The Rise and Fall of ‘Boring Dystopia,’ the Anti-Facebook Facebook Group
Started by cultural theorist Mark Fisher as a comment on the state of contemporary Britain, the group became a victim of "capitalist cyberspace."
Image: Sarah Scoffield/Boring Dystopia
At first glance, Boring Dystopia looked like a Facebook group for people who hated Facebook.
Members shared pictures of an England rarely seen in the meticulously filtered world of social media: mundane, unlovely images of broken machinery and canned Christmas dinners, tattered shop signs and CCTV cameras watching over decaying streets. A short description served as a prompt: "Neoliberal England is a boring dystopia. Here's why."
It captured a culturally flattened England, one filled with human drones herded along by automated voices. It was an in-joke, the antithesis to Facebook's smarm and kneejerk sentiment, operating from within Facebook itself.
I came across Boring Dystopia at a point where my patience with Facebook had worn thin—my timeline was clogged with political conjecture and clickbait, between pictures of other people's holidays. The group gave me something to look forward to, an oddly defeated sense of solidarity.
But as the group grew to over 3,000 members, the tone gradually began to change. There were fewer pictures. Shares of clickbaity articles and complaints of 'PC gone mad' proliferated. Then one weekend the group lost thousands of members. Word spread of a cull. Then, just as suddenly, it vanished entirely.
The first post had been in July 2015. By the end of November, Boring Dystopia was gone.
Its disappearance sealed Boring Dystopia into legend, but the group's origins make it doubly strange: its founder was cultural theorist Mark Fisher, known as the author of Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? and Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, as well as the long-running culture and music blog K-Punk. Fisher currently lectures at Goldsmiths University and is a commissioning editor at Zer0 Books, a publishing imprint dedicated to cultural commentary. Why would he start a Facebook group for sharing pictures of broken ticket machines?
"It wasn't that well thought-out at the start, to be honest," he said. "I'd never done a Facebook group before." I spoke with Fisher a week after Boring Dystopia went offline, to find out the reasons both for its existence and its untimely end.
Originally, he had noticed a common theme to pictures he shared on Facebook, and wondered if it could be developed into a group. "It was understood from the start to be a consciousness-raising exercise, encouraging people to perceive the actual state of Britain rather than the PR state," he said. "Which is surprisingly hard, because there's this mixture of Silicon Valley ideology, PR and advertising which distracts us from our own aesthetic poverty, and the reality of what we have. Which is just all these crap robots…"
"It's Californian ideology without Californian sunshine, isn't it?"
"Crap robots" were a common theme for Boring Dystopia: one typical post included a photograph of a broken vending machine, with a note affixed to it reading, "The light inside has broken but I still work." Shortly before the group shut down, I remember holding up a queue at Tesco attempting to make a video on my phone of the checkout machine which wishes you a happy Christmas.
These pictures captured a curious blend of Silicon Valley disruption and distinctly British restraint. "It's Californian ideology without Californian sunshine, isn't it?" said Fisher.
That many of these machines are broken was key: "The point is always made that capitalism is efficient, people say 'You might not like it, but it works.' But Britain is not efficient. Instead it's stuck in a form of frenzied stasis."
To many members the group was purely entertainment, but it also served to illustrate "hauntology," the term Fisher uses to describe the sense of a lost future—in this case, one where machines actually enhance, rather than hinder, our lives.
Although a protest group by nature, Boring Dystopia shunned hot takes and screeds, employing only images in place of language. The fantastically bleak urban landscapes and patronising signs stood apart from the sunsets and holiday vistas we usually see on Facebook, prompting the question of whether social media manipulates how we see places as much as how we view our bodies.
A connection was implicit between these scenes and the mental state of their inhabitants. "Boring Dystopia was partly about the fact that no one can care about stuff any more," said Fisher. "It's not that they don't care, but in a city like London, or any intensely pressured urban metropolis—add to that the pressures of capitalist cyberspace and people just feel like they perpetually have no time." Fisher credits the mundane ugliness captured in the group's pictures to this all-purpose apathy: "Our resources for caring are depleted, and that has aesthetic consequences."
People mourn the loss of Boring Dystopia still; tribute groups Boring Dystopia II and More Boring Dystopia have sprung up in its wake, though they're not quite the same. Why did Fisher feel compelled to shut his community down?
Fisher sees Facebook as a microcosm of "capitalist cyberspace," perhaps even of capitalism as a whole
"For me the point at which the group started to go downhill was when it became like every other Facebook group. It was just recirculating 'content' and sending links, keeping people inside what I would call capitalist cyberspace instead of looking outside at their own environment. It felt like it was reinforcing the condition it was intended to displace," he explained. The alternative to closing it was endless policing by him and Rumi Josephs, an artist who served as Boring Dystopia's second admin. "It didn't work at that scale, and you could feel that it wasn't the right place for it… It was just an experiment, and Facebook probably wasn't the right platform. I didn't want it to be diluted."
Fisher, who has written his K-Punk blog for over a decade, has spoken in the past about the merits of writing online and instant responses, compared to the relatively static experience of writing for print. Facebook is an online medium, too, but a very different one: instead of opening up a dialogue, it can narrow our frame of reference.
Fisher casts Facebook as a distorted reality following an alternate sense of time, where old news is endlessly recirculated and human nature is subject to automated processes. The filter bubble is more developed and distracting than ever before: reality is being rewritten by what companies pay for us to see. Fisher sees it as a microcosm of "capitalist cyberspace," perhaps even of capitalism as a whole. The endless production of information from users ceases to be useful when that information is biased by use of Facebook itself.
The punchline to the Boring Dystopia group is that by using Facebook in the first place we are likely already too boring to appreciate it.
But Fisher detects a sea change in the public's tolerance for Facebook's filter bubble. In fact, he predicts that social media will very soon collapse entirely, with Facebook gone within the next three years. "There's been bingeing over the last few years, but people will work out a correct dose. I think in the next few years people will find a way to make the internet useful again."
This might mean grasping back the meaning of the word "sharing," a return to giving people something of substance. It might mean detaching from our phones, or buying our groceries from a human rather than a machine that sings Happy Christmas.
"I think all we can do is encourage each other to rehabituate," continued Fisher, who holds no moral high ground about social media use (he was, after all, using Facebook himself when he started Boring Dystopia). "It's like being in factories in the 19th century. It really is! We have to be on [social media platforms], we're forced to. People weren't literally forced to be in factories, and this is the same."
Fittingly, the future of Boring Dystopia is very much rooted IRL: "What I'm going to do is put a book together based on Boring Dystopia. I'm interested in zines, physical stuff. We're told that [print] is something nostalgic, but who determines this temporality?"
Fisher is already starting to plan its publication. Until then we'll have to continue without Boring Dystopia, trudging through the labour of Likes and sharing, morphing into crap robots ourselves. As the broken machine said, "The light inside has broken but I still work…"