Lost landscapes: Facebook, circa 2007
There is no there, there.
Some time ago now, I returned to my Facebook account for a visit. The impression I got was of a town I once knew filled with my cousins of an older generation screaming about how the world had gone to shit or sharing strange puzzles and jokes — with a few more recently met friend-strangers mixed through to give the place the resounding air of a bad dream.
I could not help but think of Gertrude Stein’s quip of Oakland California: “There’s no there, there”. Stein was expressing how she felt upon returning to the place of her childhood as an adult, with the sense of life having moved on: ‘there’ being what animates a place with a sense of possibility. It was a comment about her experience of that place and not a comment about the nature of Oakland generally. Similarly, I want to emphasise, this is a personal story, not an account of the myriad and still expanding ways Facebook is currently used by different cultures across the globe (for that, you could do worse than starting here).
I found myself at a loss trying to describe how this place had once mediated feelings of wonder and exuberance and conviviality to a younger nephew and my partner’s grandmother at a recent lunch. Both had slipped through the cracks, as it were, and never signed up for an account, though Gran, as my partner called her, was an avid Instagram user.
You had a wall, I said, and people would write things on it.
My nephew was abstaining from social media altogether. It’s like cigarettes, he would say.
Afterwards, I thought more about those heady days when I was compelled to orient my life around internet cafes in order to write a cryptic status update, or see if my activities in either the real or virtual world had cultivated any of the little red, circular blooms denoting notifications or new friend requests.
I could imagine an appealing mischaracterisation written by an anthropologist distant enough to see this as an experience of the world inhabited by an explicit, religious mythos. They might imagine I was a peculiar monk of some sort, absorbed in a communion with a greater power whose messages I decoded and spread from the interior of a glassy, greasy cave. But no, this was a largely narcissistic business — though no less delightful and delusory on account of the self-focus.
The next time I saw my nephew, I decided to get out my phone and return to the wall of yore, to show him directly the evidence of a time that had now crystalised into a kind of ideal image in my mind. I imagined myself taking him up into the dark, damp recesses of the ceiling in an old, high-modernist mansion, the interior of which had since been incrementally changed to such an extent that, unbeknownst to many of its occupants, it now resembled and functioned as an entirely different house.
Hidden in the ceiling, however, there remained a vestige of some prior, neigh forgotten time; a faded mural scrawled with still legible, though enigmatic fantasies, seemingly more pure now, from this cacophonous vantage, and bearing traces of a convivial naïveté yet to be dispersed in the storms of contempt and irritation that would come with a later culture of display oriented towards the sharing of knowledge and its derivative genres: the conspiracy, the counterfactual, the underground truth, the good oil, the fresh perspective — news from the carriers of enlightened rationality or spiritual therapy to a given niche.
The exact chronology of the little, candlelit tour I gave my nephew has been muddied with time, I do recall, however, that the posts sharing personal information were one of the noteworthy quirks of this bygone era: phone numbers, meeting times and places, modes of transport, fragmentary summaries of nights out — the surviving echo of which continues in the ritual confession when someone announces to their friends that they have lost their primary communicative apparatus : Phone broken, contact here if urgent.
My brother on my wall before a return home in 2007: Tom, I am meeting you at the airport on Thursday and you probably won’t have my phone number. We’ll be travelling by train. My phone number is XXXXXXXX, I’ll be there around 6:30am. Others from half-friends who I’d contacted about spare beds in moments of desperation: Hon, I’m so sorry I was at work when I got your message and totally forgot to reply. Hope you found somewhere to stay, you know the house code, we are always here when and if you need. And: Sorry about tonight, our house has turned into a hostel. Start my new job this week, should be too busy so give me a shout if you’re keen to go for a couple of drinks. All on the wall for any of my 300+ friends to see: my itinerancy and where I’d turned for hospitality.
Then there was another exchange that played out between a friend and his new girlfriend on my wall. Both of them posting in turns, using the peculiar vernacular we’d forged while travelling together, writing about the internet café where they were, and of the internet as though it were a kind of substance, the powers of which we had only just discovered.
I found interactions with people on the wall that signalled a degree of intimacy that I can scarcely imagine once mediated our relationships, people that I had assumed were and had continued to remain relative strangers in my life: glimpsed faces at a party with whom I might have shared a brief conversation, or ephemeral connections from travel lost to memory unsupported by an archive. There was writing on my wall that proved incontrovertibly that I had once been familiar, even chummy, with these people. People with whom I had started unfinished online scrabble games or people inquiring about an obscure status update or a photo; entire letters of sincerity or lengthy comic speculations displayed permanently for all to see.
And then me, signalling my desire to catch-up with certain people to my entire cast or friends, asking people if I can stay at their house, or — and this, I doubt, is typical behaviour — writing status updates in the vein of aphoristic John Ashbery poems: Tom Lee is imbued with a sense of seriousness; Tom Lee is following you, forget him immediately; Tom Lee is a houndstooth skirt on loan and a rebus made of chrome tiles depicting events from last November; Tom Lee is full of rubbish and tears and small amounts of shame and can get a huge amount of pleasure from just smelling a freshly washed pillow; Tom Lee is written in italics; Tom Lee has changed his interests.
After his initial puzzlement, my nephew started to express that he understood why I might find something desirable in this boxed-in corner of the now vastly different social media house Facebook had made for me without consultation. Perhaps he simply registered my own excitement and was being polite. He repeated what I told him as questions that gradually took on a tone of wonder: So it’s like all your friends are just there, even, like, your B and your C and even your D team friends, and you all talk to each other, in front of each other, and it just stays there?
If you don’t delete it, I said, which for some reason we never did.
I’m not exactly sure what it was about this exchange, but later that evening, after combing through more of my old status updates and wall interactions, I decided to delete my account. I speculated whether it had been due to the sense I now had of my nephew, a member of the younger generation, recognising the lost vision of those early days.
Months later, my nephew sent me a message: I got an account.
Later, he told me that he’d told his friends about my wall and they thought they’d try and revive the dream. Though in order to recreate that dream, on this occasion it had to be redesigned. New friends had to be voted in by numerous existing members. No one was allowed to post any news or images. They all used fake names legible only to group members. And perhaps most importantly, they all agreed you couldn’t use the site from your phone, only from a PC.
It sounded to me like they’d reconfigured the site so it functioned something like a stuffy old members club, an arcane relic speaking through a new, digital skin.
My nephew asked if I wanted to join.
A thought flashed through my mind of a further obstacle I could add that might make it a worthy experiment: only use the site from internet cafes.
Thanks, I told, him, but there’s no there there anymore.