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Stalking the Billion-Footed Facebook Beast

How big is Facebook?

A movie about Facebook is a huge hit, may win an Oscarâ„¢, and even so there are more people who spend time on the actual Facebook every day than the total number of people who have ever seen the movie.

What's going on?

I've got one theory that is enough different from the many others I've looked at that I thought I might try it out here. It's a theory that doesn't have much to do with the film, but one scene in the film gets to what I'm on to. It's the scene where the Napster guy has just "hooked up" with a Stanford student. He goes to use her computer and finds TheFacebook.com. He asks her what it is and she tells him, and says that she is "totally addicted." Why?

To understand this theory of why Facebook is so gripping and so absorbing for half a billion people, I need to take you backwards, though an analysis of something that I've been thinking about since I moved to New York City in the late 1980s and started reading Tom Wolfe. By reading, I mean devouring. I read everything I could find. In those days that meant trudging down to the library and photocopying old magazine articles.

So, there I was in New York when Harper's published Wolfe's essay "Stalking the Billion-footed Beast." It caused quite the stir in certain circles, but for me it was like an instruction manual. There he was laying out exactly how young journalists -- That was me! -- could go out and write the "Right Stuff."

That article is brilliant, and still reads as fresh for me today as it did then, sitting in the J-school lobby a half-block from Washington Square. It's all online now, so go read it if you have a moment.

After that, I went back to my microscopic apartment and read again his introduction to The New Journalism. In that essay he made crystal clear the instructions of how to write journalism that could read like a novel. He laid our four specific steps at some length. He then revisited those four steps in much shorter form in an essay 30 years later, referring to his style of New Journalism as a "naturalistic novel." This appeared in his book Hooking Up.:

Four specific devices give the naturalistic novel its "gripping," "absorbing" quality: 

(1) scene-by-scene construction, i.e., telling the story by moving from scene to scene rather than by resorting to sheer historical narrative; 

(2) the liberal use of realistic dialogue, which reveals character in the most immediate way and resonates more profoundly with the reader than any form of description; 

(3) interior point of view, i.e., putting the reader inside the head of a character and having him view the scene through his eyes; and 

(4) the notation of status details, the cues that tell people how they rank in the human pecking order, how they are doing in the struggle to maintain or improve their position in life or in an immediate situation, everything from clothing and furniture to accents, modes of treating superiors or inferiors, subtle gestures that show respect or disrespect -- "dissing," to use a marvelous new piece of late-twentieth-century slang -- the entire complex of signals that tell the human beast whether it is succeeding or failing and has or hasn't warded off that enemy of happiness that is more powerful than death: humiliation.

In The New Journalism he wrote that of the four, the last was the least understood, but the most important.

OK, I've gone on for a while now, and you may recall that way back yonder at the beginning of this post you thought that I was going to be writing about Facebook. So..........................

Why do people enjoy reading Facebook? What is it that is so "gripping" and "absorbing"? ::::::: Hey! Where have we seen those words? Just up at the top of Wolfe's set of four devices used by those who understand the importance of realism.

This, right here, is my "aha!" moment. Reading Facebook is like reading Tom Wolfe! Or Dickens!!! Maybe even Steinbeck or Balzac or any of the others who grasped this power.(!) 

Really?

I'm not actually sure, but let's take a look:

1. Scene-by-scene construction.

Unlike so many of the people who play with words and produce books or even films that bounce all around in some attempt to be clever, there's no way that Facebook posts can be anything other than linear. (Yes, I understand that Facebook has instituted some algorithm to organize posts by order of "importance" if you've been away for a while, but even part of that algorithm is time, and from any particular friend -- or, character, if you will -- the updates are always chronological.) Facebook's home page is, essentially, one scene after another.

2. Realistic dialogue.

 Why has the "OH" become so common as to deserve it's own acronymous treatment? Because it sets the scene in two letters and lets the reader get right to the absolute best stuff... the quote. Anyone who's worked as a reporter understands that best way to get someone to read a part of a story is to put that bit in quotes. Everyone innately understand this, which is why, I think, so many non-writers are so prone to put things in quotation marks as a way of saying, "This is important! Read this!" That is why the "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks will never run out of material.

3. Interior point of view.

Posts on the social media sites have become the essence of an interior monologue. Why do people post that they can't believe they ate all those pancakes for breakfast? Is it because they really think that others will be entertained? Probably not. I think it's that they just think they are interesting people, and that the essence of their interior monologue is worthy of posting, even if it's to an audience of less than a dozen. It's what any close reader of Wolfe understands right away as the logical evolution of the people of the "Me" Decade (Wolfe's description of the 1970s), which was never so much about selfishness as it was about an identification of the self as something unique and worthy of having thoughts that should get documentation and dissemination. That's at the heart of Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, up to and including, if it must be said, sco.tt.

4. Status details.

This may be the hardest to capture, and yet in one way is the easiest because of one simple fact: What is the window called that we post our little datums to in Facebook? That's right! "Status." 

This is at the heart of why I think these social networks have been so successful. What they've allowed each of us to do is participate in an ongoing novel of epic proportions (Five hundred million times two is, mathematically, the first actual billion-footed beast, in the case of Facebook.) In this novel are characters with dialogue, one scene following another, interior monologue, and people who occupy certain ranks within the human pecking order. 

You don't even have to be part of that novel at all. You can just enjoy watching as some of the more enjoyable characters report to you things that they said, or that they heard in scenes that are involving because you know the characters so well. A great Facebook post might be about the kind of food served at some event. You can't taste that food. Why would the writer write about it and why is it fun to read it? Because it's a great status detail. If the hosts serve food that is exceptionally good, the writer is letting you know that they essentially exceeded the expectations of the status of that moment. That's the kind of detail you would find in, say, Dickens, with descriptions of either the gruel for Oliver Twist, or, for instance, a "jolly round of beef, ham of the first magnitude and sundry towers of buttered Yorkshire cake" for some of the dandies.

Similarly, do you have other "friends" who are just entertaining? They work or go to school or hang out in circles you have no interest in whatsoever, but they report about that circle with such aplomb, humor or with such a deft touch that you just enjoy hearing the reports and you think about them and look forward to the next time they let you know what's going on.

That's why we have so many friends on Facebook that are not the kind of friends you could call on to help you move a couch.

The great part is that you get to create this novel, in part. You hear about "friends" that are funny or interesting and, almost always, you can add them to your ongoing novel. And if a character becomes a bore, with one click you can "hide" that person and suddenly your novel is so much richer by comparison.

Now, are you a part of this novel? I think it's likely. This post is certainly long enough already, so I'll save for another post the way that we write our own novels, but here's one part of how I think we do take part in the novel just by reading. It goes like this:

Do you have "Friends" or people that you "Follow" because you have some aspiration to a social strata that they inhabit? (You don't have to answer out loud, so it's OK to be truthful.)

Fix one person in your mind for whom you think this might be the case. You know that you can't just go to that person and say, "I admire you and think I would enjoy life a bit more if I worked/partied/vacationed/hung out in a similar place, read the things that you read, wore the clothes that you wore, etc., and so I'd like to watch all those things about you, and -- when appropriate -- emulate them to that end." You just wouldn't do that in real life but I'm going to guess that you do that every time you catch up on Facebook. It's not that you rush to the store and buy a blue T-shirt if someone you admire posts a picture in one, but it might influence what you wear just a little the next time you go out to some similar event, even if that person will not be there. 

Think of it just in the micro-environment of Facebook. If a person you knew in high school talks with idolatry about, say, American Idol, and a person that occupies a social circle you aspire to mocks the proliferation of American Idol posts, you will be unlikely to post about watching the show, even if you did and even if you have something really clever to say. You may be the first to say on the 'net that, strictly as an example that J.Lo's hair looks like it came straight out of 1976. You won't, however, because you don't want to be one of the people mocked by the person you admire, even if you suspect that person hid you long, long ago.

Those tiny, but telling, status updates............................ Those are the exact thing Wolfe was writing about.

OK, enough. More on the cognitive psychology of Facebook next time.