Kafka On The Web

“Kafkaesque” refers not just to bureacratic nightmares, notes Joshua Rothman, but “his novels and stories are actually about justice, which he saw as aloof and possibly unobtainable, and punishment, which he saw as endless and omnipresent.” In other words, he continues, Kafka “described an aspect of life that the online world makes more visible and acute”:

There’s a surreal humor to the Kafkaesque—a sense of lurid, unhinged exaggeration. But, at heart, it’s a sensibility based on straightforward observations of human behavior. One observation is simply that punishment is pervasive. … A second, related observation is that, in many cases, innocence and guilt are determined by context. Often, the punishers are guilty, too—perhaps not of the crimes in question but almost certainly of other, more personal “crimes” not recognized by the law. If the court had a wide enough jurisdiction, everyone would be guilty of something.

To read a headline designed for the social-media age is to see these Kafkaesque aspects of life expressed in a new idiom. (From the Washington Post: “Stop congratulating yourself for opposing the Redskins’ name. You’re not helping the real problem. We’re finally paying attention to Native Americans, but it’s for the wrong reason.”) Stories like this aim to startle you with your own guilt—and to enable you to blindside others with theirs. They employ a paranoid style of accusation: you may think you know what you did wrong, but what you’re about to find out will surprise you. Facebook, like much of the Web, is officially designed to encourage positivity; there is no “dislike” button, and the stated goal is to facilitate affiliation and belonging. But, over time, the site’s utopian social bureaucracy has been overwhelmed by the Kafkaesque churn of punishment. … Facebook has become a dream space of judgment—a place where people you may know only in the most casual way suddenly reveal themselves to be players in a pervasive system of discipline. The site is an accusation aggregator, and the news feed is the docket—full of opportunities to publicly admire the good or publicly denigrate the bad, to judge others for their mistakes or to be judged for doing it wrong.