belonging, Community, Values

On Belonging: From Hopes for Chinatown to Black Lives Matter to Anti-Asian Sentiment to Racial Solidarity

I became interested in making art about belonging in 2016, coinciding with the beginning of this Presidential administration and its policies which told Muslims, Mexican and Central American migrants, and trans people: “You don’t belong here.”

Over the past few years, the importance of belonging has been continually affirmed by the way othering characterizes American society now: political divisiveness, racism, xenophobia, the increased visibility of white supremacist groups, the murders of Black Americans by police and vigilantes, and the failure of the justice system to value Black lives.

Whenever I hear of a “___ while black” incident, I see it through a lens of belonging: white privilege allows a white person to feel entitled to police another’s belonging. It’s on the same spectrum of othering with victims in the movement for Black lives. Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers didn’t have to say, “Go back to where you came from” or “You don’t belong here” because that’s implicit in the decision to follow him while carrying a loaded firearm. When no one is charged for murdering Breonna Taylor, it communicates that being Black entails an exemption from belonging in a civil society where citizens can expect to be safe in their homes and live free from senseless state violence. When the justice system fails Black victims of police misconduct, it says that Black people don’t belong to the privileged class for whom justice will be served.

This spring, fear of the coronavirus triggered latent Sinophobia to become explicit in a wave of anti-Asian incidents. Art institutions posted pledges to speak up if they witness anti-Asian hate. (While I appreciate the allyship, I resent the necessity of promising to do the right thing. Decency should be enough, but othering robs us of our humanity, so we have to reiterate that we deserve basic civility.)

Yuanyuan Zhu—who works at Chinese Culture Center and has been an enthusiastic, crucial collaborator of my belonging projects—experienced a hate incident in San Francisco in March. In my Hopes for Chinatown project—bridging Art, Culture, and Belonging and 100 Days Action’s Art for Essential Workers—YY shared her hope for Chinatown:

“Less discrimination. More understanding.”

Photo of artwork being installed on graffiti-covered plywood covering storefront windows.

Christine Wong Yap, “Hopes for Chinatown,” 2020, site-specific public art: participation, hand-lettering, digital print, 80 x 148 inches and 96 x 48 inches. Commissioned and installed by 100 Days Action for Art for Essential Workers. Photo by Jeremiah Barber.

In the past 10 days, despite the ongoing pandemic, American uprisings have sprung up in all 50 states to insist that the police misconduct and anti-Black state violence will no longer be tolerated.

I am hopeful that this is an inflection point in history towards social change. As individuals and communities facing reckonings, the time is ripe for Asian Americans to confront our anti-blackness and white supremacy. In fact, coronavirus-related anti-Asian sentiment provides an opportunity to develop our understanding of systemic racism and the need for Black solidarity.

We APAs want to stop anti-Asian hate. We want people to know: We are not the virus. We want to not be perpetual outsiders. We want our belonging to not be conditional.

If we truly want less discrimination and more understanding, we have to do our part: to recognize that we have benefitted from advancements in civil rights won through Black struggle, to acknowledge that the model minority myth has been used to invalidate systemic oppression faced by Black people, and to address and rectify anti-Blackness pervasive in our communities. We have to stop othering Black people so we can see our struggles for justice and belonging in America are connected and intertwined.

 


Resources


Black Lives Matter Solidarity Statement and Phrases in Chinese

As a public service in language accessibility, I asked the Chinese Culture Center to share the text of their solidarity statement with me so I can post it here. You are welcome to copy and paste the Chinese phrases for use in activism supporting Black lives and justice.

Chinatown in Solidarity with Black Lives Matter
華埠與“黑人的生命很重要”堅定地站在一起

CCC adds our voice in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and all people who are committed to justice and equity.

We are deeply saddened and outraged by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and the countless other lives lost to state-sanctioned violence. We send our heartfelt condolences to the families, hold space for your pain and rage, and share in a feeling of loss for those who are mourning loved ones taken from their communities.

Chinatown and Asian Americans across the country are deeply committed to equity and empowerment. We honor and acknowledge the leadership of the black community during the Civil Rights Movement that paved the way for many Asian American organizations to rise up and serve our communities. Institutional racism and violence against black lives must end.

舊金山文化中心與“黑人的生命很重要”運動及致力於正義和平等的所有人發聲。

我們對喬治·佛洛依德和哈迈德·阿伯里被謀殺以及其他無數因國家暴力行為而失去生命的人深感痛心及憤怒,為此保留空間以感同身受。

華埠及全美各地亞裔群體齊心致力於平等與民權。我們尊重及感謝非裔社區在民權運動期間的領導,為許多美國亞裔組織的崛起和社區服務的發展鋪平了道路。針對非裔群體的制度性種族歧視和暴力必須結束。

Black Lives Matter.
黑人的命也是命。
黑人的生命很重要。
黑人的命是珍貴的。

No justice, no peace. 沒有正義就沒有和平。

⁣⁣In solidarity,⁣⁣

CCC Team- Hoi, Jenny, Jia, Sheng, Weiying, Yuanyuan
中華文化中心團隊: 梁凱瑤,  梁凱欣, 柳嘉潔, Sheng, 于濰穎, 朱媛媛

For our AAPI community members looking for a place to work on personal development and learn more about solidarity, check out Chinese Progressive Association’s Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit at www.asianamtoolkit.org/.
對於美國亞太裔社區成員,如果想咨詢關於個人發展並了解更多團結一致的信息,請訪問www.asianamtoolkit.org/,查看華人進步會的“亞裔種族正義工具包”。

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Art & Development, Art Worlds, Citizenship, Values

Hopes for Chinatown: Ethics, Complicity, & Tactics Rationale

I was invited to an art opportunity that was funded by a tech company that I detest. I weighed the ethics of my participation. Here’s what I decided to do.

Sorry this is so wordy—I’m choosing transparency and thoroughness.

Background

In early May, I was invited by 100 Days Action to contribute art to Art for Essential Workers.

“100 Days Action is installing art on boarded up storefronts by local and national artists with images of optimism and solidarity with our essential workers.”

100 Days Action is “a Bay Area artist collective that produces creative resistance projects to build community at the intersection of art, activism, and social engagement.” It was formed immediately after the 2016 presidential election in response to Trump’s 100-Day Plan.” I know several of the members and respect who they are and what they do.

Art for Essential Workers is a cool model of a program that supports the community, small businesses, and artists. They invite artists to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with sketches to show business owners, who pick from the designs. Then 100 Days Action prints and wheat-pastes the artwork, to be seen by essential workers and neighbors. The project started with the Mission District in San Francisco and is now expanding to Chinatown.

Art, Culture, and Belonging

The chance to display art in SF Chinatown via Art for Essential Workers plugged in beautifully with Art, Culture and Belonging.

Art, Culture, and Belonging is a community-engaged project exploring the impact of art and culture on belonging SF Chinatown. I’m the lead artist and I work in partnership with the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and the Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition.

Since shelter-in-place restrictions, we’ve pivoted programming to online platforms and encouraged people to support local Chinatown businesses, which have been slammed by compounding losses resulting from shelter-in-place, xenophobia, and reduced tourism. For many reasons, I haven’t been able to travel and engage the community as much as I planned.

Because of this, Art for Essential Workers is an especially welcome, timely way for the project to have a physical platform in the neighborhood.

Hopes for Chinatown Project

In Art, Culture, and Belonging, we solicited stories about belonging in SF Chinatown, including a question about hopes for Chinatown. I’ve taken excerpts from these responses to create the artworks for Art for Essential Workers. (Thanks to YY Zhu and Weiying Yu at CCCSF for translation and proofreading.)

Photo of Dragon Seed Bridal and Photography storefront. A big sign above reads, "Dragon Seed" in brown text on white background. Below, the window is boarded up and covered in a wheatpasted poster. The text on the poster is in English and Chinese. It reads: Hopes for Chinatown. To see people living and working in peace and harmony, by Alina. Everyone in Chinatown will be safe and healthy. Anonymous. Less discrimination. More Understanding. YY. Chinatown's Generations of love and care will continue. Sunflower. The text is in red in light pink boxes on a background of red with a scale-like pattern of overlapping concentric circles.

Christine Wong Yap, “Hopes for Chinatown,” 2020, site-specific public art: participation, hand-lettering, digital print, 80 x 148 inches and 96 x 48 inches. Commissioned and installed by 100 Days Action for Art for Essential Workers. Photo by Jeremiah Barber.

100 Days Action worked with the Chinatown Visitor Information Center to secure permission to install art at Dragon Seed Bridal and Photo. They installed my artwork on May 30. Dragon Seed is a longstanding business on Clay Street, facing Portsmouth Square. I’m pretty sure I’ve patronized this business—purchasing traditional clothes and trying on cherng sam for my wedding there.

I’m also excited about the location on Portsmouth Square, as that’s the neighborhood’s ‘living room.’ As a child, I played in the playground, getting splinters from the boat-shaped play structure located in the shade of the skyway. In spite of the physical distance, these memories—the sense of familiarity and continuity—make me feel connected to this location, and very proud to contribute to Chinatown in this way.

Funding

Art for Essential Workers “is funded by the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory and private donors.”

The association with Facebook presented a problem for me.

In 2014, I declined invitations to develop art projects at Facebook (see my blog post). It related to the lack of public accessibility and public good, balanced against public harm and lack of accountability in the Bay Area’s economic inequality and quality of living.

Also, a former Facebook AIR told me they had conflicting feelings about their participation. I also noticed that as soon as another Facebook AIR completed their residency, they deleted their Facebook account. Knowing myself—that acting against my conscience would lead to regret, which would haunt me for years—and values—money comes, and money goes—it was easy for me to decline and feel secure about my decision.

There are many well-known reasons to believe Facebook is evil. Two reasons that are unforgivable to me: Facebook tweaked its algorithms to mess with user’s moods. As a psychology nerd, this a major no-no. And, I don’t think Trump would be be president right now without Facebook’s negligence. [Not to mention Facebook’s complicity and collusion: Facebook board member Peter Thiel has donated at least $1.25M to Trump, and a few days ago, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to protest Zuckerberg’s inaction on Trump’s violence-inciting posts.]

Complicity

I’ll point this out so no one else has to, internetz: I’m already complicit. I’m on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. I quit Facebook years ago, though I may have to re-join for my day job or art partnerships with institutions. As an artist whose “Hopes for Chinatown” project is now a part of Facebook art programming, my work may be used to “art wash” its corporate misdeeds on its platforms and internally. If I felt fine with this, I wouldn’t feel the need to write this post.

Considering agency within partnerships with institutions

In the past I’ve had a self-limiting view of artists’ agency in relationships with institutional partners: I thought the institution gets to set all the terms, and the artist was so relatively powerless and needy that they just have to accept what is offered. But artists have more agency than that.

In my zine on interdependence, I learned about some tactics that have informed my thinking over the years:

“Instead of competing for individual … opportunities, [radical opportunists] utilize project-related apparatuses to foster temporary yet tangible collectives, clusters, and networks based on principles of solidarity and equity.”

—Kuba Szreder, “How to Radicalize a Mouse? Notes on Radical Opportunism,” in Dockx, Nico, and Pascal Gielen, eds. Mobile Autonomy: Exercises in Artists’ Self-Organization. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015.

 

“members and allies of this [alternative, artist-run] ‘field’ must leverage [our power] within … commercial, academic, … and civic spheres… to position ourselves outside, and in resistance to, these hegemonic power structures… using radical forms of participation to forefront self-organized, inclusive, and equitable structures.”

Sarrita Hunn, “Artists for Artists’ Sake.” Temporary Art Review, October 15, 2015.

I think some of these ideas are at play in 100 Days Action’s participation. When I asked them about their thoughts on the funding, they shared some of their deliberations. I can’t speak for them, but I think they are parlaying the resources to benefit artists, small businesses, and essential workers through this project.

Here’s another idea that resonates from the zine:

Seeking “opportunities to support folks … (rather than solely … individual projects)”

—Weston Teruya, as quoted in inter/de-pend-ence, 2015.

I’m not saying that the Hopes for Chinatown project falls neatly within, or is an example of, any of these concepts or calls to action. But these ideas have been helpful for thinking about how I partner with institutions, who benefits from my projects, why, and being able to have more agency and options than to either accepting or rejecting.

Response

I will donate 100% of my $500 artist fee to support Feed & Fuel, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation’s response to COVID.

Feed & Fuel mobilizes legacy restaurants like New Asia and volunteers to prepare and distribute up to 1,600 meals per day to seniors living in SROs and public housing, where residents live in 80-square-foot rooms with communal kitchens where social distancing is impossible. Feed & Fuel reduces transmission rates in dense housing among a particularly vulnerable population of elders, helps local businesses survive, keeps restaurant employees working, and provides a safe way for volunteers to serve the community. Learn more about Feed & Fuel, watch their informative video, and donate  if you can.

Feed & Fuel tackles multiple issues—loss of business from xenophobia and shelter-in-place, serving vulnerable elders, and stabilizing food security. And it’s all organized within and by the local community. I love that it’s an effective, responsive social initiative, as well as an aesthetically elegant network of relationships, mutual empowerment, and service.

Chinatown Community Development Corporation is a non-profit 501(c)3 founded in 1977.

Rationale

Another useful set of questions are:

“Given an opportunity…
Do I believe in what this institution does/stands for? Is it the ideal venue for this project/my work? Does my work feel alive in this context? …
Is this opportunity helping me reach the audience I want to reach?…
Is there enough freedom in this opportunity? Is this the best artworld for my work? Is it the most effective use of my time/money/energy? …

Am I being instrumentalized? Am I okay with that?”

Helena Keefe, “Standard Questions for Artists” from Standard Deviation, via ArtPractical.com, June 13, 2013.

My answers to these questions are “no” followed by all “yes” responses. That’s much different than in 2014.

With Hopes for Chinatown/Art for Essential Workers, I’m compelled by:

  • the public accessibility of a street-level storefront window
  • engagement with a community facing economic and public health uncertainties under Covid and shelter-in-place
  • coordination between community-minded organizations
  • the messages’ emphasis on optimism, health, and discrimination
  • the alignment with this neighborhood (a low-income, immigrant community of color), at this urgent time, with me. (Not to trying to toot my own horn, but I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time for this project: I’m Chinese American, and in a position to submit bilingual artworks that amplifies voices from the community.)

So rather than being stumped by a complicit-or-resistant choice, these questions have helped me think through tactics of circumvention, re-distribution, and public benefits. Ultimately, I participated because I think the impact on the local Chinatown community will be a net positive.

Documenting and sharing my thought process—and registering my hesitations openly for other artists to consider and discuss—are also part of this experience. I’m happy to engage with other artists, curators, and thinkers in respectful dialogue about this. If you have questions, please ask. I always prefer open dialogue over silent recriminations or unspoken criticisms.

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Citizenship, Values

A Statement on Black Lives & A Note to Self

A Statement on Black Lives

I stand in solidarity with everyone fighting for Black lives now, and with Black activists who have been fighting for social justice for generations. I recognize the toll of systemic injustice on all Black people. I call for justice for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breanna Taylor, Nina Pop, Tony McDade, and all those who’ve lost their lives to police brutality. I am grateful to Black people because I have benefitted from advancements in civil rights won through Black struggle. I acknowledge that my model minority status has been used to deny the reality of injustice experienced by Black Americans. I recognize the work I need to do as an Asian American to check my privilege, increase my cross-racial solidarity, and confront anti-blackness within the Asian Pacific American community. I recognize that this statement is just the beginning.

A Note to Self

Here are a few ideas I’ve been thinking about over the past two weeks. This has helped me feel more grounded, less reactionary, less needy for validation, more authentic, and more helpful.

Less is more.

Choose quality over quantity.

Contradictions exist.

You don’t have to resolve them. You don’t have to weigh in much of the time. Know your values. Feel secure in the actions that you are taking. It’s OK to hold multiple contradictions, and to care for multiple communities, issues, and concerns.

Things are complicated.

It’s normal to feel a lot of feelings right now. Different people will be on different pages. Everyone falls short sometimes. Don’t sweat the small stuff. In five years, what will you want to remember about this time?

It’s noisy out there.

Opinions are just that. Remember who’s been doing the work all along. Listen to people whose insights are grounded in practices that you respect. Turn down the volume on distractions.

One step at a time.

When problems feel overwhelming and abstract, identify small concrete steps. Start there.

It’s healthy to take breaks from social media.

Get off the hamster wheel of reacting, sharing, checking, scrolling (/feeling outraged, judgmental, exhausted, numb). There is plenty of information out there. Balance sharing with synthesizing new information and formulating deliberate action steps.

Know your spheres of agency, your voice, your platforms, and the differences between them.

Social media is just one tool. Turning off the firehose affords the mental focus to re-center and act in other spheres of agency. Within each sphere, find your lane. You don’t have to occupy every lane.

Don’t forget to balance the negative with the positive.

There are many reasons to feel and express rage, despair, grief, outrage, and sorrow. And… there are many reasons to feel connection, gratitude, love, joy, transformation, and hope.

When the negative feels personal, pervasive, and permanent, it is critical to our sense of hope—and to our resilience and sustainability—to affirm the realness of the positive.

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Impressions, Values

Points of Reference: Public Servants

How I know what I know about social practice.

I’m collaborating on a participatory project and advising a social practice grad student right now. It’s made me think about how I know what I know, and why I approach and shape projects the way I do. I didn’t major in social practice—I majored in printmaking, working with Ted Purves as a thesis advisor. Though I sometimes wonder what I might’ve learned had I majored in social practice, it’s gratifying to come across references that are intellectually stimulating because they resonate which my existing practice.


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Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon. // Source: MITPress.MIT.edu.

The dialogue spurred by Ben Davis’ “A Critique of Social Practice Art: What Does It Mean to Be a Political Artist?” still poses fresh, relevant questions. Originally published in 2013 on an activist website, Davis’ critique generated a remarkably thoughtful debate on Facebook between Deborah Fisher (director of A Blade of Grass), Nato Thompson (then artistic director of Creative Time), Tom Finklepearl (NYC Commissioner, Department of Cultural Affairs), artist Rick Lowe of Project Row Houses, and many others who have dedicated their life’s work to socially-engaged art or social practice.

This debate was reprinted in Public Servants: Art and the Crisis of the Common Good, edited by Johanna Burton, Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon (MIT Press, 2016). [That an MIT Press book would reprint a Facebook thread is sort of amazing.]

The debate spans:

  • Weighing the political efficacy of social practice projects versus their symbolic power. Davis provocatively asks if social practice projects are a distraction from activism. Many respond by defending the importance of the symbolic power of art, and the “need for a poetics of social change” (Fisher).
  • How socially-engaged projects relate to power, privilege, appropriation, and exploitation.
    • Projects should be guided by ethics, specifically, treating people with care and respect and not being co-opted by power it intends to reshape (Fisher).
    • Be wary of when the image of social consciousness is used to gain social capital (Thompson) [in other words, “performative wokeness“].
    • Does a project help or harm? Is it merely tolerated? (Fisher)
    • Socially-engaged art is not inherently good. Likewise, neither is creative place-making. Indeed, developers use artists to create “vibrancy,” rather than critically-engaged projects, and resources can be diverted away (Lowe).
  • Social practitioners shouldn’t get too “self-satisfied” (Davis) because social practice cannot replace activism and organizing. [I would argue that no one person or role builds a people’s movement. It wasn’t explicit but the solutions hinted at seemed Alinskyist.] Davis says that artists have an important role to play in political struggle, but they don’t have special access to political wisdom. [I think any artist who’s read any writing by Davis or Gregory Sholette knows that political education is a serious endeavor distinct from art practice.]
  • How to assess socially-engaged art, such as through ‘participatory action research’ and ‘collaborative action research’ and involving stakeholders (Elizabeth Grady). While you don’t want to rely only on artist’s first-person accounts, you can define efficacy first in terms of artists’ goals (Fisher).
  • The impossibility of not being co-opted by capitalism and the possibility of momentary acts of resistance. Davis cites Rosa Luxemburg on how many small victories and tiny inspiring acts are needed in the building of a movement.

Some thoughts expressed exceptionally eloquently:

“A great artwork embraces paradox and contains multiple, sometimes contradictory, truths. …this quality… gives a great socially-engaged art project the ability to reframe, reshape or, for a moment, redistribute power.”

—Deborah Fisher

Fisher also described the Rolling Jubilee as:

“a gesture that punches through that which oppresses us in a way that is infectious and influential because of its profound elegance.”

This “profound elegance” is my primary criteria for successful social practices: how they balance relations and forms, through process and ephemera. The projects I most admire are ethical and non-exploitative. They honor participants’ dignity, agency, intelligence, and time. And they are enticing and welcoming.

At the same time that I want to hold artists accountable to high standards, I also think it’s important to let artists be creative, experiment, and fail. The rules and forms of social practice aren’t codified. We don’t need any more predictable art or social relations.

The Public Servants editors wisely end the chapter with a passage from Louisa MacCall, co-director of Artists in Context, which connects artists and non-artists to collaborate on addressing issues. When I read MacCall’s words, it was like she was describing the goals in my practice (emphasis mine):

“What if we consider artists as researchers who can design, experiment, fail, innovate, and contribute to society’s knowledge production?

“To regain our sense of connection, agency, and empathy—which are vital to a just and sustainable society—we must consider the different kinds of questions and outcomes artists are proposing as indispensable to our systems of knowledge production.”


I’ll keep diving into Public Servants.

I’m also looking forward to the US Department of Arts and Culture’s “Citizen Artist Salon: Art & Well-Being” this Wednesday which connects social justice and wellbeing.

“how social justice is a chief indicator of individual and community health; how art can nurture well-being; and what you can do to build a culture of health.”

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Values

Facebook, Surveillance, and Unhappiness

If you’re still not sure if Facebook is evil, read John Lanchester’s “You Are the Product” (London Review of Books, August 17, 2017). TL;DR? Here are my favorite excerpts:

“No human enterprise, no new technology or utility or service, has ever been adopted so widely so quickly [as Facebook]. The speed of uptake far exceeds that of the internet itself, let alone ancient technologies such as television or cinema or radio.

“… the company is the fifth most valuable in the world, with a market capitalisation of $445 billion. …

[An internet entrepreneur on ethical problems:] “Facebook just doesn’t care. When you’re in a room with them you can tell. They’re’ – he took a moment to find the right word – ‘scuzzy’. …”

 

On fake news:

“Facebook has no financial interest in telling the truth. No company better exemplifies the internet-age dictum that if the product is free, you are the product. Facebook’s customers aren’t the people who are on the site: its customers are the advertisers who use its network and who relish its ability to direct ads to receptive audiences. Why would Facebook care if the news streaming over the site is fake? Its interest is in the targeting, not in the content. …

“Facebook works hard at avoiding responsibility for the content on its site – except for sexual content, about which it is super-stringent. Nary a nipple on show. It’s a bizarre set of priorities, which only makes sense in an American context. …

“Jonathan Taplin points to an analysis on Buzzfeed: ‘In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York TimesWashington PostHuffington Post, NBC News and others.’ This doesn’t sound like a problem Facebook will be in any hurry to fix. …”

Why artists and makers should care:

“The fact is that fraudulent content, and stolen content, are rife on Facebook, and the company doesn’t really mind, because it isn’t in its interest to mind. Much of the video content on the site is stolen from the people who created it. … in 2015, 725 of Facebook’s top one thousand most viewed videos were stolen. This is another area where Facebook’s interests contradict society’s. We may collectively have an interest in sustaining creative and imaginative work in many different forms and on many platforms. Facebook doesn’t.

…[FB] isn’t too keen on anyone apart from Facebook making any money from that content. Over time, that attitude is profoundly destructive to the creative and media industries. … If the content providers all eventually go broke, well, that might not be too much of a problem. There are, for now, lots of willing providers: anyone on Facebook is in a sense working for Facebook, adding value to the company. In 2014, the New York Times did the arithmetic and found that humanity was spending 39,757 collective years on the site, every single day. …

Lanchester follows this by citing the hollowing out of the music and journalism industries.

This goes to the heart of the question of what Facebook is and what it does. For all the talk about connecting people, building community, and believing in people, Facebook is an advertising company.

Taking Tim Wu’s lead, Lanchester explains a shift from growth (increasing the number of users) to monetization (how to make money off us). The first was spurred by its IPO. The second relates to how users are now mostly on mobile devices, and how to connect multiple identities and Experian and other bureaus to track you in an unprecedented manner:

So Facebook knows your phone ID and can add it to your Facebook ID. It puts that together with the rest of your online activity: not just every site you’ve ever visited, but every click you’ve ever made – the Facebook button tracks every Facebook user, whether they click on it or not. Since the Facebook button is pretty much ubiquitous on the net, this means that Facebook sees you, everywhere. Now, thanks to its partnerships with the old-school credit firms, Facebook knew who everybody was, where they lived, and everything they’d ever bought with plastic in a real-world offline shop. All this information is used for a purpose which is, in the final analysis, profoundly bathetic. It is to sell you things via online ads.

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

Lanchester also mentions a shocking habit of price-gouging based on users’ class status. See the article to read it.

What can be done?

Perhaps the biggest potential threat to Facebook is that its users might go off it. … as we’ve seen in the disappearance of Myspace, the onetime leader in social media, when people change their minds about a service, they can go off it hard and fast.

The other thing that could happen at the level of individual users is that people stop using Facebook because it makes them unhappy. … The researchers found quite simply that the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are. A 1 per cent increase in ‘likes’ and clicks and status updates was correlated with a 5 to 8 per cent decrease in mental health. In addition, they found that the positive effect of real-world interactions, which enhance well-being, was accurately paralleled by the ‘negative associations of Facebook use’. … To sum up: there is a lot of research showing that Facebook makes people feel like shit.

This article provided much-needed perspective and a reconnection to media studies and cultural criticism, which was hugely influential on me in the 1990’s and aughts. I loved that Lanchester mentioned Neil Postman. The 90’s anti-corporate and anti-advertising ethos seems anachronistic against today’s influencers and sponsored content. The landscape of what media is, how our daily experiences and culture are influenced by corporations and capitalism, has shifted so much in the past decade. I’m interested in further reading, especially Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants.”

I deactivated my Facebook account a few years ago. I realized that using Facebook lowered the quality of my life: it made my days feel worse. The level of discourse is low. I didn’t want to participate in a platform that single-handedly launched an industry of click-bait. The experience is highly mediated and manipulated. (Facebook’s tinkering with user’s emotions was a nadir.) It is addictive. It’s too easy to use FB to substitute for IRL interactions. I couldn’t allow such a counterproductive corporate product to undermine what I’d learned about positive psychology for maintaining psychological wellbeing.

It took some time to break the habit, but the longer I’m off Facebook, the easier it is. I have zero regrets about my decision.

I have only temporarily re-activated my account to engage art audiences in smaller cities. In Albuquerque and Wichita, locals told me that Facebook is the primary platform for connecting with art audiences online. Often they’d acknowledge that Facebook sucks, but there’s no alternative. I would encourage small art organizations (including artist-run collectives on the coasts) to post events on their websites, and not only on FB. I know FB is easy, but updating a website has never been easier.

I’m on Instagram and Twitter. As Instagram becomes more like Facebook (I’ve noticed the feed seems increasingly manipulated), I’ll look to disengage.

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Values

“Someone who is highly self-aware knows where he is headed and why; so, for example, he will be able to be firm in turning down a job offer that is tempting financially but does not fit with his principles or long-term goals. A person who lacks self-awareness is apt to make decisions that bring on inner turmoil by treading on buried values.”

Daniel Goleman, “What Makes a Leader,” Harvard Business Review, January 2004.

Daniel Goleman on values coherence

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Values

Life’s Too Short for Poor Habits of Mind

Recommended: an essay on freeing oneself from energy-sapping forces. It’s inspired by turning 60, but the call to preserve one’s attention for the truly worthwhile and to care for one’s emotional well-being applies at any age.

“Young(er) women, take this to heart: Why waste time and energy on insecurity? … I’m happy to have a body that is healthy, that gets me where I want to go…

What matters most is the work. Does it give you pleasure, or hope? Does it sustain your soul? …I’m too old for the dark forces, for hopelessness and despair…

Toxic people? Sour, spoiled people? I’m simply walking away… Take a pass on bad manners, on thoughtlessness, on unreliability, on carelessness and on all the other ways people distinguish themselves as unappealing specimens. Take a pass on your own unappealing behavior, too: the pining, yearning, longing and otherwise frittering away of valuable brainwaves…

My new mantra is liberating… I spare myself a great deal of suffering… goodbye to all that has done nothing but hold us back.”

Dominique Browning, “I’m Too Old for This” (NY Times, August 8, 2015)
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