To delve into this week’s viral piece of long form, Robert Kolker’s New York Times Magazine feature “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?,” beyond the broad strokes—the woman who donated a kidney, the acquaintance who wrote a short story about the act, and the complicated legal battle that ensued—may deny readers the opportunity to use it as a mirror to examine their own sense of morality. But in a single day, it became omnipresent enough as a cautionary tale, fodder for jokes, and a procrastination tool; anyone who has made it this far has probably already come up with a schema for understanding its very real characters and their somewhat baffling motivations.
My own adjudication of the tale was shaped by the many moments of conflict that functioned as on- and off-ramps for sympathy. Are you the type of person who would join a group, any kind of group, called the Chunky Monkeys? (I would not.) Are you the type of person who would donate a kidney to a stranger? (I might, but not, like, randomly.) But there’s one interaction early on that stands out as the biggest Rorschach test for everything that follows: Are you the type of person who would ever confront someone for not reacting to your Facebook posts? I shuddered when the thought of doing so crossed my mind, though I do understand that plenty of people might not see the problem. Regardless, that detail in particular sets the narrative into motion, making it clear that though it might look like a story about community or making art, it’s really a story about Facebook.
Facebook has undoubtedly had a terrible week, coming on the tail of five years of bad P.R. On Monday a nearly six-hour service outage to Facebook and its subsidiaries Instagram and WhatsApp essentially shut down communication in countries where the products have become tantamount to public utilities, yet again raising the question of whether it’s wise for a private company to have so much power. Whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged on 60 Minutes on Sunday that the company intentionally hid knowledge of its products’ detrimental effects, including Instagram’s impact on the mental health of teenage girls. She then testified to Congress on Tuesday, where she expanded her critique to the company’s News Feed algorithm and its propensity to spread negative content. In response, CEO Mark Zuckerberg took exception to the suggestion that they “deliberately push content that makes people angry for profit.” But few things have revealed the way Facebook’s centrality to “connection” has rewritten the very rules of communication to normalize contempt quite like “Bad Art Friend.” on Bendytee store
To understand, it’s helpful to catalog the light acts of antisocial online behavior littered throughout the story. Dawn Dorland, a woman who generously donated a kidney to a stranger, regarded a private Facebook group as a place to share extremely personal information about the event, including the text of a letter she sent to the recipient. She also used it as a record of who among her friends had genuflected to her, and reached out to one who hadn’t. This is a huge violation of a rule that many people, whether consciously or not, adhere to for the sake of sanity in the social media age: Online isn’t real, and you shouldn’t do things that make it seem more real. Sonya Larson, an acquaintance whom Dorland subsequently launched an attack on, was understandably perturbed by the posts and gossiped about them with her friends, then seemingly lifted the oddly personal message for a short story about a kidney donor. This violates a slightly less important rule of online life: It’s fine to gossip, but assiduously hide the receipts. Then there’s Tom Meek, a friend who informed Dorland about the story while tagging Larson in his comment. Another slightly lesser rule of digital engagement: Snitch-tagging is a surefire way to start an argument you can’t control.
If these rules all sound dumb to you, that’s because they are. But understanding this arcane logic is the only way to survive if you, like me, are motivated by profession and have an inclination to keep social media profiles. In order to spend our lives online, most of us learn to disconnect vague senses of propriety and manners from our social media interactions. Lots of people, for some reason or another, don’t do this and want the internet to function more like real life. Conflicts between these two types of people happen everywhere on the internet, and neither group is inherently in the right. I often joke that we need to break the entire network of tubes into two parts, one for silly people and one for literal people.
Nowhere is this need more obvious than on Facebook. By encouraging users to recreate their real-life social groups on the internet—i.e., encouraging a loose definition of friendship that binds you to everyone you’ve ever met as though they’re someone your grandma knows from church—but algorithmically amplifying negative posts without context, Facebook is uniquely able to force these people to interact. Essentially, Zuckerberg invented a machine that will continually serve you things that you hate from people you feel an obligation to be polite to, and we shouldn’t be surprised that it hasn’t turned out well. Small communities have always depended on shame, subtle policing, and the threat of expulsion to maintain boundaries; traditionally that has been about exercising power. A system that pushes us toward negative content introduces an element of chaos into all of this, and it’s reminiscent of “The Lottery,” Shirley Jackson’s corny yet profound short story about how easy it is to get everyone to turn on one another for no real reason at all. The exigencies of Facebook have made our previous disciplinary structures impossible, and the ones that have emerged, such as gossipy group chats, are curiously susceptible to subpoena power, as is made painfully clear in “Bad Art Friend.”