For Facebook, it is definitely not the best of times. Even in my decision to not participate in the merry-go-round of sensational news reports, and the ensuing banality of commentary and mass hysteria, one can still sense that there is something in the air, something about leaked personal data, an ethical breach, whatever, but it is obviously serious enough to have made certain people threaten to shut down their Facebook accounts. Certain other people, staggeringly, already did.
Worse, over the past week, in the company of a popular Naija pop culture writer, a charming man, who, without irony, is aware of this fact, and about whom I haven’t hid my admiration, came another knell. The conversation had veered, as it was bound, to minutiae about our mutual acquaintances on social media, some of whom are members of the Naija literary scene, when the critic heaved offhandedly that Facebook, matter of fact, is killing writing.
For sure, this comment is familiar, had appeared in several other places, in slight variations, and may even be considered obvious by now. But for someone whose sole claim to literary awareness rests squarely on sporadic rambling on my Facebook page, I was disenchanted to hear it casually repeated, and one might have felt, in the sudden daze of that moment, and considering the quick succession of blows to that platform, a tinge of softness for a highly corporatized, imperialist surveillance structure as Facebook, and its billionaire owner. Sympathy, no doubt, is a curious sentiment towards Facebook and founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose recent fate already found its elegiac evocation when pop star Oritsefemi interpolated Fela Kuti’s clairvoyance: Truly, na double wahala for dead bodi, and for the owner of the giant carcass.
There is generally such great fuss about mediocre Facebook Writing—little by way of illuminating criticism and more in snobbery, bearing incessantly on the indifferent quality of prose and indiscriminate punctuation. An aside: it probably makes for an unfair portrait of my acclaimed company to reproduce only that fragment of a meandering conversation here, and this, I’m aware, is indicative of a tendency in ‘new writing’ which, already found wanting in style, substance, is also often lacking in detail
Yet, rarely is ‘Facebook Writing,’ by now potentially a Nigerian literary subgenre, scrutinized for an equally urgent, if tangential concern: the selfsame lack of expert detail and expansiveness. This, for me, is an intuitive question, glossed over, I suspect, because it hides in plain view, nestled in our collective blind spot: in the assumption that Facebook Writing, though prominent, is not Real Writing.
The point of this piece, then, if any, is not to serve as a rebuttal to that comment by my company, or to launch into a defense by highlighting the singular quality of certain Facebook posts, but to offer a broader perspective to the general pessimism about this new writing medium and its possible claim to literary merit. I will only stop short of speculating whether the contempt toward Facebook Writing is merely a matter of personal aesthetics or whether it concerns, too, as in the case of our writer friend, professional politics.
To resume, it is trite to iterate that Facebook—and social media in general—in the dual roles they now occupy, as the new public halls and micro blogging sites, have democratized expression, specifically writing; and may have unwittingly usurped whole, existing publishing institutions and literary gate-keeping; and with unlimited publishing access has also come flimsiness in an otherwise niche craft of writing; and in the prestigious cultural value of wide readership. And is it any surprise that the people quickest to rail at Facebook Writing are invariably experts of the literary stock—usually male and charming? The thought naturally suggests itself that it is not writing per se but the hallowed place of the writer that is under threat from Facebook. A digression, as this piece is foremost about the rigor and detail of older, more respectable literary forms (e.g. the novel & the essay) placed in contrast to the brevity and presumed vacuousness of Facebook Writing.
Practically, there exists an expanding cohort of young people who write frequently, almost compulsively, on their timelines about the vagaries of daily life, at face value, to amuse their online followership; young people who must also, one imagine, secretly covet recognition from more established figures to verify their literary credentials. How, then, does one resolve this paradox of a medium which has set perhaps the most amount of young Nigerians writing at once but is still routinely suspected to be killing writing? Is it one or the other; both at once; or, in true disambiguation, neither?
In my personal quest to crossover from a sporadic Facebook Writer to a more traditional writer of articles and the like, I have wrestled with, and often lost to this deficiency of detail, and of matching up a specified word count. But much as this may represent a failure of character, or of craftsmanship, I’m also inclined to recognize that this deficit, manifest in myself, is not peculiar, but more widely spread, and patently derivative of the dominant culture; that this deficit here is the trip, may mark a watershed moment in Nigerian literary history.
Pointedly, like several other budding writers, I belong to a generation which literally grew up on Facebook and was fed on the endless, unprecedented flow of content struggling for limited attention. For members of this cohort—what my company summarily called Facebook Writer Inc.—social media is generally both introduction and abiding experiment with writing for a public. My in-bred attitude—and no doubt the spirit of the times—has been that whatever needs to be said needs to be said, in 140 characters, more or less.
Social media, then, and Facebook in particular, is profoundly changing, not only how this socio-demographic group receives, reacts to, and processes information but, by extension, how it conceptualizes literature and writing. By implication, the bite-size Tweet & Facebook post has not only dislodged tomes of books and essays as the most popular literary form of the moment, it has heralded the full realization of a writing form long anticipated in celebrated writers of the past like Frederich Nietzsche and Walter Benjamin: the aphorism.
The aphorism is stylistically distinct and structurally subversive. It especially suits the inconsistent temperaments of reluctant but often explosive writers. It embodies not just a literary form but a sensibility: to be at once brief, taut, clever, profuse, and philosophical. In his seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin mused that “one of the foremost tasks of art has always been to create a demand which could be fully satisfied only later.” Little wonder that the perennial question on the Facebook dashboard ‘What is on your mind?’ is an unusual call to both confession and instant ponder.
Another of the more radical imports of social media writing, long foretold in classic literature, is the rootlessness it affords a writer: perhaps for the first time in literary history, writing is liberated from the desk and the lamp, necessary tools now condensed on mobile phones, and the image of the 20th century flanéur comes charging through the ruins of history, setting our poetic field ablaze, as a young man in faded denim, with one hand, wipes beads of sweat from a brow, as the other updates several thousand readers on the latest while maneuvering traffic on foot. The flanéur, described by Baudelaire “as the gentleman stroller of the city streets,” who one may also describe, without irony, as charming, is invariably, in today’s world, a Facebook Writer.
But despite the long week it has had, there may however be no respite for Facebook, still a writing app where long, traditional style posts survive; as opposed to main rival app Twitter, a more concise, more modern, arguably more elegant, and definitely more in the manner of an aphorism. It is here, then, that I must nod back to my critic company: It isn’t that Facebook is killing writing; it is that Facebook may be holding it back from a long due transformation. This is, perhaps, a moment in our literary history, and again, in the words of Baudelaire, “you have no right to despise the present.”
About the Author:
Tobi Alaaka is an armchair culture enthusiast, whose impulses drive toward making music and journalling minutiae. Aside sporadic rambling on his social media pages, he has also contributed content to Musicinafrica.com.