This morning I woke up and checked my Facebook account. I am not the only one who did this; I am one among 1.1 billion users Facebook claims to see each month (AP, 2013). That is 1.1 billion human beings who are actively engaged in this project to capture moments of their lives – of lived material experiences – and convert them into segmented packages, and shared bits of binary data. It may seem trivial or superficial but this mundane practice is significant in meaning and scale. New spaces for relating have emerged through the web, email, social media, wireless networking, and mobile devices. We carry this new world around in our pockets, adding to it, relating to it, relying on it. It becomes a part of us; like a religion it possesses moral codes and enforces ethical boundaries and, like pastoral power, it can transform human beings into subjects (Foucault 1982, p. 209).
I am not trying to be facile when I suggest that society is changed by modern technology – but I wonder if we often fail to recognize the intimacy of these changes in the daily experiences of networked social subjects. When we look at wide scale social changes, could it be that we are asking the wrong questions? I have heard that this is a risk society, control society, and a surveillance society. What have we become? Does technology leave us better- or worse-off? Questions like these attract our attention. We want to know what the world is, what problems exist and what can be done about them. Academic inquiry is drawn to things like the ominous prophetic words of Gilles Deleuze, at “the numerical language of control” (1992); we speculate over new capacities for domination and the ways in which the masses are divided, filtered and managed. Deleuze’s notion of the “control society” cares nothing for the individual – it is characterized by a power over the ebbs and flows of human masses, a power that does not touch the individual. It “dividualizes,” controlling us without doing the kind of disciplinary work of which Foucault spoke (Deleuze 1992). Some academics have used this model to illustrate an advancing power, ever-encroaching into the daily lives of human “dividuals,” increasingly governing and filtering the flow of various multitudes, like immigrants, traffic offenders, or money (Deleuze 1992; O’Malley 2010; Walters 2006). But can we truly say that we have observed a total societal shift? Is this truly a ‘control society’ when our only contact with these mechanisms comes when we cross national borders, or when we drive wolfishly through red lights?
When I look at the example of Facebook, I find it more fruitful to consider the ways in which social interactions have migrated online. The individualizing power that Foucault spoke of can be found in these new spaces, at the immediate level of everyday life where mediated social interactions make human beings into subjects. I wonder if we are failing to recognize the excessive powers that Foucault warned us about – the power to subjectify human beings – when we narrow our gaze to the technological capacities for domination, control and surveillance (1992). Rather than a control society, I believe that we have become a society of autobiographers; a culture engaged in self-formational practices that are increasingly performed online. In this essay I want to consider how sharing yourself is a way of knowing yourself, and to ask how digitally mediated spaces might change who we are and who we can be. My objective is to sketch out new concepts that might help analyse online social spaces. I am going to look at Facebook as a “technology of the self” (1988); as a space where users are constantly prompted to define who they are, to share their thoughts and to construct personal histories. I will discuss some of the concerns that arise when trying to analyse this type of space. Then lastly, I am going to consider how such a space mediates meaning and what can be said about this new social environment.
A Facebook profile is many things. It is a personal narrative, a performance, and a catalogue of self-classifications. It is a space where we deposit small parts of ourselves; fragments of our lived daily experiences. Our Facebook profiles tell stories about our past and our present; our identity and our beliefs; our preferences and our passions – and it broadcasts these things to a network of friends, family members, and acquaintances. When I suggest that we have become a society of autobiographers it is because so many of us have adopted this practice of self-extension. Suddenly, all of our mundane daily activities have become worthwhile information that should be shared with everyone we know. It is not, I should caution, that we have become increasingly conceded or selfish – we have not come to expect or demand more attention, per se – but rather we have moved a lot of our social relating into a new digital space that is more connected, public, and transparent.
When I talk about a Facebook profile I am not implying that it is a “representation” – like an avatar in a virtual space. The Facebook profile is not a recreation of the self – but a performance of the self. Early enthusiasts may have marvelled as the web’s capacity for anonymity and bodilessness, but this is not the case with Facebook. Facebook was designed to connect people who already know each other locally, and profiles are often so heavily laden with photographs that “bodilessness” is generally unachievable. Questions about representation may only serve to distract from the strategies and struggles that take place on Facebook. In particular, they fail to recognise the practices that make Facebook a technology of the self.
Another consideration that should be made in advance of any inquiry into Facebook as a technology of the self involves the notion of private and public spaces. Facebook is interlocked with the growing concerns about privacy, data-collection, and the predatory dangers of social media, but there is room for a more nuanced examination of how these two spaces are created. As I consider today’s spaces and narratives I feel it is necessary to reflect on the relevant changes that have occurred throughout human history, and ask what kind of spaces allow for new possibilities of being.
Consider the example of private reading. Roger Chartier offered silent reading as an example of a space that creates a private life where large quantities of words and meanings can be recorded, shared, and consumed independently (1993). Emerging in the 17th century, the widespread practice of reading silently allowed for a private dialogue that may not have been possible one century earlier. When we consider this along with what Foucault argued in his lecture on Technologies of the Self, we begin to see private reading as a practice of ‘self-occupation’ (1988). It created new ways to explore ourselves; as though a bright light was being shed upon the dusty floor of our soul and we could finally start looking around for those missing coins (Foucault 1988, p. 21). Who we are and how we know ourselves becomes a product of the work we put into ourselves and the meanings associated with what we find or feel. Reading privately created a private space – a private self – and it became a part of our identity. It is almost paradoxical, then, to talk about social media – the pinnacle of public self-broadcasting – as a way of knowing who we are. But it’s not really, because we know ourselves not from privacy, but through practices made available by privacy; the activities invested in self-knowing. Self exploration is not hampered by the ‘publicnes’ of social media, but rather it is transformed.
Mary Gergen (1994) demonstrated a more public way of knowing oneself when she wrote about popular autobiographies. The process of shaping and ordering your life into a narrative is one that involves a set of practices and techniques that are socially transmitted. According to Mary, utobiographies adhere to “monomyths,” or gender roles and performances (1994). In popular autobiographies these standards become models for anyone who seeks to play a similar role—to achieve fame, success, or normality. As I consider sharing as a way of knowing, this notion of autobiographical ‘models’ is important because they create classifications. Ian Hacking would call this ‘making people up’ (1986). What does it mean that we have become a society of autobiographers when these models are now being mediated in and through a space that is little understood?
Consider, for example, this morning when I checked my Facebook and found the following Facebook promotion on my personal profile page: “See Your 2013 Year in Review. Look back at your 20 biggest moments from the past year.” What I found when I followed the link was a collection of posts, comments and photos from the past year, and an invitation to share this with my friends. Facebook is telling me that this is my story. It is an autobiography that has been assembled algorithmically, according to certain models that are not concretely known to me. Is Facebook adhering to similar monomyths as are popular autobiographies? We may not know the answer, but this provides a space to contest the ways in which Facebook engineers model our personal narratives. I want to look more closely at this.
Each Facebook user has a “feed.” This is the default page that displays the recent activities of their friends on the network. The feed displays posts such as photos, status updates, shared links or articles, and videos. What this means for the individual user is that any of the posts they make will be distributed throughout their friend’s feeds, and it is primarily from there that their posts will be vetted. Feed-ranking is probably influenced largely by each user’s individual history. For example, if you have a user who posts frequently and receives a significant amount of feedback, that user’s posts seem to earn advanced feed-ranking. Furthermore, a user’s own feed might be adjusted according to the user’s Facebook browsing behaviours; for example if the user frequently visits the page of a friend, the friend’s posts could get upranked on the user’s individualized feed. There is a large space of possibility here, limited only by the imagination of Facebook’s engineers. The important thing to realize is that Facebook can privilege certain posts over others, and that there are a variety of ways in which this could have an impact on the reception and response to certain posts. At the same time, feed-ranking happens behind the scenes, is easily overlooked, and could easily appear to represent a more organic or merit-based ranking. What does this mean for how we can know ourselves through the attention we receive online? Exactly how reliable is the reaction we get to our own Facebook presentations?
What is and is not made visible by this feed has a significant effect on what kind of response users get from their peers. I call this the “bigdealification” of meaning. Before continuing, I shall describe what I mean by this term. To ‘bigdealify’ something is to grant it special importance, a weight of significance, or to enlarge it in the general sense of consciousness. It means ‘to become a big deal,’ to be italicized; it is the opposite of literal marginalization. Rather than implying cause and effect, bigdealification is manifested in the interplay and impact that occurs when certain things are privileged. I use bigdealification here because no other word that I know of adequately describes the ways in which certain messages are promoted by Facebook’s distribution algorithms and made into ‘big deals.’ This also serves to highlight another theme, which is the recognition of inequality.
It often seems as though the internet is thought of as a perfect democracy; a place where anybody can become a self-made success. It is like a realization of last century’s utopian meritocracy. We faithfully subscribe to the authoritative concept of an organic network of internet users who are equally privileged. This is attached to a broader conception of inequality and stratification as mere effects of established social structures; as though if only we could start fresh – human beings without society – then we could be equal. Perhaps this is because we think of the internet as transcending historically established class, or traditional relationships.
Instead, I suspect that the ‘freedom’ of these spaces creates a place where authority and legitimacy can be leveraged. In and through environments like Facebook we can know things – we can measure them as they are evaluated by our peers. For that reason, Facebook’s feed-ranking has a great capacity to privilege certain things over others. As I draw on the more contemporary conceptions ascribed to Foucault, I begin to see the ways in which power relations are carried in and through social subjects and are contingent upon the past. Social relations are power relations, whether they take place in classrooms, boardrooms, or chat rooms. While the digital spaces through which many of today’s social relations take place are manifestly new, unique and worthy of more critical attention, they are also contingent upon the past, the political and the everywhere-power of which Foucault spoke.
The ability to discern between over-dramatized conspiracy theories and justified concern has yet to come to the sociological study of social media which all too often retreats to the level of grandiose prognostication. When I say that Facebook bigdealifies meanings I am situating it within a larger economy of powerful mechanisms which work together in a complex arrangement. Sometimes this power works to great effect, and other times it is truly banal. Facebook is like an orchestra. At one moment it can embody the chaos before the show, when artists hurry about shuffling sheet music and tuning up. In the next moment the same artists come together in unison, each part aligned to powerful effect. Similarly, at one moment Facebook can tell you something significant about who you are, and the next moment it is little more than a way of sharing adorable pictures of kittens. The analytical challenge we face is to discern what these mechanisms mean and how power is articulated to significant effect.
As I explore these new spaces of possibilities, I am reminded of Hacking, with whom I share a concern for the “philosophical and abstract” and to “look more at what people might be than what we are” (1986, p. 222). In part this is a position of necessity; Facebook does not make its feed-ranking and distribution algorithms public, so I cannot speak confidently about them. More importantly, the object of my inquiry is the immediate. I want to look at power relations at the level of the user, who may not know exactly how Facebook operates as a mechanism of mediation and distribution, but nevertheless engages in an exercise of leveraging, resisting, and relating to power as it is closest to them (Foucault, 1982, p. 211). I want to look more closely at the ways in which we relate to these technological, numerically driven mechanisms.
To use a metaphor, consider what I call “the gamer’s way of knowing.” Many games involve an interaction between the gamer and a coded, designed, numerically generated challenge. The gamer will traverse a game-space, building her character and learning the logic of the place. This logic is a metanarrative; it is something that can be found within patterns and themes. Although this game-space is often visual – a monopoly board, a deck of cards or a virtual environment – the gamer is struggling against and relating to a set of non-visual patterns and algorithms. The gamer is engaging in what is often called the “ludic” logic; the logic of play. She struggles against an abstract thing which rarely achieves the status of theorization or nomenclature. In order to win the game the gamer has to understand the rules, confines, and tendencies that work behind the scenes. The ‘gamer’s way of knowing,’ I argue, is a way of tacitly understanding telemetric spaces; of resisting or aligning oneself to unseen models and mechanisms.
When I speak of telemetric spaces I am referring to any sphere – regardless of the degree of enclosure – that is tied together by automatic measurements, accessibilities (access-abilities), and by numbers and statistics. Telemetric space is increasingly driven by computational communication processes, but they should not be conceived of as technologically determinate. I carry the argument Hacking made in The Taming of Chance, which is that we should regard the enumerated statistical representation of the world as a reflection of our own social and political rationalities (1990, p. 11). Telemetric spaces are no more reducible than any other social space, and they cannot be seen merely as the result of mathematical formulae. When the gamer comes to know the telemetric particularities inherent in the game, she is not necessarily ‘reading’ the game as it was intended by its makers – rather she is uniquely addressing an antagonism within the confines of her own consciousness.
Although I am, on the one hand, inspired to highlight the less obvious, subtle and seemingly banal interactions with telemetric spaces, I should also point to the growing body of practices aimed at improving self-success in telemetric spaces. As an indication of this, consider the example of Google’s secret search ranking algorithms. Nobody outside Google knows exactly how they rank search listings, yet a variety of things like search engine optimization tools have emerged as ways of improving your website’s ranking on google search results. Techniques abound when it comes to our relationship with telemetric spaces. There are innumerable blogs and how-to instructions on things like personal brand, getting your message out, accessibility, privacy, promotion and audience relations. Telemetric spaces are not always intangible and abstract, but by coming to know them we are also tacitly learning the models associated with them. These techniques are therefore very good examples of the subjectifying power of which Foucault spoke:
This form of power applies itself to immediate and everyday life which categorizes the individual, marks him by his own individuality, attaches him to his own identity, imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others recognize in him. It is a form of power that makes individuals into subjects. (1982, p. 212)
In this sense we can look at the practices, positions and relations occurring in telemetric spaces as part of a long history of engagement with pastoral power. Although the Facebook user is not physically entering the confession booth – she cannot hear the priest behind the screen or visually recognize the arrangement of space – she can, I argue, come to know the models, standards, and pastoral power against which she is engaged. Through active daily use the Facebook user intuits the cause and effects of their actions and presentations throughout the network.
To suggest that pastoral power is integrated into telemetric spaces is to refer specifically to the activities and practices occurring through these medians. In particular, Facebook practices exemplify what Foucault describes as “both an individualizing and a totalizing form of power” (1982, p. 213). Our social relations on Facebook are aimed often at situating us within the flock; at dynamically illustrating and authoritatively classifying what is normal, healthy, moral, funny, worthwhile and acceptable given the expectations attached to an individual’s identity. The user’s community directs us toward salvation: it allows us to construct a self that is ‘born-again’ into the ethical framework of a particular group. This performance is an example of self-occupation—it is a way of knowing who we are and what is expected of us. I will illustrate this with an example: I recently posted a Facebook status update that was admittedly quite odd. I had been up late into the night writing essays and later still, telling weird made up stories to my sleepless two year old daughter. The next morning, recalling the absurdity of my late-night storytelling, I made this post on Facebook:
Tonight ‘Chester’ learned that cocaine doesn’t perk up his mouse-moustache, and the whole family learned that daddy tells weird stories when he’s been writing essays.
Now I accept that this is a strange thing to say, but I was still surprised when my post was brought up later by a critic. This individual (full disclosure: she birthed me) felt as though my post was inappropriate, and would not be well received. Her criticism was fair, but what concerned me was not the state of my reputation but the intriguing rational behind her fear. How could a cautionary (albeit fictional and absurd) tale about cocaine be injurious to my toddler? Can cocaine hear me? If we say its name out loud will it chase us down and fly up our noses? This sounds too much like superstition to evade comparison to the ways in which religious beliefs govern individual conduct through pastoral power. It is, simply put, an arbitrary moral standard that is uncritically accepted by those who are eager to perform the role of an upstanding middle-class Canadian parent (love ya mom!).
Amazingly, as though my critic had anticipated that I would be writing this essay, she qualified her position with the following statement: “It’s weird, you know, it’s not appropriate to talk about with a two year old. Just look at the response you got; nobody even commented on your post”. This is a perfect example of the “religious qualities” of pastoral power of which we have spoken (Foucault 1982, p. 214). Facebook posits a moral and ethical authority through the sacrifice of users’ “likes” and “shares.” It is as though each member of a user’s Facebook network is casting votes in judgement of his or her presentation. Each fragment of who we are is brought before the ultimate judgement of our peers who gift – as though it were sacrificial – their favour to that which appears worthy. Am I a good person? Am I funny, smart, attractive, or healthy? Such things can be known through the pastoral power in telemetric space.
I suspect that I am not saying anything particularly new when I suggest that we are all knowingly relating to the mechanisms of power that set standards and models for who we are and who we can be. By constructing Facebook profiles we are engaged in a practice that is part of a deep and thorough self-examination process. Beyond that we are also asked to capture fragments of our lived experiences – our spatial and temporal existence – and to share these in a packaged format with our peers. In turn, our posts are vetted by our network of friends, being up-ranked by likes, shares, and comments. The response is not unlike that of a comedian on stage; there is no need to ask whether the comedian is funny, only if he earned a laugh. And if we can recognize these models they can change who we are. This is what Hacking was talking about when he rapped on ‘making up people’ (1986); we become aware of the models and classifications being generated in and through Facebook. As Hacking put it, “classifying changes people, but the changed people cause classifications themselves to be redrawn” (2004, p. 279). He called this “dynamic nominalism” in recognition of the ways in which we come to know things through naming – through classifications that become formalized in language – and how social subjects change in response to those names. What I need to add to this idea, however, is the fact that Facebook’s models are not always named. This non-linguistic ‘gamer’s way of knowing’ it is almost like dynamic innominalism, because we are not naming and classifying; we are modelling things algorithmically.
I have considered a few ways in which Facebook teaches us about ourselves. The construction of our own personal profile involves filling out a series of questions – often with pre-selected options. I have never made it to the end of this project of profile-construction. Each and every detail I add to my profile is met with a request for more information. If we want to understand the space of possibilities posited by Facebook we cannot limit our inquiry to the superficiality of social presences in telemetric spaces. Instead, these spaces have become a place for many of our social relations, they are connected, public, and transparent – but they are also invested in our private and personal lives. Our Facebook profiles, as my previous examples have illustrated, prompt us to search endlessly into our own experiences and biographical records in order to form a story that represents us. In turn this representation is algorithmically distributed by Facebook and bigdealified by our peers. Our posts are then weighed and measured by the response we get. Like autobiographical models, our personal profiles and historical narratives adhere to certain standards. We are being ranked, sorted and classified by these models, and only through a direct experience of trial and error can we come to know these mechanisms – if only tacitly – and through this knowing we can be changed.
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