When I waffle out loud to people about whether I, at the age of twenty-two, should finally get a Facebook account, I take my arguments straight out of Young Adult literature. In the worlds of novels like Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” and Steve Brezenoff’s “Brooklyn, Burning,” I’ve found parables of our current culture of hyper-sociability, ones that heighten the already tricky, barbed-wire paths of young-adulthood to a contemporary intensity. Their depictions of modern human interaction feature the same reservations and convictions I swing between on my journey towards social media. What have we gained by centering our lives around these institutions? What have we lost?
“The Hunger Games’” commentary on reality television is well-known, but the dystopian setting Collins constructs has even larger implications on how we see reality in general. The artificially constructed nether-space of the Games’ Arena resembles our arenas of social media in extreme, Gamemakers conjuring up fires or flesh-eating hounds as deftly and forcefully as Facebook switches itself to Timeline. It’s a giant camera, watching and amplifying to the nation Katniss’ every expression, in a way that feels familiar to anyone whose status updates have rippled through the currents of consciousness of their friendship circles. Even the trees hum with the tweeting of mockingjays, descendants of “muttated” espionage-birds jabberjays, which possess “the ability to memorize and repeat whole human conversations” (43) – imagery which cannot but recall a certain website’s similarly avian, echoing propensities.
Katniss’ Arena and ours, fuelled by equally insatiable mass voyeurism, must by necessity be theaters of their participants’ feelings. During the Games, Katniss learns strategic deployment of emotion to gain public affection and communicate with her mentor. Concealing the complex layers of her person, she becomes instead an avatar, a “Katniss Everdeen” that belongs to everyone. Who in our world doesn’t do the same, selecting specific profile pictures from masses of possible images, choosing to like this comment or follow that person, signaling cultural codes in the subtextual language of cool? The smartest skill to hone in the Games as on the internet is the savvy construction of persona, painting yourself in broad strokes accessible to all, despite the sacrifice of some interpersonal nuance.
If we are all actors, broadcasting emotions like so many smoke signals, the line between our performances and ourselves starts to fade. Katniss, compelled into faking a relationship with fellow contestant Peeta, finds the spectacle complicated by her increasing inability to separate scripted feelings for him from true ones. This blurring of real and not real used to be the territory of celebrity, but now all interactions are up for the same scrutiny – the same compromise – from a voracious public of friends and followers. Even without being in a “Relationship” in the Zuckerbergian sense, I wept alongside Katniss at the incomprehensibility of her own heart: “we’re supposed to be making up this stuff, playing at being in love, not actually being in love” (301). Social media leads us to the great question of our age, more unanswerable with every new acquaintance: who are we when nobody is watching? The screens we build around ourselves as a society have pared down our already tenuous grasp of the self to threadbare wisps; we cannot know if these things we project so automatically are real emotions at all.
Instead we have labels. Thank goodness they attach so easily to things and people – a little too easily, perhaps. Brezenoff’s “Brooklyn, Burning” is a study in how our addiction to labels, even those seemingly “axiomatic” (as per Eve Sedgwick), flattens the three-dimensionality of the human spectrum. The central ambiguity in the novel is the undisclosed gender of its two protagonists, Kid and Scout, the narration’s “I” and “You.” This uncomfortable gap forces us to confront the frenzied categorizing inclinations social media so readily lends itself to. Kid’s father’s inability to deal with his child without the aids of #straight or #gay or #girl or #boy (as he might tweet) belies the reliance we’ve developed on this crutch, one that damages things that can’t be reduced to trending topics.
Like in “The Hunger Games,” geographic space in “Brooklyn, Burning” is representative of informational, virtual space. It prompts issues of community also relevant to social networks: can one place support different, often incompatible clusters of people? In Brooklyn’s collection of disparate communities, brought into uncomfortable proximity with each other – hipsters, laborers, Polish, homeless, developers – we sense a resonance of the melting pot of a platform like Facebook, people interacting with different people in ways they would never have been able to without the internet. What unites the communities within Brooklyn, though, is the feeling of being both part of and separate from New York City – an insider-outsider dynamic that characterizes the experience of participating in social media, simultaneously living through moments and documenting them. The half-welcoming, half-forbidding nature of Kid’s Brooklyn (a network of portals forever opening and closing, “collective backyards” like “the central courtyard of some medieval fortress,” 79) mirrors the push-pull tension in Kid and Scout’s “You and I” pronouns: detached and intimate, universal and particular. These are the central paradoxes of social media as well. To live, these days, is to instagram, blog, pin and otherwise record ourselves living; in this vortex I hear again the hollowness of Katniss’ request to Peeta: “Don’t let’s pretend when there’s no one around” (100). There’s always someone around – if just the two of them, watching themselves playing at love.
Being a constantly public individual is a fragmentation of the self on an often tragic scale; as Peeta confesses before the start of the Games, “I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not” (141). Why, then, should I consider getting Facebook at all – why not slip a fence into the wild, private freedom of a wood outside my district? Because, goes the simple answer, I am in the world and the world changes. The safety-in-anonymity I’ve been trying to keep intact is an illusion, and ignoring this, as Katniss learns, becomes increasingly morally questionable ground. Facebook, Twitter and the like, frustrating and soul-sucking as they can be, have long stopped being a mere appendage to our real lives and just flat-out become it, the very fabric of our consciousness. Navigating them is the challenge I have to engage in as a conscientious young adult in society, and maybe out of the chaos of friending and liking and following and reblogging that ensues, colors will blend, like those of “Brooklyn, Burning,” into a mural of strange harmony.