The Codes Are Alright: On “Code-Switching” And Facebook


Let us now turn from the others to the point of view of the individual who presents himself before them…. Regardless of the particular objective which the individual has in mind and of his motive for having this objective, it will be in his interests to control the conduct of the others, especially in their responsive treatment of him…. by expressing himself in such a way as to give them the kind of impression that will lead them to act voluntarily in accordance with his own plan.

-Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Everyday Life (1956)

This place where they dwell permanently, marks this institutional passage from the private to the public, which does not always mean from the secret to the nonsecret…. If there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression…. we will never find anything other than what exposes to destruction, in truth what menaces with destruction by introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument. Into the “by heart” itself. The archive always works, and a priori, against itself.

Electronic mail today, even more than the fax, is on the way to transforming the entire public and private space of humanity, and first of all the limit between the private, the secret (private or public), and the public or the phenomenal.

-Jacques Derrida, “Archive Fever” (italics mine)

Over the years, I’ve complained about Facebook along many axes: the violations of privacy, the hierarchies it creates (for you — free of charge!) among “equals” on your Friends list, and the foundational role of Facebook in the rise of Big Data.

I’ve complained about the dilution of self on Facebook, too: nobody is ever sad, because it looks bad. Everyone behaves moderately, fearing for their jobs. It’s about as wild as a youth group holding a casino night.

But today I have to risk a possibility that makes a lot of that complaining obsolete, which is that Facebook isn’t the problem — at least, not anymore. The fault is in ourselves.

Almost anything you create or fight for, can go on Facebook. You’re not going to lose your job over a poem, or a beautiful photograph, or a health care petition, or a philosophical musing. So when nothing like that appears in your feed, it’s because people aren’t creating. Sure, they might be writing journal entries, but they wouldn’t necessarily share those with you in person, either.

Here’s another dirty little secret: 99% of the “dangerous” things that go on Facebook never come back to bite the poster. Facebook is a huge, difficult archive. Anything you post there gets buried, fast. I’ve written something like 6,000 tweets. I don’t know what tweet #1000 was. I don’t think anyone knows what it was. Finding it by any means, Google search or what-have-you, would be like rolling five Yahtzees in a row. And this concerns information I have made public, and tried to publicize. The multipliers for Facebook are even greater, since I post 2 or 3 times to Facebook for every single tweet.

This is Derrida’s point about modern archives. In theory, everything is instantly retrievable, and utterly searchable. In practice, the archive is subtly and totally opaque. Everything we post is digested into a vast archive where anything can be remembered, but nothing really needs to be. Life goes there to die.

Meanwhile, just look at how far Nishant Kothary runs with “Facebook bad” truisms in his column, “The REAL Real Problem With Facebook”:

Successfully integrating yourself into the Facebook world, then, relies on you being willing (or able) to provide a clear answer to the question, “Who are you?” And therein lies the rub. Speaking for myself, the only thing that’s static about me is my constant state of change. It ripples through the many sides of my identity.

Yes, he’s quicksilver, is Kothary. For example, he used to work for Amazon, but he also used to work for Microsoft! I mean, whoa. How do we even begin to make sense of such crazy zigzags?! And now you’re telling me he’s an entrepreneur? Slow down! I can’t process it all!

But wait, there’s more:

For instance, in real life I wouldn’t flash just any of my friends with a video of my dog licking coconut butter off silverware set to Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” without first assessing the context I share with them: their sense of humor, current mood, squeamishness about animals, the nature of our relationship, and myriads of other things.

He tells us this in a column which is visible to everyone on the planet. And he includes a link to the Instagram of his dog, licking that coconut butter. So apparently he can flash everyone, including complete strangers, with dog antics, as long as we understand that he’s very sensitive to all kinds of things, and has deep reservations about sharing too much about his dog. (Except on his Twitter bio, and again at the bottom of his column, where he notes that he “lives at the mercy of his Weimaraner.”)

Kothary’s column amounts to a complicated performance of Facebook angst, with a very specific rhetorical purpose: he is trying to make himself seem interesting to the TED talk crowd, and he is trying to create the right conditions for some kind of tech design pitch (the two goals are, obviously, highly related). This is also why he’s started giving interviews about the need for “soft” skills in tech design. Hence his conclusion:

And replace it we must: Everything reaches its past-due date…. Facebook’s design—really, the design of public and semi-private virtual interaction spaces on the web—is starting to feel like it’s reached its past-due date. And replacing it is going to…. require us to approach a far more elusive problem, and one that’s at the center of design: understanding humans better.

All the scaffolding about Facebook, and his dog, is just en route to dropping Danah Boyd’s name, flattering her, and deploying critical terms like “code switching,” a term he doesn’t really understand. Code switching is a way for oppressed populations to survive in a society that demands assimilation, and to do so without completely abandoning their inherited cultural practices. Just because Kothary writes two emails in two different voices, doesn’t mean he’s code-switching. Generalizing the term in that way trivializes its political significance. What he’s talking about — namely, performing identity — is a phenomenon that has been well-understood since at least 1956 (!), when Goffman wrote about it in The Performance of Everyday Life (quoted above).

Let me pose the problem like this: according to some current models of the universe, every time we make a decision, the world splits into two worlds. In one world, we opted for Choice A. In the other, we opted for Choice B. Every single world that can exist, does exist, in its own separate, parallel reality.

That means that there may very well be two worlds within the totality of existence. In one of these worlds, Nishant Kothary never posted anything showing his dog licking coconut butter off silverware. In the other world, the one we live in, he did.

I would argue that these worlds are not, fundamentally, very different. Basically, what you have, in that other world, is one less dog video. But there are still a huge number of dog videos over in that world. I can’t stress this enough. Even there, dog videos still lead, indirectly, to the invention of YouTube.

One possible New Year’s resolution, as Kothary observes, is to spend less time on Facebook. Or, alternatively, you could borrow your resolution from Ippolit, a character from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s 1868 novel The Idiot: “I wanted to live for the happiness of all people, for the discovery and proclaiming of the truth!”

Remember that great moment, at the beginning of every episode of The Six Million Dollar Man, where the scientists announce, “We have the technology”? Well, that’s us. We have the technology, and this anxiety about being boxed-in by Facebook is a sideshow. Facebook is like a giant Coinstar machine where all “the many sides of my identity” are benevolently sorted and totaled, and yet add up to nothing.

I don’t follow sports. If a basketball-loving friend posts something I can’t understand, I’m not furious with him. That’s not what we fear. What worries us now, worried Ippolit in 1868:

I looked through my window at Meyer’s wall and thought I could talk for only a quarter of an hour and everybody, everybody would be convinced, and for once in my life I got together … with you, if not with the people! And what came of it? Nothing! It turned out that you despise me! Therefore I’m not needed, therefore I’m a fool, therefore it’s time to go! Without managing to leave any memory! Not a sound, not a single deed, not spreading any conviction!

Kothary won’t face this nightmare, preferring to spread the blame around instead:

A friend’s like on an anti-gay-rights page. A comment making fun of your musical tastes. A vegetarian friend linking to an article about the evils of eating meat. A complaint about how Apple (or Facebook?) can’t innovate anymore. A picture of some friends enjoying a get-together that you weren’t invited to.

The real problem with Facebook, it seems, is not that he contains multitudes, but that it makes him uncomfortable. Other people aren’t “code switching” enough.

His discomfort is a good sign. Maybe, at the end of the day, these social networks are realer than we thought. We can re-design them, certainly, but we might also try re-dedicating them — to the happiness of all people, and the discovery and proclaiming of the truth.