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How friendship became friending

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Thursday, Oct 29, 2009

I love manfestos with theses: Here is one from FibreCulture about Web 2.0 (via Metafilter), written by European academics. They contend that internet culture has now fully integrated itself with everyday life (it is not a simulation or virtual anymore, but the genuine substance of our lives), which has ramifications for how social networks and the like might facilitate social change. One of their theses (it’s more like an amalgam of about a dozen theses):


Social networks are technologies of entertainment and diffusion. The social reality they create is real, but as a technology of immediacy you can’t get no satisfaction. We initially love them for their distraction from the torture of now-time. Networking sites are social drugs for those in need of the Human that is located elsewhere in time or space. It is the pseudo Other that we are connecting to. Not the radical Other or some real Other. We systematically explore weakness and vagueness and are pressed to further enhance the exhibition of the Self. ‘I might know you (but I don’t). Do you mind knowing me?’. The pleasure principle of entertainment thus diffuses social antagonisms—how does conflict manifest within the comfort zones of social networks and their tapestries of auto-customisation? The business-minded ‘trust doctrine’ has all but eliminated the open, dirty internet forums. Most Web 2.0 are echo chambers of the same old opinions and cultural patterns. As we can all witness, they are not exactly hotbeds of alternative sub-culture. What’s new are their ‘social’ qualities: the network is the message. What’s created here is a sense or approximation of the social. Social networks register a ‘refusal of work’. But our net-time, after all, is another kind of labour. Herein lies the perversity of social networks: however radical they may be, they will always be data-mined. They are designed to be exploited. Refusal of work becomes just another form of making a buck that you never see.


Social networks don’t function as a new public sphere but as an entertainment technology. They prompt us to replace the tussle of genuine connectedness with further self-display. Instead of arguing with one another, we preen. And this preening becomes a kind of exploitable labor, thanks to the way social networks facilitate data-mining. This is how social networks empty friendship of its significance as a haven of honesty and noneconomic reciprocity. It also neuters the online space, heading off any of its potential as a site of radicalization. Because the online space is devoid of conflict—everyone is “friends”—it is anodyne; “the Tyranny of Positive Energy” assures that politics is screened out of online social behavior. (Back when I used Facebook, I remember deleting several “friends” who made pro-McCain statements in their updates. I decided I didn’t need to engage with that sort of thing when I was consuming friendship.)


The authors make the key point that the way we conceive of our activities in online space is dictated by the tech firms and their software and gadgetry:


What, then, are the collective concepts of the social networked masses? For now, they are engineered from the top-down by the corporate programmers, or they are outsourced to the world of widgets. Tag, Connect, Friend, Link, Share, Tweet. These are not terms that signal any form of collective intelligence, creativity or networked socialism. They are directives from the Central Software Committee. «Participation» in «social networks» will no longer work, if it ever did, as the magic recipe to transform tired and boring individuals into cool members of the mythological Collective Intelligence.


What we do online is engineered by these concepts, possibly at the level of the proprietary, branded language itself—and words that once had utopian zest to them have become assimilated into the cynical Web 2.0 jargon: “sharing”, “friending” and so on. We are losing words to describe what it means to join others in solidarity. (Maybe I should start a social-networking company called Solidarity—target green, progressive types.) I wouldn’t argue that we can therefore fight the battle against the technological commercialization of private life on the semantic level. But the progress of the resistance can perhaps be charted in changes in the language usage that gains common acceptance—that crops up in consumer magazines and in the mouths of sitcom characters.


This advice is offered in the last thesis: “If you must participate in the accumulation economy for those in control of the data mines, then the least you can do is Fake Your Persona.” I’m not sure that this is worth the effort; though I already do this in the way I multiply email addresses to suit various online purposes. Having multiple crypto-identities may muck up data-harvesting and stand as a sign of resistance to the main allure of social networking right now, which is to archive our personal identity project and dignify it with all the preserved affirmations provided by others. I have a Facebook page, but it’s there the way I would have a listing in the White Pages in the telephone era.

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