The family history of Facebook: how social media will change the world


I’m fascinated by social media. My Gen X friends can’t understand it. Most of them are too busy struggling with families and careers to spend time glued to Facebook and Twitter. For them, social media is a time suck, at best, at worst a gross invasion of privacy. When I tell my friends that I’m teaching on social media, I get one of two reactions. Either they leer conspiratorially, as if to say: ‘Lucrative. Smart!’, or they smile sympathetically, as if say: ‘It must be tough being a philosopher, having to root around for trendy topics to keep people interested’.

Love them as I do, my Gen X friends don’t understand social media at all. They don’t understand social media, so they don’t understand what social media is doing to us in this moment in history. They don’t understand what social media is doing to us, so they don’t understand the historical importance of social media. They don’t understand the historical importance of social media, so they don’t understand why I am obsessed with the medium itself.

It is time that I laid my cards on the table. I am a social philosopher. I am interested in social and cultural change. I believe that social media is the catalyst for cultural change in the world today. As such, it is probably more important than anything else you could care to mention. [Read more…]

The gift shift: what’s social about social media?

If a picture’s worth a thousand words, the cover art of the July 23rd issue of the New Yorker is a critical disquisition. A middle class family poses for a photo on a sunny tropical beach. Given that this is the New Yorker, we can assume that they are Americans citizens, perhaps in Hawaii or the Bahamas. Presumably they are on holiday. The point that is implied by the image is that, whoever and wherever they are, their attention is somewhere else. Instead of celebrating the moment and being together, they have their heads bent over their mobile phones, texting, tweeting, checking status updates… Who knows, perhaps they are checking the weather. Whatever they are doing, they are not engaging with one another.

The irony is palpable. To bring it into focus, let’s assume that these folks are using social media. Viewed this way, the image calls to mind a common criticism of social media. Social media, it is said, isolates us from one another even while it brings us together. In my classes on Philosophy and Social Media, I hear versions of this criticism all the time. Social media makes us slaves to our gadgets. It commits us to spending valuable time isolated from the people around us, texting, tweeting, posting, or just surfing feeds. The nub of it is that social media, in practice, is a solitary pursuit. Social media is supposed to bring us together, but in reality it sets us apart. [Read more…]

Swarm Wall Street: why an anti-political movement is the most important political force on the planet

This was originally posted on the Coalition blog on 10 October, 2011.

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Why are people occupying Wall Street? The US political elite and mainstream media don’t know what to make of it. ‘Anti-capitalist and unAmerican’, says Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain, echoing the sentiments of the conservative left and political right. The mainstream commentariat, when it dares to peer closer, paints an unflattering picture of disaffected, disorganized youth, milling about Liberty Square without a shower or a set of policy demands to level at the administration.

Meanwhile the occupation grows day by day.

If camp in Manhattan makes the doyens of the status quo feel nervous, the explosion of Occupy Together events across the US last weekend will have sent anxiety levels through the roof. There were ‘Occupy’ camps in 70 cities across the nation last weekend. More events are planned for the coming days and weeks in the US and other countries.

Political leaders must be wondering what is going on. (‘Who are these kids? Would they vote for me?’) To be fair, it is difficult to say exactly what the the protesters want. They have no single message or identity. They represent, they say, the 99% who are excluded by the standing political and economic system. They say that the top 1% of the US population owns 40% of the wealth. The way the movement has accelerated seems to follow the pattern set in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world earlier this year: a contingent of dissidents occupy public space; footage of their mistreatment by police is spread via Facebook and Twitter; this consolidates the sense of injustice and inequality that inspired their actions in the first place.

Last week, the movement crossed a threshold. A localized set of swarm events evolved into a distributed swarm network. [Read more…]

Foucault and social media: I tweet, therefore I become

This is the second instalment in a three-part series. Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue, building on Michel Foucault’s account of the Panopticon:

There is a self-reflexive structure to sharing content on Facebook or Twitter. Just as actors on stage know that they are being watched by the audience and tailor their behaviour to find the best effect, effective use of social media implies selecting and framing content with a view to pleasing and/or impressing a certain crowd. We may not intend to do this but it is essential to doing it well. Unless we are sharing anonymously (and the radical end of internet culture, Anonymous, favours anonymity), all the content we share is tagged with an existential marker:

‘I sent this – it is part of my work. You shall know me by my works’.

Part two continues the Foucaultian interrogation of social media looking at Foucault’s concept of subjectivation. I argue for a playful approach to life in the virtual Panopticon. Social media shapes us, so why shouldn’t we engage this process in a creative way? Indeed, we can and do use social media as a vehicle for creative self-development.

‘Never stop sculpting your own statue’, the ancient philosopher Plotinus said. Latter-day Foucaultians are recovering this teaching in an age of social media. We are crafting our selves online in the engagement with crowds.

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Peggy Orenstein came late to Twitter. Orenstein was sceptical at first when her publisher suggested she use Twitter to promote her book, Cinderella Ate My Daughter. She wasn’t fond of the gossip and celebrity culture and the trivial nature of much of what passed as content in the Twittersphere. Orenstein knew, however, that a ready tribe of tweeps is an essential part of the contemporary writer’s guerilla marketing toolkit. She succumbed to pressure and signed up.

Orenstein approached her Twitter experiment with the studious detachment of the field anthropologist. I imagine this is why she noticed how Twitter was changing her.

Tweeting, it turned out, was more fun than she had expected. It was addictive. In an article on her experience published in the New York Times, ‘I Tweet, Therefore I Am’, Orenstein describes how using Twitter redefined her experience of life and self. There was nothing covert or oppressive about this transformation. Orenstein was a willing participant in her own subjectivation.

[Read more…]

Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd

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You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want to share widely. Two new contact requests on LinkedIn. Your profile needs updating. Should you include details about the design work you completed for the local event the week before? You are not sure. You are building your profile as a graphic artist and looking for quality clients. Perhaps this is a part of your person that you will let incubate for a while longer.

You jump on HootSuite and start sharing targeted content: Facebook for friends, tweets for professional contacts. The day has barely started and already you are split into half a dozen pieces.

How did we ever get by without social media? In under a decade, free online services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have utterly transformed how we work, play, and communicate. For hundreds of millions of people, sharing content across a range of social media services is a familiar part of life. Yet little is known about how social media is impacting us on a psychological level. A wealth of commentators are exploring how social media is refiguring forms of economic activity, reshaping our institutions, and transforming our social and organizational practices. We are still learning about how social media impacts on our sense of personal identity.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has a set of insights that can help clarify how social media affects us on a psychological level. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, yet his studies of social conditioning and identity formation in relation to power are applicable to life online. Seen from a Foucaultian perspective, social media is more than a vehicle for exchanging information. Social media is a vehicle for identity-formation. Social media involves ‘subjectivation’.

[Read more…]

Foucault and social media: life in a virtual panopticon

This is the first instalment in a three-part series.

Part 2. I tweet, therefore I become
Part 3. The call of the crowd

——————————————-

You start the day bleary-eyed and anxious. You stayed up late last night working on a post for your blog, gathering facts and memes from about the web and weaving them into an incisive whole. Has it produced a spike in the stats? You sign in on your iPhone as you brew the coffee. But it’s too early to slip into the professional headspace – you decide that you don’t want to know. Someone has messaged you on Facebook, so you check that instead. Japanese manga mashup! Killer breaks off the cost of Lombok. Lady Gaga is a man and we have photoshopped evidence to prove it! A friend will appreciate that one, so you share it with her directly. Perhaps not something that you’d want to share widely. Two new contact requests on LinkedIn. Your profile needs updating. Should you include details about the design work you completed for the local event the week before? You are not sure. You are building your profile as a graphic artist and looking for quality clients. Perhaps this is a part of your person that you will let incubate for a while longer.

You jump on HootSuite and start sharing targeted content: Facebook for friends, tweets for professional contacts. The day has barely started and already you are split into half a dozen pieces.

How did we ever get by without social media? In under a decade, free online services like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn have utterly transformed how we work, play, and communicate. For hundreds of millions of people, sharing content across a range of social media services is a familiar part of life. Yet little is known about how social media is impacting us on a psychological level. A wealth of commentators are exploring how social media is refiguring forms of economic activity, reshaping our institutions, and transforming our social and organizational practices. We are still learning about how social media impacts on our sense of personal identity.

The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) has a set of insights that can help clarify how social media affects us on a psychological level. Foucault died before the advent of the internet, yet his studies of social conditioning and identity formation in relation to power are applicable to life online. Seen from a Foucaultian perspective, social media is more than a vehicle for exchanging information. Social media is a vehicle for identity-formation. Social media involves ‘subjectivation’. [Read more…]

Commoning is making common

How do we make a commons?

One answer is: through law. King Henry III granted commoners rights to use the English forests in the Charter of the Forests. When people have a common right to use some good, and a law that defends this right, we have a commons. As historian Peter Linebaugh argues, there is a cultural process presupposed in this – a process by which a group of people agree that such and such a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together in a way that preserves the commons. Affirming the plenitude of their shared stock, and inspired by the goodwill that they receive from others and feel eager to return, they contest the limits of public and private ownership and demand a law that secures their common rights to sustain themselves, to live with dignity, and to assemble with their peers. [Read more…]