The potential for action and speach in the Social Network

Art Press Release from Australia. Published by Rebecca Gabrielle Cannon on Thursday 17 February 2011.

The Social Network, to use the title of facebook’s picturization, is the most prominent example of a virtual public space.

Although the movie deals more with the corruptive nature of money and power, as it focuses a lot more on the personal stories of facebook’s founders, it does emphasize the great importance of this innovation for social communication. The way we communicate has essentially been revolutionized by the creation of a virtual public sphere in which everyone can appear, provided that this person knows can access and knows how to use a computer. The motivations to join are diverse, however, to show ones own presence and to learn about the others’ presence are the basic aims. Can action and speech happen in a virtual network that cannot grant physical presence? What exactly do we do there?

I post something and someone gives an opinion – in fact, we are constantly encouraged to express our opinions about others’ posts. This is the basic human encounter, it is the reflection we seek as we step outside of our private realms into the public in order to renew ourselves and proof our presence in interaction with others. In facebook, as it is a place where one can go to interact with ‘friends’ (or people I am interested in to become friends with, or people who I just want to stalk…), we do not really meet them, in the sense, that we are both present at the same time (although that happens in chat situations). Rather, the information is passed on at deferred times and we have no influence on when the addressee will see it. This form of asynchronous, or ‘staggered communication’ enables us to choose the moment to answer, or not answering at all. Indeed, the information is steady, as opposed to scenes that are superseded by the next as in a movie or a youtube video, so that one can always go back there to check and answer later. Facebook is a database of social relations granting an immaterial continuance, which Arendt assigned to the world of things. Furthermore, the amount of friends we have most of the time implies on the amount of information we are exposed to, unless we decide to block entry of this information. Then, this person’s adds will not appear on our site and we are not bothered. However, if one allows a mass of friends the access to personal information as well as deliberately exposes oneself to their activities, then a sensation of Fast Food Information appears. The fact that the visits on facebook are often short and/or paralleled with other activities, e.g. when accessed via a mobile gadget, leads to the fact that our attention is not fully given to the happenings on screen. Fast Food Information describes the attitude with which we enter facebook and it’s content. First of all, if one as 300+ friends, chances are high that we’ll be overloaded with information. Secondly, here are friends which we don’t know and who we might not like that much, but we stay connected for nostalgic or opportunistic reasons. Thirdly, posts often contain information that we either cannot relate to because it deals with what happens thousands of miles away or with family issues or anything that does not fit into our current state of mind. There is to say, that posts by close friends and information that relates to our field of interest are more likely to be red. In any case, these three aspects demand an attitude of selection and prompt a low level of concentration towards prioritizing what one likes and what one wants to know. Therefore, even tough it is essentially the most democratic form of social network, the facts mentioned above are reasons for diagnosing a failed public space, or at least its potential has not yet been fully operated.

On the one hand, we are trained to give our opinions about what people do – close friends, acquaintances and co-workers alike, on the other hand, we cannot enter an actual debate about it. ‘Actual’ is based on the condition that it happens between physical persons present at the same time that can lead to a confrontation and debate. What is important is, that the immediate encounter of humans brings along an integrity and the possibility of a sincere encounter with disagreement, and these are the necessary attributes for a meaningful public debate. Another important criteria, which the virtual public of facebook cannot guarantee is the unexpected and spontaneous interaction with strangers, who are not our ‘friends’. Although on some accounts it is possible to see posts by unknown friends of friends, but they are unlikely to be approached, much less so are strangers depending on the privacy settings. Generally, interaction is not guaranteed at all with nobody. We will never know about all the people who read our posts and we cannot manipulate who is going to react to them, for the average facebook user cannot direct another user’s clicks. Access is confined by the customizations of a profile further inhibiting the encounter with the unknown Other. Most users are very happy about the fact that they can choose who can see posts and photographs. Facebook is, thus, an example of a mixed private and public area, the epitome of the paradox inclination to expose what is yet to be protected. When logged inside the network, the user is still alone; virtual communication is inflicted with isolation. Consequently, in the social network human togetherness remains a metaphor and it would be a fallacy to assume it is yet a global democratic network.