Alternate Timeline

Murals by Aravani Art Project, 2018, acrylic paint. Photo Anthony Roberts. Courtesy Facebook Art Department.

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AT THE ENTRANCE to a big building on Facebook’s flagship campus in Menlo Park, California, Alicia McCarthy applied cream-colored paint to an unfinished plywood wall to create the illusion that the two are interwoven in a loose, funky lattice. Further inside is an installation by Barry McGee, who, like, McCarthy is affiliated with the Mission School, a group of artists who borrowed from street art and other lowbrow genres to make ephemeral works around San Francisco in the 1990s and early 2000s. Bold patterned prints, photographs of both McGee’s earlier and recent street art projects, and sheets of bright orange paper fill frames hinged together in a dimpled hillock shaped like a squished stress toy. Employees pass its bulk as they make their way from the security desk to the pathways that run through the oblong, airy space.

MPK 20, as this building is known, was designed by Frank Gehry to realize Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of an open and interconnected office. Angled rows of desks line the center and edges of its gently zigzagging concourse. Conference rooms are housed in boxy volumes of varying shapes and sizes that crop up at irregular intervals. An exterior wall of one of the bigger ones is covered with an assemblage by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime, who routinely gathers old computer parts from a massive outdoor market in Addis Ababa. For his Facebook fresco, he arranged pieces of circuit boards and casings in undulating fields of green and brown, banded with braided wires and arabesques made of keyboard keys. By a stairwell, Maya Hayuk painted a rhomboid pattern in shades of pink, green, blue, and brown, extending its stripes around the square open shaft with her roller until the cans of paint ran dry.

These works were produced under the auspices of Facebook’s Artist in Residence program. Artists selected by Facebook’s curators (there is no open application process) spend time on campus and create site-specific installations, receiving production budgets and generous stipends to do so. Nearly six hundred projects have been realized at this point, not only at the corporate headquarters in Menlo Park but at Facebook offices in Seattle, Austin, Dublin, Hong Kong, Melbourne, and elsewhere. The fruits of FB AIR can be thought of as a corporate art collection; like the works in such collections at other organizations, they confer prestige by positioning Facebook as a patron of the arts. (FB AIR’s curators aim to support local artist communities, though the Menlo Park headquarters hosts international artists as well as those from the Bay Area.) But other corporate collections tend to hold paintings and prints that decorate walls and can be moved (or sold off). The art at Facebook lives and dies with the rest of the office; if the company moves, the work may be lost.1

 

FB AIR also professes goals and ambitions beyond good corporate citizenship. “Art is an important part of Facebook’s story,” Zuckerberg wrote in the introduction to a book celebrating FB AIR’s fifth anniversary. “And like our products and the community we’re trying to build, I want our offices to feel like a work in progress.”2 The sight of artists using their hands and tools to make works of art reminds Facebook’s employees that they are creating something too. Dina Pugh, manager of Facebook’s art programs in the Americas, whom I met at the company’s New York office, told me that art encourages employees to do their work with “more empathy, more humanity.”3 Gehry designed MPK 20 and 21 as long, connected, loosely unspooling ribbons, allowing foot traffic to flow casually through the uneven terrain of conference cubes and desks. Walking from one part of the office to another is a bit like scrolling a Facebook Timeline. A work of art here, to extend the analogy, is like a thought-provoking post.

Facebook has invested substantial resources in cultivating that experience for its employees. But there’s nothing like it—beyond what happenstance brings—in the space it has built for its users. If Facebook is an engineer of social interactions, and it recognizes the importance of art and creativity in social space, then why doesn’t it incorporate that insight into the design of its product?

FB AIR was launched in 2012 under the direction of artist Drew Bennett. Five years earlier Bennett had painted murals in a four-story building on Facebook’s first campus, in downtown Palo Alto. (He followed in the footsteps of David Choe, who in 2005 spray-painted another one of Facebook’s buildings in Palo Alto with comic book–like figures and fuzzy, airbrushed patterns in exchange for shares that were valued at $200 million seven years later when Facebook went public.) Bennett later said he felt lonely while painting the offices by himself; he thought that a company with a mission to connect people should foster collaborative art-making. He isn’t just a painter but a “placemaker” who builds spaces for social interaction. For an early show at the San Francisco gallery Triple Base, he built out the walls with drywall and carved into them to make an environment where he invited local musicians to play. He designed outdoor showers and composting toilets for the home of Lawrence Rinder, director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive. Since high school Bennett has been friends with Chris Cox, Facebook’s longtime chief product officer (he resigned this past March), and he made interlocking picnic tables for Cox’s backyard wedding in 2011, as well as a row of tents so guests could camp out on the property overnight. After that, he was invited back to Facebook to advise on the placement of art in its offices in a more deliberate way.

FB AIR’s launch came on the heels of Facebook’s 2011 move from Palo Alto to Menlo Park, to a cluster of buildings on the shore of the San Francisco Bay that previously housed the headquarters of software company Sun Microsystems. Bennett pushed Facebook past the street art that its twentysomething founding fathers gravitated toward, though he kept some of street art’s playfully rugged aesthetic and soft bro sensibility. One of the first residents was David Wilson (a frequent collaborator of Bennett’s), who designed and printed invitations to hang out with him in the salt marshes abutting Facebook’s campus. The invitations had drawings of the flats, detailed directions to the meeting site, and chummy hints of what to expect: “Grab a bike and in 15 minutes you’ll be transported from desk to salt crystal communion. Major.”

Bennett’s ideas were a good fit for the social space that Facebook wanted to create. It had renamed its new Menlo Park address “1 Hacker Way,” and refurbished the campus as “Disneyland for Hackers,” a fake town square with theme-park architecture. As they go from their desks to meetings, employees who work on what’s now called the “classic campus” can pop into a shop for a coffee or an ice-cream cone, get a bike fixed or pick up their dry cleaning. All these goods and services are provided free. (I was eager to see this for myself when I visited Facebook in February, but I was allowed inside only MPK 20 and 21, which opened in 2015 to the west of 1 Hacker Way.) Architecture critic Alexandra Lange compared the layout of the classic campus to the offices of Apple and Google, and dubbed this kind of space a “dot-com city.” Twentieth-century corporations built offices as islands of rationalized order, turned away from the chaos of the city. While the big tech companies of the twenty-first century still isolate themselves from urban environments, they try to simulate the serendipity of cities in the hope that this controlled chaos will spark innovation.4

Gehry’s design of the new office buildings doesn’t mimic Main Street like the classic campus does. But the gentle curves of the concourse beneath the building’s exposed pipes and wiring represent a more focused, less literal attempt at conjuring moments of spontaneity. The site-specific art of FB AIR is part of that effort. So is the office’s folk art—if the term “folk art” can be applied to the creative whims of software engineers who make six-figure salaries straight out of college. At Facebook they call it “space hacks.” I saw loose canopies of icicle lights creating a festive atmosphere over some desks. Other areas were decorated with flags and stuffed animals. A window in MPK 21 hosts a monumental Pikachu cobbled from Post-it notes. (Pugh, the curator in New York who values art in the office as a source of humanity, hates space hacks. Near an elevator bank at the company’s Park Avenue office there’s an assemblage of Beanie Babies in the shape of the “f” in Facebook’s logo, and Pugh is horrified by the possibility that someone might think she chose to hang it there.)

Employees also leave messages and drawings in colored chalk on blackboards that hang along some corridors. It’s a little infantilizing, sure, but what else would you expect from a company that feeds its employees and does their laundry? Several people had left dutiful handwritten responses to the prompt “Why do I show up?,” printed on colorful posters for an internal campaign to encourage employees to reflect on their work. But not many people had actually shown up when I was there; most had taken advantage of Work from Home Wednesday.

I spoke to Anthony Discenza, an artist who had a residency at Facebook in 2015, and he said one of his strongest impressions from his time there was the lack of engagement on the part of employees. He tried to talk to employees to get material for various potential text-based projects, but he had a hard time getting past pleasantries. This could have been because of the critical, antagonistic nature of his work; one of his ideas was to make a piece from Facebook users’ last posts before deactivating their accounts. But no one would help him access this material. In the end, one of the prompts from a survey Discenza wanted to distribute among employees—why aren’t we talking about_____—was painted on a wall.5 It’s still there, and employees complete it, leaving notes about serious topics (like the water crisis in Flint, Michigan) and frivolous ones (barbecue).

Travis Meinolf, who describes himself as an “action weaver,” spent his 2015 residency sitting outside behind the ice-cream shop on the classic campus, making a blanket on a handheld loom. He observed that being at Facebook is like being on Facebook: people would notice what he was doing and sometimes make a comment (for instance, about how their relatives in India or Germany wove on similar looms) or give a thumbs up, but rarely would they accept his invitation to take part in the weaving. He made a zine based on the experience, listing the reactions as comments in a thread, and counting the thumbs up he got as likes.6

FB AIR has since shifted toward commissioning installations and murals that are more focused on craft, texture, and materials, rather than relational projects of the sort that Wilson, Discenza, and Meinolf attempted. If engagement is so minor, why does FB AIR even continue? Why has it been franchised to Facebook’s global network of offices? Urban theorist Richard Florida has argued that “cities without gays and rock bands” can’t attract talented workers, that creative subcultures are necessary for metropolitan areas to thrive.7 If the dot-com cities simulate urban space, then FB AIR simulates the presence of a creative class—all the more important when tech wealth is making San Francisco unaffordable for artists, who have been decamping to cheaper cities like Los Angeles and New York.

The beautiful dream of authentic experiences of art in the office can’t keep up with corporate goals to maximize growth. And so FB AIR shrinks to a recruiting tool, like the brochure copy about a museum on the campus of an engineering school—understood by most of the people there as a prestigious amenity rather than a serious endeavor.

Eventually, Bennett felt this. “Being an artist at a corporation doesn’t really work,” he said. He left the company last fall. The program got too big, and he was frustrated that all his time was spent on management and logistics rather than working with art and artists.8 Facebook’s staff ballooned nearly eightfold in the time he worked there, from 4,619 at the end of 2012 to 35,587 at the end of last year. Facebook is growing still. The kind of placemaking that interests Bennett can’t scale at that rate, if it can scale at all.

 

NO VIDEO ART has been commissioned for FB AIR. How are coders supposed to find solace by looking at yet another screen? But despite Facebook’s curatorial indifference to media artists, media artists have taken an interest in Facebook. In 2011 Ed Fornieles started Dorm Daze, an interactive drama that played out in a Facebook group. He scraped photos and other information from profiles of students at the University of California, Berkeley, and used them to create profiles for characters who conform to subcultural stereotypes: the frat boy, the goth, the overachiever, and so on. He enlisted friends and actors to take on these profiles, and loosely scripted scenarios of unrequited love, closeted romance, crime, and violent hazing rituals as the basis for their improvisations. Every status update and direct message advanced the story. Fornieles captured these interactions and presented them in subsequent videos and installations. He had experimented with shaping behavior before; for Animal House (2011), an event he organized as a master’s student at the Royal College of Art in London, he assigned roles to guests based on American college movies and egged them on to go wild at a bacchanalian party. He saw Facebook as a platform where people self-consciously perform identity, conforming to (and outdoing) expectations to attract attention. The most active participants—the ones who relished conflict and leaned into stereotypes with gusto—quickly became his drama’s stars.

Constant Dullaart is a Dutch artist whose projects have examined faith in social media metrics, the blind acceptance of counts of likes and friends as indices of value. (I was an unwitting guinea pig in 100,000 Followers for Everyone [2014], when he distributed two-and-a-half million fake followers among the Instagram accounts of two dozen artists, curators, critics, and dealers.) For The Possibility of an Army (2015–16), commissioned by Schirn Kunsthalle in Frankfurt, Dullaart generated thousands of fake Facebook profiles and assigned them names from the ranks of the Hessians, German mercenaries hired by the British to fight in the American Revolution. Friends in Dullaart’s network started getting requests from people with odd, old-fashioned names, many of whom had identical profile pictures showing dorky prepubescent boys. His project attracted media attention, and after an article appeared on the BBC website, Dullaart’s Hessians began to disappear, presumably deleted by Facebook. He never deployed his army to sway opinion, but succeeded in pointing out the potential to do so.

Works like these provoke reflection on what Facebook does. Dorm Daze hits on what makes Facebook exhausting—the pressure (often self-imposed) to maintain an exaggerated image. Dullaart’s vision of foreign mercenaries waging battles for attention on an American platform was an uncanny harbinger of the campaigns to influence US voter behavior a year later. The conversations that these projects push are tougher than the gentle ones fostered by FB AIR. They also violate Facebook’s terms of service by using fake profiles. Fornieles said that as Dorm Daze went on, it got harder to maintain; around 2012, Facebook got more vigilant about deleting fakes. By 2015, Dullaart was a seasoned client of bot farms, and his Hessians’ profiles were linked to unique telephone numbers so they could be verified according to Facebook’s protocols. But even so, most of the soldiers died. More than its supposed values of connection and conversation, Facebook prioritizes policing user activity to preserve the appearance of integrity for the data it sells.

 

I DON’T USE Facebook. I signed up in 2007 and deleted my account a few months later. I preferred the noisy mess of MySpace, with its customized backgrounds, profile-page theme songs, and sporadic, free-form blogging. But at that point I had just moved to New York, and I needed to keep up with the scene. By that time MySpace was deserted, so I reluctantly went back to Facebook. It never got better. Twitter and Instagram at least reward wit and style to some extent, but Facebook’s interface is so bland and banal that it encourages the shrillest rants, the smarmiest self-congratulation. Things got worse in 2016 as the presidential campaign wore on. I deactivated the day before the election. A few months later, I downloaded my data and deleted my account altogether, again.

Facebook has always been a target of criticism, for its destructive impact on the journalism industry, for its manipulation of user behavior and consent, and so on. But only in the last two years has the company’s leadership taken that criticism seriously. It’s harder to brush off detractors by boasting you “move fast and break things” when you’ve broken things so badly that you have to appear before Congress. Zuckerberg and his comrades seem to have realized that their mission of “making the world a more open and connected place” is rife with risk, extremely vulnerable to exploitation by malicious interests. This probably has something to do with the fact that the company’s mission is in fact to make behavior more surveilled, more predictable, more monetizable.9 

In its first decade, Facebook took a stridently neutral stance regarding political statements on its website, professing a libertarian belief that truth would beat its competition in the marketplace of ideas. But the positions with the most effort behind them win (as Dorm Daze showed), and the ones where this effort is supported by money and bots do even better (as The Possibility of an Army showed). Meanwhile, the platform’s official neutrality is a stark foil to art at Facebook, which tends to promote progressive ideals. When Jessica Shaefer, the current head of Facebook’s global art program, led me through MPK 20 and 21, she said she was proud to have brought in Aravani Art Project, a collective of trans artists from India. Their bright murals in a cafeteria feature the slogan gender free. Shaefer said this provoked conversation among employees, some of whom complained about “liberal views” being forced on them. A productive dialogue followed. This, she said, is what FB AIR is supposed to do.10

FB AIR’s companion program is the Analogue Research Lab, a print shop with a Risograph printer—a machine beloved by zinesters because it approximates the look of screen printing—where designers in residence make posters that employees can hang by their desks and in common areas. Fred Turner, an academic who studies the influence of countercultural ideas on Silicon Valley business models, wrote an article on ARL, trying to make sense of the proliferation of progressive iconography, like portraits of Dolores Huerta, an organizer for farm workers’ unions, and Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress. He found that Facebook wants employees “to imagine a polity in which individual character and ethnic diversity—as opposed to electoral process and institutional bureaucracy—will be the foundations of a good society.”11 By that measure, it’s not surprising that the leftist posters exist alongside ones that have more libertarian or motivational slogans, like move fast and break things and stay focused and keep shipping. Discenza said that, during his residency, those posters seemed more popular among employees than the ones with progressive messaging.

Even if some leftist ideas penetrate the imaginations of Facebook’s employees, they won’t necessarily impact the platform’s design. The encounters FB AIR allows between artists and engineers are casual and conversational. This makes it different from residencies at other tech companies, where artists are put into direct contact with developers. Autodesk, a company that makes software for engineers, architects, and animators, asks its resident artists to work with unreleased products and seeks feedback from them; thus the artists get to have input in the making of tools they may later use in their work. At Microsoft, artists who make immersive and interactive projects are invited to collaborate with the company’s research teams.

Viewed in this light, FB AIR looks like a missed opportunity. It was conceived as a social experiment at a company whose business drives social experimentation. A company that engineers interaction launched a residency program that, at least in the beginning, invited artists concerned with forms of interaction. But it never really listened to them, or treated them as researchers, or provided a framework for a meaningful exchange of ideas with its teams.

Yet this “missed opportunity” is probably not so much a tragic misstep as a revealing insight into what Facebook really is. When, at the start of this essay, I asked why Facebook doesn’t apply the same principles to its digital products that it does to the organization of its office environment, I was being a little disingenuous. I agree with the critics who argue that Facebook’s product is not its platform but its users, and that it needs to do only the minimum to keep them online in order to surveil them and extract sellable information about their behavior and preferences. Beyond its function as a distraction, art has no place in that at all.