An Autobiography of an Autobiographic Medium

Curator's Note

It was unclear if or when Facebook would file form S-1, the document used to begin an inital public offering and the object of this curation. In their S-1 Facebook wrote an autobiography in the style of the Timeline. On the left side of the timeline, technical features and revenue; on the right side of the timeline, the estimated number of monthly active users, or MAUs to use their parlance. Formatting the history as a timeline tells the story of Facebook through results – how big it was and what was it doing. Using the Facebook visual vernacular also tells us that users and Facebook use the same images. This strategy is much akin to building an autobiography of a person through childhood report cards and etchings on a doorframe. It describes the capacities of Facebook, but it leaves motivation vague. 

Zuckerberg’s letter to the shareholders in the S-1 may be more revealing in this respect. The purpose of Facebook as described by Zuckerberg was not to be a company, but to fulfill a social mission, an almost Habermasian vision of reflexivity where the sharing of perspectives and conversation might enliven democratic life.  Retroactively defining Facebook as being for a productive political function does important relational work, their motives were always pure, neither a pawn of the advertising industry nor law enforcement. The creation of Facebook can be attributed to vision, surely not the accidental result of ever-increasing acceleration or the absurdity of random chance.  What we learn in great detail is that Facebook is a controlled company with great risks and perhaps great rewards. 

The autobiography manages the corporate history of Facebook and the precarious future. As I have curated this document it has continued to change: now it includes the Yahoo! Patent lawsuit, softening advertising margins, and the precariousness of revenue via payments, resistance against the estrangement of surveillance, and the possibility that the idea of Facebook from the S-1 isn't interested enough in cash. If a corporation is a person, the S-1 is their autobiography. A profile and the S-1 are very similar. They are both imperfect: interrupted by old party pictures, impulsive statuses, disclosures of risk, and risky disclosures. It is the slippage that animates social media: making autobiography more than the mere collection of details, and business more than the collection of profit. 


Thanks for this post, Daniel.  You take us further into the nasty implications of regarding corporations as people and show us the surprising results that can come from applying traditionally human-centered modes of interpretation to these inhuman people, such as autobiography.   Facebook’s timeline certainly does reveal the rather characterless nature of its personhood, as you point out with your apt likening of it to portraying a child through report cards and etchings on a doorframe.

While this data-driven mode reveals the nature of such corporate persons, I’m struck lately by the way that human people are drawing on that same mode—one often associated with corporate thinking—to investigate their own nature, as with the Quantified Self movement or, most impressively, in the annual reports of Nicholas Feltron.  I’m not sure whether this trend is a sign that corporations are foisting their definition of personhood on us or whether the people are liberating data, its power and its authority, from corporations, but certainly in the case of Feltron the genre of autobiography has found a post-Facebook touchstone.



Thanks for comment, the idea of data abundance is both a source for authority for claims and is becomming a site for critique. The focus on data visualization seems to be brining the humanities in through a side door through their focus on persuasion and design. There are some interesting forms of performance art people are working with that deploy quantative self type visualizaiton.

In addition to the critique of corporate personhood, I was hoping to get something to come across about the critique of the corporate auteur. Even if Zuckerberg writes that Facebook is his gift to democracy, the nature of the corporation precludes this. Since Facebook is a controlled corporation, he could do things that would destroy it in order to facilitate his vision of the political, but I doubt that he would, and in terms of everyday operations he aknowledges in the S-1 and in other places that what we know as Facebook isn't about him. In the CNBC/Wall Street Journal imaginary corporations are the creations of individaul auteurs. In practice they are complex creations of communication systems. 

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