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Russell Smith: On Culture

Social-media suicide Add to ...

I am a beaten man. Defeated. The arguments with friends and colleagues about Facebook won't go away; they grind me down to abject submission. The other night, I confessed to two young friends that I was missing invitations and announcements because they were going out only on Facebook and everyone assumed I could read them. My friends just rolled their eyes and said, "Duh!" What would you expect? Cutting yourself off from this dominant communication system is like living in the country and demanding that all your friends go out of their way to visit you. Not participating in mindless online social networks now is like not having a telephone 20 years ago.

Indeed, I do have a good friend and mentor who has always refused to use e-mail. One must communicate with him by phone or letter. And I'm sad to say I have lost touch with him because of it. We are all so used to e-mail as our primary means of communication that we often forget those who are off the grid. Now, I call him about once a year, and I wish I talked to him weekly. Not for a long chat, just to get what I guess you call status updates.

So here I am about to capitulate, to subscribe to a six-year-old system of communication, just as it becomes trendy to announce that one is leaving social networking behind. Yes, that's what all the cool kids are doing: They are killing off their virtual personas. And it's got Facebook, surprisingly, in a tizzy.

The trend is called online suicide. It's perhaps a tasteless joke name for erasing one's virtual social life and informing all one's contacts that one is no longer available. There are a couple of clever sites that, until recently, promoted this activity: They offered the service of a bot that would go to all your social networks - MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter - and contact all your "friends" with the same message, saying that you have died, at least online, and offering some farewell words. It would then replace your picture on your social networking page with a tombstone or something similar.

The "Web 2.0 Suicide Machine" ( suicidemachine.org) shows a promotional video about spending more time with your kids and getting your life back; the whole thing is a sardonic - and possibly sarcastic - commentary on the obsession that people develop with this kind of constant Internet gossip. A slightly more poetic version of this, Seppukoo.com ("Discover what's after your facebook life") is the project of a couple of Italian conceptual artists. These guys, who call themselves Les Liens Invisibles ("invisible links"), have created a number of similar one-liner Internet art projects, and they write about them in the romantic, high-stepping prose of the contemporary art student. ("The homonym, self-referential, ongoing collection of invisible/broken/non-existent/conceptual/zen links by the imaginary....") Seppukoo writes grandiosely of the "global suicide epidemic," meaning a pandemic erasure of online social obligations - something that clearly does not yet exist. It's a fantasy.

These gibes are hardly an attack on the Facebook organization itself. If anything, they constitute a sort of homage to it, a recognition of the massive role this network has acquired in contemporary social life. Facebook should be flattered.

But it is not. It has blocked both these websites from accessing Facebook to do their humorous work, even if they are using the passwords that the users themselves have given them. And Facebook's lawyers have sent a cease-and-desist letter to Seppukoo, claiming that it has violated the Facebook "terms of use." Specifically, it alleges that the antisocial websites have illicitly collected Facebook users' login information, among other things.

Seppukoo initially responded with a fiery lawyer's letter (it's posted on their site) refuting the accusations. It points out that Seppukoo has never signed any agreement with Facebook and so is not bound by its terms of use. I am struck myself by the idea that it is illegal to "solicit login information." Does that mean if I ask my girlfriend for her password and she gives it to me, I am breaking the law? And it is odd to piously uphold the users' right to privacy - in trying to prevent users from removing themselves from Facebook's scrutiny.

And of course the absolutely delicious irony is that Facebook itself has been repeatedly accused of disrespecting its users' privacy. There have been lawsuits and a complaint to the Canadian Privacy Commissioner that generated some rather critical recommendations from that office. Facebook has had to amend several of its policies over the years in the face of such criticism.

How this legal tiff is resolved is not in the least important to Facebook, or even to the purpose of the websites that called for the annihilation of the online social persona. They have made their point, and made people think about social networking in a new way. Their agitprop function has been accomplished. They'll probably move on to another subject in no time. On a more basic level, Facebook had won this from the beginning: It's still so powerful that poor resistant saps like me have to buckle under and subscribe, just to feel a part of the world.

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