Lexicon Valley

Is This the First Great Work of “Facebook Fiction”?

On Tuesday, March 15, a mysterious letter appeared in the secure dropbox of the writer Robin Sloan—along with instructions to post the letter’s contents to Facebook, which Sloan did. The message unspooled the saga of an anonymous Facebook employee who’d accidentally discovered a curious property of an internal company application called Enchilada. The program—used to scrutinize the public and private posts of anonymized users for advertisers’ benefit—could predict the future. Specifically, it showed when forthcoming Facebook conversation would crest around particular words or phrases, like Volkswagen or Trump or Adidas footwear. “Conversation spikes,” the messenger explained, “when championships are decided. When companies combine or collapse. When politicians are engulfed by scandal. When people die.”

This Facebook employee did what many of us would do under the circumstances and teamed up with his co-worker, a woman named Julie Rubicon, to launch a covert insider trading operation. When the Facebook users of the future started murmuring about Puma or the Golden State Warriors, our protagonists knew that something dramatic was poised to happen—a merger or a win or a coup. They forged a rogue consultancy site on the deep Web. And then, a dark flick of destiny possessed them to query the algorithm about their own names. The messenger’s screen turned up empty, but Julie Rubicon’s revealed an angry spike a few weeks out, in the middle of March. Julie panicked. When the Ides drew closer, she disappeared.

At this point, you’ve probably figured out that I am describing a work of fiction disguised as a Facebook post. If you weren’t tipped off by Sloan’s preoccupations as a writer (“I dork around with technology,” he declares on his author site) or by the steady escalation of tension, or the shapeliness of events, or any number of other literary elements, you may have noticed that Julie Rubicon’s name alludes to the river Caesar forded to enter Italy in 49 B.C. and that her story went live during the Ides of March. Sloan wants us to ask whether we’ve crossed our own Rubicon with social media. Must we now await betrayal from Facebook, a shiny but false friend?

One thing that did not tip me off as to the story’s createdness was its premise: that “Facebook’s engineers had, in recent months, woven powerful neural networks into many of its systems” and that Enchilada could “have been connected, intentionally or not, to some super-brain with the ability to not only analyze but also extrapolate, and not only plausibly but perfectly.” That seemed … scarily conceivable. Sloan appears to want to pun on the philosophical definition of the “virtual”: something that is not real but could be, just as the future visions summoned by Enchilada are grounded in algorithms built from present data, and subject to contingencies and interventions. (One of the more timeless themes addressed in Julie Rubicon” is the dance of free will and destiny, as characters stumble into their fates or bend them to their advantage.)

You should read the entire tale. It works both as an exciting update to the short story form and as a mirror image of our fears about technology. Though the “found letter” conceit evokes Victorian fiction (which also combined textual relics with sudden, inexplicable disappearances), there’s something apt about posting a fable about Facebook’s overreach to Facebook itself. We see the story filtered through the site’s all-pervading interface. To fully understand what’s going on, we need some literacy with its grammar of charts and images. (The narrator helpfully provides graphic evidence of Enchilada’s omniscience, all in the site’s signature, soothing color scheme.) Most importantly, we must be logged onto Facebook ourselves, inhabiting, as we read, our personal carapace of photos and status updates and contact information. As in the Rilke poem, here there is/ no place/ that does not see you.    

The story also nourishes a contemporary anxiety about algorithms, which, as my colleague Jacob Brogan points out, often loom in people’s minds as “black boxes”—systems so intricate and sophisticated that even their creators can’t understand them. Have we made a divinity of the “super-brain”? And where does that leave God and morality?

But what Sloan’s story really laid bare to me was a kind of nervous, zero-sum theorizing about virtual versus offline reality. The spike in Julie Rubicon’s Facebook presence in mid-March—when everyone is theoretically typing her name—correlates directly with her physical disappearance. It’s as if you have only so much existence to distribute across your various platforms; to be on Facebook is to be effaced in real life.  

That said, “Julie Rubicon” is an optimistic work—more George Saunders than George Orwell—in which people’s essential humanity will always stave off a full-fledged tech dystopia. The end imagines Facebook members coming together and repurposing the sharing technology to “blunt the force of Enchilada’s prophecy”: “And this message, all the different copies of it, versions compressed and retold, shared across the system—this can be Julie’s spike. Not a scandal. Not a disaster. Just a true story.”

Or at least a virtually true one.