January 26, 2011

The Contradiction of Being Social

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 10:22 am

The other day on Facebook, Ron Brooks wrote, “I’m really wondering if anything is ever going to happen on Diaspora–No new invites, a very quiet room.” Ron offers an important observation regarding Facebook, the concept of “alternative,” and users’ habits. Despite the continuous rants against Facebook regarding its annoying advertising, its so called privacy violations, and its inability to pay attention to its users’ wishes, very few, if any, are leaving Facebook for alternatives such as Diaspora. Almost a year ago, CNN declared a partial exodus from Facebook. Facebook’s  current statistics claim 500 million active users. Hardly an exodus.

Net neutrality. Privacy rights. The right to opt out or opt in. If our time is being characterized as one of attention to such issues, we might ask why we continue to stay where we don’t want to be. By “we,” of course, I don’t mean me. I don’t care about Facebook’s privacy issues. I don’t care about its advertising. Facebook is free. Facebook is an optional choice I make. Facebook is pleasurable. Facebook is a business that cannot pay its employees or for its servers with my status updates about my three year old’s interest in poop. Free, not as in free beer, as the saying goes.

We are being asked to save the Internet. Is the Internet in danger? The moment a commercial website appeared, panic set in. Should the Internet be free, as in free beer?   This is Ted Nelson’s rant in Geeks Bearing Gifts: “Google threatens every content industry, publishing industry, and library industry.” While many academics interested in the Web are alarmed by a possible “corporate” takeover of the Internet that will restrict access, they use Blackboard in their classrooms, the most restrictive course management system on the market that limits access and controls information distribution. Computers and writing, as one academic field, has long lamented the supposed lack of access people have with technology (as if we were ever in a universal access moment for any technology or product).  At one point, access was a way to stop the conversation: We can’t talk about digital writing because not everyone has access. Access is now a way to realign our attention to supposed power relationships at stake in a given new media moment. If we lose net neutrality, for instance, our access will be inhibited. If Facebook gets its way, our access to private information will be inhibited. And yet, we have so much access today, that these arguments make little sense when a professor proudly writes about limiting student access or a New York Times article boasts about scientists who abandon access. What is it that we want? Access or no access? More information and media or less?  Do we value access or do we, as many faculty gripe, fret over the amount of access we have (laptops, email, Twitter, Facebook, the Internet, TV, gaming, etc.)?

With Facebook, critics bemoan too much access to private information: phone numbers, addresses, photos. Yet, Facebook is a social networking platform. The keyword here is social. If one desires privacy, one should not join a social network. If one desires privacy, one shouldn’t include one’s phone number of picture in a Facebook profile.

But do we truly desire privacy? Or do we merely want to generate a feeling of desire we can relate to, but that we don’t really want (like finding ways to not have so much grading)? Academic study has long championed the lone writer or thinker. One goes to the woods. One shuts out the world so that one can look within. One is creative when one finds a silent, quiet place. The professor who wants his students to not have access romanticizes such a figure; he longs for the the days when he spoke to his mother once every two weeks. He yearns for a pedagogy of the anti-social, as if he lacks a pedagogy which will generate another Ted Kaczynski. The creative writer earns a grant that lets him/her go to a cabin on a mountain where he/she can write alone (as Kaczynski did). This topos of being lonely is a fake place of meaning. As we triumph such an image, we rush, on the other hand, to the social space. 500 million people on Facebook. Kirpatrick’s The Facebook Effect describes how quickly people rushed to this platform, so quickly that it became difficult to buy server space fast enough to accommodate the users (a reason Friendster supposedly failed).

How do we explain the need for proximity, Maffesoli asks? We can’t. Its a mystery, a secret, a contradiction. The global village projects the image of tranquility (a village) and tension (the conflict of being too close). The problem is not that we have contradictions regarding privacy and being social. The problem is that we cannot admit to the contradiction.

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