I Learnt the Truth at 700
I have been commissioned to write some strange things in my time, but the command to produce an essay on "Film Criticism in the Age of Facebook" for a scholarly German book stopped me in my tracks. What has Facebook — that space where people post one-line jokes, quotes, images, links and clips — got to do with film criticism?
I resisted Facebook for a long time. Like a lot of people, I tried it for a while, found it overwhelmingly trivial and absurdly demanding, and so quickly disconnected. The second time around, I began to warm to it. I got past the reactionary reflex that cultural commentator Meaghan Morris has accurately diagnosed as "Grizzling About Facebook" (see australianhumanitiesreview.org). Now I enjoy it as a daily part of my life. It brings me many riches, not the least of which are fun and affection.
As might be expected, I have gathered around myself a Facebook circle of cinephiles. But also many fans and practitioners in the other arts: actors, musicians, painters, photographers, writers — across many languages, countries and cultures. Communication on Facebook is telegrammatic, aphoristic. It is closer to SMS texting than email letter-writing. Facebookers revel in the milieu of the pithy quotation and the image-grab. And single images grow into galleries or families of images, overlapping and ever-expanding. On this pictorial level, dwelling in Facebook is like living inside Godard's histoire(s) du cinéma.
Facebook occurs in a yet-to-be-chartered space that falls somewhere between the private sphere and the public sphere. If you have 20 friends with whom you exchange cryptic pleasantries — of the kind that no-one outside your social circle could possibly understand — then that seems a clear-cut case of a private and purely personal activity. But what if you have 100 friends? 500 friends? Suddenly you are talking to an audience, a public of some kind. But what kind?
Facebook revives an eternal argument about audience size. Time and again, those of us who look at culture turn away from fantasies of the 'mass audience' (the blockbuster model) and pay attention to smaller hives of activity: subcultures, 'long tails', capillary actions of artistic influence that slowly snake their way across diverse spaces and times. For anyone who works in a University (as I do), 400 friends on Facebook is, after all, a far larger audience than is ever likely to subscribe to an issue of an obscure academic journal, or attend a highbrow conference in some far-flung corner of the globe. And yet — for the most part — what happens in Facebook stays in Facebook. It is not 'public access' material.
When I was 13 years old, I believed that True Love would be finding the One who matched my tastes (in film, music, food, etc) exactly. Of course, Real Life teaches us something different. Facebook, however, is built to connect us, in a dreamily adolescent way, with those strangers who like more or less exactly what we like. When you reach 700 friends — as I just did — the cracks in this dream well and truly open up: people start disagreeing with you violently, contacts are broken, lines are drawn. The naïve fantasy of fusion begins to crumble. But the idea of Facebook as a new kind of Public Sphere then becomes more and more enchanting and open to possibility...