September 25, 2007

Distinctive Sameness

Here's a slice of Christine Rosen's excellent New Atlantis piece on social networking online. I have had minimal exposure to this phenomenon, and what I have seen inclines me to keep it that way, but this was enlightening. Do it all. (via Galley Slaves)

....coarseness and vulgarity is commonplace on social networking sites for a reason: it’s an easy way to set oneself apart. Pharaohs and kings once celebrated themselves by erecting towering statues or, like the emperor Augustus, placing their own visages on coins. But now, as the insightful technology observer Jaron Lanier has written, “Since there are only a few archetypes, ideals, or icons to strive for in comparison to the vastness of instances of everything online, quirks and idiosyncrasies stand out better than grandeur in this new domain. I imagine Augustus’ MySpace page would have pictured him picking his nose.” And he wouldn’t be alone. Indeed, this is one of the characteristics of MySpace most striking to anyone who spends a few hours trolling its millions of pages: it is an overwhelmingly dull sea of monotonous uniqueness, of conventional individuality, of distinctive sameness.

The world of online social networking is practically homogenous in one other sense, however diverse it might at first appear: its users are committed to self-exposure. The creation and conspicuous consumption of intimate details and images of one’s own and others’ lives is the main activity in the online social networking world. There is no room for reticence; there is only revelation. Quickly peruse a profile and you know more about a potential acquaintance in a moment than you might have learned about a flesh-and-blood friend in a month.

Rosen says the industry is, in some ways, diluting and debasing the concept of "friendship":

...“friendship” in these virtual spaces is thoroughly different from real-world friendship. In its traditional sense, friendship is a relationship which, broadly speaking, involves the sharing of mutual interests, reciprocity, trust, and the revelation of intimate details over time and within specific social (and cultural) contexts. Because friendship depends on mutual revelations that are concealed from the rest of the world, it can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy; the idea of public friendship is an oxymoron.

The hypertext link called “friendship” on social networking sites is very different: public, fluid, and promiscuous, yet oddly bureaucratized. Friendship on these sites focuses a great deal on collecting, managing, and ranking the people you know. Everything about MySpace, for example, is designed to encourage users to gather as many friends as possible, as though friendship were philately. If you are so unfortunate as to have but one MySpace friend, for example, your page reads: “You have 1 friends,” along with a stretch of sad empty space where dozens of thumbnail photos of your acquaintances should appear.

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The structure of social networking sites also encourages the bureaucratization of friendship. Each site has its own terminology, but among the words that users employ most often is “managing.” The Pew survey mentioned earlier found that “teens say social networking sites help them manage their friendships.” There is something Orwellian about the management-speak on social networking sites: “Change My Top Friends,” “View All of My Friends” and, for those times when our inner Stalins sense the need for a virtual purge, “Edit Friends.” With a few mouse clicks one can elevate or downgrade (or entirely eliminate) a relationship.

Posted by dan at September 25, 2007 10:58 PM