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Social capital and the Facebook movie

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Tuesday, Oct 12, 2010

I still haven’t seen The Social Network: Does this enhance or harm my credibility to be avoiding it at this point? Am I on the vanguard of the backlash? Am I above the fray?


Regardless, I believe my ignorance of the actual film has allowed me to enjoy reading reviews and responses to it much more. Via @rortybomb, this essay by Joseph Kugelmass uses the movie to make some excellent points about Facebook and how it codifies social capital, pushing the protocols of networking (in several senses of the word) deeper into our everyday lives and friendships.


Kugelmass notices how the film elides the fact that the girl who dumped Zuckerberg in the beginning of the film has herself signed up for Facebook by the end:


This is the most outrageous action undertaken by any character in the film, and frankly I’m surprised that a caption didn’t appear to the effect of “Erica Albright also reached a settlement agreement with Zuckerberg whereby she would join his Facebook site when 63% of her friends had created profiles.” After all, Facebook represents everything, as a social technology, that Erica criticizes Zuckerberg for in person. Whether or not she accepts his friend request is irrelevant — even by not accepting his friend request, she is making an established move within the system that Facebook uses for ascribing social value to persons.
This is the real message of The Social Network. What matters is not whether you are an asshole, but how much symbolic social value you are capable of creating.


Facebook is a kind of social scoreboard, and none of the gestures it captures can remain innocent, for their own sake. It’s a manifestation of Marcusean “one-dimensionality” or of what Baudrillard called “the code” with regard to consumerism, in which everything is homogenized into a signification of identity. The alienation from self is made total, as identity is detached from consciousness and becomes a brand to be managed. Our social network is literalized as the brand power of our collected friends, of the value of their power to signify, to make useful, redistributable meaning, to be “like”-able.


Friends are investments, then—inescapably instrumentalized in Facebookland. Kugelmass points out that status updates are “your way of knowing how your stocks are doing. The precedent for the ‘Facebook feed’ is the old chattering spool of ticker tape, and most of the updates there will be attempts by Facebook users to assure you that your investment is doing well.” He offers this example:


In other words, the subtext of an update like “Made sixteen cubes of mint-infused butter brickle today. Yum! Excited to serve at the party tonight” is usually something like this: “Fun little informal gatherings are always going on around here. I have enough leisure for demanding cooking projects, and I’m a bit of a homebody, in a delightful and comforting way. I also am not immune to pleasure, and can appreciate the orgasms implicit in a well-made dessert.”


Such considerations as these paralyze me and keep me from sharing anything on Facebook for the most part. But I think that my fatal strategy of silence will not hold up for much longer and will soon be a signifer of its own—like not seeing the movie.


Upon noticing that someone has defriended him, Kugelmass writes that “the only way to think about his move is as a cancellation, by him, of his investment in me, and a surrender of whatever dividends that investment might ultimately pay. This enables him to put more of his attention elsewhere.” I like the way that sews things up—Facebook makes us all brands; we strategize ways for maximizing value in the form of attention—which can be known and measured especially in the traces that Facebook (and the internet generally) enables, i.e. the liking and the sharing and the links and page views and so forth. Facebook makes attention into currency at the same time as it furthers our transformation into brands; the attention economy runs on internet metrics, not actual attention, which is ephemeral and eludes quantification.


I also love how Kugelmass concludes with a snippet of “Baby You’re a Rich Man”—the flip side of Lennon’s “All You Need Is Love,” which I argue is a sort of global anthem of one-dimensionality. His point seems to be that Facebook militates against interiority because it makes it clear how little it pays. We have incentive to externalize our internal weirdnesses and watch them evaporate into little niches of like-mindedness. This may seem like the cure for loneliness, but it’s also the end of our lived-in sense of our uniqueness. Would anybody bother to say of their Facebook page what Dickens has David Copperfield declare in that novel’s first line: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show”? We have already decided the question for the latter merely by participating.

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