Home away from Home

1. On this earth

Last fall, Facebook released its first television advertisement. The ad was titled “The Things That Connect Us.” It was intended, Mark Zuckerberg announced, with characteristic humility, “to express what our place is on this earth.” It opened with a shot of a red chair levitating in a forest. Some music welled up. Then came the voiceover:

Chairs. Chairs are made so that people can sit down and take a break. Anyone can sit on a chair and, if the chair is large enough, they can sit down together.

Doorbells. Airplanes. Bridges. These are things people use to get together, so they can open up and connect about ideas and music and other things that people share.

The Universe. It is vast and dark. And it makes us wonder if we are alone. So maybe the reason we make all of these things is to remind us that we are not.

If Terrence Malick were given a lobotomy, forced to smoke seven joints in rapid succession, and ordered to make the worst TV advertisement the world has ever seen, this is the ad he would have produced. It even ended with a soaring shot of The Tree of Life:

treeoflife

Despite its all-encompassing silliness, the ad was revealing. Its emphasis was entirely on the physical, on the real. Other than a brief image of a couple sharing a set of earbuds, a viewer would hardly have known that we are in a Digital Age. The ad showed people eating and talking and sitting on chairs and walking across bridges and pushing doorbells and sitting on chairs and watching lectures and lying entwined on lawns and waving flags and sitting on chairs and climbing trees and reading paperbacks on porches and having difficult conversations in kitchens and sitting on chairs and dancing and drinking and watching basketball games and climbing trees and gazing at tiny insects drifting through beams of muted sunlight and sitting on chairs, but there was hardly a computer or a smartphone in sight. Everyone was deeply engaged, deeply in the moment. All the objects of the world were luminous. Everything was shining.

In retreating into a gauzy, pre-digital myth of civic and social bliss, “The Things That Connect Us” sought to position Facebook squarely in the mainstream, to portray the social network as a slice of homemade apple pie. Facebook, the ad told us, with considerable defensiveness, wasn’t revolutionary or disruptive or even particularly new. It was just the latest link in a long chain of human-fashioned objects that have allowed us to “open up and connect.” If the point weren’t hammered home hard enough, the ad even included an image of an old dial phone sitting placidly on a desk in the magic hour:

phone

You see: Facebook is just the new Ma Bell. Nestle yourself in her ample lap, rest your weary head on her matronly bosom, and be wrapped in the comforting embrace of friends and family. Have a Coke and a smile.

2. Home invasion

Earlier this month, Facebook unveiled Facebook Home. The announcement came with all the trappings of a Silicon Valley Big Deal: the enigmatic invitation, the fervid PandoInsiderCrunch rumor-mongering, the haltingly portentous Zuckerberg presentation, the synchronized Steven Levy puff piece. But the product itself was a pretty paltry piece of work: essentially, a Facebook-themed Android skin. Big whoop.

Far more interesting than the product was the series of three ads released to promote it, and the most interesting of those ads was the one entitled “Dinner.” “Dinner” is set in an ugly, underlit suburban dining room. An extended family sits around the table, picking at ugly suburban food. The spinster aunt — the one with, you know, the ugly glasses and the ugly ill-fitting sweater and the ugly haircut and the ugly flat voice — launches into an interminable tale about going to a supermarket to buy cat food for her two cats. Everybody starts squirming. The young, attractive woman sitting next to the spinster aunt gives the spinster aunt a quick disgusted look, and then turns her attention to her smartphone and the other, better home that is Facebook Home. She swipes through a series of photos, and the pictures come to life around her: there’s her friend bashing joyfully on a drum kit in an ugly corner of the ugly room; there’s a troupe of ballerinas dancing across the ugly table and the ugly sideboard; there’s a happy snowball fight and a plow that drives by and flings pretty snow onto the ugly family. The attractive young woman smiles and double-taps a Like as the spinster aunt drones on.

smartphone girl

“Dinner” has already spawned much commentary. “Ugh,” wrote Robert Hof at Forbes. “Facebook Home makes it a whole lot easier to be rude to your family and in-the-flesh friends, who are often, yeah, so boring to a cool person like you.” Evan Selinger, at Wired, saw a deeper corruption of social ethics being celebrated in the ad’s “propaganda.” “Dinner,” he wrote, tells us “that to be cool, worthy of admiration and emulation, we need to be egocentric. We need to care more about our own happiness than our responsibilities towards others.” He brought in Kant, who challenged us to ask ourselves “what right we have to be self-absorbed while expecting others to rise above indifference.” Whitney Erin Boesel, at Cyborgology, offered a different view. On the one hand, she wrote, the ad combines “the best of Silicon Valley ‘play ethic’ with good old technoutopian neoliberalism: traditional social bonds constrain us, but technology liberates us, makes us more independent and self-sufficient, and enables us to express ourselves more fully and freely.” But, on the other hand, the attractive young woman can also be seen as enacting a rebellion against the “well-recognized social obligations” symbolized by the family gathered around the table: “It may look like thumbs on a screen, but in truth it’s a middle finger raised straight in the face of power.” I have trouble seeing the ridiculed spinster aunt as a face of power — and the rest of the family members come off as utterly powerless, the underemployed, futureless denizens of the class formerly known as middle  — but Boesel is right to point out that the ad is not just about being a thoughtless creep but is also about escaping from an oppressive situation. “Sometimes rudeness is also resistance.” The asshole is the hero.

What’s really remarkable about “Dinner,” though, is that, in tone and meaning, it’s set in a universe not parallel to that depicted in “The Things That Connect Us” but altogether opposite to it — fiercely opposed to it, in fact. The new ad comes off, disconcertingly, as a sarcastic and dismissive rejoinder to the earlier one: Facebook calling bullshit on itself. “Our place on this earth”? Doorbells? Bridges? What a load of crap! The earth sucks! Things are boring! People are ugly! Go online and stay online! Chairs, mawkishly celebrated in “The Things That Connect Us” as bulwarks against the meaninglessness of the universe, as concrete means of connection and hence liberation, become in “Dinner” instruments of torture. They trap us in the distasteful world of the flesh, the hell of other people.

Has another company ever come out with a high-concept, big-production “brand ad” and then, just a few months later, turned around and utterly trashed it? I don’t think so. What we learn from this is not just that Zuckerberg is a bullshit artist who’s most insincere when he’s sounding most sincere — we already knew that — but that for Zuckerberg, and for Facebook, “sincere” and “insincere” are equally meaningless terms. Everything is bullshit. A chair levitating in a forest and a ballerina dancing on a dinner table are equally fake. They’re fabrications, as are the emotions that they conjure up in us. It’s all advertising. Despite their glaring differences, “The Things That Connect Us” and “Dinner” actually draw from the same source: the well of nihilism. I’m sure Zuckerberg never gave a thought to the fact that the two ads are contradictory. He knew it was all bullshit, and he knew everyone else knew it was all bullshit.

“Have it your way,” wrote Wallace Stevens:

The world is ugly,
And the people are sad.

One wants to see the levitating red chair as a Stevensesque symbol of the redemptive imagination. But it’s not. It’s the same chair that the ugly spinster aunt is sitting on. It’s the same chair that the attractive young woman with the smartphone is sitting on. Facebook gives us image without imagination. Everything is beyond redemption, which is what makes everything so cool. Have it your way.

3. Two poles

“Home is so sad,” wrote Philip Larkin:

Look at the pictures and the cutlery.
The music in the piano stool. That vase.

Every object, at least in our perception of it, carries its antithesis. Behind the plenitude symbolized by the vase we sense an emptiness: the wilted bouquet rotting in a landfill. And so it is with the tools of communication. When we look at them we sense not only the possibility of connection but also, as a shadow, the inevitability of loneliness. An empty mailbox. A sheet of postage stamps. A telephone in its cradle. The dial of a radio. The dark screen of a television in the corner of a room. A cell phone plugged into an outlet and recharging, like a patient in a hospital receiving a transfusion. The melancholy of communication devices is rarely mentioned, but it has always haunted our homes.

phone

Home and Away are the poles of our being, each exerting a magnetic pull on the psyche. We vibrate between them. Home is comforting but constraining. Away is liberating but lonely. When we’re Home, we dream of Away, and when we’re Away, we dream of Home. Communication tools have always entailed a blurring of Home and Away. Newspaper, phonograph, radio, and TV pulled a little of Away into Home, while the telephone, and before it the mail, granted us a little Home when we were Away. Some blurring is fine, but we don’t want too much of it. We don’t want the two poles to become one pole, the magnetic forces to cancel each other out. The vibration is what matters, what gives beauty to both Home and Away. Facebook Home, in pretending to give us connection without the shadow of loneliness, gives us nothing. It’s Nowheresville.

19 Comments

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19 Responses to Home away from Home

  1. RRH

    Your not kidding…it’s not even just FACEBOOK, but Smartphones…I have a friend who “literally” has an iphone case like a picture frame and she has pulled it out when we are out to dinner and starts texting, watching Youtube etc, WHILE we are “talking” over dinner…I have NEVER felt so unimportant.

  2. Thanks Nick… this is an especially insightful post

  3. Brad

    Facebook wants to be your elsewhere. The trick is convincing everbody that life is elsewhere. The girl in the Dinner commercial needs little convincing.

  4. eloquent! I especially liked the concluding para.

  5. DonSimon

    I would love it if Bill Hicks were still here, it would be instructive to hear what he had to say about the Dinner commercial.

  6. The “problem” on the web isn’t necessarily what there is, but what there isn’t, and the “all free, all ad based, almost all shitty” dogma for sure has something to do with it, this with the “rape” of the virtual adjective since the nineties.

  7. Nick –

    The broader thrust of your criticism would apply to much of social media, though it is probably more relevant/applicable to Facebook today. In brief: We are being offered, or sold, both connection-familiarity-reassurance as well as disconnection-escape-novelty. You are right that all technologies or devices evoke in us the suggestion of their own absence or non-use. With communication, this evokes disconnection, silence, loneliness. As you’ve argued strongly elsewhere, we need that disconnection, silence, solitude. We cannot be communicating and reacting all the time and remain capable of deliberate, deep thought.

    Here, a business is offering us what it thinks we want, what it thinks will appeal to us. If it’s promoting opposite concepts or values, is that not because our needs and wants (as evidenced by consumer choice/behaviour rather than conscious thought) are also contradictory? We want the easy connections offered to the known/the familiar, but we also want the quick escape/the distraction/the novelty. The Facebook proposition appears to be that it can provide us both – that it is both.

    If the problem is in the contradiction, then is that contradiction not originally in us? (Because if it were not, then at least one of the ads should not work at all. It should not resonate with its audience even before we get into a compare-and-contrast analysis like yours.) It is not clear to me that the purveyors of social media are any less confused than its users are. If the former can’t make up their mind about how to describe to us what they want to sell us, is that not because the latter aren’t sure what they want – but would like to have it all anyway?

  8. Paul

    You give Zuck too much credit. He *believes* his bullshit until he believes something else.

  9. Lee

    Love this.

    But isn’t part of the problem the fact that we’re still groping around for new metaphors for the latest technology? I see lots of articles on Lit blogs about writers having difficulty incorporating cellphones, email etc into Literary Fiction (not a big problem for genre fiction, so mebe it’s an imagination thing…).

    An interview that comes to mind that’s a little more related is this one from NPR :

  10. Chris

    “What we learn from this is not just that Zuckerberg is a bullshit artist who’s most insincere when he’s sounding most sincere — we already knew that — but that for Zuckerberg, and for Facebook, ‘sincere’ and ‘insincere’ are equally meaningless terms. Everything is bullshit.”

    I am reasonably certain that there are lots of bright, talented, and well meaning people at Facebook who work on this stuff, but your sentiment articulates perfectly something that has struck me about the founder for as long as I can remember.

    I’ll never forget those early publicized IMs from him calling his users “dumb f**ks” for trusting him. Or how things like beacon, sponsored stories, frictionless sharing, recycling and “like harvesting” from mere mentions of brands in updates or private messages get handled (i.e. Don’t ask permission, beg forgiveness; then try it all over again)

    Ironically, there seems to be a real sociopathic ethos to this entity from the top down.

  11. shagggz

    Very insightful post, though it’s worth pointing out that likening Facebook Home to a mere skin betrays your ignorance – it brilliantly straddles the middle ground between operating system and app, an “apperating system.”

  12. Nick

    Samir,

    re: “We want the easy connections offered to the known/the familiar, but we also want the quick escape/the distraction/the novelty.”

    Yes, but we want a lot of things, and many of them are debasements of deeper desires. At a deeper level (deeper than easy connections and quick escapes), the contradiction becomes a tension, one that’s both painful and uplifting. I don’t think that selling us easy connections and quick escapes either recognizes or resolves the deeper tension, though it may numb us to it.

  13. Nick

    Paul: You may well be right.

    Shagggz: Sometimes the only way to neutralize hyperbole is to pour anti-hyberbole on it. It’s like taking sodium bicarbonate when you have heartburn.

  14. I’m glad to have you around to attend to these things and perform the analysis (and meta-analysis). Since I’m don’t watch TV or participate in FB, I’m a complete outsider (thank ye gawds!).

    The bit about every idea/thing invoking its negation has a whiff of being trenchant somehow, but it ultimately fails to mean much because, frankly, the ironic pose is now part of our everyday thinking and all signifiers carry multiple layers of figure/ground, positive/negative, recto/verso, think/not-thing. Those are false dualities, though, since there are actually so many facets and competing interpretations and analyses (you cite a few) that we’re hard pressed anymore to say anything means with credibility. Welcome to PoMo.

  15. Nick

    “a whiff of being trenchant somehow”

    Story of my life.

  16. Chris

    With respect to something mentioned by Samir:

    Here, a business is offering us what it thinks we want, what it thinks will appeal to us. If it’s promoting opposite concepts or values, is that not because our needs and wants (as evidenced by consumer choice/behaviour rather than conscious thought) are also contradictory?

    There is certainly some truth to this, but I would just like to point out many of Facebook’s most valued metrics now pertain to user engagement with Facebook. It’s why they broadcast everyone’s actions to everyone else – to stimulate discovery and more intra-site activity. It’s why they go so far as to even automate broadcasting activities on your behalf even when you’re not on Facebook or don’t necessarily intend to have those activities shared in that way.

    So, it may be desirable for some of us, on some level, to want to “tune out,” but it is very much in Facebook’s interest to be the Nowheresville we tune-in to and feed signal – and the more often, the better.

    FWIW, I think the Home ads are far more “honest” than the Connect ones.

    Nick: completely as an aside, I’m wondering if you happened to catch Kate Losse’s (Zuck’s former speech writer, author of The Boy Kings) critique of Lean In and its brand of feminism? Interesting perspective:

    http://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/feminisms-tipping-point-who-wins-from-leaning-in

  17. It’s always amusing to see the hyper-educated and influential railing against the future. I hate Facebook as much as the next person and I don’t own a smartphone that would allow me to check it all the time whilst talking to people but you are on the wrong side of this particular cultural divide… in ten years time this type of post will read like one of those old etiquette books railing against the tendency of gentlemen to appear in public whilst not wearing a hat.

  18. Nick – You may want to see, if you haven’t already, Alexis Madrigal’s account of his conversation with Facebook’s designers: http://j.mp/16at10U. The Alicia Dougherty-Wold segment is rather instructive/revealing.