You Are Not Special: Facebook Timeline, Google+ And Media Life

Facebook Timeline: You Are Not Special

09.26.2011 (long post)

The public/private debate about the product introduction and innovation of online social networks like Google+ and Facebook, if anything, shows how many (if not most) people realize how their lives have become fused with media to the extent that switching/logging off isn't going to separate the link.

Technoenthusiasts and mediaprophets of doom alike are slowly but surely moving beyond the shackles of 'weak' media perspectives - that is, considering media as external agents having effects and needing to be switched off (at times) - toward a postulate of 'strong' media: media that are us, as we stop obsessing about ourselves (as individuals), and start living along the lines of the networks and relations that connect all of us.

To be sure, people still parse their points of view along the false dichotomy of good/bad media, but the basic premise of our lives as lived in media seems beyond anyone's doubt - especially when considering some of its most visible features, such as our tendency to both willingly and involuntarily overshare our personal lives in media. It is this tendency that features such as Facebook's Timeline are built upon (which presupposes that social media do not make people produce their private lives in public, but simply amplify and accelerate a specific performativity of the self).

If we can move beyond the question whether a media life is good or bad for us, an important first step must be to map the reasons why we would live our lives, mediated. Back in 2010 US comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert - host of the popular TV show The Colbert Report on the Comedy Central cable television channel - proposed a new service integrating all the online places where "ordinary people [...] publicize their lives in minute detail": Knowny. In a segment aired on February 2, 2010 Colbert described such a service that "records every interaction, every movement of every person on earth and posts them online like a storm of random data points that shouts out to the blind, indifferent universe: 'we exist! we exist! please, please, let this mean something!'" His explanation for our seemingly insatiable to mediate our lives is the human desire to be known: "cognoscor ergo sum" (translation: I am known, therefore I am).

Albeit indirectly, Colbert seems to refer to an assumption as for example rooted in the ancient Greek philosophy and literature of Plato and Homer, namely that at the heart of human being lies the desire to be recognized (in Greek: thumos or thymos). Francis Fukuyama uses this concept of "thymotic self-assertion" (1992: 173) to articulate how, historically, increasing freedom of expression can be coupled with people's rising expectations and demands regarding their sense of identity and self. Zygmunt Bauman adds that a media life is not just about being known but perhaps more importantly about being seen - suggesting that René Descartes' famous proof of existence 'I think therefore I am' (originally published in 1637) in a fully mediated mode of being has been elbowed out by 'I am seen, therefore I am' (2010: 20).

Beyond the human desire to be seen - as in: witnessed and recognized - in an increasingly complex and global world (that to some extent seems chaotic and out of control exactly because of its mediatization) lies a perhaps more mundane impulse to share our lives in media: through the ongoing performance of what Zizi Papacharissi calls "public displays of social connections" we in fact get to "authenticate identity and introduce the self through the reflexive process of fluid association with social circles" (2011: 304-5). The very notion of publicness thus may provide a media life some kind of stability in an otherwise potentially fragmented and plastic experience of identity. Living our media life in public by default may be a key paradoxical quality of media life: as we can 'see' ourselves live, we see less of those who are seeing us, while spending most of our time trying to be seen.

The uncanny quality of our mediated interaction means that we generally do not know who we are interacting with, nor do we have much control over how our interactions are understood. It is a proposition befitting Oscar Wilde: the worst thing about being seen (in media), is not being seen. Claims about whether all of this mass self-communication may just be a narcissistic expression seem to miss the point: a narcissist only looks at his/her own reflection, and needs a direct, observable (and impressionable) audience to validate this image. Generally speaking, this kind of controllable self-validation is impossible in a fully mediated context.

Other explanations include the outsourcing of social bonding and grooming rituals to media in an increasingly migratory and mobile social context of everyday life. As families and circles of friends scatter across physical space, our communication that would constitute such forms of social cohesion virtualizes accordingly. A third potent hypothesis would point towards a global hyperconformism prevalent in social media, as in the absence of traditional social cues (such as provided by elites and authority figures like parents, presidents, professors and priests) our collective need to belong produces an overwhelming need to fit in.

Narcissism, grooming, and hyperconformity certainly explain some of the variation in people's oversharing tendencies - but certainly do not cover all what we do in media, and all seem to assume the faulty premise of a time (and life) before and after media.

There is no life outside of media. You know it - you can feel it.

So now what?

People experience the ongoing mediation and mediatization of their lives, but seem to remain blind to its profound potential. First, most people spend most of their time with media, generally not aware nor overtly mindful about this constant and concurrent media exposure. Second, most of the time spent with media today is taken up by some combination of consuming (primarily watching television) and producing (engaging in social media and to a much lesser extent creating one's own media), which behaviors are, increasingly and inevitably, mutually implicated as media devices, platforms, industries and services converge and become networked. Our media use and the capabilities of media devices thus become part of a feedback loop where it is indeed possible to argue that media mediate more and more by virtue of the fact that they mediate. Third, as people use media on a continuous basis, the boundaries between their previously partitioned aspects of everyday life - such as school, work and play - blur beyond meaningful recognition to themselves and others. The extent to which one's media presence can be managed or maintained in multiple coherent selves is not just highly questionable, but profoundly unrealistic. Fourth, as mediated communication provides the benchmark for social relationships in all aspects of life - within and between families, circles of friends and colleagues, loved ones, and anyone else - people's social reality only comes into being insofar it gets produced in terms of media; it therefore intrinsically is 'real' and 'unreal' at the same time.

It seems to be up to us as individuals to make sense of and take responsibility for it all - even though whomever we will find in media when we go looking for ourselves will not be special, as there will always be countless other ways of being alive (and dead) in media.

At the heart of the process of media life, people know (or are being told) that everything they do in life gets recorded, archived, edited, redacted, and publicized on a continuous basis: by governments and corporations, by other people, and (predominantly) by ourselves. With people's lives playing out in digital and networked archives, the need for more or less stable cultural memories gets gradually erased - which in turn would seem to make for a world that can only live in the moment of recording itself.

Media do not make us look for ourselves, nor do we in media necessarily become insular individuals. In media we can see ourselves live. The art of media life consists of finding ways to let go of sticking either to a real or perceived version of yourself who you 'really' are, or to a self-image that is to some extent idealized - that constantly needs to live up to criteria defined by invisible others.

In other words: I think that the media life perspective - the one I explore in my forthcoming (May 2012) book with Polity Press - teaches me that I am not special: living my life in media makes me aware of how my life constitutes and is constituted by relations with others: other people, technologies, and nature. Those links, no matter how problematic and precarious, are special - enabling us to take charge of our world and take responsibility for what we want of it.  

Media enable us to make art of life.

The condition seems to be to let go of ourselves.