Facebook, Twitter, and Some Narrative Theory That May or May Not Be Interesting And/Or Relevant

Okay: I may as well come right out and admit that in contrast to the last two positively laugh-a-minute riots we’ve posted, this one may come off as a bit, erm, dull. It’s to do with a branch of critical theory called Narrative Theory (or ‘Narratology’) that I’ve always had a hard time getting people excited about. Specifically, this piece has a lot to do with a 2004 essay by Galen Strawson entitled Against Narrativity,  a text that caused shockwaves amongst the community that care about this sort of stuff. For what it’s worth, it’s a piece thats had a pretty huge influence upon my own thinking, and I think it’s one of the most applicable, relevant, and downright cool bits of post-millennium philosophy there is.

In it, Strawson demolishes the idea that we should deliberately seek to see our life in Narrative terms – as in we shouldn’t go out of our way to see ourselves as the lead character in an unfolding drama if it doesn’t feel right to us.  I should say here that by ‘Narrative’ (note the capital N), I don’t mean a predetermined story or plot, but a kind of adhesive force that binds together separate events, imposing a singular thread of causality running throughout. Narrative is always retrospective; I.e., because of A (event), B happened, which then led to C, and thats why I’m here experiencing D. A non-Narrative outlook upon the same sequence of events might go something like ‘A was cool, and then B happened, C was a bit boring but then D came along which picked things up’, or just not differentiate between the events at all – just one long fluctuating A.

What Strawson also gives us is a language for discussing the way people relate to their experiences and interactions over a range of time: He divides everyone into two camps, Narratorial and Episodic (He actually uses the word ‘Diachronic’ rather than Narratorial, but lets do our best to keep things simple. There be dragons ahead). Note that these two camps are personality types or tendencies, not philosophical positions deliberately adopted. Before I undertake the Herculean task of explaining these in a way that’s remotely fun and simple and interesting enough to keep you hooked well into the fourth, fifth and sixth paragraphs of this article which you still don’t really know is about at all, let me just say that it recently occurred to me that Facebook and Twitter, respectively, perfectly encapsulate these two camps, thereby giving me license to go off on one about this Narratology lark and apply it to the very much interesting and relevant world of social media. Without further ado, here’s Narrativity and Episodicity squashed into as much of a nutshell as is feasible.

Basically, Narratorials tend to become attached to their past experiences and consciously factor them into their self-understanding. They think of their life in timeline terms, relating everything to that which has come before it. It’s important for a Narratorial to have a clear idea of the course of their life, as through this they cultivate a solid sense of self. They are Narrative; they’re more prone to seeing themselves as the lead character in an unfolding drama, or Bildungsroman if we’re going to get technical. They have much more of a tendency to impose narrative upon their past, thereby running the risk of shaping their experiences to fit the narrative, rather than the narrative to fit their experiences (this is something called the Narrative Fallacy, which we won’t explore here but let me tell you that once you start spotting it you won’t be able to stop. It’s everywhere, no-ones safe).

Episodics, on the other hand, do not become attached to their experiences, or rather they do not automatically configure them into their day-to-day self-understanding. They are aware that the experiences of their past have shaped their subjectivity, but mindful of the fact that this has happened subconsciously and do not particularly ‘do the work backwards’, as it were, and figure out how this has happened and what effects it has had. They are non-Narrative. Their sense of self is based much more upon how they respond to the present moment rather that how they have responded in the past. They have little conscious connection with their personal history. They do not tend to deliberately make decisions based upon past occurrences: For an Episodic, there is little sense that history repeats itself, or if it does then that just doesn’t enter into the day-to-day equation. Whereas for a Narratorial the emphasis is on permanence and stability, Episodics tend more towards transience. Although everyone is predominantly one or the other, its not impossible for people to partake of each or even to switch camps at some point in their life.

Strawson’s distinction between these two approaches to time and experience (or ‘temporal temperaments’, as he calls them) strikes me as just fantastically useful. You can already start dividing authors, filmmakers and basically anyone into either category quite neatly. For example, the Scorsese of Goodfellas and Wolf of Wall Street is about as Narratorial as they come, with plot-driven films that span decades. They look at how a character became who they are through a series of significant events. The early Scorsese of Taxi Driver, on the other hand, is textbook Episodic: We know very little about the life of De Niro’s character, but we get a good sense of him through his internal monologues and how he relates to experience as it happens throughout the film. Other artists with an Episodic outlook could include Joyce, Kerouac, and Murakami (although he’s a weird one because most of his books consist of unbelievably Episodic characters going to drastic measures to ‘reconnect to their pasts’ in a concrete way and become Narratorial- see The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle)

Now, what are social media sites, really? First and foremost, they are a digital space through which we communicate via text and photos, share content we think is share-worthy, and explore our friends’ online presences. Secondly, they are a digital representation of our social lives, of our circles of friends and how we relate to them. But underneath all this, and perhaps most crucially, they offer the opportunity for us to create and cultivate a digital representation or abstraction of our selves. Let’s face it: so-called ‘social’ media is basically self-orientated, even if it was never meant to be.

I recently got a twitter account in order to manically promote this here new project of ours (speaking of which, fellow twits, you can follow it Here). After the inevitable period of being utterly flummoxed and doing everything wrong, I started to get a handle on it and understand how it worked. It struck me that whereas Facebook offers us a Narratorial framework for self-representation, Twitter, on the other hand, opts for an Episodic one. Let us consider.

The heart of the Facebook experience is your timeline. On this, all your life events get automatically organised chronologically, with particular attention drawn towards what they call ‘Life Events’, which can include everything from getting engaged to just doing some DIY or getting new glasses prescribed (seriously, check the drop-down list). Users have the option of seeing a condensed version of someone’s timeline, which is presented as a kind of life-flashed-before-my-eyes style tear-through of someone’s life. Attention is also drawn towards events that have drawn a particularly large response, although these often tend to be stupid ones (i.e. hilarious picture of you passed out with a felt-tip moustache)  rather than ‘significant’ ones. Additionally, everything you post or comment on stays there – and people with nothing better to do probably will go back and read it at some point. This is all very Narratorial stuff.

Twitter, on the other hand, is more Episodic and less overtly about self. There is no timeline, and its far more content-driven as opposed to event-driven. No-ones going to retweet or even particularly give a shit about your declaration of a new job or whatever, but they’ll go mad for your cutting observation or sarcastic political comment or brilliant micro-anecdote. Twitter provides a great climate for stuff to explode in popularity and go viral (or ‘fungal’ as we say here), but everything is very much here-today-gone-tomorrow. It’s less focused on the past and future, and nothing really sticks: it’s Episodic.

This is all well and good, but why does it really matter? What does identifying temporal temperament frameworks in social media accomplish? Well, reader, it so happens that there’s a property of these social media sites that’s very often overlooked: Their symbiotic or two-way nature. It’s kind of a given that our social media profiles are reliant upon us updating them and interacting with other people’s, but what isn’t so obvious is the way our digital selves feed back into how we relate to ourselves and each other in the ‘real’ or concrete world. If you spend time every day interacting with people on Facebook, it follows that you’re going to start thinking about yourself and your social life in Facebook terms, or to use their framework to understand yourself and how you relate to others. By using their framework, you’re unconsciously adopting a Narratorial outlook.

Let me make it clear that I don’t think being Narratorial is healthier than being Episodic or vice versa, but i do think it’s healthy to be aware of the two, and to know where you fall. I don’t think either Facebook or Twitter is better than the other, they’re just more suited to different people. The problem is that some people who are naturally more Episodic (myself included) don’t thrive in a Narratorial framework. They can get nervous and start premeditating all their interactions too much, overthinking them, because the idea of everything they say sticking around for all to see is confusing and unsettling and plain weird. Likewise, someone who is comfortable in a Narratorial environment can feel uprooted and ungrounded in an Episodic one.

Facebook is far and away the more popular of the two for my generation: only about a fifth of my Facebook friends have Twitter. In fact, I don’t think I know anyone who has Twitter but not Facebook. This means that a vast number of Episodic people around the world are finding their self-understanding wrenched more towards the Narratorial side, which can be unsettling, not to mention the fact it mucks up the worldwide Episodic/Narratorial balance (we need both kinds of people at all times, as each is more suited to different things).

It’s not exactly news that Facebook and Twitter have stormed into our social and personal lives – becoming a crucial part of them – at a rate that’s no less than staggering. In light of this, its doubly important to really consider the way these things work, and to consider what effect they may be having on us. I therefore urge you to reflect upon which side of the old temporal temperament fence you fall, and to consider whether or not the online social environment you’re predominantly using fits with how you naturally go about constructing your sense of self. Its important to be aware of whether or not its pulling you in a self-configurative direction that doesn’t fit you. Narratorials and Episodics alike: reclaim your self-understanding!

– JB

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About Jacob Bolton

Yet another bloody writer. Been around, back in the North-west. 22.

2 comments

  1. Pingback: Out of he Desert and Onto the Screen: Facebook and The Hyperreal | Eating From The Trashcan

  2. Pingback: Out of the Desert and Onto the Screen: Facebook and The Hyperreal | Eating From The Trashcan

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