Facebook, Friendship and Foucault: Web 2.0 and the Creation of Cyber-Social Relations

Published by arron89 in the blog See Arron Read. Views: 85

The user of Facebook leads a double life. One of these is comprised of lived experiences in the physical world. The other, too, is an assemblage of experiences, interactions within a series or social and political discursive structures. To say that these experiences are 'lived' by the user, however, is misleading. At best, they are experienced vicariously via the digital doppelganger of the Profile, though really it is most correct (and, unfortunately, most unpleasant) to imagine this second life as taking place in an inaccessible, digital dimension, reconstituted by the user from fragments of relayed information delivered to the screens of their computers and mobile phones. Yet to deny the reality of this alternate series of structures on the basis of its distance from the real user is a serious error; not only is are these new cyber-social structures very real, but they have the power to displace the social structures and power relations that exist in the physical world.

Facebook, and indeed all internet social networks, have at their heart one of the fundamental traditions of Western science and politics--"the tradition of reproduction of the self from the reflections of the other." Firstly, the network itself is conceived as a digital reproduction of the networks that exist in the physical world, an attempt to recontextualise those "lived social relations." However, given the almost endless variety of ways in which two (or more) people may interact with each other, and the resultant variety of relationships that may exist between those people, the creators and rule-makers of Facebook have reduced the entire spectrum of social relations to one single form: Friendship.

Secondly, we find the self reproducing itself as a reflection of the other in the creation of the Profile. The Profile, and its contents, represent the user. And here, too, we see only an imitation of very limited capacity. Only the most basic of personal information may be provided by the user--name, date of birth, location--meaning that for the Profile to effectively represent a complete person, that user must engage in the creation of a social network so that through interaction with Friends, the sharing of images, information and experience, the Profile becomes a more accurate and convincing facsimile of the user.

The rule-makes and -enforcers of Facebook are its moderators. Their guidebook is the Rules of Conduct document, and their authority in enforcing it is absolute. However, they cannot possibly be everywhere at once, and with millions of profiles to monitor, they cannot hope to catch all breaches of their conditions. This rather complicates the (popular) idea that Facebook operates as a Foucauldian panopticon. While the spatial dimensions of the Facebook network suggest that the overseers reside in a central 'tower' from whose vantage point they can monitor the Profiles, organising these Profiles as a ring of separated and adjacent 'cells' seems counterintuitive when the aim of the site is to reconstruct the complex social networks of the physical world. Further complicating this reading of the structure of Facebook is the fact that if it is indeed described as a panopticon, then it is at best a panopticon by proxy, never containing any real people or real behaviours, but only the reproductions and results of their actions in the physical world.

Nevertheless, this situation, although merely an approximation of the device described in Foucault's interview 'The eye of power,' the hierarchical system of surveillance still has the capacity to act as an apparatus "through which power is produced and individuals[' Profiles] are distributed in a permanent and continuous field." Thus, as within Foucault's ideal panopticon, the user is forced to internalise the moderator's (imagined) disciplinary gaze and "[inscribe] in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection."

So far, these cyber-social and -power relations have proven to be merely replicas of real-world structures. However, Web 2.0 and social networking have created a context in which several new behaviours and models of power relations have been born.

The Profile is a performance, just as any other social relation is, in part, performed. Unlike these real-world performances, however, the Profile is permanently public; it is always available to both moderators and those in your network. This means that the emulation of real-world interactions is not always in the best interest of the user. Expressions of anger or resentment, or acts of the same, are unlawful within the context of Facebook, therefore, having internalised the laws and their punishments, the user will likely check themselves, and refrain from publishing their negative sentiments on their public Profile. Facebook, then, ceases to accurately represent the real social relations and interactions of its users in favour of a Utopian social system in which relationships are always either positive or nonexistent.

This, obviously, is markedly different from the social structures of the physical world, in which negative and neutral relationships are just as important in the networking of people as positive ones. The reason for this divide is Facebook's narrowing of all possible relationships to Friendship. Family members, partners, colleagues and acquaintances are given a single, equal classification. By definition, no link in the network can be of any more importance than any other. As such, and given the success of the site, we are forced to acknowledge an epistemic shift in the definition of Friendship. The closest definition offered by the OED to the use on Facebook is as follows: Friend is "Used loosely . . . applied to a mere acquaintance, or to a stranger, as a mark of goodwill or kindly condescension." As such, the dynamics of power that one would expect to observe in an interaction in the physical world are absent from interaction online, given that both parties have agreed to accept the mutually inclusive term Friend.

Given the vast divide between the understanding of the meaning of Friendship in the physical world, and its cyber-social counterpart, we are led to conclude that the motives for Friendship are different in each case. As socially-minded beings, creating meaningful and reliable relationships that will bring us benefit has evolved into a biological imperative. We are born into relations of power, and into systems that necessitate the continuing formation of new social relations in order to remain functional. Our success in this context is defined by our ability to construct significant and valuable relationships.

Facebook removes our ability to qualify our relationships. Every person-to-person interaction occurs in a single social context, which means we cannot define social success in the same way it is defined in the physical world. The only indicator of social success here, then, is the Friend Count, the number of links in our newly-formed network.

In order for a network to grow successfully, each of the Profiles it contains must be in accordance with the rules of Facebook. To not conform is to discredit both yourself and the network to which you belong. To this end, moderators give users a unique utility that allows them to exercise power over their dissenting Friend by silently reporting them to a moderator. In the physical world, there is no comparable action--if your friend is behaving in an undesirable way, the only option is to take negative action by distancing yourself from that person. Facebook offers no such interaction, only enabling users to sell their friend out to the authorities in order to preserve the integrity of their network. Thus, power and responsibility are deferred from the users to the moderators. When one user reports another, they are vicariously exerting power over that user, although it cannot be recognised as such by the 'victim' as the identity of the reporter is obscured, only implied by the sudden presence of a moderator.

The Friend Count and cyber-social success are not directly proportionate in their relation to one another. If the count is too low, indeed, it does suggest that the user is incapable of performing the necessary role and, as a result, will not prove to be a valuable addition to a network (though the case may simply be that the user refuses to compromise the physical- world's definition of friendship by beFriending people to whom they would not bestow that title outside of the cyber-social context; an admirable stance, though entirely oppositional to the ensuing redefinition of social codes). Too high, however, and the integrity of the links is weakened. While it is understood that the term Friend differs in significance in the context of Facebook, there is still a very definite threshold beyond which point adding links to the network devalues the Profiles of that user and those users associated with him.

The Friend Count also has a second significance besides acting as a signifier of cyber-social success. Given the physical absence of the user, one must be sceptical when considering the Profile of any user. It is entirely possible (an, in fact, common) for companies and scammers to set up fake accounts to generate automated advertising messages or to distribute viruses. In order to be successful, these Profiles must reach as many people as possible, usually attempting to network thousands of people at a time. Thus, those with too high a Friend Count risk compromising their own status as human.
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