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What Do You Use Facebook For?

  • 29 Jan 2019

A critical analysis of Facebook as a medium and a tool in the hands of the authority.

“I always find it more difficult to say the things I mean than the things I don't.”? W. Somerset Maugham, The Painted Veil

Quite a while ago, Facebook appeared to me - a young girl then - a medium to let free my indomitable desire to express and a tool to quench my endless curiosity. For many of the young people of the world, it serves a multitude of functions- starting from a being a platform to register their presence to a way to connect to the world that has been unwelcoming in person. For the more intellectually keen ones, it is a medium to know, to tell and to spread something they believe in or can argue about.

1. A medium too hazy

Marshall McLuhan, one of the pioneers of Media theory, says "Medium is the Message." Neil Postman, in his thought-provoking book ‘Amusing ourselves to death’ , quotes him and goes further to give it a more precise form “Medium is the metaphor.” Postman talks about television media, which happened to be at its peak when this book was written. In this age, laptop and mobile screens, with social media platforms buzzing on them, have taken its place. The “screen” appears to be more interactive, converting each one of us into a mediator of news and views. The platforms stand for a metaphor which takes away the essence of the word expression. There are two things here, which I need to elaborate more on.

First, I am saying that the screen appears to be more interactive, which is not to say that it really is. Take Facebook for instance. We see people connecting with us, putting views and counterviews as comments. We assume that the medium is helping us to interact with people. However, if we observe the trends, even on our own profiles, it is not hard to notice that we’re trapped into the circle of people who think alike or at least pretend to. We rarely encourage contrasting views and even more rarely give place to ideas which are more comprehensive in their approach. Here, it is admitted that a level of mutual agreement is important to discuss any idea. One cannot argue from level zero over and over again.

This is true for real life discussions as well. We don’t enter into a discourse with people who think almost antithetically or do not think at all. But the scheme of things is different on social media platforms. Even if a certain level of agreement exists, we’re quick to disdain anyone who counters our opinion, which is being hailed by others. The interaction, as such, is limited to what we want to hear. Even the scope of counterviews is limited by us. We choose our audience and we choose the participants, which is a euphemistic way of saying that we cherry-pick our admirers. Even if we try to become open to all sorts of opinions, what we receive is trolls or stuff totally unrelated to what we’re saying. This ranges from forwarded messages to astrologers providing cure of all problems of life. We’re ultimately forced to choose our audience. Now, the real problem begins at this point. We normally take this situation as something which is a by-product of using a medium. It is actually the very purpose of it. The medium itself is meant to serve nothing but what we desire to see, what we can buy, be it ideas or products. These platforms do not intend to become agents of expansion of thinking horizons of their users. That said, I feel that all of us who are trying to build Facebook into a platform which nurtures the spirit of discussion and dissent, are playing a mug’s game. The process of interaction is actually just a visual simulation of interaction and its objective is to keep our eyeballs engaged on screen - a screen which sells the whole world to us, without us even noticing it.

Second, I call ourselves as mediators for the reason that our minds are too engaged to contemplate on any idea or event that we come across. This medium is the medium of haste where the viewer pays only a few seconds of attention to judge if s/he has to go on further in a reading a particular piece. Longer the piece, lower the chances or people reading it. Writing a quick piece, full of emotive arguments and punch or throwing a satirical one-liner is the easiest way to get the attention of the viewers. Again, ‘getting the attention of more and more viewers’ assumes such a central importance that the content and its attributes get cornered. This leads to redundancy to content, where the writer innovates ways to make an idea more entertaining and impressive to sound rather than working on the idea itself.

Here too, I borrow from the idea of Neil Postman where he says that in an age where information is seen rather than read, anyone who is talking about anything, has to be an entertainer first, to get people see him/her. That is how this medium works. It alters the essential attributes of an idea or information. The idea or information has to be presentable at first. The newness, authenticity or pertinence becomes an optional attribute. Although I am talking about “written material” only, and not the audio-visual content up there, the words on screen are quite different from the words in print. The words of a content on screen are floating on a surface, competing with the next content to be chosen by the viewer. They lose their stability or imperturbability. They do not have the endurance of the words in print. They do not want to disturb their reader (I prefer using the word “viewer” for the social media audience, for obvious reasons). They become commodities which are being advertised, lurking to grab the viewers’ eyeballs. They do not go beyond catching the attention phase. They do not force the reader to think or ponder upon them as it will make them ‘boring’ and other more catchy and easy content will substitute them on the screen. In such a scenario, the focus of the writer is on publishing content fast and impressively. For fast publication, s/he picks up a prevalent idea, mixes it up with superficial first thoughts, and pushes it on to the screen. The idea is neither amplified, nor modified. The same idea is just mediated by a hundred people in a hundred ways and continues to satiate the desire of the writer to get more attention and that of the reader to get entertaining piece to republish in a new more impressive way.

Facebook, thus, is a metaphor which stands for expressing oneself to impress others. It stands for converting thinking people into racing horses. It stands for assigning a face value to the ideas. It stands for narcissism and substitution of ‘discourse’ with ‘eloquent verbalization’.

2. The opinionated presence

Man in the new digital culture is rabidly persuaded, if not already accustomed, to look at images of his life experiences as a want-fulfilling commodity. Your data, date of birth, movies you like, places you've been to recently, all make up a design (often a set of stories) that you can be identified with. Here, it is important to point out that this identification of ‘you’ has got little to do with how ‘you’ see ‘yourself’, or to be more precise your ‘presence’ has been deconstructed and reconstructed into a set of images, activities you do and the places you’ve been to. Nevertheless, all of it is done in a way that you do not feel commoditized.

In this new era, our choices masquerade as our will. However, we forget the basic difference that ‘choices’ are given to us by an external authority while the notion of ‘will’ stands irrespective of the limited purview of things we are allowed to choose from. It is not to say that ‘will’ lacks any indirect influence or conditioning, which results in an action. It is also not to say that informed choices do not possess a much wider spectrum than that of uniformed or misinformed choices. But the basic difference still holds. Choices rarely exceed the limits of availability, which again is defined by the “authority” ruling us.

On Facebook and other such media platforms, our presence has been made an essential component of our existence. It can be clearly inferred from the humongous number of people registering themselves on more and more platforms and competing (in a quite obscure way) with each other in the display of their lives. We can often come across arguments justifying such acts by calling them “choice” of the individual.

The politics of identity is essentially the control over individual behaviour. Further exploited by corporate interests, opinion is controlled, if not already reduced de facto, through sponsored, selective, hence distorted information broadcast. The word opinion which once used to be a result of a private rumination, is a more like a gun handed over by the masters in the hands of slave - it is not a weapon to fight for oneself but an obligation to fight for those who rule them.

The presence of more and more individuals digitally has become a basic tenet of capitalism. It allows to control people’s choices by offering them an array of goods to choose from. It also allows to reduce them to a profile of activities and images and thus commoditize them. And last but not the least it aids them to hold a surveillance over the ‘subjects’ which is us - the people.

3. The impersonal gaze in an age of Surveillance

What is the quality of a subjugated life? In particular, where does one define the Authority away from oneself?

By its design, a panopticon veils surveillance. You can observe the subjects without letting them know if they are being monitored. Imagine a building, like a jail or office, where there's a central space. Everything can be seen and recorded from the central space, but the people outside the central space, they wouldn't notice they are being monitored, and hence an assumption that they are always under surveillance. An asymmetric surveillance, as Foucault writes, in Discipline and Punish: "He is seen, but he does not see; he is an object of information, never a subject in communication.... imposes on him an axial visibility". And like every school you visit, or an office you happen to work for, you will notice the division of your gaze. Your scope of seeing things beyond a certain construct is denied, producing a lateral invisibility, a guarantee of the order.

One would not mistake to find the idea of one-way surveillance applied all over the human space. Censuring electronic communications, now more suitably through the use of Aadhar card information, makes the subject under gaze suspect himself and thus act against the fear of punishment.

Our lives are in a process of digital replication all the while. With 4 million hours of content uploaded to Youtube and around 4.3 billion Facebook messages posted daily, do we feel the same attachment as we would feel for our bodies? Do we take account of our opinions in an age when more than 600 millions of tweets are sent every day?

True to core, both informally and also legally (as criminalizing hate speech has its own limitations) there isn’t any real ownership of information shared online, nor is thus any attempt to normalize our digital activities without a sense of exposure we're in. And it becomes a massacre when the government, the corporations actually thrive on your information.

Analysing your data to formulate a strategy to hit their advertisements, to attack you with the right theological sentiment (often working in the interests of the government as you can verify), modern panopticism is regulated in the benefits of perverse organizations. All the while, identity theft, digital money transfers, internet terrorism continue to work as agencies to be checked upon, without making much sense to the public under terror.

Mohini Singh is a prolific reader, writer, poetess and an independent researcher  

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