With two credits left to finish his degree, a friend switched his major from philosophy to computer science. One of his first assignments: build a website for a local business. Rather than find someone needing this service, he decided to fabricate an empire.
I never knew whether he thought this would be easier. In any case, he resolved to create the simulacrum of a small publishing company and asked me for help. We wrote short biographies for approximately a dozen authors on the company’s roster, drafted excerpts from several books for each, designed book covers, and used Photoshop to paste our creations into conference halls, speaking at podiums and being applauded for their achievements.
This was in the fall of 2003, so we assumed that aspiring artists would also pursue a social media presence. We created profiles for the authors on Myspace (the original incarnation of Facebook, loathe to admit fakery, would only let users register for an account using a university email address; the email accounts we’d made for our authors were all hosted through Hotmail and Yahoo). My friend put profiles for several on dating websites. He arranged trysts that the (imaginary) authors cancelled at the last minute.
My apologies to the men and women who were stood up by our creations. I’d like to think that most real-world authors are less fickle.
Several years later, when my family began recording holiday albums in lieu of a photograph to mail to our friends and relatives, we named the project after the most successful of these authors… “success” here referring solely to popularity on the dating sites. We figured that, because these entities were all constructs of our imaginations, this was the closest we’d ever come to a controlled experiment comparing the allure of different names.
Eventually, my friend submitted his project. By this time he’d kept up the profiles of our creations for about two months. At first the authors were only friends with each other, but by then they’d begun to branch out, each participating in different online discussion groups, making a different set of connections to the world…
My friend received a failing grade. None of the links to buy the authors’ books were functional. He had thought this was a reasonable omission, since the full texts did not exist, but his professor was a stickler.
Still, I have to admit: faking is fun.
Profitable, too. Not in my friend’s case, where he devoted prodigious quantities of effort toward a project that earned exceptionally low marks (he gave up on computer science at the end of that semester, and indeed changed his major thrice more before resigning himself to a philosophy degree and completing those last two credits). But, for others?
From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions:
Long since, of course, in the spirit of that noblesse oblige which she personified, Paris had withdrawn from any legitimate connection with works of art, and directly increased her entourage of those living for Art’s sake. One of these, finding himself on trial just two or three years ago, had made the reasonable point that a typical study of a Barbizon peasant signed with his own name brought but a few hundred francs, but signed Millet, ten thousand dollars; and the excellent defense that this subterfuge had not been practiced on Frenchmen, but on English and Americans “to whom you can sell anything” . . . here, in France, where everything was for sale.
Or, put more explicitly by Jean de la Bruyêre (& translated by Jean Stewart):
It is harder to make one’s name by means of a perfect work than to win praise for a second-rate one by means of a name one has already acquired.
Our world is saturated in information and art – to garner attention, it might seem necessary to pose as a trusted brand.
Or, it seems, to peddle untruths so outlandish that they stand distinct from run-on-the-mill reality, which might be found anywhere. This, it seems, was a profitable moneymaking scheme during the 2016 U.S. elections. With a sufficiently catchy fabrication, anyone anywhere could dupe Facebook users and reap Google advertising dollars.
Which is frustrating, sure. Networks created by ostensibly socially-conscious left-leaning Silicon Valley companies enabled a far-right political campaign built on lies.
But I would argue that the real problem with Facebook, in terms of distorting political discourse, isn’t the platform’s propensity for spreading lies. The problem is Facebook itself, the working-as-properly attention waster. Even when the material is real-ish – pointless lists, celebrity updates, and the like – it degrades the power to think. The site is designed to be distracting. After all, Facebook makes money through advertising. Humans are most persuadable when harried & distracted – it’s while I’m in the grocery store holding a screaming toddler that I’m most likely to grab whatever item has a brightly-colored tag announcing its SALE! price instead of checking to see which offers the best value. All the dopamine-releasing pings and pokes on Facebook keep users susceptible.
Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used – persistently throughout your waking hours – the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.
Once this Pavlovian connection is solidified, it becomes hard to give difficult tasks the unbroken concentration they require, and your brain simply won’t tolerate such a long period without a fix.
Big ideas take time. And so we have a conundrum: how, in our world, can we devote the time and energy necessary to gain deep understanding?
Ideas that matter won’t always fit into 140 characters or less. If our time spent flitting through the internet has deluded us into imagining they will, that is how we destroy our country, becoming a place where we spray Brawndo onto crops because electrolytes are “what plants crave.”
Or becoming a place that elects Donald Trump.
Or becoming a place populated by people who hate Donald Trump but think that their hate alone – or, excuse me, their impassioned hate plus their ironic Twitter posts – without getting off their asses to actually do something about all the suffering in the world, is enough. There are very clear actions you could take to push back against climate change and mass incarceration.