Just as most popular technological innovations, Facebook – to put it in Durkheimian terms – amongst other things also functions as a ‘social fact’, which means that it is ‘capable of exerting an external constraint over the individual,’ and just like mobile phones, efficiently enforces its own usage.
Refraining from using Facebook in the era of Facebook is different from not using it before Facebook has been created. The same applies to cellular phones. As a result, cellular phone or Facebook dependency is a social-sociological rather than just a psychological matter, One should therefore avoid pathologizing this phenomenon too hastily. Still, several problems and misuses can legitimately be pointed out with respect to Facebook, which is exactly what I am going to do here. It has to be born in mind, however, that overemphasizing the user’s responsibility should by all means be avoided, since as it has just been mentioned, when it comes to Facebook, the source of problems should be found on a social rather than an individual level.
Please also note that you are not going to read a global and ‘balanced’ analysis of how Facebook functions. This article will rather offer a highly critical and polemical approach.
Probably nothing else has urged us to cautiously and constantly manage our own personal image as much as Facebook. The success of Facebook is based on a very basic idea: people are eager to be connected to each other and also love being kept up-to-date about each others’ daily – and mostly routine-like – activities. In connection with this, managing and displaying a specific, i.e. positive image of oneself has also, for many, become a must.
Facebook ensures the protection of an idealized public image of the self.
It can, however, not be contested that the way people present themselves in social media is far from reality: positive events tend to outplay negative ones, since Facebook is the site of what Erving Goffman describes as “the presentation of the self in everyday interactions”. On meeting someone for the first time, one necessarily seeks to create a positive image of oneself to display to the person opposite. With time and a few further encounters passing by, however, it is by no means surprising that, this image becomes more and more nuanced or even turns to its complete opposite, since the multitude of different sorts of future interactions with the same person challenges the image that one has all so carefully created of oneself. As a result, the original positive image cannot be maintained forever. Let us just take a mundane example. If I go out to grab a beer with a friend, I might be late, because I simply left home too late, or because the bus that I was taking broke down. I might also misbehave under the influence of alcohol and start telling inappropriate jokes (which I normally do not tend to do). What is more, it is also possible that on the way back home, together with this friend of mine, we run into one of my elementary school classmates who, in the presence of my friend, starts teasing me with his memories about me being a horrible soccer player. All these aspects menace the integrity of a positive self-image that has been created for public display.
Facebook unquestionably offers a great amount of opportunities to prevent or tackle these ‘accidents’, and as a consequence, it also ensures the protection of an idealized public image of the self. Facebook makes it possible to share nothing but the positive events of our lives and to earn other peoples’ recognition (or envy). In an extreme interpretation, Facebook can be the ideal playground for what Lasch has defined as a narcissistic personality: ‘facile at managing the impressions he gives to others, ravenous for admiration but contemptuous of those he manipulates into providing it; unappeasably hungry for emotional experiences with which to ill an inner void’.
In fact, Facebook – and Instagram to an even greater extent – can be identified with what Jürgen Habermas calls the “refeudalisation of publicity, in which rational debates get pushed to the background and (virtual) space fills up with people ‘celebrating’ themselves and each other” – very similarly to ancient royal courts where subjects were supposed to get together in order to praise the king. In fact, Facebook reflects a systematically distorted representation of reality, and in this sense we are also confronted with what Guy Debord calls a spectacle: ‘[Spectacle] is the opposite of dialogue’.
Jean Baudrillard provides a quite similar, but even more radical approach. In his perspective, a simulacrum is the mere opposite of denial. Instead of denying an existing fact, ‘to simulate is to feign to have what one doesn’t have’. Facebook thus offers an ideal platform for rolling out one’s narcissistic personality, publicity refeudalized by its representative functions, spectacles and simulacra. To put it in a nutshell, and coupling Lasch, Habermas, Debord and Baudrillard within one framework, it could be claimed that on social media, narcissistic personality fills the refeudalized publicity with spectacles and simulacra – however, all this naturally presupposes an era and a technical innovation that jointly make this possible. (It is worth noting that Habermas’ book appeared in 1962, Debord’s in 1967, Lasch’s in 1979 and Baudrillard’s in 1981, which means that the sketchy theoretical framework applied here has already been accessible well before Facebook was created and launched in 2004. This suggests that all those tendencies that we (will) have identified in relation to Facebook are far from being new, they have just recently surfaced in a more radical and surprising form than before.)
Facebook is partly but significantly driven by our will to share positive images (photos) with others.
Still within the context of Facebook, moments of intimacy have also become – symbolically and sometimes financially – commercialized or merchandized. Facebook thus not only offers a new form of communicating with each other (which remains a fact though), but it also publicizes episodes from our daily lives that – for ethical or technological reasons – we used to keep hidden from publicity.
Facebook is partly but significantly driven by our will to share positive images (photos) with others. This entails, however, in return, a significant change and distortion of our lives and perceptions, by which I mean that due to the logic of Facebook, even real-life events start being organized by and around the logic of how well they can be photographed, what they will look like once posted – and how we will be reflected by them. This can mean, for example, that ‘sacred’, usually unique and unrepeatable episodes of a wedding ceremony have to be ‘profanely’ uprooted from the course of events and be repeated (‘replayed’), because photos and videos taken and examined on the spot eventually don’t live up to expectations, so that these representations contain a risk of not being able to compel recognition (or even envy) from others in social media.
In the era of Facebook it seems to be true that we have stopped contemplating landscapes, monuments or herds of wild animals, and have instead started contemplating the pictures that we take of ourselves and our beloved ones in front of landscapes, monuments or herds of wild animals. While previously, landscapes, monuments or herds of wild animals were the only and on top of that very sufficient subjects of a picture we took and could only share with a restricted circle of family and friends, today, they all become part of a decoration, simple means of our desired success in social media.
In fact, individuals taking a picture of themselves become the ultimate subjects of the photos, as the picture, at the very moment it was taken, was already destined for public use and to serve the purpose of one’s being positively represented in social media.
Thus, all in all, the event of which one takes a picture gets reduced to a mere performance, to a mise en scène. This is how a picture taken in the company of a celebrity or the visual representation of our baby being born becomes a means of our own striving to be celebrated and set on a pedestal. The real events, that is, meeting a celebrity or the moments of intimacy formerly kept hidden from publicity – the birth of a baby for example – have thus become degraded to their own representation and to the illusion – or is it not an illusion anymore? – that reality is no more than its own representation. ’The whole life of those societies, Debord states, in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles.
All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.
It is the illusion that ‘what we see is reality’.Envy that is provoked by other people’s – publicly visible – success stems from the fact that we believe what we see is reality, which implies the suggestion that the ‘series of success’ reflected by other people’s Facebook profile pages corresponds to a life similarly full of success and free of negative aspects.
Within the context of Facebook, moments of intimacy have also become commercialized. This is how elements used to build up the image of being successful tend to lose their initial meaning and significance: they all necessarily get reduced to homogeneous building blocks of our face (façade). In this perspective, the birth of a child, a road trip, a new car or an encounter with a celebrity all appear in the same dimension, which means that they all become homologous to each other: they all become a potential trump of the same pack of cards, since in any and each case, their importance is proportionate to the extent they can, in the eyes of others and in the more or less restricted arena of publicity, add symbolic value to the self.
All this being said, it is not surprising that in the realm of social media the gaze of the individual gets increasingly directed towards itself, and forward-facing (selfie) cameras integrated into our mobile devices tend to further enhance this effect. Based on this sole insight, it would be logical to conclude that Facebook makes people more reflexive, if we weren’t already aware of the fact that instead of aiming to gain a deeper understanding of ourselves, this kind of reflection rather represents a ‘struggle for recognition’ granted by others (Axel Honneth), or a symbolic struggle for the legitimate definition of certain situations (life as a couple, holiday, ways of having fun etc.) (Pierre Bourdieu).
In addition, one’s gaze directed towards oneself can be taken to an even higher level, for example by taking pictures of oneself in front of a mirror. In this particular case, observation is raised to the second power, since not only does one take a picture of oneself, but one takes a picture of oneself while watching oneself taking a picture of oneself, so that one makes an observation of oneself while observing oneself. The gaze is thus not simply directed to the self, but to the gaze itself. However, within this framework of interpretation, in this case the gaze directed to itself does not serve the purpose of cognizance, but becomes an instrument of publicly putting the narcissistic self on display.
Ironically, this very practice of restlessly taking pictures of oneself becomes an irreflexive practice, while solely genuine reflexivity – which would mean rethinking one’s own role against the backdrop of social media – would be able to tackle and reverse this tendency.
Genuine reflexivity constitues a definite refusal of becoming the only central subject of a picture for the sake of promoting a positive presentation of the self.
Blogs and newspapers increasingly tend to present Facebook as being prone to revitalize narcissistic practices, while the sort of ‘authenticity deficit’ Facebook disposes of, also giving rise to a multiplicity of ironic visual representations, is another reason why some people decide from time to time to temporarily or definitely turn their back on Facebook and reconnect with their friends and acquaintances rather in the physical space.
As a reaction to this, more and more bars and restaurants declare themselves a wi-fi free zone hindering or preventing people from instantly sharing pictures of their activities in the hope of new likes.
Genuine reflexivity constitues a definite refusal of becoming the only central subject of a picture for the sake of promoting a positive presentation of the self. One’s own practice would have a chance to become reflexive solely on the condition that one is able to refuse ‘reflexivity’ directed by oneself to oneself in a narcissistic manner.