Tag Archives: essays

Happy Birthday, From Facebook To Us

facebook birthdayFacebook has made birthdays weird. “It’s XYZs birthday!”, Facebook tells me when I jump on it in the morning. “Send them well wishes!”, or: “Help them celebrate!” I’ve learned to ignore the message, mostly, since it’s repetitive and pre-programmed and counters Facebook’s general penchant for amping up its users’ collective narcissism. Every little red notification ought to say: “Someone’s thinking about you!” “Someone else is thinking about you!”, not: “Think about someone else! Make someone else feel good!” It’s almost admirable, this interface’s attempt to work against its own programming – and, by extension, our own programming.

But it’s a little off-putting, too. There is perhaps no greater manifestation of Facebook’s desire to mechanize relationships than its birthday interface. Facebook used to (and by “used to,” I mean, “used to a couple years ago”; I don’t remember earlier versions) let you know about your friends’ birthdays, but it didn’t encourage you to do anything about them, much less make it easy for you to do anything about them. In those days, every single wall post garnered significance; every single post presented me with an individual notification. On my birthday, I used step away from the screen and let the notifications pile up. I watched them surge in number and eventually surpass 100 when they’d (somewhat disappointingly) begin again at 1. These notifications were markers of my birthday’s uniqueness: it was the only day when I’d get even close to that many notifications. It felt embarrassingly good, knowing that people went at least a little out of their way to send me thoughts. (In case you haven’t noticed: notifications were like Ego Crack to High School Nathan.)

I think, during those first couple years, I responded to the massive glut of messages en mass: “Thanks, all, for the birthday wishes,” and so on. But then, as Facebook realized that friends wanted to write on each other’s walls for birthday encouragement, they started to make it easier for us: we could send birthday messages on the upper-right corner of our homepage. It organized our birthday wall posts in one tidy column that opened up and out, away from the rest of the Timeline’s clutter, like an isolated file folder full of tax receipts. This mechanical ease seemed to perpetuate even more mechanical messages: “Happy birthday!” “Happy birthday!!!” “Happy b-day!!”

I mean to say nothing against the message-writers. I can rarely think of more creative or meaningful birthday wall posts myself. (Hell, I hardly even write on people’s walls for their birthdays, and then I feel bad about myself because I want to be liked.) The banal birthday message isn’t a bad banal: it says “I’m thinking of you,” and that’s usually enough. But when it’s folded into Facebook’s pre-programmed mechanism, it can feel like human originality and particularity and rough edges have been sanded off completely, slid like a CD-ROM into a pre-molded slot. Man and machine might as well be the same. When Facebook asks me to wish my friends a happy birthday, I almost think: well, why don’t you do it for me? You might as well. It hardly matters if I write “Happy birthday!” or whether the smart machine does it for me, on my behalf, like my own (im)personal secretary.

Or maybe this points to exactly what matters when it comes to writing birthday messages. In our mechanic age, it’s the personal will, the brain that registers another person’s existence, the human fingers on the keyboard, that matter most of all. When I get birthday messages, they’re the indexical markers of people registering my existence, thinking positively of me. The problem isn’t them: the problem is me, the selfish person that’d prefer to think of human beings as an accumulation of red numbers on the upper-right hand corner of the screen; the problem is the dude cynical enough to think that every “happy birthday!!” message might as well come from a robot.

 *****

A couple years ago, I made a decision: I would not just respond to all of the birthday messages at once, like an Internet King addressing his crowd of identical, faceless subjects below his e-Castle’s high-up Browser Window.  I would plow through the messages and reply to every single one. I would put effort into it: while I would sometimes give up and respond with the mechanically banal “thanks!”, I would try to come up with an individual, genuine message for several well-wishers.

It was hard. It took time. But I ended up starting personal conversations with people I hadn’t spoken to for quite some time. We began pleasant back-and-forths: nothing too deep, but undeniably human. (And undeniably aided by the non-human, I must add.) It felt like a good goal: I don’t give a shit how easy or brainless or automatic Facebook makes it; if you take the time to write on my Timeline, I’m going to reach out and treat you like the real-life person you are.

I no longer crave that little red notification like I used to. I don’t know if that means I’ve grown selfless or if I’m just desensitized to that particular egomaniacal thrill. (Probably the latter.) But I’ve kept my birthday message determination. And when I hold to that commitment, I feel a little thrill in the pit of my stomach derived from the steady act of turning simple, ego-boosting messages back outward, away from me, toward bilateral back-and-forths with full-on gosh-darn people.

And here’s the kicker: when I consider what I should send to well-wishers, when I sit at my computer and go through 100+ of these little things, it’s work. But the more I work, the more I try to empathetically imagine these people from California and Texas and New York and Cambridge and beyond, the more I feel the weight and gift of my many relationships wash over me; the more I consider the incredible diversity and particularities of the people I’ve had relationships with throughout my short life. When else, in human freaking history, have people been able to consider the multiplicity of their lifelong relationships in one single place? When have they been able to reach out to all of these people like a hand running along hundreds of inter-rooted hair follicles in one ecstatic stroke? Big parties, maybe. Weddings, maybe. But that’s about it. Working with, and against, the Facebook machine allows for this.

The more time I spend doing this, the more I’m awed by the teeming rhizome of humanity I’m blessed to meet and grow with, to twirl and knot around, to swell and mesh with. Deep, intimate, one-on-one relationships are a gift. But linked and networked diversity is a gift, too, and not one to be scoffed at or ignored or conflated with mechanical impersonality. (For what it’s worth, people like Jesus seemed to embrace both gifts with equal levels of gusto.)

In Essay on The Gift, Durkheim’s disciple Marcel Mauss explores the root of the sort of sweeping, Sublime feeling that washes over me when I try to respond to these many messages. Mauss, Tim Ingold explains, “showed how the gift I give to you” – i.e.: the happy birthday greeting – “that is incorporated into your very being, remains fully conjoined with me. Through the gift, my awareness penetrates yours – I am with you in your thoughts – and in your counter-gift, you are with me in mine. And so as long as we continue to give and receive, this interpenetration can carry on or perdure. Our lives are bound together as literally as two hands clasping…. And in carrying around, they wrap around each other, like the many strands of a rope.” As our lives interpenetrate and wrap around each other, they “form a boundless and ever-extending meshwork.”[1]

It can be trite and mechanical and inhuman, sure, but I stand by the (arguably naïve) claim that Facebook’s social network can both illuminate and perpetuate our social meshwork. Wrap around me and I’ll wrap around you. The gifts that began with our individual births will join and expand in the awesome hypertrophy of multi-personal life. And that’s something worth celebrating.


[1] Ingold, Tim. The Life of Lines. London: Routledge, 2015. 10-11. Print.

What in the World Am I Studying at NYU?

Reposted from Facebook. Originally published on May 14, 2013.

Throughout the past couple years, many of you have wondered what in the world I’m actually studying at NYU. This is a very good question, and not one easily answered. In the Gallatin School of Individualized Study I have flexibility to form my own major and over the past two years I’ve been developing my area of specific interest, my “concentration,” as it’s formally called.

Since I am almost halfway done with college (*cue profuse sweating*), I was required to write a short “Intellectual Autobiography and Plan For Concentration” that describes

how I acquired my interests and the future trajectory of my education. It’s a bit formal and stuffy, so if you don’t want to read it I totally understand. But I figured that some of you may find this helpful, and if it cuts down the amount of time I have to spend explaining my schooling to people by even a smudge, then that’s all the better in my book (not that I MIND talking about it… it just requires a fair amount of explanation. Frequently).

Feel free to ask questions. No question is too stupid. My responses might be stupid, though, especially related to my eventual career… but oh well. I’ll try.
So without further ado:

On My Expected Concentration: Cinematic Philosophy

I chose to apply for the Gallatin School after working as a youth camp videographer durin

g high school. Although I dreamt of going to film school since I was young, filming and editing footage in familiar patterns for months on end made me realize that working as a sole cog in the film industry wouldn’t be ultimately satisfying. I was (and am) enamored by broad conceptual investigations into the world of cinema, but apathetic toward the glut of technical minutiae that film school would inevitably require me to master. Call it teenage narcissism if you must, but I preferred to be the experimental captain venturing into unknown waters than the dutiful shipmate keeping the ship on course.

Fortunately, Gallatin prides itself in institutionalizing this sort of “narcissism”––or cross-disciplinal academic curiosity, as I’d prefer to call it­­––and my academic trajectory at NYU has been equally invigorating and diverse. However, my concentration initially sprung out of my First Year Interdisciplinary Seminar, “The Social Construction of Reality.” We began by reading Plato’s “Simile of the Cave,” an allegory that appeared shockingly comparable to a cinematic experience. [Side Note: If you don’t know what this is, here’s a great cartoon of Orson Welles reading it. It’s really worth a watch.] If we replace the fire in the cave with an electric light bulb, the shadowy figures cast on the wall with the projection of chemically developed film (or perhaps digital pixels, but let’s not go there), and the voices that prisoners (cinema watchers) hear with an electronic soundtrack, it seems like Plato was referring to a traditional movie theater.

To my delight, I found my intuition rearticulated a couple weeks later when I read an article for “American Cinema: Origin to 1960s” in which Maxim Gorky responded to his experience at the Lumiere Cinematograph by invoking Plato. He claimed that the images on the screen portrayed “not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its… spectre… It seems as if these people have died and their shadows have been condemned… unto eternity.”[1] Of course, the significant difference between cinematic experiences and Plato’s analogy is that, in Plato’s conception, the philosopher who escapes the cave “would congratulate himself on his good fortune and be very sorry for [the other prisoners],” whereas people continually return to the cave of the movie theater.[2]

This realization planted the seed that burgeoned into my expected concentration: “Cinematic Philosophy.” Since philosophy is dedicated to rationally investigating the fundamental nature of reality, it is hard to deny that cinema is an essential aspect of modern life. It is not a “shadow” that an educated philosopher must turn from, but a physical, aesthetic entity with its own ontological structure—one that unsettled Gorky and probably would have unsettled Plato as well. And just like the shadows in Plato’s cave, cinema typically lies at the curious juncture of simulation and reality, sensory experience and worldview articulation through narrative.

However, it is important that I avoid overgeneralization in this short essay for several reasons. First, most of the cinema studies classes I’ve taken tend to emphasize historicity more than theory, an exception being Gregory Zinman’s “American Cinema: 1960s to Present,” a class that investigated issues of representation, realism, formalism, and cinematic time. Secondly, I have only just begun my journey in actual philosophy classes, although I can already tell that aesthetics, phenomenology, cognition and metaphysics will greatly inform my concentration. Thirdly, it seems that the intersection of philosophy and film already has its fair share of problematic overgeneralizations. One prominent area is what David Bordwell (pejoratively?) refers to as “Grand Theory,” a number of politically galvanized theories from the 1970s that can “function like the sunglasses in John Carpenter’s They Live: equipped with some French or German proper names and fashionable buzzwords, graduate students are given the power to see through cultural objects for the concealed messages underneath.”[3]Richard Allen and Murray Smith also note that many philosophically informed theories from this time period, greatly influenced by the Continental tradition, tend to be dogmatic, uncritically pluralistic, and vague in their argumentation.[4]Therefore, while I intend to wade into Grand Theory, I want to skew my education toward the tradition of analytic philosophy and cognitive theory in order to aim for precise, approachable arguments and broad application.

 I ultimately desire this sort of lucid precision because cinematic philosophy can no longer remain an esoteric interest among academics. From the recent documentary Side By Side(Kenneally, 2012), to speculative articles (“Are Animated Gifs a Type Of Cinema?”[5]), to Stephen’s Soderbergh’s recent public address that has taken the internet by storm (“Cinema is a specificity of vision… as unique as a signature or fingerprint,” he adamantly claimed[6]), the world is scrambling to determine what the substance of cinema actually is. Now that moving images are democratized and culturally ubiquitous, it is more important than ever to understand what cinema signifies––what it should be, shouldn’t be, and can’t be. Although philosophers never achieve unified agreement, I would be thrilled if I am able to grasp onto some nuanced ontological perspectives that avoid the trappings of naïve metanarratives or uncritical pluralism by the end of my study in Gallatin. As our world is saturated with moving images and cinematic representations that are continually gaining influence, ignoring their philosophical implications would leave us voluntarily chained to Plato’s cave, unwilling to truly examine the projected shadows of cinematic representation that dominate reality.

[2] Plato,and John Ferguson. Plato: Republic. London: Methuen, 1957. Print.

[3] Baumbach,Nico. “All That Heaven Allows.” Film Comment Mar. 2012: 49.Web. 25 Apr. 2013

[4] Allen,Richard, and Murray Smith. “Introduction.” Film Theory and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997. 2-3. Print.