Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reading Facebook

Facebook has rapidly become an institution on the Net. It has dethroned MySpace as the premier site for representations of self-hood and the creation of social exchanges. What actually happens on Facebook? You can, of course, use it just like another e-mail account. That is a feature that joins Facebook with many other Internet programs, and substantiates it as useful. There is a utilitarian aspect to it, that gives it a base in what can be called social modes of production. That is, people use it to generate interest in themselves, not as commodities but as personalities. I am intrigued by the phenomenon of "status updates," and the performative aspect of their manifestation. For those who aren't on Facebook, once you have an account, you have the option of "updating your status" by giving a brief precis of whatever you happen to be doing at the moment. Your status update immediately appears on the front Facebook page of all of your friends. Thus, let's say you have 300 friends. That means that by updating your status, you have an instant audience of 300 people. Of course, not all of them are going to be on Facebook at any given moment, but the remarkable nature of the scenario stands. This is the kind of interchange that typifies digital consciousness: fast, fluid, without boundaries. Everything becomes performance; everyone is onstage all the time. Every status update takes on the quality of a gambit, an attempt to gain a social edge, lure people in. It is a one-way exchange: you give your audience something, in the hopes that they will give something back. In Barthesian terms, you can weave your own mythology, fashion yourself as a human signifier. Your success depends on how compelling others perceive your performance to be.

Others can comment on your status updates. Often, a miniaturized dialogue is created, that can occupy a number of different levels (both semantically and substantively.) Status updates range from the quotidian (X is washing her clothes) to the culturally informed (Y thinks that Joyce should've stopped at page 476) to the banal (Z is sleepy) to the risque (Q's got that lovin' feeling) and roundabout to the strictly self-promotional (R wants everyone to check out his new blog-post.) Risque status updates stand the best chance of getting commented upon, and comments can range from the dramatic (Ooh la la!) to the sarcastic (Yeah, that's great, Q), and all points in between. What's most striking about this kind of social intercourse is that language has never traveled this rapidly before. Appearances that used to be limited to the telephone (usually in the context of talking to one person at a time) and television (which is not an interactive or personalized medium) have now become available as tools for self-fashioning. Exchanges of language on Facebook are stripped of any function but to create mythologies; the bland appurtenances of our daily lives can become energized and glamorized by an encounter with a wide, geographically scattered audience, who are themselves performers on the same stage. The economy of linguistic exchanges on Facebook is very equal; rather than a privileged writer stooping to address a naive reader, or to reach across a gulf of complex intentionality, audience and performer are conflated on Facebook to the extent that, in the space of a minute, you can actively perform both roles. The donning and doffing of masks is compulsive and rather heady; signifiers are often felt rather than understood. Facebook is like a board game whose goal is to connect human dots; you have to pay attention to do well, and to learn how to use your intuition to read signs whose goal is the generation of more signs. Promiscuity of signification is rampant, and orgasmic.

There is, indeed, a sexiness to Facebook. Sexual intercourse, like digital consciousness, can be fast, fluid, and without boundaries. The twist in the tale is that love affairs are enacted on Facebook every day without ever being physically consummated. Why? Because you may fall in love with a friend across an ocean, or on another side of the country, or any place that is inaccessible. Promiscuity of signification does not necessarily lead to physical promiscuity. Many of these love affairs take on the quality of the kind that Andy Warhol envisioned: idealized, image-based, evanescent, Platonic. Yet they carry a frisson that is difficult to find anywhere else. It is a mixture of the foot-lights of the stage and a dimly lit bedroom. If it happens on Facebook, everyone can see it, and the latent exhibitionism which is a peculiar characteristic of Americans is very much in evidence. If a love affair is all language, does this make it a Deconstructionists nightmare? Signification as a substitute for physical caresses is the name of the game on Facebook. If the physical is elided, bodies become boundaries. It is worth noting that digital consciousness manifests as a sedentary physicality. It is created, nurtured and sustained by staying in one place, not demonstrating any forms of physical agility, all consciousness brought to bear on signification, social exchange, and self-fashioning. The mechanical consciousness of nineteenth century England had much to do with athletic vigor, the discipline of male bodies; digital consciousness is dreamier, has more to do with vigor as manifestated in agile signification. Digital consciousness creates a primacy of language. It seems more worthy not merely to do, not merely to say, but to do and then say in a performative utterance designed for a wide audience. Doing leads to saying, rather than vice versa. Primacy of language may mark the end of physical imperatives. Not that we will all stop making love because of Facebook, but that new forms and manners of sexual intercourse are being developed and demonstrated every day. Foucault said that discourse is power; on Facebook, discourse is sex.


Andrew Shields said...

It ain't just American exhibitionism that is becoming manifest, but Swiss exhibitionism as well! (And Scottish, English, Irish, etc., at least in my experience.)

Adam Fieled said...

Fair enough!


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