(ESSAY) King of the Normies, by Maria Sledmere
In this essay, Maria Sledmere covers social media infrastructures, corporate personality, the politics of normcore and likability in response to Roisin Kiberd’s piece, ‘Bland God: Notes on Mark Zuckerberg’, which you can read here in The Stinging Fly.
> In April of this year a handful of news articles were doing the rounds online, documenting how Tom from Myspace had outdone Mark Zuckerberg in the long run. He’d sold his social media enterprise to News Corp in 2005 for a cool $580 million, before retiring in 2009. The Independent even treated us to ‘17 stunning travel photos reveal how Myspace Tom is enjoying retirement’. More recently, Tom’s iconic smile flooded Twitter in what I can only describe is a tidal wave of nostalgia for the days of more wholesome social media CEOs. I remember tending my Myspace like a garden, weeding out old code and planting the ill-advised annuals of cursor effects and rainbow text, some kind of embedded Uffie song because I thought it was sexy and edgy. What’s needed in the wake of all this yearning for wistfully high-maintenance, html-based social media is a decent analysis of where we are now. And with painstaking detail, Roisin Kiberd in The Stinging Fly works towards this.
> She begins with this haunted story of picking up a €4 hoodie in a thrift shop and realising it was a hoodie ‘given to Facebook employees, likely donated to the shop by someone who had recently left the company’. There’s something chilling in the thought of walking around in the garment, knowing that stitched onto its insides was the famous slogan: ‘Making the world more open and connected’. Is it an allegory for the way we wear our own profiles, knowing deep down that this hollow phrase is sewn in our souls, waiting to be unravelled by some future deletion?
> In the article, Kiberd deconstructs Mark Zuckerberg as a corporate personality, a stage-managed profile of ‘norm’, while commenting on the structures and politics of Facebook as a platform and social entity, cleaving all previous separations between the virtual and IRL with its network determinism. She refers to the impulse towards personality monetisation, the sordid loops of Facebook’s ad revenue, the way its chamber of narcissism encourages the simple cultivation of a personal ‘brand’ through a simplified economy of likes and dislikes: ‘The modern tech giant is more “platform than company; it is a blank, hungry canvas which swallows up and monetises its users’. These are all things we’re aware of, read frequently in piecemeal news articles or discuss in pubs with perpetually anxious IRL friends. We’re aware we’re ensnared in the network, but it’s rare that an article of this length takes a long hard look at how that happens—a question of both affect, aesthetics and media politics.
> The irony, Kiberd identifies, is that the leader of this cult of the ‘like’ is ‘not likeable’. Kiberd notes Zuckerberg’s performance in recent interviews or videos, his representation in Kate Losse’s memoir The Boy Kings and David Fincher’s biopic The Social Network. A lot of Zuckerberg’s awkwardness Kiberd brings back to the question of the hoodie, this garment that signals the wearer’s yearning for anonymity, to blend into normal. In this sense the article is as much a cultural analysis as a tech one, looking at how the question of power and charisma (we could go all the way back to Max Weber here) is problematised in the case of distributed agency, the reign of the geek, the fetishised age of normcore.
> Of Zuckerberg’s empire, Kiberd writes: ‘Facebook, his product, is an identity machine’. I’m reminded of a CTheory essay from back in 2013 written by Maria-Daniella Dick and Robbie McLaughlan, ‘The Desire Network’. Drawing on a mix of Deleuzoguattarian theory of capitalism and desire as production, and Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s envisioning of empire as a ‘plain where minds and bodies become enmeshed’, the authors argue that ‘Facebook effects a mutation in desire and thus in capitalism’, in turn representing ‘a historical shift in the relationship between psychoanalysis and capitalism’. What has crucially changed with Facebook is that desire ‘is now without object’: it has a kind of neurotic infinitude which transmutes capitalist desire into a dematerialised realm, ‘where there is no requirement for the traditional support of capitalism, currency and goods’.
> In the five years since that essay’s publication, Facebook has narrowed its focus, streamlined and further refined the algorithms that sort and determine our timelines, the phantasmagoria of our connected desires and affects. Friendship itself becomes a kind of transmission, further attuned to the patterning of our clicks. We find ourselves stuck in political feedback loops or our own narrow echo chambers, immune to broader cultural shifts, as recent events such as the election of Trump or Brexit have proven. The endgame might be, as Kiberd notes, the rumours that ‘Mark Zuckerberg might one day run for US president’. This parade of Everyman ordinariness clearly has clout in an era of American golden age nostalgia and fraught online identity wars, etc etc. But Kiberd is deliciously cynical about this kind of politics, and provides a much-needed critical dig at the ease with which we let ourselves surrender to, or ignore, its endlessly panoptic, invasive system:
What Zuckerberg represents, then, is a hive of connections, a cybernetic black hole which swallows up human behaviour and regurgitates it as ad revenue. He is a seer, a keeper of memories. He pressures us to share, then ostracises those who refuse. He encourages us to watch each other, the way he watches us.
> I couldn’t possibly do justice to the many threads of analysis Kiberd picks up to criticise the Facebook juggernaut and the man at its helm. By the end of the article, I feel even more longing for those pared-down days of Myspace, which seemed a zone apart from daily reality, that still retained the ASCII aesthetic of cyber strangeness. For Tom’s college boy, sideways smile. And yet like everyone else, I’m powerless to resist the communicative thrum of my Facebook profile, the satisfying blink of its blue messages. I find my identity elsewhere in fragments, but here it is solid, buildable, a child’s arrangement of text and images. It is refined to a name and a profile, where before all was beautiful pseudonym, cryptic lingo, anonymous commentary, myriad ‘skins’, scene performativity, smileys and palm trees that flashed in the night. But reading Kiberd’s article has given me renewed critical distance, an imperative to realise where my emotion is merely mediation, where narcissism springs from a certain way of accessing data, presenting my thoughts, my voice and my body. Maybe I don’t need to be purely ‘myself’ anymore, for all the normal that ipseity implies. Pass the emoticon, I prefer the meme version.
Text: Maria Sledmere