In the past few years I’ve enjoyed photographing fireworks when they happen over Boston harbor and sharing the images on Facebook. I feel these photos had become part of my Facebook identity. Looking back over my history there, I also see dozens of post about my musical projects and I remember struggling to describe the technical details of those projects in a way that might be accessible to my non-musician friends. With fireworks, I could just post an image and rely on the fact that people would want to see it because it’s the sort of thing people want to see. It always felt kind of decadent and fun to share something with incontrovertible popular appeal. Living in East Boston I have a good view of harbor fireworks and I end up seeing fireworks so often that I sometimes think “Not again!” But this past New Year’s Eve of 2019, the weather was rainy, the show was abbreviated, and I couldn’t get any decent shots, so I now feel a renewed interest in photographing fireworks the next time I have the chance.
Looking over my earliest Facebook posts I find one from October 22, 2009 where I wrote that I “stumbled into a Daumier exhibition at the Boston Public Library and saw the most vivid depiction of a headache ever rendered.” It wasn’t technically my first post but it was the first that received any comment, and in a way it was my introduction to the promise of social media. Before I became active on Facebook I would have expected that only a small fraction of my contacts, the ones with the most bookish inclinations, would want to hear about a nineteenth-century lithograph that I had seen in a library. If I chose to share a Daumier image with anyone, it would have been someone I thought of as an art history buff: no one else would care, I assumed. But when I posted this image on Facebook, the museophiles among my friends ignored it while some acquaintances I considered to be pop culture mavens found it hilarious. Suddenly I was having a conversation about a kind of thing I normally wouldn’t have had the opportunity to discuss, with friends I hadn’t known would care. It was slightly thrilling, and it was a little reminder for me of a big lesson: to not assume how others will respond to an image, an idea, a piece of music, anything, and to not expect people to conform to whatever categories I might have assigned them. And it was the first moment when I saw the potential of Facebook and other social media to change my life, allowing me to not only share my own observations more freely, but to discover unexpected points of common interest, helping me know people better and feel more connected to my friends and the world at large. All I had to do, it seemed, was keep sharing Daumiers! Ten years later, the practice of instantly broadcasting any random tidbit one encounters has become so standard that it’s startling to remember a time when I would have hesitated to post this image for fear that no one would care. (Now the question would be: what hashtag should I choose and what group should I share it in to get the most likes?) But ten years later, has the promise of knowing people better and feeling more connected been borne out? I can now bump into someone I’ve only met once or twice and I can recall that I’ve been seeing his food pictures on Facebook for the past five years and that he had spaghetti last night and that his aunt recently passed away. I can also recall that he’s one of those people who has two thousand friends on Facebook and I’ve never liked one of his posts so he probably doesn’t even know that we’re connected there. Do I feel closer to this person and are we more likely to get into an in-person conversation because I have data on him, as if acquired by surveillance, and he might have the same on me? Certainly Facebook isn’t all bad and it isn’t all good. The point of resurrecting one of my earliest Facebook posts is just to remember a time when it seemed that Facebook could become something amazingly wonderful and transformative, so I’ll leave it at that.
Credit: Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.
If you asked me which topic I care most about, music, photography, or window insulation, I would list them in that same order, with window insulation being in a very, very distant third place. But if you asked me to identify the Facebook post of mine from the past ten years that has given me the greatest personal satisfaction, I would probably pick this post from 2014 about window insulation. It was satisfying because it had a result: in the weeks after I posted it, I learned that a handful of friends and acquaintances, including many who never liked or commented on the post, had seen it and had proceeded to insulate their windows because of it. Think about it, there could be cold air streaming through crevices in your windows right now, keeping your heating system in high gear and leading to unnecessary carbon pollution in a time when the existential threat of climate change is coming into ever clearer focus, and you can stop it (the air, at least) with some plastic and some tape.
January 7, 2014
I’m inspired to make a rare public service announcement. With this week’s weather in the U.S. you will definitely know if you have drafty windows. Insulate them! I did 3 of our leakiest windows at the beginning of the season and just completed another 5 last night (it took around an hour). The kits by 3M and Frost King are under $20 for five average-size windows and you’re likely to save many times that amount in heating costs. I can confirm that both products work as advertised, though 3M’s plastic looks clearer to me. I don’t want to presume that you haven’t already considered this, but in case you require a nudge to action, here it is.
I’ve been on Facebook for ten years now and this year will be my last. Instead of closing my account all at once, I’ve chosen to go through a deliberate process of reviewing old posts, commenting on a few of them, copying some of them to my blog, and gradually reducing my Facebook content to zero. When I see an old post that had received a lot of likes and comments from friends, I feel some reluctance to vaporize the material without saying a final “thank you” to those who had engaged with it, even though I know that with a torrent of new posts constantly arriving in their feeds, most of my friends will not be particularly concerned by the disappearance of something they had seen five years ago. The posts that never received any likes are the easiest for me to delete because I figure that no one cared about them in the first place. But seeing these rejects, these items that went unacknowledged, or that Facebook’s algorithm simply never chose to show to anyone, seeing them reminds me of the basic quandary of being on social media. Whatever selfless motivation I might have had to share an interesting tidbit with my friends, thinking they would enjoy or otherwise benefit from it, the act of sharing it on Facebook inevitably caused my ego to entwine itself with the outcome. While I never expressed any particular concern for likes, and while I might have told myself they weren’t important, I always secretly wanted them and I always expected to get at least a few of them, and when one of my posts received no response at all I was always disappointed. It is unsurprising that I, along with so many other users, would develop a fixation on likes given that “liking” is one of the main things you can do on Facebook, people there are constantly asking for likes and thanking each other for likes, and Facebook is constantly tallying likes and beeping about likes and flashing notifications about likes so as to train you to crave them and believe in their urgency. (I knew I had a problem when I was out hiking with a friend and he took a snapshot of a scenic vista. I said “That vista is worth fifty to seventy-five likes.” It was sort of a joke, sort of not.) But whenever one of my posts did receive a lot of likes I can’t say I felt any deep satisfaction. What I felt was a combination of relief in not being ignored and a greed in watching, waiting, checking, and checking again to see how many more likes would come in. Would this post break my record of 80 likes and 60 comments and 10 shares? I don’t mean to discount the joy of seeing a thoughtful comment from a friend I hadn’t spoken with in a while, or the value of learning something new from an acquaintance who was willing to challenge something I said, or the satisfaction of knowing that people I cared about all over the world were appreciating what I had shared, and I certainly don’t mean to discount what they shared, and how many pieces of art, music, and writing, how many cooking ideas, how many local events, how many jokes and cartoons and quips I got to enjoy because they offered them up. I just mean that these feelings of connection and community, while present and real, were often eclipsed by darker feelings: by a sense of frustration at the arbitrariness of how attention is distributed on Facebook and by a grim recognition that even when a post “succeeded” in the social media sense of achieving high engagement, something in the experience was missing. Failure was disappointing but success was also disappointing. Did I simply want too much from Facebook? It occurs to me that social reality has always been a crapshoot. Way before Facebook was even conceivable, it was true that frivolous things sometimes received undue attention from society, and valuable things were sometimes inexplicably ignored. You could go to a cocktail party, fail to strike up a conversation, and feel disappointed on returning home, or you could strike up a dozen conversations and still come away with the sense that people talked at you without listening to you, and feel disappointed on returning home; but every once in a while you might go to a cocktail party and strike up one really deep and satisfying conversation, and feel energized on returning home, or strike up a dozen light, quick conversations that were nevertheless rewarding, and feel energized on returning home. So how is Facebook any different? Much of the time, Facebook sucks, but being there creates the possibility of interactions that can often be fun and might occasionally be wonderful. If there are pros and cons to Facebook, the same is true of any other social context, so why not embrace Facebook as an available tool, one of many? There are three reasons why I have to leave. The first reason is that the level of intellectual contortion necessary to maintain my self-respect while gifting my time and data to an unethical corporation has grown, with every new breach, too extreme to sustain, but that’s a digression because I haven’t really been talking about Facebook’s business practices in this essay. The second reason is that no matter how much I might want to consider Facebook as just one social context among many, it is hyperstimulating in a way that crowds the others out. It’s the place where I’m connected to the most people, where I’m most likely to receive quick feedback on what I say, and where the news comes to me the fastest. There’s no party or club or other real-world social arena that can match it in scope. While I might try to restrict my time on Facebook and downplay its value in my life, Facebook always coaxes me back into accepting it as the locus of social reality. And while it might seem that a craving for attention is my own problem to resolve, not one that Facebook created, I think Facebook greatly exacerbates the problem in its role as an inscrutable and manipulative attention broker. The third reason is that Facebook has made me into an unresponsive friend. It’s only fair that I reciprocate the attention my friends give me on Facebook, right? If I’m hoping for likes and comments when I post something, I should do the same for my friends, and indeed there’s much in what they post that I greatly admire and enjoy. But whenever I’m tempted to react to something I see on Facebook, I can’t get it out of my mind that reacting is what Facebook wants me to do, since my reaction is a piece of data that can be sold or fed into algorithms to increase advertising revenue, and can be broadcast to other users to increase engagement. I’m torn between wanting to recognize my friends’ material and wanting to defy the wishes of surveillance capitalism. Call me old fashioned, but I’d like to be able to socialize without my every interaction being tracked and monetized. Of course, people have been raising this objection for years. Most of the friends I have on Facebook would agree that yes, the company is deeply problematic, and no, it should not get to own our social lives, but they keep using Facebook, just as I’ve done for ten years. Things are not going to get better there though. If you really agree that Facebook should not get to own your social life then you have to quit Facebook. I wish the answer were more comfortingly nuanced and soothingly relative, but it’s simple and clear.
Two images of ice that formed at the edge of a stream in Caratunk Wildlife Refuge, Seekonk, MA, 1/13/2019.
Back in January 2018 my neighborhood in East Boston experienced significant flooding along with many other coastal parts of the city and region. At the time, I posted a few flooding-related photographs to Facebook and now, as part of my resolution to leave Facebook in 2019, I’m moving the material here. All three of these images employ the selective colorization technique that I wrote about in my post on Salient Color. They are all taken at the site of new condo developments on the East Boston waterfront near the Maverick T Station. The third image, “Sold Out,” was taken by Kannan T. and edited by me.
The restaurant Durgin-Park in Boston’s Faneuil Hall closes today after nearly two centuries of business. I made it there for the first time yesterday afternoon and splurged on large lunch including baked scallops, baked beans, and Indian pudding. The wait staff is famous for being cantankerous. Our waitress greeted us with a broad smile and a sense of warmth that seemed anything but cantankerous. Still, when I asked if they had beer, she said “What do you want?” I said “I don’t know, what do you have?” She said “Well, what are you looking for?” It became clear that she would not reveal any information about what beers they had until I named a beer myself. This exchange went on for a minute without either of us naming a beer. Finally she volunteered that they had Sam Adams. So I had a Sam Adams.