Our everyday language is a testament to the importance of social networks in our lives: we “have a channel” on YouTube, we “are” on Facebook. Facebook, the most ubiquitous of social networks, aims to go beyond mere utility, mimicking the flow of offline existence in a profusion of interactions focussed on experiencing one’s own identity, with a high degree of permeability between the online and offline worlds.
Tuesday, 12. January 2016
The concept of “being” on Facebook exemplifies the dual nature inherent to the online sphere, as both a realm in which to “exist” and an environment to be navigated, but it is the spatial dimension which prevails: Facebook is experienced as a public place (or, quite literally, site) with quasi-physical properties. The spatial quality of the internet takes concrete form on Facebook: as we browse profiles, we trace a map of synchronous information extending in every direction, a three-dimensional universe of hypertext through which we can simply keep on wandering without ever reaching an outer frontier.
Contrary to what certain joke websites would have us believe, there is no “last page of the internet”. Just as a familiar profile can be a gateway to destinations unknown, so too when in uncharted territory can we invariably expect to find a link back to a familiar reality. Despite the apparent lack of direction in the browsing trajectory, it is not simply rhizomatic in nature. On entering a profile, we are invited to explore unknown depths: the scrolling wall, which unfolds vertically – not in space, as when skipping from link to link – but in time, extending further and further into the past the lower we go. Scrolling all the way to the bottom does not result in a feeling of triumph, as might be expected on fulfilment of our exploratory goal, but rather one of frustration and perplexity. We come up against a minor limit which unmasks the finite nature of the internet, previously disguised by the illusion of a “perpetual present” created by the feed with its constant updates. In its silence, the end of the page unmasks the non-ubiquity of the internet, in stark contrast to the top with its promise of an endless, potential, immaterial future which can endure even beyond the user’s demise. The vertical motion of scrolling is distinct from the process of streaming: while the latter comprises a flow of information at a constant speed (streaming is characterised by a perpetual becoming which eludes capture in a static image), the wall is made up of discrete points, a vertical sequence of fixed representations which only appears “live” due to the reader’s movement within it. Strictly speaking, the wall and the feed do not exist in real time – they are dependent on posts submitted at specific moments. In this sense, the wall is less a mirror held up to human existence (characterised by its perpetual open-endedness and irreducibility to a fixed description) than a caricature of it, a relatively static portrait produced in the space between a compulsion to record and a desire for dialogue. On our walls, we “save” ourselves in the form of data, externalise ourselves as information: images, text, videos, manifestations of ourselves against oblivion.
WHAT DOES "FULL COMMUNICATION" MEAN?
Fred Forest, “Space-media: 150 cm2 de papier journal”, 1972
The activities of a community without geographical borders converge to form an immense and labyrinthine memory palace. This place, immaterial but accessible to a vast number of people, represents the triumph of the public and dialogic sphere over the discursive model. In Dialogue and discourse (Considerations with regard to Fred Forest’s work), a text which examines Fred Forest’s artistic interventions in the media during the ‘70s, Vilém Flusser describes the media landscape of the time as one dominated by discourse, a one-directional and hierarchical form of communication featuring content produced by a specialist elite and embodying a certain totalitarian potential. Forest’s interventions (Space-media: 150 cm2 de papier journal, 1972) consisted in blank spaces placed in adverts carried by various newspapers in which readers were invited to return the rectangles to Forest bearing interventions of their own. In the context of Forest’s work and the then incipient trend of artistic practices in which the mass media themselves were the medium, Flusser remarks that this is no longer an artistic practice producing “things which exist”, but rather a meaningful form of engagement aimed at altering the very structure of the media, i.e. the conditions which determine the content that can arise there, so as to open it up to dialogue.
With the advent of Web 2.0, the hegemony of discursive communication appears to have been successfully overcome: the dominant communicational structure is an environment which is open to synthesis of new information resulting from interaction among a large number of peers.2 However, the shift towards “total communication” also hints at the other side of the coin, foreseen by Flusser: “if one transforms the world into a public space, into a space for communication, there is no space left for the private, the uncommunicable, the concrete.”3 The discomfort caused by radical curtailment of the private sphere had already been presaged earlier in the 20th century with the first wave of mass media. In his autobiography, written in the final years of WWII (The World of Yesterday, 1942), Stefan Zweig wrote that people of his time were plagued not just by the horrors of war and Nazism, but also by the impossibility of rest brought about by constant exposure to information about outside events. The current model goes beyond the passive dimension of consumption, focussing instead on an invitation to “productive leisure”, in the form of voluntary production and submission of content.
The fact that information flows both ways raises the additional issue of privacy: once released into the web, users’ data is no longer under their control, becoming liable to linger indefinitely in the public arena, or, more opaquely, on servers, with little known about the afterlife of data after its disappearance from public pages. Whereas last century a radical paradigm shift was brought about by the technological means to destroy life, today our event horizon is clouded by the spectre of total recall, or the impossibility of oblivion. Ultimately, the individual is left in a state of “vigilance without refuge in unconsciousness, without the possibility of withdrawing into sleep as into a private domain.”4 This apt description of insomnia formulated by Emmanuel Levinas (albeit in a different context) associates sleep with incommunicability, with security and rest, i.e. a private domain of which insomnia represents the opposite: enduring and forced contact with the impersonal exterior. In this state of vigilance, the excrescences of every user drift around the web alongside the images of the world, in an endless nightmare of retinal persistence. In that material “there”, our images might be seen by others or forever locked in blind servers, where they become useless refuse or fodder for the machines which crunch big data. The concept of big data (vast and unprecedented amounts of information which become meaningful only through laborious processing) suggests the existence of its counterpart: negligible or unimportant data. Individual data – which plays such a crucial role in the user’s existence – is, without statistical treatment, devoid of economic relevance to social networks.
LOOKING OUT OF THE SCREEN
Despite the largely recreational way in which social networks are used, their structure is in fact designed to facilitate mass collection of data (in the form of both content and usage trends). In this sense it is comparable to that of other structures in different settings which also process vast numbers of people with no consideration for their individual characteristics: bureaucratic registration systems. Both are formal structures within which users provide the content while having no influence over the structure itself. The latter case features a very high degree of normativity: there is no scope for customisation, while social networks offer a more recreational experience and greater structural flexibility. Among the different social networks and software applications for online socialisation and communication, normativity appears to be particularly high on Facebook, which defines itself as a “community where people use their authentic identities,” in which people are required to “provide the name they use in real life.” 5 This forced alignment between offline and online existence as a criterion of “authenticity” restricts the potential for free expression of one’s identity, which was greater on platforms where the field “author” was also open to intervention, besides the content fields. Particularly problematic is the feature whereby users can be reported for using a fake name on Facebook. In the event of such a report, the account in question is suspended until the user is able to prove that the name used does in fact correspond to their official offline identity by submitting photographs of actual documents. Freedom of movement is thereby granted only to those who can prove and wish to assume their offline identities. The practice of identity verification has its roots in growing concerns over safety, and the strategy adopted by Facebook to address these concerns is not very different to what we see offline: online interaction has been subjugated to the need for control and surveillance. There is an urgent need to examine whether this is indeed the only possible solution.
As potential poleis and venues of free movement, social networks could well become established as fora for the emergence of unexpected solutions to the problems of our time. Experimenting with variations on one’s offline identity (which is subject to constraints of geography, gender and culture not chosen by the individual) can be an exercise of freedom with a wider scope than that offered by the offline world. Examples include contact between hostile communities, or the opportunity to safely experiment with departures from the identity prescribed by the community to which one belongs.
Our data endures while we sleep or in those private moments when we are not connected to the web. Our face “remains there”, gazing into unknown distances. It is negligible data for the processing apparatus, relevant only as a fragment of a social trend. But it nevertheless has two seeing eyes, in every way similar to those looking in from outside the screen. Without the care of other users, data is nothing. In a particularly beautiful part of “Sans Soleil” (Chris Marker, 1983), the narrator asks herself whether, late at night, it is the faces on the television which look out at us, drifting on the edge of sleep, from within the screen. Nowadays, it is our images which gaze out of the screen. The algorithm objectifies our online meandering. But on the face which is shown there, something else appears, which escapes it. Levinas describes the face as a phenomenological gateway to the other – an absolute other which transcends us and calls out to us. It is in the compulsion to respond to this call, and not the technologically mediated closeness offered by the system, that the chance to create a meaningful community lies.
1. Manuscript viewed at the Vilém Flusser Archiv, document no. 2994, undated.
4. Levinas, Emmanuel (1987), Time and the Other. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, p. 49.
5. As stated in the page What names are allowed on Facebook? URL: https://pt-pt.facebook.com/help/112146705538576, 24.12.2015.