What we do on social media platforms is often analyzed as a performance or construction of the self. On this view, what we are doing is giving shape to our identity. What we “Like” is the projected identity, or better yet, the perception and affirmation of that identity by others. This, of course, does not exhaust what is done with social media, but it is an important and pervasive element.
When we think about social media as a field for the construction and enactment of identities, we tend to think of it as the projection, authentic or inauthentic, of a fixed reality. But perhaps we would do well to consider the possibility that identity on social networks is not so much being performed as it is being sought, that behind the identity-work on social media platforms there is an inchoate and fluid reality seeking to take shape by expending itself.
Social networks exist to sell you crap. The icky feeling you get when your friend starts to talk to you about Amway, or when you spot someone passing out business cards at a birthday party, is the entire driving force behind a site like Facebook.
Because their collection methods are kind of primitive, these sites have to coax you into doing as much of your social interaction as possible while logged in, so they can see it. It’s as if an ad agency built a nationwide chain of pubs and night clubs in the hopes that people would spend all their time there, rigging the place with microphones and cameras to keep abreast of the latest trends (and staffing it, of course, with that Mormon bartender).
We’re used to talking about how disturbing this in the context of privacy, but it’s worth pointing out how weirdly unsocial it is, too. How are you supposed to feel at home when you know a place is full of one-way mirrors?
We have a name for the kind of person who collects a detailed, permanent dossier on everyone they interact with, with the intent of using it to manipulate others for personal advantage - we call that person a sociopath. And both Google and Facebook have gone deep into stalker territory with their attempts to track our every action. Even if you have faith in their good intentions, you feel misgivings about stepping into the elaborate shrine they’ve built to document your entire online life.
Right now the social networking sites occupy a similar position to CompuServe, Prodigy, or AOL in the mid 90’s. At that time each company was trying to figure out how to become a mass-market gateway to the Internet. Looking back now, their early attempts look ridiculous and doomed to failure, for we have seen the Web, and we have tasted of the blogroll and the lolcat and found that they were good.
But at the time no one knew what it would feel like to have a big global network. We were all waiting for the Information Superhighway to arrive in our TV set, and meanwhile these big sites were trying to design an online experience from the ground up. Thank God we left ourselves the freedom to blunder into the series of fortuitous decisions that gave us the Web.
My hope is that whatever replaces Facebook and Google+ will look equally inevitable, and that our kids will think we were complete rubes for ever having thrown a sheep or clicked a +1 button. It’s just a matter of waiting things out, and leaving ourselves enough freedom to find some interesting, organic, and human ways to bring our social lives online.