One section in Roland Barthes’s remarkable book A Lover’s Discourse, a fragment called “The Informer,” may as well be a parable for the fate of intimacy in the age of social media. In fact, I like the original French title, informateur, better because it suggests a saboteur who works specifically through information. The fragment describes how well-meaning friends give information that destroys the lover’s image of the beloved, and how ambient information about a beloved can unintentionally wound the lover.
The first part of this fragment describes what we would all now recognize as a social network.
Gustave, Leon, and Richard form a group; Urbain, Claudius, Etienne, and Ursule, another; Abel, Gontran, Angele, and Hubert, still another… However, Leon happens to meet Urbain, who gets to know Angele, who knew Leon slightly anyway, etc. Thus is formed a constellation; each subject is called upon to enter into relations, one day or another, with the star remotest from him and to become involved with that particular star out of all the rest: everything ends by coinciding (this is the precise impulse of A la recherche du temps perdu which is, among other things, a tremendous intrigue, a farce network). Worldly friendship is epidemic: everyone catches it, like a disease.
I like the idea of applying that description to Facebook—which is both the vector and the epidemiology of “the disease of worldly friendship” in that it reduces friendship to a mere connection and nothing more, just a point of contact through which a piece of information, a viral piece of code,can spread. Social media works as a kind of social disease; once all your friends are using it, you have to use it too. And the logic of connection, as Barthes suggests, becomes assimilative. The presence of friends in the network who are outlying nodes with few threads of connection to others becomes increasingly intolerable. There is a drive instead to raise the density of interconnection throughout the network to the same level. The “farce network”—the network that eschews any practical purpose beyond connection and innocuous “sharing”—embraces the world.
This idea of friendship has become “worldly” in the sense of “sophisticated” as well. Locating friendship in a space in which all the gestures that might constitute and validate it can be captured and rebroadcast makes friendship work as a mode of information production; augmented technologically this way, such friendships moves to society’s cutting edge, where value is being created for the economy in unprecedented, or at least heretofore uncaptured, ways.
The possibility of maintaining different contexts for different people collapses, no matter how diligently we try to fence them off with privacy settings and “circles” and so on because the other participants can always release information themselves, can always gossip, and inform, for their own purposes. “Everything ends by coinciding,” as Barthes writes. And the practice of gossiping no longer carries such a negative valence in the farce network, because the rhetoric surrounding the redistribution of data is that it is sharing, it is liberating information, it is forcing people for their own good to be free and radically honest. And since all of friendship gestures must be mediated to register, they always already exist as data to disseminate; they already are public domain upon their conception.
In the next section of the fragment, Barthes considers the effect this has on a lover, who requires the possibility of a private, personal relationship with a particular beloved:
Now suppose that I release into this network a suffering subject eager to maintain with his other a pure, sealed space (consecrated, untouched); the network’s activities, its exchange of information, its interests and initiatives will be received as so many dangers. And in the center of this little society, at once an ethnological village and a boulevard comedy, parental structure and comic imbroglio, stands the Informer, who busies himself and tells everyone every thing. Ingenuous or perverse, the Informer has a negative role. However anodyne the message he gives me (like a disease), he reduces my other to being merely another. I am of course obliged to listen to him (I cannot in worldly terms allow my vexation to be seen), but I strive to make my listening flat, indifferent. impervious.
With social media, the informateur is no one person, but the networks we have built to extend our own influence, reflecting back on ourselves, exacting their revenge for our presumption that our lives find their significance in broadcast, that our broadcasts could, in our own minds, take precedence over everyone else’s. The information we receive through social media about others, others we love in particular is often “anodyne” enough—the oft-noted mundanity of status updates and tweets— but it compels our attention not through its substance but through its sheer existence. We can read into the fact that the beloved appears in other’s discourse proof of our own insignificance to that beloved. The beloved’s life goes on; the illusion that it is only through the lover’s love that the beloved lives is completely shattered.
Social media gives a lover endless grist for jealousy in all the compiled proof of the attention other people are permitted to pay to the beloved—what Barthes calls “dangers”. And the networks’ design tends to make it hard for the lover to escape these dangers without absenting himself completely, cutting himself off from the beloved. The lover must become “flat, indifferent, impervious”—rather than compete in public for the special right to attention he has hoped to claim, he must pay no attention at all, and seek the unmediated opportunities to connect with the lover, the sorts of opportunities that are vanishing.
Barthes’s fragment concludes:
What I want is a little cosmos (with its own time, its own logic) inhabited only by “the two of us.” Everything from outside is a threat; either in the form of boredom (if I must live in a world from which the other is absent), or in the form of injury (if that world supplies me with an indiscreet discourse concerning the other). By furnishing me insignificant information about the one I love, the Informer discovers a secret for me. This secret is not a deep one, but comes from outside: it is the other’s “outside” which was hidden from me. The curtain rises the wrong way round—not on an intimate stage, but on the crowded theater. Whatever it tells me, the information is painful: a dull, ungrateful fragment of reality lands on me. For the lover’s delicacy, every fact has something aggressive about it: a bit of “science,” however commonplace, invades·the Image-repertoire.
I am trying to think of a way to map Barthes’s theater curtain metaphor onto social media, because it intuitively feels right to me. I am waiting for a performance to begin that involves everyone in the world, and I don’t realize that I have been set up onstage myself, and that their performance out there as audience is an elaborate distraction to try to make me forget that someone is actually watching. Social media offers an audience of performers that blinds us to the real performance of an audience. (That is way too cute and convenient a reversal to even be useful, I know, but couldn’t resist.) Friends are inescapably informateurs in social media. Arguably social media structures friendship as informing.
We have always performed intimacy; intimacy has always been constructed in opposition to some tenuous, negotiable and contingent notions of publicity. But it seems to me that social media has made it harder for us to create the “stage of intimacy” Barthes mentions. It is easy to assume a god-like position of the solitary observer, but harder to create a shared space that isn’t shared automatically with everyone. Social media invites us to manufactures secrets to confess, to posit how deep we are psychologically to the network, to show how rich and varied the signification of our identity can be. But the secrets that can be constitutive of intimacy rather than identity become harder to articulate. Then we have no secrets, and no love.