sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from

Archive for the ‘Facebook’ Category

why you should invite me to your next party

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on May 28, 2009

(hint: because I will entertain your guests with talk of the social revolution)

I was at a party last week when someone asked me what I do for a living. I used the opportunity to engage in what, in retrospect, may have been an ill-timed impromptu pronouncement about the status of the social revolution.

It turns out I’ll need to rethink how I use that phrase “social revolution,” at least in mixed company, because a tubby drunk man wearing a confusing hat walked up to me and tried to steer the conversation toward war atrocities.

“You can’t tell me,” he bellowed, “that the atrocities that are happening during the Iraq War are any different from the ones that happened during World War II. It’s just that we have more media coverage now.”

As I wrote in an earlier post, this is what I’ve decided to call the Space Odyssey mistake. This particular kind of error is explained by Clay Shirky, who describes a scene from 2001 in which

space stewardesses in pink miniskirts welcome the arriving passenger. This is the perfect, media-ready version of the future–the technology changes, hemlines remain the same, and life goes on much as today, except faster, higher, and shinier.

Lately I’ve been finding Christopher Kelty’s notion of a “recursive public” useful in thinking about what, other than hemlines, have changed. As Kelty describes it in Two Bits (available for download, online browsing, and modulation for free online),

A recursive public is a public that is vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal, practical, and conceptual means of its own existence as a public; it is a collective independent of other forms of constituted power and is capable of speaking to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.

More to the point, a recursive public is a group of people who exist outside of traditional institutions (governments, churches, schools, corporations) and, when necessary, use this outsider status to hold these entities in check. The engagement of these publics goes far beyond simply protesting decisions or stating their opinions. Kelty, writing about geek culture as a recursive public, explains it thus:

Recursive publics seek to create what might be understood, enigmatically, as a constantly “self-leveling” level playing field. And it is in the attempt to make the playing field self-leveling that they confront and resist forms of power and control that seek to level it to the advantage of one or another large constituency: state, government, corporation, profession. It is important to understand that geeks do not simply want to level the playing field to their advantage—they have no affinity or identity as such. Instead, they wish to devise ways to give the playing field a certain kind of agency, effected through the agency of many different humans, but checked by its technical and legal structure and openness. Geeks do not wish to compete qua capitalists or entrepreneurs unless they can assure themselves that (qua public actors) that they can compete fairly. It is an ethic of justice shot through with an aesthetic of technical elegance and legal cleverness.

This is precisely the difference between 1945 and 2009. It’s not just that we have more media coverage but that, as Shirky proclaims, everybody is a potential media outlet–everyone has the potential to join a recursive public, whether impromptu or planned.

In fact, the notion that we can all engage in reportage is perhaps a bit too simplistic, at least until we can adjust what we mean by “journalism.” When Facebook users joined up in opposition to a change in Facebook’s terms of service and successfully pressed administrators to rethink and reword the terms of service agreement, that was the work of a recursive public, loosely banded and easily disbanded once their purpose had been achieved (if necessary, they will quickly gather again in their virtual space and just as quickly disband). We don’t recognize this as journalism, often don’t even recognize it as civic engagement–but for those who joined this Facebook knotwork, it’s certainly some kind of engagement. And what could be more civic-minded than fighting to define the uses of a public space?

The atrocities of war are approximately the same (though, as always, new technologies mean new modes of torture and murder). What’s different is the following:

All in all, it was a good party. Near the end, someone produced a Donald Rumsfeld piñata. We were going to hoist it up and smash it, but it seemed kind of…irrelevant.

Posted in Clay Shirky, collective intelligence, Facebook, journalism, new media, open source, participatory culture, President Obama, Project New Media Literacies, social justice, social revolution | Leave a Comment »

Bruno Latour, Facebook, and some Moonbats

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on April 13, 2009

On the (misguided) attempt to reduce social media to a series of complex interactions

Do you guys know Bruno Latour?

I’m new to Latour, having been only recently introduced to his work by my friend and colleague, Katie Clinton. A few weeks back we read and discussed a canonical Latour piece, “On Interobjectivity,” for our weekly reading group, the Fireside Moonbats.

I’m not going to pretend I understand most of what’s going on in this piece. Any attempt to summarize it would just reveal my hem, so I’ll leave that to someone better equipped. It’s one key idea from that piece that interests me for the purpose of this post: The distinction Latour makes between complexity and complication. He writes:

‘Complex’ will signify the simultaneous presence in all interactions of a great number of variables, which cannot be treated discretely. ‘Complicated’ will mean the successive presence of discrete variables, which can be treated one by one, and folded into one another in the form of a black box. Complicated is just as different from complex as simple is.

Latour uses groups of monkeys (complex) in contrast to human societies (complicated). For Latour, “complex” describes a social society wherein interactions between members are intricate and informed by multiple dynamics and variables–but all of these variables are present in the interaction. A society is “complicated” when its moments and interactions are colored by a limitless number of discrete variables, layered throughout history, hidden beneath the surface and spreading out in every cultural direction. As Latour explains,

We say, without giving the matter too much thought, that we engage in ‘face to face’ interactions. Indeed we do, but the clothing that we are wearing comes from elsewhere and was manufactured a long time ago; the words we use were not formed for this occasion; the walls we have been leaning on were designed by an architect for a client, and constructed by workers – people who are absent today, although their action continues to make itself felt. The very person we are addressing is a product of a history that goes far beyond the framework of our relationship. If one attempted to draw a spatio-temporal map of what is present in the interaction, and to draw up a list of everyone who in one form or another were present, one would not sketch out a well-demarcated frame, but a convoluted network with a multiplicity of highly diverse dates, places and people. Those who believe in social structures often make the same criticism of interactionists, but they draw quite another lesson from it. They suggest that nothing happens in interactions that is not an activation or materialization of what is already completely contained elsewhere in the structure – give or take a few minor adjustments. But interaction does more than adjust, it constructs – we learned this from the monkeys as well as from Goffman and from the ethnomethodologists. However, it displays contradictory forms: it is a framework (which permits circumscription) and a network (which dislocates simultaneity, proximity and personality). Where can those contradictory qualities in humans come from, and why are they so different from interaction as understood by primatologists with respect to naked, co-present monkeys?

If it seems confusing and heady, it is. I suspect it’s even more confusing, even headier, than it seems. But the distinction Latour makes–these terms “complex” and “complicated”–have some use for us in considering how to talk about the values and norms of social media. I’m increasingly encountering people who view Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks as as high-tech versions of Foucault’s panopticon. For them, too much social media is a bad thing: It means you’re always on, it means someone is always watching you.

Add to this a critical mass of media analysts (especially marketers and PR people, who are doing their best to find a way in to a world that seems cultured and maintained by and for the young) seem to work from a general assumption that social media work by leveraging our narcissism. PR guy Brett Borders identifies an entire category of self-absorbed social media users: “Social Media Narcissists.” What is a social media narcissist? Borders writes:

There are plenty of people online who have managed to create a sizable audience without much in the way of skills or selfless community contributions. These social media narcissists participate heavily in the online conversation, but if you look closely you will see that most of it is just chatter about themselves, their opinions and their friends.

Some of my friends agree. “It’s so weird,” said one friend, an academic who’s approximately my age, about the phenomenon of the constantly updated Facebook status. “Everybody can see what you’re doing, all the time. It’s why I’ve never posted a status update, and why I never will.”

My sense of it, though, is that people who think a “close look” at the “chatter” on Facebook, Twitter, and similar networks amounts to self-centered self-promotion either aren’t looking as closely as they think they are or are confusing the Latourian notions of complication and complexity. Facebook may seem like a flat social environment in which every monkey is watching every other monkey to figure out where the tribe is going, but in fact, every interaction is the product of an infinite number of variables that exist outside of that moment, that update, and that social environment. In this way, social media is complicated, not simply complex.

Presumably, calling most of what happens in social media “just chatter” is a way to relegate it to meaningless drivel: Picture yourself sitting on the train after a hard day at work. Picture a smiling, absurdly cheerful woman sitting next to you and telling you all about herself, her day, what’s on her mind right now. Picture this happening incessantly, consistently, every single day, eventually driving you away from public transportation altogether. Picture yourself buying a nice, sensible SUV.

Nobody likes chatter, after all (even though we all engage in it from time to time). We’re a culture that thrives on complication, that doesn’t really know what to do with mere complexity. If all that happened within social media sites was chatter, engagement with and use of these tools wouldn’t be rising so dramatically.

The game of social media is, after all, figuring out the rules, working through the layers of what seems at first like complexity. We are never exactly the words we type into the “what’s on your mind?” box (formerly “What are you doing right now?”), just as we are never just the words we say to the person sitting next to us on the train.

Quick personal example: Recently, I had a friendly argument with a Facebook friend when I posted a link to my blog on her wall. Here’s how the interaction went, with names and pics blurred out to protect those not directly affiliated with sleeping alone and starting out early:

Did I violate an unspoken Facebook norm? Oh, probably. What’s more interesting to me, though, is the public scolding and my reaction to it. First, if I had violated a similar norm in a “face to face” interaction, this person might have taken me aside to let me know–but she might not have said anything at all, since she wouldn’t necessarily have had the authority to do so. She’s a friend, but not a close friend; a colleague, but not a coworker. It’s not that the social hierarchies that govern our offline existences disappear in online social networks; it’s that new hierarchies, new norms for engagement not linked to traditional cultural markers, emerge and get negotiated.

Which is why I reacted so strongly to what amounted to a public scolding. My friend chose to respond to my comment with a scolding instead of simply removing the post, which Facebook makes it pretty easy to do. I had posted something to her wall; she found it inappropriate and assumed the authority to tell me so; and my reaction? I was mad. What right does anybody have to tell me what I can or can’t do on Facebook? I thought, outraged and annoyed. That was me questioning whether she really had the authority to chastise me out in the public square, where everybody could see.

If this moment were nothing more than idle chatter, my friend and I would not have reacted as we did. She would have, perhaps, seen my posting as a violation of norms, but she would have chosen to ignore it instead of responding. And I could have ignored her response, but I didn’t.

As a complicated society, we are more than Latour’s mass of monkeys whose choice of direction for travel arises anew each morning, from “an order that no one member has given, and that none can claim as their own.” And Facebook, and other types of social media, provide new words and worlds for intricate, infinite, and complicated relationships, given the users’ capacity to make it so.

Posted in academics, culture, Facebook, new media, participatory culture, social justice, social media | 1 Comment »

Dissent within the United Republic of Facebook

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 17, 2009

According to recent measurements, Facebook now has more than 175 million members and is growing by an average of 600,000 new members per day. As marketing analyst Justin Smith points out, “if Facebook were a country, it would now be the <a href="; target=”_blank”>6th most populous in the world.”

Now that we’re country-sized, we should really think about getting a flag and an anthem. And we should seriously consider regulating the recent trend of Facebook members posting self-absorbed notes describing in excruciating detail some of the most boring things imaginable about themselves and then&#8212and this is the part that kills me&#8212tagging other Facebook friends so they’ll read the whole gorram thing. I’m talking to you, 25 Things About Me. To you, My Top 5 Facebook Activities. You, The Soundtrack of My Life.

I suppose it’s only natural that a social media application whose users are largely young (66% are under 35) and largely <a href="
” target=”_blank”>middle- and upper-class would find a way to use the application’s resources as a platform for talking about themselves as an end goal, not as a means for building and maintaining relationships across time and distance. Is it natural, though? Or is Facebook designed for exactly this purpose, under the guise of social networking?

Carmen Joy King argues that Facebook is actually designed to highlight and enhance self-absorption; she quit Facebook abruptly when, in a search for new quotes for her profile page, she came upon this from Aristotle:”We are what we repeatedly do.” This sent her into self-reflection mode, as she explains:

I became despondent. What, then, was I? If my time was spent changing my profile picture on Facebook, thinking of a clever status update for Facebook, checking my profile again to see if anyone had commented on my page, Is this what I am? A person who re-visits her own thoughts and images for hours each day? And so what do I amount to? An egotist? A voyeur?

Fair enough. Looked at another way, though, all this focus on self-presentation isn’t significantly different from the kinds of identity work young people have always done, with all resources at their disposal. It’s just that no previous generation was able to do it quite so publicly, or with a resource so explicitly designed for statements about identity as, for example, the status message: “Jenna is _______.”

Developmental pyschologist Erik Erikson, taking up the issue of identity formation, argued that identity is “a unity of personal and cultural identity.” For him, identify formation requires active management and reorganization of ideological commitments, identifications, and affiliations. Often, for adolescents and young adults especially, this happens stormily, with rapid reshufflings of value systems before the identity work evens out and “sense of self” becomes increasingly coherent. (Remember those three days you spent as a Communist when you were a college freshman, followed by a week of anarchism and a day or two of religious fanaticism?) Facebook and similar social networking sites have the potential to kind of blow apart this trajectory, especially if current trends continue&#8212Facebook use is increasing most rapidly among women over 55.

I don’t really want to regulate Facebook, of course; I’m kind of a closet libertarian at heart. Besides, a valuable feature of Facebook’s design is that I don’t have to participate in other people’s self-making if I don’t want to. Though my Facebook friends can tag me all they want, I don’t have to read what they write. And I haven’t, for the most part.

In other news, I’ve learned how to use Facebook as a platform for directing traffic to my blog. As of the end of last week, more of my readers have been referred to sleeping alone via Facebook than via any other single referral source. I’m excited that I’ve found such an effective way to leverage Facebook for this purpose.

Posted in blogging, collective intelligence, Facebook, Google, participatory culture, social justice, social media | 1 Comment »

Gearing up for Operation Feel Your Boobies

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on February 9, 2009

I’ve just learned about a breast cancer awareness organization called “Feel Your Boobies.” As the name probably suggests, the target demographic of this group is young women. Here’s what you learn by visiting their website:

Feel Your Boobies® is a breast cancer awareness non-profit organization whose mission is to utilize unexpected and unconventional methods to remind young women, to “feel their boobies.”

I learned about Feel Your Boobies through Facebook, when a friend joined the cause online. The upside, I guess, of using the name is that it piques interest; while I normally pay little attention to similar notifications, I did notice this one. I checked out the Facebook group, then I went to the website. Then I started writing.

I gotta say, I’m not a fan of the name, however positive the effects. After all, isn’t the fetishizing and sexualizing of female body parts a piece of the problem? Let’s face it: We’re really freaking immature when it comes to talking about breasts. Culturally, we treat them as dangerous; unless they’re on display as sex objects, we don’t want to see them at all (for more on this, google “breastfeeding in public”). We’ve imbued the breast with so much sexual power that serious cultural conversation about diseases and dangers is difficult, at best, to carry on. It was only through great struggle and the loss of many great women to breast cancer (and, I suspect, a parallel rising awareness of the dangers of prostate cancer) that we got to the point where we could begin having frank discussions about tactics for diagnosis and prevention.

That’s why calling a campaign “Feel Your Boobies” doesn’t quite work for me. I get the point, I really do–kind of a ‘reclaiming,’ a ‘taking back,’ a clever usage of the language of the target audience. The organization and its name may even have some impact, raising awareness among young women and perhaps leading to some early diagnoses (the site provides some testimonials to this effect). I do wonder, though, what the longer-term effects may be. No matter how “postfeminist” we believe our society to be, the reality is that we’re walking around in a heteronormative culture designed through a partriarchal lens. We continue to agree to think and talk about the world in male-friendly ways. On the one hand, “Feel Your Boobies” may make men (and lots of women, I’m sure) productively uncomfortable: Sexualizing breast self-exams, increasing awareness through the promotion of a kind of autoerotic call to action. On the other hand, the name seems to perpetuate the kind of socio-sexual power breasts have in our society. “All hail the great Breast,” right?

I’d rather see us take the sex out of self-exams. I’d rather see us work to divorce breast cancer research and breast cancer awareness from the cult of the breast. My sense is that Feel Your Boobies may increase awareness—and that’s good—while continuing to worship at the altar of the breast—and that’s not so good.

Posted in breast cancer, culture, Facebook, sex | 21 Comments »