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Shelter from the attention storm

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Friday, Jan 14, 2011

Pretty much all of my reservations about Facebook are implicit in the first two sentences of this post at The Next Web about how Facebook chooses the stuff for your home page (via the Browser): “The race is on for Facebook likes. Every brand, small business and individual around the world is looking for them.” Notice how casually individual is lumped in with brand and small business. We are rapidly reached the stage where such a governing metaphor for the self—as a small branded firm whose purpose is profit—will be hegemonic. Forget liberty; individualism now means primarily having a distinctive brand. A look at any random Facebook profile suggests that we already seem to take this notion of identity for granted and would likely be hard-pressed to understand individuality in any other way. The article basically outlines strategies to boost the salience of your updates so more people will see them.


That this personal-branding perspective has become so ubiquitous seems to suggest the power of Facebook as a medium to reorient the focus of our self-presentation as a matter of soliciting “likes” or other digital responses of recognition. The human need for recognition is of course nothing new, but what is new is that social media allows our identity to persist in the marketplace for recognition at all times. Because our profile is always accessible and permeable to comments and such, we are never free from wondering whether someone is paying attention to us, approving. We get no respite from the availability of praise or notice, which makes nearly every moment a frantic online scramble to find the evidence of that recognition—did anyone e-mail? Have my Twitter posts been retweeted? Who has responded to my status update? Have my likes triggered a like cascade among my network? The article notes that “if a user visits your page or comments on your posts, you will have a higher affinity score,” meaning their content will show up more—so you can scrutinize your home page and try to decode it in terms of who has and hasn’t been checking you out.


The default is virtual presence, and that presence haunts our actual selves, promising more than we can possibly derive from our minuscule place in space-time. What’s lost is the shelter we once inherently had from being on, the limits of technology affording us the solace of true disconnection. Now disconnection is almost entirely a state of mind, requiring a Buddhist’s will of renunciation. It’s only willpower that is keeping our eyes unglued to screens, looking for ourselves on them.

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