It’s fair to say Meaghan Morris is one of my intellectual heroines. Her rapier wit and nimble intelligence make her something a national treasure in the intellectual life of this country. A stylist without peer, she is an ornament to the study of culture.
You can therefore imagine my delight on encountering her latest essay, “Grizzing about Facebook,” in the Australian Humanities Review. It’s a carefully argued but effortlessly expressed tip-toe through the vacuous grizzling that so often characterises old media’s response to social networks.
Morris begins with a fairly typical article in the Murdoch newspaper, a sententious editorial the South China Morning Post critcising Mark Zuckerberg’s invention for its supposedly insidious grip on our lives (“Facebook no substitute for real world contact”):
While forming a very small part of the on-line discussion of social networking sites, these stories arise from news media efforts not only to catch a wave of popular interest while reporting actual incidents but also to shape collective perceptions of a wider phenomenon. In the process, journalists often draw on their rich professional reserves of reductively metonymic realism (‘setting the scene’, the ‘character sketch’) to cast social network users as types whose ways of acting are symptomatic or productive of diverse social ills: alongside terrorists and sexual predators there are always students uploading their mobile pics of boorishly drunken parties, ‘stupid girls’ sharing every detail of their vapid daily routines, and workers who boast about bludging but forget that they’ve friended their boss. As in folklore, each of these figures is sustained by a dense field of concrete examples both stellar (Hugh Grant and Bono for Facebook party uploads, MySpace’s Paris Hilton or Twitter’s Ashton Kutcher for cosmic triviality) and ‘it-could-be-you’ mundane (Kyle Doyle’s ‘SICKIE WOO’ Facebook status update). Simultaneously grounded in and abstracted from the real history of on-line culture, such figures ‘stick’ in media memory, powerfully eliciting recognition (the party animal, the princess, the slack worker) while drawing attention away from a myriad other practices thriving on the sites. Stereotypes are forms of apprehension rather than bad representations, and their force is to mobilize familiar knowledge to explain and absorb unfamiliar experience (Morris,Identity 143-44).
While the limitations of a morphological critique of popular culture have been argued many times (Morris, Too Soon; Morse), formal typing is a generative principle in popular culture itself. Media editorializing thrives on it and, as hard news-gathering receded as a journalistic practice during the Howard era, the readily available technique of consensus assertion through type (‘the’ ethnic lobby, ‘the’ Aboriginal industry, ‘the’ politically correct) organized columns of what became in those years a major genre of Australian social debate: grizzling, or ‘fretful complaint’. The fretfulness is important. Most of the grizzling that made it to press or to air in Howard’s day was majoritarian complaint about the perduring cultural power of social minorities (Morris, Too Soon 219-33), and the Macquarie Dictionary reminds us that the first meaning of ‘grizzle’ is ‘to become grey’, a metonym of ageing and thus (in this social logic) of fading power.
Morris goes on to examine the various literatures of “everyday life” and how they may be compared to the online everyday world of Facebook, offering some sensitive and perceptive remarks:
Let me offer my own two or three cents about utopia and Facebook. First, Facebook is not all quizzes, ‘hey babes’ and pokes. Most negative media stories obsess about one or two features (photos and status updates in particular), but the point about Facebook is that it bundles together multiple functions and potential things to do. Most of us never use all of them, and other social networking platforms do some of these things better than Facebook does (MySpace for new music, Live Journal for communities, Ning for interest groups, Twitter for global converse and news as-it-happens …), but what Facebook does well is combine: you can write private letters, play games, send gifts, do quizzes, circulate news, post notes, music and clips, share photos or research, test your knowledge, join groups and causes, make haiku-like allusions to your state of mind and chat on-line with friends, all in one place and time—restoring or relieving, according to need, the pattern of an everyday life. Facebook is on-line culture ‘lite’: this makes it an object of scorn for digital elitists and ‘white noise’ haters (see Tuttle), but it is also a source of its mainstream appeal. Corresponding to this variety of uses is the diversity of kinds of contact Facebook allows, with the relation between ‘contact’ and intimacy also having the potential to vary over time within each singular friendship. In this respect it follows the rhythms of ‘real life’ as a whole: as Lauren Berlant puts it, ‘all kinds of emotional dependency and sustenance can flourish amongst people who only meet each other at one or a few points on the grid of the field of their life’ (‘Faceless Book’).
I’ve just scratched the surface of this handsome exposition. The careful reader will be appropriately rewarded.