Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
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A post-structuralist interpretation of facebook profiles - Has the medium become the message?

A. Facebook at a glance...

Facebook seems to be another entrepreneurial experiment, attempting to monetize personal relationships and acquaintances through heavy data profiling and processing of the personal information of its users. Through a user-friendly interface, the site offers nothing more than a hosting service for its users, coupled with real simple syndication functionality. In that sense, it adds no additional value, its primary use being that of passive mediation between already existing relationships (while simultaneously acting as a massive information gathering tool). Indeed, Mr. Zuckerberg does very little to fiddle with what he offers, simply sitting back and watching as millions of facebook users voluntarily upload their personal data, ID details, photographs and lists of their personal preferences, from books and political views to consumer products: once in receipt of this vast database of human beings, Facebook then simply has to sell the information back to advertisers. Its success, although indisputable as a fact, may be attributed to a simple mimetic response, magnified by network effects, as more people jumped on the site's bandwagon. Sinister, exciting or just addictive, facebook plays a significant role as a communication tool for its 400+ million user base. But what if every facebook profile is not simply a point of reference for a corresponding user, but something more, or something less, depending on perspective. a post-modern society

According to psychologist Derek Draper, facebook cleverly taps into the modern desire for "continual surface stimulation": "There is something about our culture that pushes us towards activities that are hypnotically shallow, rather than committing to something more profoundly." In a similar context, people may join facebook on the pretense that they want to stay in touch with other people; gradually however, the site may become a gap-filler, taking an increasing amount of their everyday lives, "as it mimics the playground insecurities of primary school kids piling up best friends to find their social niche".

Going beyond the psychological factors of facebook's success, I'd like to focus on the relationship between the user and his profile, as well as the user and other users' profiles. To what extent does the information contained in a user profile represent a true aspect of the user's character? To what extent is a profile a representation of its off-line personality? If not, is this dissonance perceived and acknowledged by the other users? What is the impact of this dissonance on how we perceive online relationships and communication, particularly with people that we no longer meet offline.

a. Speaking of maps, symbols, and fb profiles...

A Borges fable may serve as a proper introduction: In "On Exactitude in Science", Borges speaks of a great Empire whose skilled cartographers draw up a map so detailed that it was as large as the Empire itself. The actual map was mirroring the Empire's gains or losses in conquered territory. When the Empire crumbled, all that was left was the map. Transposing this to our online-offline world, I am drawn to inquire whether a facebook profile, or a facebook "friendship" survives (or as Baudrillard would say: "precedes") the actual offline relationship.

In his book, "Simulacra and Simulation", Jean Baudrillard discusses the interaction among symbols and reality in society. According to him, what has happened in postmodern culture is that our society has become so reliant on models and maps, symbols and signs, that the human experience is of a simulation of reality rather than reality itself (and, in reference to the Borges fable above, that we have lost all contact with the real world that preceded the map): "The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory - precession of simulacra - that engenders the territory and if one must return to the fable, today it is the territory whose shreds slowly rot across the extent of the map".

Substituting the cartographers with facebook owners and the land with our offline social web, the analogy becomes clearer: there is a risk that the hosts of facebook users are becoming so reliant on their facebook profiles (the simulacra), that they may lose contact with the real world which the simulacra were supposed to mirror. The problem as I perceive it begins beyond the mere existence of symbols and signs, or facebook as a communicating tool in itself. It begins when the symbol, the map, facebook replaces reality rather than connecting us to reality. When a tool for facilitating communication for bettering our social life gradually substitutes our social life, then the simulation has begun to consume reality. In this postmodern world, real activities and relationships are in danger of being swallowed up in the convenient and less demanding "continual surface stimulation", in the endless distraction of fragmented information, pictures and status updates.

b. ... in the "society of the spectacle"

Of course, the danger has been present right from the start of the "society of the spectacle": The "spectacle" tends to become the inverted image of society, in which relations between commodities have supplanted relations between people; in which passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity. As Debord points out, "The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relation between people that is mediated by images". In the Internet age of virtual social networking, one could say that the notion of images could include that of simulacra. The alienation of the user from his profile is just the first step (the profile will never truly resemble the user, as the information regarding the latter is too sporadic, too fragmented, or too selective); the alienation of the user from his "friends" is the second step, as they communicate via their fragmented simulacra. If no real communication exists between them, their information is limited/controlled by the simulacrum.

C. Bringing it all together

Trying to combine all the aforementioned pieces together (the for-profit nature of social networking sites, the psychological underpinnings leading to their success, and the discussion about the rise of simulacra as controllers of information), I suggest that entrepreneurship and the technological advancement of mass media have led to the creation of commercial virtual environments that imitate social interaction unsuccessfully, unable to go beyond a surface stimulation and interaction between simulacra, or a simulated interaction between users. Although I don't follow Baudrillard's argument to its end, mourning as if we are left only with simulation and simulacra (having lost our access to the real), I agree with his perceptive criticism of a phenomenon common in our culture, where we seek to replace reality with a more manageable simulacrum, under terms and agreements which salute the principles of advanced capitalism: In this world, life is not so much about living, but about having (Thesis 30); And in Facebook, everyone gets to have something: Zuckerberg has control of user personal data, his commercial partners have millions of user eyeballs ready for direct marketing, and the users? well, the users have their "friends".

P.S. Due to word limitation, I was not able to write on an adjacent question: If the aforementioned argument that the fragmented information constituting a profile is not truly representative of oneself, indicative of his social behavior, or at least coherent with his offline comportment, then is the privacy of the user still infringed? Or should we then focus the privacy of the simulacrum?

-- By NikolaosVolanis - 26 Apr 2010

# * Set ALLOWTOPICVIEW = TWikiAdminGroup, NikolaosVolanis


This is a clever idea you advance. Not only is the digital news killing paper media, not only is online exchange of music destroying brick-and-mortar marketplace exchange of media, but so too is web-based social interaction supplanting real world social interaction! An intriguing concept. I can only enjoy the read here, I have no substantive additions or revisions to suggest. Nicely written.

The only change I could suggest is one you seem to already know of: the essay weighs in for me at about 1130 words.

Thanks for an interesting read.

-- BrianS - 04 May 2010



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r11 - 17 Jan 2012 - 17:48:30 - IanSullivan
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