The Eye

All the News Feed’s a Stage

The feed is a staple of our social media diets. Most people reading this will be hard-pressed to imagine Facebook—or, really, any other relevant social network—without a scrollable, stream -based interface. It’s what eats up our waking hours.

Sometimes I’ll even scroll through parts of my News Feed that I’ve already seen, or uselessly push pages of apps on my phone back and forth—I’m so used to the motion that it feels comfortable, good. I barely register the endless surge of smiles and group photos: I know none of it is quite real, but I don’t really mind.

Facebook released the News Feed 10 years ago. Before that, people’s profiles sat in relative solitude. If you changed your profile picture or liked a new page, no one would know unless they clicked on your name and checked. This strikes me as a blessing, only because I don’t think anything worth sharing happened in the year 2006. (I was nine, for the record. All I remember about 2006 is that someone named Taylor Hicks won American Idol.)

After the introduction of the News Feed, the Facebook homepage became a customized, ever-updating stream of “news stories,” rather than just one’s own profile. The News Feed was meant to “help you stay more up to date on your friends’ lives.

It sounds innocuous enough (hopelessly distracting qualities aside) but the “feed” was a new idea, and people got really worked up about it—especially college students. They probably made up the bulk of the website’s user base at the time, considering that Facebook didn’t allow the general public (people not affiliated with certain high schools, universities, and companies) to create profiles until September 26, 2006, three weeks after the News Feed dropped.

Within a few days of the update’s release, a Facebook group called “Students Against Facebook News Feed” formed and amassed more than 500,000 members, forcing Mark Zuckerberg to post a palliative response titled “Calm down. Breathe. We hear you.” (I tried to find posts in the group from 2006, but sadly a woman named Tina has littered the page with links to sponsored blog posts about the health benefits of turmeric.)

I counted at least five Spectator articles about the News Feed from that month, all unleashing varying levels of fury. On Sept. 13, a call to join the Varsity Show’s creative team asked respondents to “please make sure the final product doesn’t mention Facebook’s News Feed too often.”

A week later, the first Eye editor-in-chief Tim Shenk informed the magazine’s readership that “if [he were to see] one more article about Facebook [his] brain [would] instantly collapse into itself, causing a horrible implosion that may destroy the island of Manhattan.” A Spectator news article described the response as one of “calamitous protest.”

And, finally, in a Spectator opinion column published on Sept. 8, J.D. Porter insisted that “the Facebook news feed is our generation’s Vietnam.” His concerns were mostly about privacy, as were those of the “Students Against Facebook News Feed.” Porter writes, “Remember that kid Ted who used to look away quickly every time you caught him staring at you in high school? No? Well, Ted remembers you, and now, if you break up with your boyfriend or write a message on someone’s wall, Ted knows.”

The backlash seems silly and exaggerated, just as it seems silly that people were upset over Spotify changing the color of its logo to a slightly brighter, slightly more bluish shade of green last year.

I suppose I see where Porter’s camp was coming from. Or, at least, that their issues with the Facebook update were about more than just aesthetic distaste or my insistent assertion that 2006 was a year devoid of valuable cultural touchstones. Relatively private information became relatively public. Even if the door to your profile wasn’t locked before, the News Feed blew it wide open and gave a lot more visitors easy access.

And, fair enough, today, “going on Facebook” means scrolling to find out “when Mark adds Britney Spears to his Favorites or when your crush is single again,” to quote the official Facebook post introducing the News Feed feature. As such, I’m reasonably well versed in the dating lives and miscellaneous Facebook activity of people I mostly just stared at (inadvertently, probably—I’m regrettably prone to making awkward eye contact with people) in high school. This is likely the case for most college students on Facebook, “Post-Millennials” (sorry to use the m-word) with high rates of digital literacy, for whom social media usage is a formidable force of habit. Basically, we’re all Ted.

In another Spectator article from 2006, Rudi Batzell, who graduated from Columbia College in 2009, responds to Porter and company. He writes of the News Feed debacle: “I wasn’t bothered at all. To me, the protest seemed petty. … Wasn’t the News Feed simply making explicit what has always been implicit in the Facebook experience?” Batzell’s issue with the feature—and Facebook overall—isn’t that it’s a breach of privacy. Instead, Batzell argues that the social network effects Marxist alienation. (I guess I should say that this is an extremely Columbian take on the issue, but honestly, the undergraduate population of Columbia College does not have a monopoly on Marxist discourse. But I digress.)  

“Your Facebook profile is a product, a brand, a commodity of identity,” he explains. “With all one’s actions neatly compiled in a list, the pretense to authenticity vanished, the mythology of any real meaning or substance was crushed, and, in a moment, promiscuous identity consumption and production ground to a standstill.”

I will admit that most of the Facebook activity on our News Feeds is performance meant to please, “a commodity of identity.” Time slips by all glib and smooth, like the habitual scrolling. I can push my thumb across my phone screen or slide two fingers across my trackpad and get all the selected highlights: new boyfriends and overexposed disposables from birthday parties and LinkedIn photoshoots. My own Facebook updates are mostly about new internships and articles that I write for this magazine. (I like to imagine you got here through Facebook.)

If you scroll through my Timeline, (originally called the Mini-Feed, released on the same day as the News Feed) there are no ugly bumps. Like the time I decided to wear hard new shoes to an interview, and then decided to get off the D train a couple stops early so I could walk and clear my head beforehand—by the time I got to the office, my feet were bleeding everywhere. I didn’t get the internship in question, and I had big raw blisters on my heels for a long time to remind me. But that’s not on my Facebook timeline.

Shenk wrote about this selective performance of identity on Facebook in 2006: “[Columbia intellectuals] love Facebook. They can broadcast their erudition to the world through a carefully chosen selection of favorite books/music/films, even if that Village Voice internship hasn’t panned out yet. … For those who think of self-creation as an artistic process, Facebook provides an irresistible canvas.”

He goes on to criticize this type of self-creation: “Superficiality and amour de soi have their, admittedly, super-fun, place. But they’re ultimately limiting. (Man, this high horse I’m sitting on is fun to ride.) Maybe people would have a better grasp of this if they spent less time obsessing over Facebook.”

That being said, I think Batzell was right when he wrote that, with the advent of the News Feed, “the pretense to authenticity vanished.” I don’t think that anyone believes that Facebook is anything other than a performance. (My friend Sabina once told me that “all Facebook is drag.”)

The News Feed might allow for an angsty post about a breakup, but you only hit the post button after soliciting edits from your closest group chat.  No one expects or cares to see my unfeeling rejection emails or bad drafts of my writing, the “authentic” bumps that characterize my life—especially if they don’t know me well enough to check my profile for that information, pre-2006 style, without the News Feed spitting it up on their screens unsolicited. As Rob Horning writes for the New Inquiry, “Reconceiving life as a series of chances for strategic self-presentation in social media radically undermines the old idea of authenticity.”

In 2016, I don’t think Shenk’s “high horse” suggestion that we spend less time on Facebook is very easy to follow. Because, like I said, we’re all Ted. Everyone uses Facebook, all the time. To be more precise: The Pew Research Center estimates that 82 percent of online adults between 18 and 29 use Facebook, and that 70 percent log on daily.

If you’re my age, you probably can’t remember Facebook before the seductive News Feed. Post-millennials, otherwise known as Generation Z, iGen, and the Founders, are used to producing content and personal “brands,” to quote Porter, for big audiences via the feed—whether those audiences are made up of Facebook friends or Vine followers. And they’re really good at it; a lion’s share of viral content on the internet comes from teenagers, particularly black teenagers. At the very least, you can probably confirm that you are “better” at Facebook than your aunt who just posts a deluge of unrelated family photos that no one will ever look through.

Likewise, in a Spectator article from 2009 introducing a now-defunct weekly feature called “Spec Feed,” a sort of newsletter modeled after the News Feed, columnist and Barnard graduate of 2009 Laura Schreiber writes, “This is news as it was meant to be, in the language we speak most fluently: Facebook-ese.” By 2009, the attitude towards the News Feed was no longer one of revulsion; now, navigating Facebook was a skill.

I also think that “strategic self-presentation” can be a survival tool, especially if you’re young and social media (and to be frank, surveillance culture) is a big part of your life. Why would I want 400 people I don’t really know (i.e. my Facebook friends) to see the ugly parts of my life, anyway? It’s not like I would have texted my cousin’s cousin about the interview that I bombed—whether it was for a Village Voice internship or not—or pulled that girl from my Literature Humanities class aside in the Ferris pasta line to tell her in person.

We’re always selective about the information that we reveal to others. So the ability to curate and control one’s public image in front of such a large audience—to decide what to reveal or hide—is comforting. Personal issues with social anxiety aside, I think there’s power in that.

“Facebook-ese” has become more complex in the years since the introduction of the News Feed. In response to privacy complaints such as Porter’s, Facebook added more options that people can use to control what they see on their News Feed, and which pieces of their information appear on others’ feeds. New emoji reactions allows users to perform their identities more precisely, I think—although it still feels hollow to simply react “angrily” to an article someone shares, like a toddler throwing a tantrum.

So I don’t think Shenk’s “[spending] less time obsessing over Facebook” is an entirely realistic suggestion, and criticizing people’s “brands” as just “superficial” dismisses the nuances of “Facebook-ese.” I’m more inclined to think of the Facebook News Feed, and the social network feed more generally, as Shenk’s “irresistible canvas,” and not a space devoid of “any real meaning or substance,” as Batzell suggests. Indeed, Shenk’s later criticism of the Facebook user’s “amour de soi” smacks of the overblown conviction that millennials are narcissists, an opinion largely sustained by 45-year-old white dudes writing for The Atlantic. It also disregards the time and energy young people devote to learning “Facebook-ese” and creating creative and productive spaces for themselves via social media.

Every so often, I use the feature on Facebook that lets you look at your own profile, the “Timeline” in its current state, from someone else’s point of view. I think it’s comforting to be sure of what other people are looking at when they see my profile, this identity that I am halfheartedly claiming reflects the sort of person I really am. It’s something I wish I could do in real life, sometimes—to see myself like other people do. Even if the scrollable Facebook profile is a largely commodified performance of identity, or a platform that provides just the illusion of control—it’s a pretty convincing one.  

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