The cost of (anti-)social networks
First Monday

The cost of (anti-)social networks: Identity, agency and neo-luddites by Ryan Bigge



Abstract
The media coverage and resultant discourse surrounding social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and Friendster contain narratives of inevitability and technological determinism that require careful explication. Borrowing a tactic from the Russian Futurists, this paper attempts to make strange (that is, to defamiliarize) social network sites and their associated discourses by drawing upon an eclectic but interrelated set of metaphors and theoretical approaches, including: the digital enclosure, network sociality, socio-technical capital and Steven Jones’s recent examination of neo-Luddites. Whenever appropriate, this paper will integrate relevant magazine and newspaper journalism about social networking sites.

Contents

Invisible Work
Hit Any Key to Continue
The Politics of Amateurism
‘Dividual Enclosure
A Garden of Clicks and Cliques
Enforced Volunteerism
Conclusion

 


 

Invisible Work

In the Sunday, 9 July 2006 New York Times, 24-year-old Theodora Stites, a market researcher, describes her multiple memberships in various online communities. She describes the safety and security of friendships made online due to the distancing effects of computer mediation. She even jokes about being unable to “log out of” awkward social situations in the physical world, prompting her to join Second Life. Her article details the intricate taxonomies and hierarchies of online communities with anthropological acuity and Stites appears to anticipate the reaction of her audience: that her mediated life might provoke sadness, or at the very least confusion about her extreme electronic immersion. I, however, found myself taken aback by the amount of work her routine appeared to entail:

Every morning, before I brush my teeth, I sign in to my Instant Messenger to let everyone know I’m awake. I check for new e-mail, messages or views, bulletins, invitations, friend requests, comments on my blog or mentions of me or my blog on my friends’ blogs.

Next I flip open my phone and check for last night’s Dodgeball messages.

That Stites’ habits appear strange to me might indicate only that I’m outside the target demographic of the 14 to 24-year-olds who use MySpace and related social networking sites and technologies. Adding to this disconnect is that while I have social networks in the dirt and flesh world, I do not see the utility of an online equivalent.

On the surface, my decision to opt out of a particular communication network channel does not appear to be particularly significant. However, in a recent online interview with MySpace researcher danah boyd and MIT’s Henry Jenkins, social network sites are described as vital resources for students entering primary and secondary schools. As Jenkins explains, “The early discussion of the digital divide assumed that the most important concern was insuring access to information as if the Web were simply a data bank. Its power comes through participation within its social networks.” [1]

Although boyd and Jenkins raise important questions relating to the digital divide and making good on access, their discussion elides the issue of when or why MySpace or Facebook membership became a necessity, rather than an option. It appears as though a step was skipped somewhere, and this raises two related questions: At what point does not being a member of a social network site become a liability? At what point does it become impossible to not be a member?

 

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Hit Any Key to Continue

The neo-Luddite movement offers one method of making strange social network sites by creating a small measure of critical distance from the object of study, along with foregrounding questions of technological determinism. In Against Technology, Steven E. Jones (2006) examines the myth of the Luddites, and how those who smashed looms in 1811 and 1812 continue to inspire and inform debates about technology almost 200 years later.

Incorporating a wide range of writers and thinkers, including William Blake, Mary Shelley, Bill Joy, Edward Tenner and Theodore Kaczynski, Jones investigates how the mythology of the Luddites has persevered and reconfigured itself over time. In its most basic iteration, Jones (2006) suggests that, “Many people who identify with the term ‘Luddite’ just want to reduce or control the technology that is all around us and to question its utility — to force us not to take technology for the water in which we swim.” [2] The problem for would be loom-smashers is that “Modern (and now postmodern) technology is routinely understood as an autonomous, disembodied force operating behind any specific application, the effect of a system that is somehow much less material, more ubiquitous, than any mere ‘machinery’.” [3]

Despite a nebulous target, neo-Luddites, by their existence and persistence, raise doubts about technology, pointing to its unanticipated, undesirable or indirect consequences. And, on a personal level, Jones (2006) argues that “Many neo-Luddites react to the secrets and lies, the broken promises, of technological progress with the profound disappointment of the brokenhearted.” [4] Still, technological skepticism and rage (or bitterness) against the machine does not, in and of itself, offer a sufficient critique of online social networks.

 

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The Politics of Amateurism

Before smashing the Internet servers that make MySpace possible, it would be worth considering the software, circuits and wiring that make social networking sites possible. Alexander Galloway (2004) offers one perspective through his examination of protocol, and how the physical structure of the network (DNS and TCP/IP) can impose limitations and conditions. For Galloway, “Protocol is to control societies as the panopticon is to disciplinary societies.” [5] Galloway also argues that, “The contradiction at the heart of protocol is that it has to standardize in order to liberate. It has to be fascistic and unilateral in order to be utopian.” [6] Imperatives such as these raise questions about technology as a postmodern panacea.

Richard Rogers (2004), meanwhile, in examining search engines, offers the metaphor of front-end (point of contact) and back-end (behind the scenes) information politics in action. For Rogers, this results in a politics of information hierarchy and formatting issues [7] Related to front-end formatting decisions, Galloway describes how intelligent networks “produce an apparatus to hide the apparatus.” [8]

To better understand the role of front-end politics in MySpace, consider Paul Boutin (2006) who in a recent Slate article, writes that:

“I think MySpace’s popularity has to do with its puppylike accessibility. A typical page looks like something a Web-enthralled high schooler might have put up in 1996, but with more pics and a soundtrack. I agree with design guru Jesse James Garrett, who says the site’s untrained layout sends a ‘we’re just like you’ message to newcomers.” [9]

This “puppylike accessibility” and “untrained layout” combines front-end politics with a self-disguising apparatus. What such a willful amateurism obscures, however, is the MySpace Terms of Service/User Agreement — that is, the gears behind the interface — are far more complicated (Scharmen, 2006). Thus, the back-end politics of MySpace remain unclear, even as formatting issues come to bear.

 

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‘Dividual Enclosure

In his examination of webcams, Mark Andrejevic (2004) offers up the concept of the ever-expanding Digital Enclosure: “The de-differentiation of spaces of consumption and production achieved by new media serves as a form of spatial enclosure: a technology for enfolding previously unmonitored activities within the monitoring gaze of marketers.” Andrejevic can be contrasted with boyd (2006) who argues that MySpace offers a space to create digital publics, which “are critical to the coming-of-age narrative because they provide the framework for building cultural knowledge.” [10]

Such debates can be effectively contextualized through Langdon Winner’s essay “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” which provides examples of how seemingly neutral technologies such as the highway system of Robert Moses have political outcomes embedded within them. As Winner (1986) writes, “The issues that divide or unite people in society are settled not only in the institutions and practices of politics proper, but also, and less obviously, in tangible arrangements of steel and concrete, wires and semiconductors, nuts and bolts.” Such a sentiment puts the digital enclosure and protocol under the same analytic umbrella.

Winner provides another, more philosophical method of situating the front-end and back-end politics of MySpace. As Winner (1986) suggests, “If our moral and political language for evaluating technology includes only categories having to do with tools and uses, if it does not include attention to the meaning of the designs and arrangements of our artifacts, then we will be blinded to much that is intellectually and practically crucial.”

Clearly, MySpace has an informational and spatial politics. Galloway, in making reference to bio-power and Foucault, observes that, “The clustering of descriptive information around a specific user becomes sufficient to explain the identity of that user.” [11] Meanwhile, leveraging the work of Deleuze, Scharmen (2006) writes that, “If a body is recomposed as information, it is all the more subject to the specialized techniques of control: distributed surveillance, data aggregation, and the continuous modulation of production and access.” So-called ‘dividuals’ are turned into productive assets.

Despite the apparent benefits of Web 2.0 (such as Amazon’s “Customers who bought this item also bought these items ...”), the aggregate preferences it generates for music and books can be commodified. Such aggregations or folksonomies remove the individual from the clustered opinion (Devereaux, 2006). Or, to put it another way, there’s no “I” in “tag cloud.” In MySpace, commodification and information politics combine.

 

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A Garden of Clicks and Cliques

Paradoxically, with Web 2.0 commodification occurs both at the level of aggregation, and at the individual level. According to various studies, young people spend a significant amount of time using Facebook and MySpace. Cassidy (2006) points out that “Two-thirds of Facebook members log on at least once every twenty-four hours, and the typical user spends twenty minutes a day on the site.”

Is Theodora Stites’s information calisthenics work or play? Andrejevic (2004), concludes that:

“Instead of promoting power sharing, the contemporary deployment of interactivity exploits participation as a form of labor. Consumers generate marketable commodities by submitting to comprehensive monitoring. They are not so much participating, in the progressive sense of collective self-determination, as they are working by submitting to interactive monitoring.”

Although Andrejevic writes in the context of webcams, not MySpace, the comparison remains relevant. It seems clear that 24-year-old Theodora Stites is working two jobs.

Andrejevic believes the digital enclosure “promises to undo one of the constituent spatial divisions of capitalist modernity: that between sites of labor and leisure.” This dedifferentiation “does not make work more like ‘free time’, but, rather, tends to commodify free time by transforming it into time that can be monitored, recorded, repackaged and sold” (Andrejevic, 2004). This helps explain why Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation paid US$580 million last year to purchase MySpace.

boyd’s (2006) work offers a nuanced counterbalance, as she argues that MySpace presents opportunities for identity formation, the sort of performative experiments that have historically occurred with or without technological mediation. Social networking sites are spaces where identities are created, shaped, re-adjusted and ideas, opinions and feelings are expressed or performed. Call this digital gardening — personalities are trimmed and shaped like hedges, weeds are removed, digital publics are seeded.

But digital gardening, like its soil-based equivalent, requires commitment and effort. The question becomes: are MySpace users at all aware of the political economy of the space in which they operate? As Kline, et al. (2003) demonstrate, the line between work and play in the video game arena grows increasingly fuzzy. Wittel (2001), meanwhile, argues that “The assimilation of work and play corresponds with the blurring of boundaries between work and private life, between colleagues and friends.” [12]

One can draw parallels between the effort required to invite friends into your MySpace network and the repetitive work involved in collecting gold in online gaming environments like EverQuest or World of Warcraft. Cassidy (2006) quotes different Facebook users:

“I remember people competing to see how many ‘friends’ they could accumulate and how quickly, and tracking how many ‘friends’ they shared in common with other ‘friends’,” [Olivia Ma] said.

Hilary Thorndike, a schoolteacher who graduated from Harvard in 2005 and still uses Facebook, has more than eight hundred friends on the site. “I always find the competitive spirit in me wanting to up the number,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Williams (2005) underscores this narrative of accumulation:

Seabron Ward, 19, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, said that many students consider it a status symbol to build a big friend list. ‘This one guy on my list has a thousand,’ she said, a bit enviously. ‘I only have 79.’

This type of positional discourse evokes Pierre Bourdieu’s 1984 book Distinction and his discussions of social and cultural capital. According to Sarah Thornton (1995), social capital “stems not so much from what you know as who you know (and who knows you). Connections in the form of friends, relations, associates and acquaintances can all bestow status.”

Thornton has productively extended this concept through her theorization of subcultural capital. She writes that “Just as books and paintings display cultural capital in the family home, so subcultural capital is objectified in the form of fashionable haircuts and well-assembled record collections.” [13] Paul Resnick (2004), meanwhile, argues for the existence of sociotechnical capital: “I use the term ‘sociotechnical capital’ to refer to productive resources that inhere in patterns of social relations that are maintained with the support of information and communication technologies (ICTs).” [14] boyd (2006) reinforces the concept of sociotechnical capital when she writes that “In MySpace, comments are a form of cultural currency.” [15]

Garnham and Williams (1986) argue that “it is the convertibility of cultural into economic capital that ultimately defines it as capital.” [16] Thornton (1996) echoes this convertibility, arguing that, “While subcultural capital may not convert into economic capital with the same ease of financial reward as cultural capital, a variety of occupations and incomes can be gained as a result of ‘hipness’.” [17] The success of certain bands or personalities on MySpace such as Fall Out Boy and Christine Dolce reinforce such an argument.

Sociotechnical capital, then, provides the necessary linkage between the rituals of business networking and the play of cyberyouth. Wittel (2001) uses the term ‘network sociality’ to describe a shift in work-based relationships governed by the logic of sociotechnical capital. “In network sociality, social relations are not ‘narrational’ but ‘informational’ they are not based on mutual experience or common history, but primarily on an exchange of data and on ‘catching up’.” [18]

In the context of MySpace et al., the most relevant aspect of network sociality is how it works to mask its own motives, in a manner similar to how intelligent networks seek to mask their apparatus. In writing of the dot-com party culture, Wittel (2001) observes that:

“On the one hand the commodification of social relationships (doing a pitch, getting funds, finding work) is highly obvious, on the other, it is important to hide this commodification by creating a frame (music, alcohol, etc.) that makes people comfortable, that suggests a somehow ‘authentic’ interest in meeting people.” [19]

There are already examples where the convertibility argument applies to sociotechnical capital. Just as virtual goods and currency from EverQuest can be bought and sold for actual currency, certain MySpace pages (and their related social networks) can be considered tangible assets. An advertisement for a MySpace Friend Adder Script promises 3,000 friend requests per day and claims that, “If you have 150K friends, you can sell your account for at least $5000. Imagine how much is [sic] worth account with 300,000 friends” (http://www.trainsubmit.com/). Indeed, when it comes to sociotechnical capital and social networking, the distinction is fast eroding, as evidenced by professional promotion sites such as LinkedIn.com.

 

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Enforced Volunteerism

Angela McRobbie (2002) has studied how elements of the U.K. rave scene seeped into the logic of the cultural industries during the 1990s, creating an environment where “the club culture question of ‘are you on the guest list?’ is extended to recruitment and personnel, so that getting an interview for contract creative work depends on informal knowledge and contacts, often friendships.” [20] But social networks can act as tools of exclusion, not inclusion.

Cassidy (2006), in talking with Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, discovers that:

“Facebook’s founders understand the site’s power to confer social standing. ‘If you don’t have a Facebook profile, you don’t have an online identity,’ Chris Hughes said to me. ‘It doesn’t mean that you are antisocial, or you are a bad person, but where are the traces of your existence in this college community? You don’t exist — online, at least. That’s why we get so many people to join up. You need to be on it.”

Hughes describes a false choice, a sociotechnical scenario devoid of agency. In his article, Cassidy (2006) underscores this narrative of inevitability: “‘It was viewed as an addictive guilty pleasure — lots of students using language like ‘resisting’ and ‘holding out’ when describing their hesitation to join,’ recalled a Harvard graduate who joined Facebook as a senior, in February, 2004.”

Is there any difference between those excluded from creating a robust social network and those who chose not to participate? How would a neo-Luddite (that is, a conscientious MySpace objector) differ from someone with social network failure? Or, to put it another way, is it possible to communicate intent through a lack of participation?

 

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Conclusion

As social networks become quantified and reified, the affective and emotional component of such sites grows ever more distant. For millions of young people, MySpace is a productive and vibrant medium, as the ethnographic research of boyd demonstrates. Yet MySpace and Facebook are compatible with descriptions of sociotechnical capital and network sociality. If Web 2.0 develops in accordance with the logic of the marketplace, issues of agency and exclusion will grow in prominence and necessitate further research. As Wittel (2001) writes, “Whereas the panopticon is above all an instrument of the state, the database is an instrument of the market.” [21]

In this environment, the digital enclosure generates increasingly polarized options: either the constant, self-generated surveillance of the type described by Stites or the self-negation (“You don’t exist”) that social network avoidance entails. How very strange indeed. End of article

 

About the author

Ryan Bigge is completing his Master’s thesis on the transgressive strategies of Vice magazine. His review essay, “Making the Invisible Visible: The Neo-Conceptual Tentacles of Mark Lombardi”, was published in the Fall 2005 issue of Left History. Ryan has a BA in history from Simon Fraser University.

 

Acknowledgements

Zach Devereaux, a doctoral candidate in the Communication and Culture program at Ryerson University, provided invaluable assistance and brainstorming for this paper. Thanks also to Dr. Greg Elmer, Dr. Edward Slopek and Dr. Jennifer Burwell.

 

Appendix

Three Web sites relating to social networks:
• http://www.theyrule.net. Site enables visitors to visualize the connections between the various boards of directors of different corporations.
• http://www.zebo.com. New social network site based on consumer possessions.
• http://www.isoltr.com. The world’s first anti-social network.

 

Notes

1. www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html.

2. Jones, 2006. p. 231.

3. Jones, 2006, pp. 174-175.

4. Jones, 2006, p. 10.

5. Galloway, 2004, p. 13.

6. Galloway, 2004, p. 95.

7. Rogers, 2004, p. 11.

8. Galloway, 2004, p. 75.

9. http://www.slate.com/id/2140635/.

10. http://www.danah.org/papers/AAAS2006.html.

11. Galloway, 2004, p. 69.

12. Wittel, 2001, p. 69.

13. Thornton, 1995, p. 11.

14. Resnick, 2004, p. 400.

15. http://www.danah.org/papers/AAAS2006.html.

16. Garnham and Williams, 1986, p. 123.

17. Thornton, 1996, p. 12.

18. Wittel, 2001, p. 51.

19. Wittel, 2001, p. 56.

20. McRobbie, 2002, p. 523.

21. Wittel, 2001, p. 60.

 

References

M. Andrejevic, 2004. “Little Brother is Watching: The Webcam Subculture and the Digital Enclosure,” In: N. Couldry and A. McCarthy (editors). MediaSpace: Place, scale, and culture in a media age. New York: Routledge.

P. Bourdieu, 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

P. Boutin, 2006. “A Grand Unified Theory of YouTube and MySpace,” at http://www.slate.com/id/2140635/, accessed 28 August 2006.

d. boyd, d. 2006. “Identity Production in a Networked Culture: Why Youth Heart MySpace,” at http://www.danah.org/papers/AAAS2006.html, accessed 28 August 2006.

d. boyd and H. Jenkins, 2006. “Discussion: MySpace and Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA),” at http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html accessed 28 August 2006.

J. Cassidy, 2006. “Me media,” New Yorker, volume 82, number 13, pp. 50-59.

Z. Devereaux, 2006. Conversation with author on August 2.

A.R. Galloway, 2004. Protocol: How control exists after decentralization. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

N. Garnham and R. Williams, 1986. “Pierre Bourdieu and the Sociology of culture,” In: R. Collins (editor). Media, culture, and society: A critical reader. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, pp. 116-130.

S.E. Jones, 2006. Against technology: From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism. New York: Routledge.

S. Kline, N. Dyer-Witheford, and G. de Peuter, 2003. Digital play: The interaction of technology, culture, and marketing. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

A. McRobbie, 2002. “Clubs to companies: Notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up creative worlds,” Cultural Studies, volume 16, number 4, pp. 516-531. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09502380210139098

P. Resnick, 2005. “Impersonal Sociotechnical Capital, ICTs, and Collective Action Among Strangers,” In; W.H. Dutton (editor). Transforming enterprise: The economic and social implications of information technology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

R. Rogers, 2004. Information politics on the Web. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

F. Scharmen, 2006. “You must be logged in to do that!” at http://www.sevensixfive.net/myspace/myspacetwopointoh.html accessed 28 August 2006.

T. Stites, 2006. “Someone to Watch Over Me (on a Google Map),” New York Times (9 July), p. 9.8

S. Thornton, 1995. Club cultures : Music, media, and subcultural capital. Cambridge: Polity Press.

L. Winner, 1986. “Do Artifacts Have Politics?” In: The whale and the reactor: A search for limits in an age of high technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 19-39.

A. Williams, 2005. “Do You MySpace?” New York Times (28 August), p. 9.1

A. Wittel, 2001. “Toward a Network Sociality,” Theory Culture & Society, volume 18, number 6, pp. 51-76. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/02632760122052048


Contents Index

Copyright ©2006, First Monday.

Copyright ©2006, Ryan Bigge.

The cost of (anti-)social networks: Identity, agency and neo-luddites by Ryan Bigge
First Monday, volume 11, number 12 (December 2006),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue11_12/bigge/index.html.





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