Marshall McLuhan & Cousin Raul agree: Social Media is Boring

Raul Perez as Zorro at Fritzie & Jimmy Perez' 2016 Halloween Party in Hacienda Heights, CA
Raul Perez

Edward Albee, dead @88

Last night at Fritzie ‘n Jimmy’s Halloween Spooktacular cousin Raul and I talked for a few minutes about media, communications & culture in 2016. Raul reflected on the passing last month of American Theater of the Absurd pioneer Edward Albee at 88. We diligently avoided talking about the 2016 elections at all, except to note that it’s hard to do satire about something that is itself satiric. Fitting no doubt for our post-post-neo-neo age.

Facebook is Boring

Raul told me that he doesn’t do Facebook, partly because of context collapse, but also partly just because it is boring. He felt that Social Media was sort of played out, or at least hadn’t done much that was interesting or innovative in the past 10 years.

Being Boring is Being Successful

You’d almost swear that it had to be Andy Warhol1 who said

Being Boring is Being Successful

Andy did talk a lot about being boring. And a lot about success. But in this case it was Marshall McLuhan. Actually he said,

If it works, it’s obsolete. And it’s only when a thing has become obsolete that everybody is sufficiently familiar with it to make it work. Our motorcars were obsolete long ago, but that means they’re really going concerns… Obsolescence does not mean the conclusion but rather the beginning of a process as far as everyday life is concerned.2

When it’s obsolete like the car, or boring like Facebook, it becomes invisible. Not invisible like dead. But invisible like the new, understood, unspoken norm, or substrate, on which we build our lives. Build our culture.

6 years ago my students loved Facebook. Today they find it boring. But still use it. 6 years ago Facebook had about 500 million users. Today it has about 1.7 billion. Today Facebook is more boring and less loved than 6 years ago. And also more than 3 times bigger.

And then not banal

Twitter’s follow suggestions tend toward the banal. Want to follow Kim Kardashian? Or at least Ellen? But Friday Twitter offered a rare, interesting suggestion: Want to follow Ann Hirsch? She had me at her 1-line Twitter bio:

i’m like a performance artist?

As I scrolled through Hirsch’s Tweet stream I found each tweet to be insightful and clever. Yet still inside the Twitter box. Performance Art tends to be fairly outside the box of mainstream culture. But a platform like Twitter, or The Internet generally, contains so much self-referential post-post-neo-neo sardonity that there kind of isn’t an outside that box. The platform already seems to encompass all satire, absurdity, and critique. Like trying to satirize the 2016 presidential election.

Including everything is a lot like including nothing. Which might be why Raul finds today’s Social Media space so uninspiring.

Social Media is Obsolete

There’s no doubt that Social Media is useful in 2016. Facebook is great for staying in touch with friends & family. An ephemeral messaging platform like Snapchat is a place where young people can interact semi-privately with friends without all the baggage of a permanent record platform like Facebook3. Lots of fashion designers, hair designers, photographers and others have built careers by marketing their work on Instagram.

That’s cool, right?

CSU Long Beach photography faculty member Kyle Riedel complained last spring that his students now think in Instagram. That they can’t take a picture without considering how, or if, it will work on IG.

Perhaps a limitation of Social Media is that it is adjunct to real life. It is always and necessarily a self-referential commentary,

and this is me performing me

Your Ghetto is my Private Island?

We had a great time visiting the Ghetty.

I love it when students accidentally mashup Getty and Ghetto. It is a simple mistake. But it is also a mashup of a slum with an elite, cloudlike, vista above the city.

There is The Ghetto, and The Getty, and everything else in the city is somewhere in-between.

What I find exciting about Virtual Worlds is that unlike Social Media they are not adjunct to real life. They are alternative life. Robust. Shallow. Whatever. But not adjunct. Alternative.

I’ve always been a bit frustrated that while each virtual world will have its millions of devoted users, they tend to remain ghettoized relative to the larger culture. Maybe I wouldn’t think that if I’d grown up a gamer.

Either way, Ghettoized might be closer to Gettyized than I realize.

Etsy & Ebay are great platforms for exchanging objects. Pinterest and Tumblr are great platforms for exchanging ideas. But they are all, and always, adjunct to RL.

Whether you’re creating Impossible IRL architectures in Second Life, or transmogrifying your avatar in World of Warcraft, these works are not adjunct to RL, they are independent creative works in new media platforms.

Facebook isn’t the only MMORPG

And speaking of MMORPGs, I and others have long argued that Facebook is an MMORPG. Maybe the whole Internet is? Maybe all of life is?

Maybe the “problem” with Facebook and other Social Media isn’t that they’re doing a boring job of what they’re doing. Maybe the problem is that we fail to remember that to use Social Media is to play an MMORPG.

The next problem from there is that actually playing Facebook like it’s an MMORPG is against Facebook’s TOS. But I’ve already ranted about that enough for one lifetime.

The realization that we should be playing Social Media like MMORPGs is a pretty good insight. An insight gleaned, of course, while wearing Halloween costumes at the one party a year that celebrates romanticism over realism.

maddest of all: to see life as it is, and not as it should be4

Me, dressed as famed anime character "Cotton Candy" for Halloween 2016
Me, as famed anime character “Cotton Candy”5

  1. Marshal McLuhan died in 1980. Andy Warhol died in 1987. Yet I can’t think of anyone who understands 2016 better than they did. So it’s not surprising, or is even gratifying, to mix up which aphoristic culture theorist made the relevant observation. 
  2. Marshall McLuhan, The New Majority with Ed Fitzgerald, CBC Television, 1970 
  3. Facebook bought Instagram in 2012. Facebook tried to buy Snapchat in 2013. Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014. 
  4. Dale Wasserman, Man of La Mancha, 1965 
  5. Last night at the party Kirra asked me who are you? And I replied, I’m Cotton Candy! I was making it up. Not surprisingly, when I Googled today, I discovered that Cotton Candy exists and is a character from My Little Pony.