It has lately become common to hear the name Facebook being used as a synonym for Internet. Magazines, radio and TV broadcast news on curiosities, updates and weaknesses of the platform that has at this stage achieved a position of dominance in social networks environment. We are not anymore referring to this as to the latest technologic fashion: Facebook is now a part of the daily routine for about five-hundred million web-users all over the world, a consistent majority of whom are American-based. The online service CheckFacebook provides realtime statistics on the number of logged-in users, men/women percentage, nationality and age groups going from 13-years-olds up to 65-years-olds.
Journalists’ interest is today mainly focused on political and financial implications that the use of this platform entails. Nothing new about that, we do actually quite often obvious remarks about the phenomenon; platitudes especially for experts and artists who have been exploring this ‘device’ since it first appeared, trying to define its main features. Such studies have, nevertheless, tended to remain rather isolated into circumscribed environments, struggling to get in contact with the great mass of users. For this reason, a news like Germany considering to introduce a law that forbids employers to spy over their employees on Facebook, still caused quite a fuss during the month of August.
However, it could be interesting to compare the current need to legally regulate relations within social networks environment, with the comments made by English researcher Danah Boyd in an essay she wrote 2006. Boyd circumscribed space in three main typologies: public, private and controlled space. Through a survey on the use American teenagers made of mySpace, the researcher pointed out the difference between youngsters and adults in their approach toward the definition of these spaces.
BBoyd states: ” ( ) for the adults, house is a private dimension where they can relax together with their family and friends. The Public sphere is, instead, the world that is shared with strangers, with all kinds of people, and where one must pull out the best aspects of himself. For most adults, the working environment is a controlled space, where the boss dictates rules and behaviors. The way in which teenagers partition their space is slightly different; the main part of their spaces are controlled.”.
Youngsters therefore try to build their own private space in the interstices existing between controlled environments, for instance locking the bedroom door thus creating an hideout where it is possible to elaborate one’s own public space as well, through the web and social networks. About these teenagers’ mySpace, Boyd writes: ” Their public space is where peers gather in mass. It ‘s here that the exhibition of self really matters. Which can be seen by adults also, but what counts are the coequals ( ) digital technologies allow teenagers, whilst being in a controlled environment, to (re)create their own public and private space, by making it virtual.
So while the instant messaging concerns the private aspects, mySpace provides a social component. Young people can, in sum, build up online environments which promote socialization ( ) Most of them do not foresee the potential future interactions. Also, it is rare that teenagers would not make their mySpace pages public and if not, that wouldn’t be because of aggressors and future employers. They want to be visible to other teens, and not just to the ones they already have listed as friends. They would prefer that adults could simply leave, disappear. All of them: parents and teachers and eerie men”.
According to this analysis the difference between approaches seems to be an age matter: whilst adult people give the illusory impression to be more aware of their own public sphere, visible online, the same thing cannot be said about youngsters.
However, the decision of putting a legislation over contents published on Facebook, highlights how, behind a State intervention to allegedly protect the privacy and freedom of adult users to post informations about themselves, more hidden aims lay. As for instance the interest in maintaining an active participation of individual persons on these platforms, and what is more, the existing issue related to the daily administration of all the public spaces, vote private and controlled, in the Internet era.
Although we recognize how useful this definition is, the definition Boyd gives of teenagers’ public virtual space, seems to be more enlightening. As young people do, adults too seem not to care about the presence on Facebook of their employers or colleagues. It seems difficult to be aware of one’s own public spaces, since such awareness is tightly bound to the symbolic value that the platform assigns to relationships between individuals. It is in fact the meaning those relationships embody, what becomes the chief object of interest in the process of defining public, private or controlled spaces, and that instead constitutes a subsequent level of individual responsibility. Social networks have become, through the past few years, the place where peers gather in mass: it doesn’t really matter if there actually are persons capable of exerting control over what is published.
It is preferable, for people, to think that such persons just do not exist. But, for instance, the extremely generic meaning that the word “friend” has acquired, has soon shown its inadequacy in representing the variability of human relationships, both in one-to-one relations and wider environments of connections, such as those between an employer and his employee.
In Germany, the State is taking the commitment to secure something that could maybe be protected just by individuals’ awareness, even though in a less simple way. This process of delegating, levers itself on the idea of privacy as necessary element to guarantee the freedom of publishing whichever content. Obviously it’s not the concept of privacy itself to be a problem, but rather the fact that it gets bound to a process of abstraction of human relationships. Users becoming indifferent about the symbolic meaning of a mechanism -not only in its whole, but also and foremost in its single elements- as could be the simple action of adding another user in one’s list of friends.
Firms like Facebook aim to accomplish successful operations of giving a name and a sense to every action a user makes. This is what Nicolas Frespech has been trying to underline with Add to Friend, a conceptual work made in 2008, in which the author separates from Facebook main context, the button used to add people to friends lists, isolating it from the presence of other users and thus bringing it back to be a pure mechanical action. Each time someone clicks on the button, the friends counter goes up. The almost complete blankness of the page may upset the users, but, ironically, what appears is actually the amount of sense and affection that such action has gained within the context of the platform in which it was conceived.
The positive aspect of the idea of “friendship”, is probably the most criticized element of Facebook. In 2007, Nils Andrei tried to introduce a negative equivalent of the old school-pals’ social network by creating Hatebook. The anti-social network consisted in a platform capable of disconnecting you from everything you hate, being basically based on the opposite principle to the one of connecting friends. From the same year, Myfrienemies is a work by Angie Waller. Differently from Hatebook, this project did not refer directly to Facebook and unlike the other work, its aim was not exclusively to arise negative feelings, but also to create links between users, based on shared antipathies.
In these works, authors focus the attention on social relationships, which are by all means the axis around which social networks function, but they do that by considering exclusively the socially recognized meaning of the word “friend”, bringing rise to the necessity to contemplate a wider range of definitions being applied to social relationships.
All these works can be found catalogued on the website of Geoff Cox curatorial project Anti-social not-working. The English curator noticed how the entire financial system is building value from the use of human relations, thus causing the development of biopolitcs, which focuses on the private and peculiar aspects of individuals’ lives. Firms are not the only ones being well aware of the economic exploitation they make of social activities, pushing users to become prosumers of the platforms they use; indeed, users themselves are getting more and more conscious of the economic value the contents they publish have.
A few months ago, for example, the social network Facebook Users Union was born. It has the goal of creating a craft union of Facebook users: it also proposes to require a payment to the companies for every single action done on that platform. There are also social networks that refuse the presence of intrusive advertising banners and commercials, such as the Spanish N-1. Or, softwares that aim to solve the problem of the permanence of their data on proprietary servers by creating distributed social network, as in the Diaspora project.
However, Facebook continues to see increases in the number of its members daily. There is thus a social network in which a mass of individuals, even if gradually acquires the knowledge of the economic value of their presence online, seems to ignore the implications that the relational aspect entails. Except for those situations where it is directly involved . Compared to this, Cox says that Facebook, like its negative counterpart Hetebook, are anti-social platforms without a negative dialectic, an antagonist dialectic that is necessarily based on the juxtaposition of two terms in order to generate political awareness.
A criticism of this kind, full of references to Italian theoretical tradition of autonomy, however, does not take into account the wide variety of interpersonal relationships and the different facets of pleasure inherent in each of them. It mostly continue to refer to abstract relational categories, applicable to large groups. A political criticism alternative to the one that sees the need for an opposition between friends and enemies, can start with the desires that drive the individuals to use these tools, within the capitalist system based mainly on consumption.
Users, often, are driven to action and presence on these platforms for the pleasure of finding their peers, and this relational enjoyment creates difficulties in the definition of private, public and controlled spaces. Thus we have the proliferation of contents to declare our own presence and at the same time we enjoy the consumption of relations with each other.
Slavoj Zizek claims that in a society based on commodity consumption, the pleasure deriving from such use, no matter the specific nature of the commodity, becomes a social dogma. We frequently entail in the idea of enjoying using something, a consequent deterioration of the thing we make use of. Sticking to an Hegelian mind-setting, Zizek hints, in his use of the word “enjoy”, the fact that the haughtiness of what is used gets destroyed, denied, with the consequence that “enjoying” involves “consuming”. So, in neo-capitalism, we do not “enjoy” anything, because its denial is implied by the act of consuming. We experience a pleasure that, deriving from the consumption of its source, constantly renews our appetite for it, therefore turns such source to be insignificant.
With Facebook, the commodity consists in the relationship put at disposal of the users, who cluster where that is more concentrated. This commodified relations are built linguistically, or, according to the Slovenian philosopher, are impossible to be symbolized because they are perpetually being consumed. That can be paralleled with the action of drinking a Coke, the commodity par excellence: the more you drink it, the more you are thirsty. From this analysis it might seem that users are trapped in a system of powers which have enslaved human capacity of creating relations, under a mechanism of profits. Anyhow this remark rules out the very basics, namely the pleasure deriving from the physical presence of another person.
Relationships are not exclusively an abstract theorization, they explicate mainly through the presence of individual bodies. That is the reason for which Clare Adams‘ 2008 performance is interesting. In Clare is Facebook, the artist walks down the streets of St Albans in London carrying a billboard reproducing the Facebook homepage layout, and interacts with people, arising curiosity and amusement.
What’s so interesting about what you are doing at the present moment? What does seeing live feeds of another user? Are we actually related? These are some of the questions Adams poses to herself and to people. “Updating” herself with her supply of status, add-friends and comment labels, she calls into question her physical presence by creating a conflict between the definition of friendship given by social networks and her ability to truly relate to people in everyday life. Her performance highlights how in the situation she creates, the presence of another person cannot really be incorporated, therefore impeding capitalistic consumption.
Chiara Zamboni criticizes Zizek claiming that: “Get pleasure from the presence of something does not necessarily mean getting pleasure from a thing, since ‘presence’ is not an object and, obviously, cannot be consumed. In fact, when we enjoy the presence of something, we are not appropriating it, but actually quite naturally obliged to preserve the ‘presence’s’ integrity, its alterity. There can happen t be a fainter or a stronger presence, but either way we cannot incorporate in, turn it into a part of ourselves”.
Italian philosophy doesn’t solely refer to actual physical presence, excluding the idea of any technological equivalent; the latter can in fact be mediated and become the remembrance of a presence. That being the case, Franco Berardi Bifo suggests that instead of sticking to obsolescent binary oppositions – which locate the possibility to solve all the social conflicts in the mechanism of individuating an enemy – , we should rather attempt to create an environment of communication and interaction, an area that would be ‘slow’, deep-breathed, opened to listening and to the actual activation of physicality. Becoming aware of the needs and desire of individuals and free the bodies, so far forced into genetical categorizations, would give space to a radical political critique. An ideal of change which does not forthbring logics of domination and control.