(please ignore the last sentence) I've been writing, documenting and initiating interactions on social media, mainly on Facebook since 2014. I print books with screenshots of personal and satirical pieces I write on the platform and some of the conversations that follow them, I turned a Rabbi friend's newsletter into a Torah scroll, snail-mailed numerous statuses as postcards and posted a 1,000 comments thread criticizing a local development on the actual construction site that took up a sidewalk on Main St in Beacon, NY. This helped the developer to change his mind and give back the sidewalk he was about to build on.
I want to document and reflect on the spirit of our behavior online and spark needed conversations and critical thinking about it. I live in a small town so often this gets very messy, complicated or ugly, also I don't know many artists who “print the internet” so I don't have many examples to follow since it’s a new art medium. I am fascinated by the dramatic change we experience as our society converts its communication to social media and my art is inspired by and comments on this major historical transition from print to web, from physical to digital.
How do we laugh on Facebook? After the 2016 elections I tried to capture in a book the fear, loathing and general craziness I witnessed on Facebook that time and the absurd and often dark humor I wrote then, for example, I wondered how would concentration camps handle so many people being gluten-free. I claimed to call the KKK customer service and wrote a Trump tweet-like music critic series in which I stated that the Beatles were a hoax and demanded to regulate saxophones usage in Springsteen songs. I made provocative, subversive humor about race and gender in a way that for many was 'crossing the line' even though I don't use offensive language or attack people personally. I wonder how would people react to the same humor if it appeared in a printed magazine and not in their feeds mixed with news, updates about friend's lives and cats videos and how this technology influences our cultural norms. I want us to ask what is that 'line' and whether a purple crayon is needed for the drawing. Some people really enjoy that humor and others, to put it mildly, are not so impressed and react very strongly.
I've made many mistakes along the way. It's difficult to be both the writer, the documentary artist, the publisher and friend or neighbor of the people who participate in making these themed books I edit with my posts and their comments. One example of something I deeply regret and apologized for - recently I sent postcards about my parody political campaign for Mayor to many government officials, one of them is the boss of the wife of an English professor who called me a troll's asshole who shits his pants in public, with that comment on the postcard/back book cover. I was hurt and threatened by incidents of verbal violence from progressives against me personally and I reacted emotionally, perhaps I fulfilled his prophetic comment by acting like an asshole. Although activists often contact workplaces about employees who write ignorant things online that doesn't justify my behavior and I'm glad that no damage was done. I knew that this representative has a sense of humor because I issued him Playful Paperwork last year, still, I acted irresponsibly and I never intend to hurt anyone's livelihood with this project, just to reflect on our behavior online. I'm the self-elected Village Fool of Beacon and such a thing is a betrayal of my constituents.
I'd like to tell the story of one fb group which I think is very relevant to these topics of humor, privacy and online life in a small town. I consider that group a collaborative social comedy writing project that is in some ways similar to the humor I'm trying to create. Often people see closed groups as private spaces even though such assumption of privacy is far from realistic. The Beacon Trolls Facebook group had about 120 progressive members who mostly shared screenshots from other groups and pages of community members and made fun of them, a mixture of calling out and harsh mocking. They often picked on conservative working-class neighbors who made tone deaf or ignorant comments online but also on local moms and other neighbors whose beliefs, intelligence or lifestyle were considered questionable by the group. In some occasions, the threads were very funny (the admin is a gifted comedy writer) or were a necessary venting place for those who were doing important anti-racism advocacy work in the larger, more public Beacon Facebook groups, but often the threads were just cruel and it felt impossible to come to someone's defense or question the spirit of the group.
I was added to the closed group by another member about two years ago and like many others I stayed in it mainly out of curiosity and also as a safety measure to make sure nobody was picking on me, about twenty people were actually active in it. Reading such posts created uncomfortable situations, for example, I was friendly with some of the people who were picked on and it became very awkward to see them in town, not knowing whether or not they're aware that they were made fun of by their neighbors and whether they knew I was in that group too, obviously others could have easily shared that info with them, or maybe they'd sit in a coffee shop and see the group page on someone's screen, overhear people talking about it, etc. I found this very uncomfortable, yet I stayed in the group without being active on it, partly because I was observing the semi-private vague feeling it had. I saw a performance act by my neighbors, I was a fly on the wall while they were playing their version of Cards Against Humanity, still I do regret that I didn't express my discomfort earlier. A private event of 120 people is not exactly private, especially when participants are highly educated activists, community organizers and business owners. Thousands of teenagers and adults suicide each year after being victims of online bullying.
Two months ago, after some heated and painful threads regarding my satirical political commentary on my page and complaints about my practice of using screenshots from public posts artistically, I passive-aggressively wrote in the group that it'll be interesting if screenshots from the group were posted on a construction site on Main St., as I did on 344 Main St. I stated very clearly that I didn't take any screenshots and had no intention of doing such a thing, nevertheless the admin closed the group right afterward, as the thought of exposing the group scared its members. Many neighbors strongly dislike me now, and I'm still conflicted whether or not that was the right thing to do as they clearly considered it a secretive space that was ruined by me, even though half the town knew about it. Perhaps this situation reflects on the same discomfort many people feel about my documentation/exposure of social media, which many treat as a safe, cozy living room like space and my work question that assumption by printing it. As someone suggested, I'm the Gutenberg of Zuckerberg.
I use Facebook to share my personal and satirical writing and create a space on my page where humor is collaboratively and publicly created in a compassionate, relevant and uplifting way but is also provocative and dark (dark humor can be extremely therapeutic). When used right humor can be a great tool for social change and progress. I think such process can be done in open doors, with humor that aim to reach 'across the aisle' to those who think differently from us and reflect on our shared humanity. Of course I often fail in this humble goal, it's a recipe for self sabotage and artistic failure.
I believe we must expand the diversity of voices we have on social media and be careful not to use it to assist conformism or mob mentality. I think echo chambers and internal censorship where so many people refrain from sharing their opinions in fear of the responses are a serious threat to society's well being and to democracy. I want to listen to dozens of opinions about any political issue, but usually I only see two diluted pro and anti ones. With hope to challenge it I write absurd humor, make provocative art like the White Men Registry or Hidden Fortune Wheel and use a devil's advocate humorist voice with the intention of starting conversations and laugh together, especially when it's uncomfortable to do so. I'm paying a significant social price for doing it and I'm documenting the often painful interactions that cause me to lose relationships. It's not the healthiest art practice to do a Bruce/Kaufman inspired comedy act on Facebook in a small town. Nobody knows how the internet or the world would look like in ten years. Maybe in the future people would be interested to know how we talked to one another on Facebook back in 2019 and my books may be of use for them. I hope my intentions in this project are clear even when we passionately disagree politically or artistically.
There's a new trolls group now, without me obviously, why add such a professional party pooper in such a club. They probably pick on me, and whatever I do online is now looked at and shared at the new group in order for neighbors to make fun of me 'behind' my back. I gave an interview for InfoWars and appeared in other not so supportive outlets and I read the comments there so I'm up for the challenge, mostly I don't get this secrecy mentality of spaces that are semi public like this group. Facebook is a stage, and we're all actors. It's all public, an ongoing live performance with audience yet it gives the illusion of a bulletin board privacy. I hope to write really stupid, useless, bad and even boring art in the next few months in order to provide the new No-Ori Trolls Group group with enough material to work with.
To conclude, perhaps this is more about human nature than about specific individuals, but damn did I succeed with that 'don't read the last sentence' trick huh?
Ori Alon is the Director of the Center for Supportive Bureaucracy (Empowering Clerks Network, ECN), cartoonist and a writer. See more of his work at www.joypermit.org