“Facebook Disconnect” is based on a single sound – the Facebook notification ping. I appropriate this sound for my collage in part because of its ubiquity; there are 1.2 billion Facebook users, a sizable fraction of the living human population. More important than ubiquity however is the way the sound makes us feel. Put in terms of listening modes, the Facebook ping is a sound whose semantic associations overpower any of its formal qualities. We all know what the sound means, it says: “someone is trying to get your attention”. Just as gunshot sounds in Wishart’s “Red Bird” evoke violent imagery, the Facebook ping likely triggers a mixture of anxiety and excitement in the listener. And like “Red Bird”, my work acts at the borders of the technological and the natural, the public and psychological.
The experience of “Facebook Disconnect” is one of deliberate unlearning and reprogramming. It is self-medication for Facebook users, current and recovering, and as such, it aligns itself with the world of self-help books and guided meditations. “Facebook Disconnect” targets the ubiquitious Facebook ping, and inverts its meaning. It accomplishes this in the following two ways: 1) by repeating the sound until its semantic associations dissolve 2) making the ping speak words (I explain this below) that generate new associations. Regarding repetition, there is a psychological term for the phenomenon I wish to leverage here: semantic satiation, coined by Leon Jakobovits James. James’ doctoral thesis “Semantic Satiation and Cognitive Dynamics” states that “there is a reduction in the intensity of meaning of a word [or sound] as an organism is repeatedly exposed to it.” Once satiation is reached, I hope to relate the ping to calmness in the mind of the listener.
In addition to using the semantic content of the Facebook ping as a starting point, this work also builds on its inherent sonic qualities. Concretely, the ping will be manipulated – spliced, layered, compressed, stretched, pitched shifted – so that the sum total of sounds evoke human chatter. This will be achieved through software that converts waveforms of human voices to MIDI note values, to be fed into a sampler that plays the ping at pitches such that it will approximate the voices. This technique was pioneered by Austrian composer Peter Ablinger in a “speaking piano” shown at the World Venice Forum in 2006. Ablinger explains this process as first “breaking down this phonography…in individual pixels” and then “rendering [them] in a fairly high resolution”. In my case, I hope to “render” spoken words using only the Facebook ping.
In terms of structure, the piece begins with isolated pings. The pings gradually increase in frequency until human voices are audible. The resolution of the voices will become clearer with time. Then the process reverses, and the voices finally dissolve into isolated pings. Using a visual analogy, my piece is the sonic equivalent of moving a slider that controls the resolution of an image – in this case the resolution of the spoken words formed by repeating the Facebook ping at various pitches and speeds. A musical analogy to this process is playing a long roll on a snare drum: starting with individual strokes, and moving to rapid bounces that produce a continuous buzz.
I intend for the spoken words to invert the meaning of the Facebook message pings. These words may be ones like: “monastery”, “softly”, “bath”, “silence”, “gradually”. They should be simple, and evoke calmness.
Besides being a stand-alone sound piece, “Facebook Disconnect” will have a visual component: a reproduction of the Facebook notifications bar. This bar is a titleless window that sits above a browser window with Facebook open (ideally the listener’s Facebook account). The fake bar obscures the real bar, and is coordinated with the audio to show notifications when they are heard. This choice is influenced by “Facebook Bliss” by net artist Anthony Antonellis, a project that centers on the narcotic experience of receiving Facebook notifications. Since my fake bar is situated on Facebook itself, “Facebook Disconnect” is an intervention more than it is an isolated work. This contextual choice is important in communicating the self-help aspect of the project – only by placing the artwork on Facebook itself can it begin to deconstruct the subjective experience of receiving sound notifications about Facebook notifications.
An ideal listener is one who recognizes the problematics of being “always on”. At the same time, this idealized listener appreciates the utility that services like Facebook provide – so they won’t delete their account anytime soon. The appropriate context for this work is the place where the listener uses Facebook most often. In terms of logistics, the listener will first download “Facebook Disconnect”, and then run the application while wearing headphones. There will be instructions onscreen explaining the setup process.
While I don’t anticipate “Facebook Disconnect” triggering a radical transformation in the listener, I hope it will at least cause her to consider that notification sounds aren’t neutral, and that our associations with them are provisional and unstable.
- Facebook notification ping
- Spoken words