If there were a meme generator for contemporary criticism, the instructions might read like this: step one — take text/social phenomenon. Step two — write that the subject given is actually about — or exists as a consequence — of social media. With that safely out of mind, I’d like to earnestly proclaim that The Academy’s best picture of the year, The Artist, is actually an allegory for courtship in the Facebook era.
The Artist is unusual in that it’s a romantic story about a man and a woman who could not be called lovers, or even have it said that they were in love. The short synopsis is that two people, George and Peppy, meet, dance a little, and become smitten. One falls from grace and the other climbs to it, while fate, in one of her more understated turns, dictates they lead largely separate lives. For the entire second act George and Peppy’s physical interactions are limited to a couple chance encounters and one emotionally dampened doorstep-in-the-rain conversation. [SPOILER ALERT] At the end of the movie one character saves the other from poverty and death and they celebrate with a tap-dance finale.
How does this work? Don’t most unkindled love affairs fade to the back of memory, if not out of it entirely, maybe now and then returning uninvited while one is otherwise getting on with his or her life? (Especially if that life involves a meteoric rise to fame in the talkies?). Well, it’s much easier to stick in someone’s life if your picture is constantly being thrust in front of him, like it would be if you were a silent film star, or if perhaps both you and your (in)significant other happen to be on Facebook.
Facebook is perhaps the world’s most intense medium — a curated and condensed performance of an individual’s life on display twenty-four hours a day for an audience as wide as the entire Internet or as selective as your best friends. Most Facebook users probably don’t view their profile as a mediated performance resulting in a second, virtual self, yet that doesn’t mean they don’t treat it as such by selecting pictures, quotations and other signifiers (in earnest or in jest) to represent themselves at their desired level of humor, sophistication, affluence — in a word, attractiveness.
Like the stars of The Artist, not a few of Facebook’s 845 million must be involved in one-sided relationships with two-dimensional representations of people they’ve met hardly or not at all. I say must be because it is just so damn easy to let your mind run free when you’re looking at what amounts to a gigantic PowerPoint presentation of everyone you’ve ever known, even without Facebook’s artificial intelligence (with the same level of uncanny aggression only ever seen before in 2001’s Hal and Microsoft Word’s talking paper clip) constantly twisting the knife by ever-so-casually mentioning you haven’t talked to so and so in a while.
Whatever kind of romantic attachment there is in The Artist is fueled by the type of voyeurism not unlike that which is commonly referred to as “Facebook stalking.” In between their fleeting real-world meetings, Peppy nurses her curious feeling for George by watching all his movies and following his clippings in the press. It is a sort of stalking, yes, but in this case the prey is a narcissist and exhibitionist who lives for the game. Most people have at one point been aware that they’ve been using Facebook to stare, rather than look at somebody else, but the less acute symptom of widespread Facebookism is that even relatively subdued sharers are opening the curtains to exhibit their own exhibitionism.
What then, is the effect when voyeurs and exhibitionists meet in real life? In The Artist George and Peppy avoid the quandary of how to simply be together by performing together. Alas, I wish tap-dancing were as useful in real life, where voyeurs and exhibitionists pass each other in relative ignorance of the relationships they inhabit.