Make It Like
Jealousy, Edvard Munch, 1895
The average Facebook profile, with its many status updates, commented photo albums, notes, and posts, contains approximately 65,000 words of text. If you assume a friend count of 300, the available reading playground for a typical user is close to 20 million words. This amounts to a small library of books.
While photos quicken the game, a Facebook user is primarily a reader of text. It would be absurd, for purposes of analysis, not to consider Facebook as a literary form. Sixty-five thousand words is the length of a short novel; “profile” suggests already something character-driven; “status” may track the throes of heroes and antiheroes, “in a relationship”—a romance.
When I joined Facebook in 2005, part of the first great American wave, I was entranced. I had no quibble with Facebook as a panopticon of surfaces. Seeing surfaces was my pleasure. Making surfaces was my joy. The artifice, the theater, the show of it seemed fun, an ingenious pastime. Rather than a novel, it struck me as akin to what I had always considered the greatest American art form: the MGM musical. Like musicals, Facebook was glitz and glamour and pageantry, and the sweeping passage of time. This, I thought—this is what America does best.
My Facebook friends are modern, humanist, enlightened; it’s impossible to hate them or rebel against them. It’s impossible to launch, in a competitive fury, any sort of campaign to get even with them or surpass them. Soft and smooth and supportive, their “likes” evenly distributed, they are not available as enemies or rivals, and yet to what degree are they friends? The humanism that prevents cockfights also precludes transparency, and, relegated to the genteel opaque over-layers, I am wretched in my envy, trapped, turned inward on myself, unable to claw at anything but my own eyes.
The illness of envy hardly needs to be described. At some time you may have known it equally well, in the same way that few people go through life without once or twice living through a stomach virus that leaves you pushing your face against the cool bathroom floor, wishing to die. I divide envy into two categories, so distinct from one another that calling both “envy” is nearly a semantic failure. One feeling is reserved for people I feel do not deserve their rewards. The other is reserved for those who do. The first sort of envy leads to disillusionment with the world—anomie and fury in the face of society, in the face of the reward-system. It is above all a kind of rage. The second envy leads to disillusionment with the self. It is a form of disappointment, and an ineffable and inconsolable sadness. Why haven’t I had the strength to live?