Facebook and the Personal Essay: My Name is Ned and I’m an Addict
“First of all, how are essays different from Facebook? Alfred Kazin wrote, “In an essay it’s not the thought that counts, but the experience we get of the writer’s thought; not the self, but the self thinking.” William Gass said something similar: “The hero of the essay is its author in the act of thinking things out, feeling and finding a way. It is the mind and the marvels and miseries of its makings, in the work of imagination, the search for form.” And finally, in a similar vein, Edward Hoagland argued, “Through its tone and tumbling progression, the essay conveys the quality of an author’s mind.”
A personal essay offers us the tumble of the mind and is, at least potentially, a work of art. It may be brief by comparison to a memoir or a novel, and in its brevity more akin to a lyric poem, but it is longer, more sustained, more revised, more substantial, and more artistic than anything on Facebook. If an essay gives us the story of a mind thinking, Facebook gives us isolated thoughts. It gives us updates; it gives us fragments.
It can also be said, however, that Facebook gives us conversation, or at least exchanges. But the exchanges on Facebook are ephemeral, fragmented, interrupted conversations; that stream of Facebook updates keeps moving down the page and disappearing out the bottom. There’s something sad about that. It’s not a real conversation, because you pick it up only when you’re in the room. It is more akin to those unsatisfying half-conversations we have at high school reunions or wedding receptions than it is to a full and filling fireside chat.
But a trope for the essay from the beginning has been that it is a conversation, or at least that it is conversational. Montaigne wrote, for instance, “I am not building here a statue to erect at the town crossroads, or in a church, or a public square. This is for a nook in the library, and to amuse a neighbor, a relative, a friend, who may take pleasure in associating and conversing with me again in this image.” One of the important phrases in that passage is “in this image.” An essay is not really a conversation; it’s the image of a conversation, it’s a simulation of a conversation. Certainly it uses familiar language; it can sound spoken rather than written – and often does. It can simulate, as Walter Pater first pointed out, a Platonic dialogue. But finally, it is – or at least it usually is – just one side of a conversation. It’s a monologue. “We commonly do not remember,” wrote Thoreau, “that it is, after all, always the first person who is speaking.”
Facebook is something else entirely. It is a lot of people speaking. Sometimes it’s a chat, sometimes a cacophony. But its conversations are overheard, busy, fragmented, and again ephemeral. It’s akin to the crawl at the bottom of a news channel. By contrast, an essay, however occasioned and journalistic, is finally a revised and polished piece of art.”