To dive into this week’s long viral version, Robert kolker‘s New York Times Magazine characteristic “Who is art’s bad friend?, beyond the broad features – the woman who donated a kidney, the acquaintance who wrote a short story about the act, and the complicated legal battle that ensued – may prevent readers from using it like a mirror to examine their own sense of morality. But in just one day, it has become ubiquitous enough as an uplifting narrative, fodder for jokes, and a tool for procrastination; anyone who’s made it this far has probably already worked out a scheme for understanding its very real characters and their somewhat bewildering motivations.
My own appreciation of history has been shaped by the many moments of conflict that have functioned as ramps and exits for sympathy. Are you the kind of person who would join a band, any type of band, called the Chunky Monkeys? (I wouldn’t.) Are you the type of person who would donate a kidney to a stranger? (I could, but not, at random.) But there is an early interaction that stands out as Rorschach’s biggest test for all of the following: are you the type of person who would confront someone for not have reacted to your posts on Facebook? I shuddered when the thought of doing it crossed my mind, although I understand that a lot of people might not see the problem. Either way, this particular detail sets the narrative in motion, making it clear that while it may sound like a story about community or making art, it really is a story on Facebook.
Facebook has undoubtedly had a terrible week, after five years of poor PR Monday a nearly six-hour outage of service to Facebook and its Instagram and WhatsApp affiliates essentially cut off communication in countries where products have become public services, again raising the question of whether it is wise for a private company to have so much power. Alert launcher Francoise Haugen alleged on 60 minutes Sunday that the company intentionally withheld knowledge of the damaging effects of its products, including Instagram’s impact on teenage mental health. She then testified before Congress on Tuesday, where she extended her criticism to the company’s newsfeed algorithm and its propensity to disseminate negative content. In response, CEO Mark Zuckerberg objected to the suggestion that they “deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit.” But little has revealed how Facebook’s centrality to “connecting” has rewritten the very rules of communication to normalize contempt much like “Bad Art Friend.”
To understand, it helps to catalog the mild acts of antisocial behavior online scattered throughout history. Dawn Dorland, a woman who generously donated a kidney to a stranger, viewed a private Facebook group as a place to share extremely personal information about the event, including the text of a letter she sent to the recipient . She also used it as a recording of who among her friends had genufled with her, and reached out to whoever hadn’t. This is a huge violation of a rule that many people, knowingly and unknowingly, adhere to for mental health reasons in the age of social media: Online isn’t real, and you shouldn’t. not do things that make it more real. Sonya Larson, an acquaintance that Dorland subsequently launched an attack on, was understandably disturbed by the posts and chatted about it with her friends, and then apparently lifted the oddly personal post for a short story about a kidney donor. It breaks a slightly less important rule of online living: it’s okay to chat, but diligently hiding receipts. Then there is Tom Meek, a friend who informed Dorland of the story by tagging Larson in his comment. Another slightly lesser rule of digital engagement: Snitch-tagging is a surefire way to throw an argument you can’t control.
If these rules all seem stupid to you, it’s because they are. But understanding this obscure logic is the only way to survive if, like me, you are motivated by the profession and have a tendency to maintain social media profiles. In order to spend our lives online, most of us learn to disconnect the vague senses of propriety and good manners from our interactions on social media. A lot of people, for one reason or another, don’t and want the internet to work more like it does in real life. Conflicts between these two types of people occur all over the internet, and neither group is inherently right. I often joke that we have to split the whole tube network into two parts, one for stupid people and one for literal people.
Nowhere is this need more evident than on Facebook. By encouraging users to recreate their real social groups on the internet, that is, by encouraging a vague definition of friendship that binds you to everyone you have ever met as if they were someone. one that your grandmother knows from the church, but algorithmically amplifies negative messages. Without context, Facebook is the only one that can force these people to interact. Essentially, Zuckerberg invented a machine that will continually serve you the things you hate from people you feel like you have to be polite with, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it didn’t turn out well. Small communities have always depended on shame, subtle policing and the threat of eviction to maintain borders; traditionally, it was about exercising power. A system that pushes us toward negative content introduces an element of chaos into all of this, and it’s reminiscent of “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s short, nerdy but deep story about how easily everyone turns on each other. for no real reason at all. Facebook’s demands made our old disciplinary structures impossible, and those that have emerged, such as gossip group chats, are oddly likely to be subpoenaed, as “Bad Art Friend” painfully shows.