorism, for instance, “comes from a lack of connectedness, a lack of empathy, and a lack of understanding,” and that the connections established by Facebook could therefore help minimize it (quoted in Packer, 2013).

15. Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 193.

16. Ibid.

17. According to Zuckerberg, Facebook first “tried to make it very lightweight so people wouldn’t have to touch it for it to work” (Zuckerberg, 2007).

18. Zuckerberg later acknowledged that Beacon had been a “mistake” (Zuckerberg, 2011).

19. On the sort of information transmitted to and from Facebook, see Sar and Al–Saggaf (2013).

20. Chris Cox, the company’s Vice President of Product, says that “there’s never been is a map of everybody in the world and their relationships with each other. By giving each person the responsibility for their own story, their own point in that graph, together, you have this amazing map of people” (quoted in the since–removed roadshow video).

21. Baudrillard, 1994, p. 1.

22. Baudrillard, 1994, p. 2.

23. Thomas Mathiesen (1997) distinguishes between Foucault’s Panopticon and what he sees as a more appropriate model for the mass media society, the Synopticon, wherein the many watch the few rather than the other way round. Noting that the Internet enables the many to watch the many, Aaron Doyle (2011) updates Mathiesen’s argument.

24. Home is part of a much broader product strategy that Facebook is adopting with regard to the mobile market that includes the creation and purchase of hardware (like the HTC First) and software. The monetary stakes of the latter are extraordinarily high. In the past year, Facebook purchased Instagram for US$1 billion, and considered purchasing Tumblr but was outbid by Yahoo, which spent over US$1 billion on the purchase (Oreskovic and Saba, 2013). The pattern, right down to the dollar values, repeated in June 2013, when Facebook considered purchasing the crowdsourced traffic and routing app Waze but was outbid this time by Google, which spent over US$1 billion on the purchase (Oreskovic and Barr, 2013). While Facebook’s forays into mobile have not always met with success — the HTC First, for instance, was a complete flop — the Facebook app itself has been extraordinarily popular. The app is used by 76 percent of the American smartphone market (while the next most popular app, Google Maps, is used by only 66 percent), and it accounts for 23 percent of the time that smartphone users in general spend online. This is a particularly significant indicator of Facebook’s place in the market since 80 percent of a smartphone user’s time with the device is spent on an app (Lipsman, et al., 2013).

25. Timeline is better seen than described. For a video presentation that indicates the sort of emotional punch that the Timeline profile is intended to pack, see Facebook (2012b).

26. For information on the sort of information that Facebook collects and uses without disclosing, see and

27. Open Graph, introduced in 2010 and modified substantially in 2011, maps users’ connections to one another, the things in which they are interested, the things they have liked, and so on. Ticker, which runs down the right side of a user’s Facebook page, and which was introduced in 2011, continually updates itself with news from a user’s friends.

28. Derrida, 1996, p. 91.

29. Derrida comments on this essential appeal to fictitious origins elsewhere as well, notably in his critical comments on Plato (Derrida, 1981) and Heidegger (Derrida, 1993).

30. Derrida connects the nostalgia of the archive to the psychoanalytic concept of drive in general, arguing that “the archive always works, and a priori, against itself” (1996, p. 12), but he also applies the notion to digital media in particular: “electronic mail” and other forms of “new” media are informing contemporary archiving practices, and they are “on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity” (1996, p. 17).

31. Baudrillard, 1997, p. 451.

32. Derrida, 1996, p. 17.

33. Lanier (2010) makes a similar argument when he discusses the phenomenon of software “lock–in” — the way that interlinking, widely distributed software ends up ‘embedding’ a particular understanding of the world. Applied to Facebook, Lanier’s argument suggests that Facebook “locks” identity “in” to an impoverished representation of the “real” human. This impoverished representation becomes, in a sense, more important than the real thing: Facebook mobilizes the basic data of users’ profiles to bring them advertisements and determine what appears on their News Feed, and their “friends” connect with them in ways that differ on the basis of this profile data. He sometimes overstates his case (suggesting, for instance, that “energized young people must manage their online reputations constantly, avoiding the ever–roaming evil eye of the hive mind” (Lanier, 2010, p. 70)), but his observations about the structural effects of generally invisible code — how the “binary character at the core of software engineering tends to reappear at higher levels” (Lanier, 2010, p. 71), turning relationships and many other things into context–free binary choices (friends or not; liked or not; in a relationship or not), for instance — ring true.

34. “When I go out with my friends, there is always a camera present, for the singular goal of posting pictures on Facebook. It’s as if the night didn’t happen unless there’s proof of it on Facebook” (Shaun Dolan, quoted in Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 206).

35. “Those who use Blackberry smartphones talk about the fascination of watching their lives “scroll by.” They watch their lives as though watching a movie. One says, “I glance at my watch to sense the time; I glance at my Blackberry to get a sense of my life.” Adults admit that interrupting their work for e–mail and messages is distracting but say they would never give it up” (Turkle, 2010, p. 163).

36. The automatic archive, and the dream of an easy life that goes along with it, is not so new. Computer technologies have long been heralded by optimists as a way to make users’ lives easier, but these technologies have always come with additional minor challenges. On Facebook, these challenges involve the need to dig for information, the slight irritation of having to type out a complete user name and password to login, or the clunky interface with which mobile users must struggle. For computers in general, the problems involve similar small frustrations. Gelernter, for instance, describes these problems in 1994:

I don’t want to save bits of paper any more, nor computer disks nor videotapes, nor do I wish to care about whether my home computer is compatible with my office computer, or about any other such boring and preposterous compatibility questions, or lug a laptop computer with me on trips, or be out of touch anywhere I go ... . I want software to pay my bills and prepare tax returns at the push of a button, with zero input from me. I want my life to be perfectly organized, and I want to spend no time whatsoever organizing it. (Gelernter, 1994, p. C1)

Gelernter might sound petulant or entitled, but he came to the Washington Post with a solution he called the “lifestream” — a service that “captures your whole life, in terms of chunks of information: letters, documents, bills, bank statements, video footage of your son’s first birthday party, a database, anything ... .” Its users would be able to “look at the entire stream,” observing the automatic functioning of their lives at a glance (Gelernter, 1994, p. C1). The description fits Timeline in particular (but could also be applied to Facebook’s general orientation toward its users’ profiles): Timeline also “captures your whole life, in terms of chunks of information.” And Timeline, like Gelernter’s dream of the lifestream, makes it easy to record, store, and recall captured information. Timeline enables ‘frictionless sharing’: all barriers to information should be removed because, as Stewart Brand and Bill Gates put it, information, like capital, wants to flow freely. On Facebook, this free, automatic flow will enable the unprecedented accumulation — and sharing, and, most importantly, viewing — of personal data.

37. Her argument, in brief, is this: Afraid of the pain of loneliness and the dangers of intimacy, people use technologies like social media to control their relationships, keeping others close enough to be accessible, but not so close that they might make strenuous emotional demands. People connect with one another, in other words, but they neither establish intimate relationships nor give themselves the space to dwell in solitude. They “solve” what they choose to describe as the “problem” of loneliness by building relationships, and therefore identities, on the basis of technologically mediated connections with others. Although Turkle’s argument is based on a normative vision of the ideal human being, the case studies that she documents in Alone Together nicely illustrate the connection between convenience, control, and anxiety apparent in social media.

38. Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 93.

39. Cox himself highlights Facebook’s focus on “interesting” things: “Publishers want distribution and eyeballs. People who are coming to Facebook want interesting things to see from their friends. If we can create the connective tissue that helps drive traffic to all of these different publishing platforms, and can bring to Facebook a more interesting and coherent experience of what’s going on in the world, that is just a win–win for everyone” (quoted in the since–removed roadshow video).

40. Varis and Spotti, 2011, p. 3.

41. Richardson and Hessey, 2009, pp. 32 and 34.

42. Hammer, 2004, p. 284. While being bored with (social media) leads to a “disconnecting [of] fallen Dasein from the responsibility involved in comporting itself in accordance with its possibilities of Being, curiosity effects a form of uprooting whereby the seeing itself, rather than tarrying alongside the seen, becomes its own goal” (Hammer, 2004, p. 284).

43. It also runs counter to Turkle’s observations about the way that people often deploy social media. For Turkle, people want to “control” the world only insofar as they can make it safe: they want to bring others close enough to be available without threatening to make demands on their emotions or their time, but they also want to ensure that they do not drift so far away that they would become lonely. Users of social media want it to mediate those relationships that might demand something of while providing them with enough intimacy that they do not have to act.

44. Zuckerberg finds the notion of multiple identities anathema: “‘You have one identity,’ he says emphatically three times in a single minute ... . ‘Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity’” (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 199).

45. Marco van Leeuwen notes that “when the window on the world becomes a computer screen, human phenomenology shifts from experiencing life and the world that comes from being an embodied and embedded agent, to consuming pre–processed impressions that comes from being a virtual presence with different personalities and properties, depending on the website, chatroom or game” (2009, p. 178). He complicates this picture, however, arguing that experiences on the screen can exceed their apparent limits.

46. In “The Age of the World Picture”, Heidegger (1977b) situates the subiectum at the centre of Ge–stell, arguing that it is the Cartesian subiectum that enables the world to be conceived as a picture. Given the modifications that I am suggesting to Ge–stell, it might also be appropriate to suggest that the world today be considered not as a picture, but as a screen.

47. “Seduction” might be a less useful description of Facebook’s world than “obscenity.” When the Internet makes the private public, Baudrillard claims, “the most intimate processes of our life become the virtual feeding ground of the media ... . Inversely, the entire universe comes to unfold arbitrarily on your domestic screen” like pornography: “all this explodes the scene formerly preserved by the minimal separation of public and private” (Baudrillard, 1988, p. 20). People react to this obscenity not with disgust, but with idle interest: they have now grown accustomed to seeing their lives on the screen, and no longer feel fascinated by the novelty of services like Facebook. Given this state of saturation, they require ever more, growing “obese” with data (Baudrillard, 1997). Because the norms and rules around privacy on Facebook are so lax, users can amass data like so much indigestible starch: “Now, in an age of uncontrollable inforrhea, the opposite of publicity is, as Zuckerberg correctly points out, no longer privacy, but Facebook, publicity carried to the extreme, elaborated to the nth degree” (Steinpilz, 2010).



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Editorial history

Received 6 August 2013; accepted 30 December 2013.

Copyright © 2014, First Monday.
Copyright © 2014, Liam Mitchell.

Life on automatic: Facebook’s archival subject
by Liam Mitchell.
First Monday, Volume 19, Number 2 - 3 February 2014