Presider: PJ Rey

This is the second panel spotlight for the upcoming  Theorizing the Web conference on April 9th.  I am presiding over an open paper session whose full title is  “Poets and Scribes – Constructing Fact and Fiction on Social Media.”  The title alludes to Susan Sontag’s On Photography in which she describes the evolution of thought surrounding our relationship to that earlier medium:

The photographer was thought to be an acute but non-interfering observer—as scribe, not a poet. But as people quickly discovered that nobody takes the same picture of the same thing, the supposition that cameras furnish an impersonal objective image yielded to the fact that photographs are evidence not only of what’s there but of what an individual sees, not just a record but and evaluation of the world.  It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing,” which was both a new way for people to see and a new activity for them to perform.

The parallel between photography and social media is that both produce documents that are mediated through the situated perspective of the actor.  Media production is never passive and it is never asocial (though, of course, such actors fall on a continuum between the ideal-typical poet and scribe).  However, when we accept that media products are embedded within a system of social relations (particularly, relations of power), we implicitly accept the idea that these products inextricably contain poetic or fictitious elements—angles or interpretations that reflect the historical moment in which they were articulated. All media, including social media, are expressions of what Donna Haraway calls “situated knowledge.”

The salient difference between the poet and the scribe is that the poet is self-aware the her work is always a half-fiction.  She embraces the fact that expression is always a process of fictioning and uses it to her advantage.  On the contrary, the scribe is faced with the paradoxical task of trying to legitimate her existence by saying her work is necessary but adds nothing.  Her unwillingness to acknowledge what she brings to the product leaves her vulnerable to both marginalization and exploitation because she is blind to the unique interests of her social position and to the value that is created in offering a concrete expression of these interests. No doubt, the average Facebook user is more like a scribe than a poet, faithfully documenting the “truths” of their existence without realizing any claim to the value of the information generated.

The four papers on this panel are joined by a theme of inquiry into the active, poetic practice of mediating our online interaction and documentation.  Abstracts are presented below:

David Zweig, “Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome”

Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome, a hypothesis that I have developed, posits that immersion in the Western world’s highly mediated environment – most of which functions as a result of recent and continuing technological advances – leads to increased self-consciousness; the extreme endpoint of this phenomenon is depersonalization, a psychological disorder where one is literally watching oneself from afar, as if in a movie or a dream. Further, this hyper-self-consciousness may lead to isolation, though, paradoxically, we are more technologically connected than ever.

Today, we are living in an “observational reality” rather than the historically dominant “experiential reality.” For the first time in history people are spending more hours of their day immersed in “Fiction” (defined in this context as media, especially observable media – television, movies, the  Internet, social media, smart phones, ubiquitous advertising, even the news) rather than living “in the moment” (i.e. engaged directly with others or the environment). This is a fundamental change in how humans have lived for all of history. And living this highly mediated life, which for many of us means being immersed in Fiction for the majority of our waking hours, inevitably alters the way one perceives oneself and reality itself.

This vast exposure to Fiction on a daily basis trains our minds to be observers, rather than participants, ultimately leading to increased self-consciousness as we view our own lives from afar, as Fiction. As technological platforms continue to evolve, and media becomes even more present in our lives, the effects of Fiction Depersonalization Syndrome will continue to amplify.

Our minds work differently when we are observing media, even interactive media like the web, than when we are engaged directly with each other or our environment. We know that the mind forms pathways when you think repetitively in certain ways – a depressed person “stuck in a rut” for example. The same holds true for perceptual states. After so much time spent as an observer, synaptic patterns form in the brain, likely rendering the mind unable to easily shift back from this observational state to an experiential state. Our modern mediascape forces upon us an ever-increasing degree of self-awareness, with depersonalization as the dissociative endpoint of this larger phenomenon.

Dwight Hunter (@Mister_Fedora), “Why is Deception Utilized in Online Dating Profiles?”

The soaring popularity of online dating has drawn many hopeful singles to websites that advertise their ability to “match” you with compatible mates. Yet, despite establishing rapport by communicating prior to face-to-face meetings, the majority of potential couples are still met with the challenge of overcoming modest forms of deception. What I have done is synthesize three factors, from existing research, which act cooperatively to aid in explaining most sources of deception in online dating profiles. I conclude that by addressing the circumvention of search parameters, a presentation of the ideal-self image, and the surfacing of a sense of competition amongst users that an understanding of the multifaceted reasoning behind many common forms of both perceived and actual deception contained in dating profiles can be achieved.

The first step of this process is recognizing that because online dating services use searchable attributes like age, location, body type, and other general traits of users as ways to filter results, users face the daunting task of predicting experiential outcomes, sometimes referred to as “magic.” Online daters try to circumvent these rigid parameters in order to not be “filtered out” by potential partners without fair chance. Meanwhile, adding to the complexity of this problem, due to both a sense of competition and the portrayal of an ideal-self image, users often create profiles that contain stretched truths or white lies. They struggle with the desire to be sought after by potential partners while trying to be honest. The realization that they must overcome any form of deception for ongoing face-to-face meetings moderates the extent to which users stretch truths or lie blatantly in their profiles.

My heuristic categories provide an opportunity to think theoretically about the root causes of deception in online dating profiles. While interacting face-to-face offers the ability to negotiate identity presentation, this is not possible online due to the static nature of a text based profile. The online dater must anticipate being compared to an indefinite number of rivals while being faced with the difficult task of trying to identify the measures by which these comparisons will take place. When crafting their profiles, users can only guess as to what will create a favorable impression by an unknown other. Consequently, online daters may be entering a process of constant identity negotiation and revision via the profile until reaching a sense of perceived success by attaining their relationship goals.

Jorge Ballinas, “Facebook Negotiation”

Using Robert J. Lifton’s “The Protean Self”, Erving Goffman’s “Frame Analysis”, and Jean Baudrillard’s “Hyperreality” this paper begins to explore the current role that Facebook plays in the lives of 15-18 year olds in the United States when it comes to friendship negotiation.  This matter is important given the pervasiveness of Facebook in general and the amount of changes that this age group faces.  Perhaps we as a society can start looking at the potential implications of Facebook on friendship.  Lifton (1993) feels that individuals have developed what he calls a “protean self” in order to mediate the flux of seemingly unending historical changes as well as the uncertainties of our social existence.  The “protean self” is a balancing act between a responsive shape-shifting and the striving toward authenticity and “a form-seeking assertion of self”. Changes in the last eleven years include: the terrorist attacks of September the 11th, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the (global) financial meltdown.  These are only some of the changes that 15-18 year olds have faced.  Life then can become a “struggle for larger human connectedness, for ways of symbolizing immortality in the form of attachments that transcend one’s limited life span.” (Lifton, 1993).  Connecting with others is key for all people.  Perinbanayagam (2000) believes that we need to interact with others in order to exist, because it is others that can name, address, and describe us first.  Young people can seek this connection through Facebook by “adding friends.”

In reality, what constitutes any friendship?  In everyday settings a friendship is a relationship that involves reciprocal feelings of either love or admiration, although definitions depend on the community in which it is being used (boyd, 2006).  It is complicated on Facebook because unlike in offline settings, in SNS settings there is no concrete way to distinguish between the different types of relationships that an individual might have, i.e siblings, lovers, schoolmates, and strangers, all of these people are “friends” on SNS (boyd, 2006).  Sundén (2003) tells us that the notion of “friendship” on SNS is fragmentary at best, there is no structure to it, as evidenced by all the different reasons possible for “friending” others.  She echoes Goffman (1974) in that “friendship” on SNS is framed in such a way as to give structure to all the different relationships (strong ties, casual acquaintances, strangers, and fake profiles) that users have with others.  These relationships could not be justifiable unless we called these people “friends”.

Is Facebook a hyperreality?  On the one hand we have “friend” which connotes so many different types of relationships with people offline that it is hard to keep track of which Facebook “friends” are actual friends offline.  In this sense when “friend” (as a sign) is used to designate an offline relationship with weak ties, casual acquaintances, or strangers (other signs) the fragmentary “friend” is used to describe already hard to define relationships.  Facebook itself is website on the internet.  No one knows exactly where Facebook is physically located, yet everyone knows the web location  The context of the internet itself can be considered a hyperreal world where everything is based software language that is not recognizable by the majority of people.  On top of that the internet, in one way or another, is used to represent things that are part of our “real world” and that are put out there somewhere in cyberspace.

Whatever role Facebook does play in the lives of 15-18 year olds this paper has only began that journey.  I hope to continue this exploration and welcome the help of others.

Jenny Davis (@Jup83),  “Beyond the Popularity Contest: Constructions of Exclusivity on Facebook”

The meanings of friendship and popularity are quickly shifting in the present era of pervasive social media. In an older yet influential article, Donath and boyd (2004) note that those with very large networks on “Friendster” were often referred to using the language of prostitution—being called (and calling themselves) “Friendster whores.” This sentiment seems to have translated to Facebook—today’s predominant social media outlet.

Facebook is a nonomous environment. Not only is it expected that profiles represent an actual bodied being, but Facebook (attempts to) require that members use their real names when creating profiles. Facebook then provides a search function, through which members can quite easily find one another.  Once found, there is a norm on Facebook of accepting friend requests. It is therefore relatively easy to see how a sizeable network can be acquired.  Popularity then, is somewhat simple to display. Less simple, is the limitation of network size.

Theoretically, the desire to limit network size can be understood via Pierre Bourdieu. In his famous work La Distinction, Bourdieu shows that prestige is acquired by those who can separate themselves from the masses. Today, the masses are connected through social media—and connected in public ways. To limit access to one’s friendship, and the associated knowledge about one’s life, is a means by which distinction can be regained.

Based on the literature, and my own ongoing qualitative study, I note three interrelated ways in which social actors limit both network size, and access to the self on Facebook: 1) (public) friend purges; 2) incorrectly spelled usernames and “Fakebooks;” 3) sophisticated use of privacy settings.

A friend purge refers to the practice of going through one’s own network and “de-friending” those with whom the actor no longer wishes to associate. By announcing the purge publicly (as is often done via status update), the actor communicates her high standards—and their criteria—to those who remain.

In a more proactive vein, is the growing trend among Facebook users to spell their names phonetically. My name (Jenny Davis) might, for example, be spelled Jeknee Dave-iss. The purpose of this is to make the user more difficult to find using the “search” function. Similarly, some Facebook users have multiple profiles—one with their real name, and one with a non-searchable name (like Jeknee Dave-iss). The real-name profile is used as a filter, and the profile creator can selectively invite people to join hir Fakebook. Such an invitation is analogous to a backstage pass—everyone can see the show (real-name Facebook page), but only a select few get to see the person behind the show (Fakebook page).

Finally, in cases where social norms of politeness require that we accept certain friends, and do not de- friend them (e.g. parents, colleagues) privacy settings are utilized as a means of re-building network walls. Differential access to the profile is granted on an individual basis. In this way, Facebook users can present an intimate portrait of the self, to an intimate network, within a space that is shared by a diverse (and less intimate) group of others.

In sum, the architecture of Facebook facilitates a connection of the masses. I have discussed some strategies through which this mass connection can be tempered. A larger point is that Facebook users are able to maintain exclusivity within an architecture that promotes connectedness. This illustrates the agency of technology users. Certainly, we are constrained by the media through which we interact. We are not, however, fully controlled by it.