Facebook and the linguistic contours of friendship

/ by Samuel Fisher

In May of this year, in response to the wave of data misuse scandals that have been dogging Facebook, the company aired a campaign of apology ads.

The ad begins close-on an instantly recognisable button: ‘+1 Add as Friend’. The cursor slides up from the bottom of the screen. Accompanied by the opening salvo of tasteful Muzak in a minor key, it comes to rest above the button. Click. Cue the voice over.

‘We came here for the friends, we got to know the friends of our friends […] then something happened. We had to deal with spam, clickbait, fake news and data misuse. That’s going to change…’

The voice goes on to reassure the viewer that ‘from now on, Facebook will do more to keep you safe and protect your privacy, so we can all get back to what made Facebook good in the first place: friends’.

Watching this, I felt a sense of implacable unease – aware of a certain slipperiness, disguised by the sincere tone of the narrator, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I looked the ad up online and, watching it again, I realised this unease stemmed from the form of address: We.

By claiming the first-person plural, this narrator speaks simultaneously for us and to us; simultaneously for Facebook and to Facebook. Which raises the question: in this context, who are we?

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Language functions as a social contract. For two people to communicate effectively, there has to be a general agreement as to the meaning of the words that those two people are using.

Fiction furnishes us with a whole host of examples to choose from, where language is manipulated as an instrument of control. Most famous is Newspeak which, in George Orwell’s 1984, aims to curb freedom of expression by shrinking the language in which experience might be expressed. To enlist Wittgenstein: Orwell’s Party shrink the limits of language to shrink the limits of the possible world.

There are other examples, with a direct historical basis. Just as Facebook started running its apology ad, a new production of Brian Friel’s play Translations opened at the National Theatre. Set in a school, in a rural Irish-speaking community in County Donegal in 1833, the play begins with a series of namings. A young woman with a speech impediment is encouraged to speak her own name by the assistant school master; the master, his father, returns from a Christening; the prodigal son returns to the community from Dublin, bringing with him an English orthographer who ‘gives names to places’. This orthographer is compiling a name book, in which all of the Gaelic place names will be phonetically Anglicised, or literally translated into English.

Thus, a series of events is set in chain which erodes the ties which bind the community together. By linguistically reshaping the landscape to allow the English soldiers to physically navigate it, the community become estranged from their own home. The schoolmaster, at the end of the play, grasps that ‘it is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language’.

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Byung-Chul Han writes that ‘freedom and friendship have the same root in Indo-European languages’. To be free, in these languages, was not originally a concept that grew out of isolation but was rather a product of society itself: ‘Being free meant being among friends’.

Friends, as we’ve been told, are what Facebook is all about. They are ‘what made Facebook good in the first place’. However, there is a crucial component in friendship, as it is generally understood – here articulated wonderfully by Montaigne – that Facebook’s relationships don’t meet: ‘in friendship there is no business or traffic in anything but itself’.

For Facebook, the relationships that exist on their platform exist entirely for the extraction of ‘traffic’ generated by them. The data accrued from the interactions between the users, which is then aggregated, repackaged and sold to advertisers, are the product of these ‘friendships’. Byung-Chul writes that the ‘neo-liberal subject’ has become ‘the entrepreneur of its own self’ with ‘no capacity for relationships with others that might be free of purpose’.

This data is then used to recalibrate what content is fed to users, and their friends. The ground over which these ‘friendships’ are carried out is remapped by the traffic that it produces.

It might seem antithetical, in the light of what friendship has been, for Facebook to be in the business of it. But if language is constructed socially, it can of course change. Facebook is near ubiquitous. In June 2018 the platform had over 2 billion monthly users. If two billion people are calling the connections that they have within the platform ‘friends’, then the meaning of the word has to shift to accommodate this new usage.

Yet still Friel’s ‘images of the past embodied in language’ persist. There is still a dissonance in calling a relationship between two people which is mediated and monetised a friendship ‘insofar as’ – Montaigne again – it mixes ‘some cause, or aim, or advantage with friendship, other than friendship itself’. Facebook can’t be seen to be in the middle. And thus, the strange form of address. Facebook has to be of us, and for us, in order to dispel the notion that the ‘spam, clickbait, fake news and data misuse’ are a direct consequence of their manipulations of the ‘advantage’ which has arisen out of the relationship. In order to dispel it, Facebook itself has to be seen to be the injured party.

Comedian John Oliver also noticed this sleight of hand. On his show, Last Week Tonight, he aired his own, modified, version of the Facebook apology ad:

You came here for the friends, you got to know the friends of your friends. We came here for your data, and the data of everyone you’ve ever come into contact with […] seriously, guys, we were making so much money off of you, you don’t even understand. But then, you found out about it…’

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If the language of friendship – of value-free cooperation – has been co-opted, how can you discuss that relationship? Alongside their TV ad, Facebook also ran a series of billboards, all of which are a play on the understanding that the meaning of ‘friend’ has been expanded to include relationships inside their platform as one of its definitions:

‘Data misuse is not our friend’
‘Fake accounts are not our friend’
‘Clickbait is not your friend’
‘Fake news is not your friend’
‘Spam is not your friend’

Because of course none of these things are ‘our’ friend, any more so than socks, or the high jump are our friend. They cannot be our friend, because none of these things is a person. Which might seem to state the obvious, but only as a way to demonstrate that what is here implied is that friendship is something that can occur in isolation, that can be one way. Byung-Chul notes that ‘Marx defines freedom in terms of a successful relationship to others […] being free means nothing other than self-realization with others. Freedom is synonymous with a working community (i.e. a successful one).’ And so in this conception, freedom is tied not just to friendship but also to labour, and to the conditions under which we labour.

Last year a new office building opened on the ‘Silicon Roundabout’ in Shoreditch, right in the heart of East London Tech City. It’s an area that brushes up against the edge of the City, but in the mid-20th century it was a working-class neighbourhood, replete with garment and furniture factories. The name ‘Shoreditch’ is thought to derive from ‘Soersditch’, or ‘Sewer’s Ditch’.

In the latter part of the 20th century, as these factories closed or moved to sites further from the City, many buildings stood empty. After the recession in 2008/9 the rents fell even further, allowing tech start-ups to move into the area. The area flourished with the success of its tenants. The occupants of this new building include the software developer Adobe, and Runpath, a FinTech firm. The name of the building – which was emblazoned, in massive post-industrial stencilled letters, on the hoardings surrounding the site while it was being constructed – is the White Collar Factory.

In Haggerston, an area just north of Shoreditch, a co-working space for freelancers, where desk space is rented by the day, recently opened, with the name ‘The Worker’s Café’.

The names of both of these places seek to retain something that has been displaced. Camille Desmouslins sparked the first French Revolution by leaping onto a table outside a Café in Paris. I would wager the thing most disruptive to the body politic being fermented in the Worker’s Café is the kombucha.

In Translations, in response to the orthographer Yolland’s comment that Gaelic is a ‘rich’ language, the schoolmaster Hugh says: ‘remember that words are signals, counters […] it can happen that a civilisation can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of… fact.’

Identity, and the ideas embedded therein, requires constant renewal. As the way we use the words ‘friend’, ‘worker’, ‘café’ and ‘factory’ shift to accommodate our changing conditions, their political context is lost. If a language is to live, it must change to meet the needs of the people that use it. But if the words which define our relationships to one another are co-opted by parties which seek to exploit those relationships for profit, we will become ever more isolated; we will only be able to meet as ‘friends’ under the conditions of this subjugation.

The result of this isolation, as Byung-Chul has it, is that ‘no political We is even possible that could rise up and undertake collective action’. We can’t object to data misuse, fake news and invasions of our privacy if we accept the false premise of Facebook’s false apology: that Facebook is of us, and for us.

I, for one, don’t accept it. Facebook is not my friend.

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Samuel Fisher
's debut novel, The Chameleon, was published by Salt in 2018. He runs a bookshop in East London called Burley Fisher Books and is a director of Peninsula Press. Twitter @fishersamuk

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