Sunday, 15 January 2012
Facebook: the structure that took to the streets
‘In a lot of ways, Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies’. Mark Zuckerberg.
The news that Facebook has a population greater than the US and the EU put together (BBC2 04.12.11) reminds us that the company’s aspirations tend towards a proximate ‘statehood’ than simply profit. As such, its ‘revolutionary’ potential is not neutral. The question therefore concerns what kind of social bond or social contract it instantiates. A very good indication is outlined at the beginning of David Kirkpatrick’s The Facebook Effect (2010), the authorized history of the company. He tells the story of a campaign against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) which again reminds us that Facebook’s political utility is perfectly equivocal such that it can just as easily become a tool for counter-revolution, for popular revolt in support of a weakened and ineffective state.
“Oscar Morales was fed up,” begins the book, because the Columbian’s holiday period, like much of the country apparently, was being disturbed by “the suffering of a little boy named Emmanuel” who was being held hostage along with his mother Clara Rojas and others including the politician Ingrid Betancourt by FARC. Expectation was high that at least little Emmanuel, if not all the hostages, would be released by Christmas 2007 as a result of negotiations between the guerrillas and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. By the New Year the boy still hadn’t been released, but to everyone’s surprise in early January the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe announced that Emmanuel was no longer in the hands of the FARC, but in foster care. For Morales and many others, this was the last straw. “People were happy because the kid was safe, but we were so fucking angry [...] we felt assaulted by the FARC. How could they dare negotiate for the life of a kid they didn’t even have? People felt this was too much. How much longer was the FARC going to play with us and lie to us?”.
Morales set up a Facebook Group called Un Millon Voces Contra Las FARC (A Million Voices Against FARC). Information about the Group and its plea was rapidly distributed through Facebook’s ‘social graph’, and in a few weeks the Group had thousands of members, and a large demonstration was organised. The demonstration attracted the attention of the Press as indeed did the novel means of its organization and the campaign spread further – in the process expanding the number of Facebook users since it was new to Columbia and associated only with ‘kids’ (4). The very visibility of the numbers of the Group emboldened the campaigners –“Facebook gave Columbia’s young people an easy, digital way to feel comfort in numbers to declare their disgust” – and the site itself provided a key point of organization and liaison. “Facebook was our headquarters ... It was the newspaper ... the central command ... the laboratory” (Morales quoted by Kirkpatrick, 5). President Uribe eventually succeeded in negotiating the release of the hostages but the Facebook campaign and the demonstration were credited with applying pressure on the FARC. Oscar Morales’s “group and the subsequent demonstration made him into a national and international celebrity” (6).
The anecdote illustrates nicely how Facebook establishes a social bond though the production of ‘faces’: the new technology of the social networking site enables Oscar Morales to become the face of the protest against FARC, and ultimately achieve ‘celebrity’. In Seminar XVII Lacan famously organizes the social bond across four terms:
It is clearly Facebook and the Group it enables (Un Millon Voces Contra Las FARC) that is the ‘agent’ here, addressed to the ‘other’ whose reference is FARC. The authority and ‘truth’ of the Facebook Group is grounded in the number of members of the Group galvanized in relation to the guerrillas. Although they were in the thousands rather than millions (there not being enough Facebook users in Columbia at the time), millions of people did demonstrate in cities across Columbia, inspired by the Group. In contradistinction to the inhuman facelessness of FARC, then, Facebook produces Oscar Morales as the (human) face of a Group actually made up of thousands of other faces like so many pixels or the digital code into which the face dissolves in the original Facebook logo.
The four main forms of the social bond for Lacan are the discourses of the Master, the Hysteric, the University and the Analyst. It seems to me that Facebook, appropriately given that it was developed at Harvard, is an example of University discourse in which knowledge (S2), supported by the signifier of the master (S1), is in the position of agent which, through its address to the lack constitutive of desire (objet petit a), produces the subject ($).
A certain modification is necessary however in order to discuss Facebook as a form of social bond with regard to this structure. Facebook is certainly a product of the University, but does not so much represent the ‘knowledge’ of the University as its ‘information’; it is not the agent of operative knowledge, but operative information. As such the structure can organize all the rankable degrees of University life on the same plane from social grooming to academic and professional achievement.
Famously, Facebook was developed at Harvard in a kind of perversion of its bureaucratic procedures. All Universities, colleges and fraternities had a ‘facebook’ of passport-style photographs that are held along with other information as a record of its staff and students. Zuckerberg and his colleagues, initially through Facemash leading to theFacebook used these procedures as a means for student enjoyment: self-promotion, narcissism, dating, voyeurism and so on. From the very beginning there was something ‘superegoic’ in the way in which its ‘obscene’ content (the inspired by the initial idea of comparing female students’ faces to farm animals for example) was conveyed by the apparent neutrality of bureaucratic form. Accordingly, the signifier (S1) that is the governing support of Facebook (S2) is not the name of a Master or a governing Idea of the University (Truth, Culture, Excellence), but a number (1) that stands for numbers generally, metrics, statistics, quantification and so on. The ‘knowledge’, then, if there is any, is statistical information that is operative through the manipulation of computerized data through the use of algorithms. With the Oscar Morales story, number (Un Millon Voces) provides the hyperbolic, even performative command that brings the Group into being as a mass, and its authority as a number provides its ‘comfort’ and security.
As everyone knows there is something uncanny about passport photographs and their inability to deliver a satisfyingly narcissistic image of one’s face (enabling them to be compared to farm animals, for instance). I don’t recognize this image; it’s not me! It is as if the photo booth steals some aspect of the face essential to its enjoyment as a mirror image. The digital face-making, or prosopopeia of Facebook, is predicated upon a generalized prosopagnosia (or prosop – a – gnosia) where the a stands for the lost enjoyment stolen by the bureaucratic passport photograph. However, the theft of enjoyment in the Oscar Morales story concerns the fact that he and his countrymen were cheated by the FARC of the collective joy that would have been brought by the sight of the face of Emmanuel, his suffering relieved by his release on Christmas day. The fact that he was quietly released by the hostages into a foster home without fuss or announcement seems to have produced an irrational rage in the Columbians, strange given the possible alternative: “People were happy because the kid was safe, but we were so fucking angry” (Kirkpatrick, 1). It is therefore into this gap, marked in its absence by the suffering or joyful face of Emmanuel in the field of mediatized visibility, that Facebook pours its information, a million faces combining to producing Oscar Morales as Columbia’s first Facebook star, making him “a national and international celebrity” (6). As such, however, he inevitably loses something, loses his offline, off camera ordinariness, becoming vulnerable to the harsh light of media attention and expectation as a hero of political and moral virtue.
Lacan presented his theory of the four discourses in the context of the events of May 1968, most notably in a rowdy exchange with students at Vincennes. Memorably, Lacan claimed that “the aspiration to revolution has but one conceivable issue, always, the discourse of the master”. At the same time, as Matthew Sharpe notes, Lacan also made the claim that university discourse “is increasingly becoming the dominant form structure of social relations”. While Lacan initially had in mind “the societies of the now-former Soviet bloc”, Sharpe shows that new forms of advertising in their ‘superegoic’ appeal to transgressive (as opposed to officially sanctioned) enjoyment are organized according to the same structure, since advertising “faces, and educates, a more or less unformed, ignorant individual” which it compels to consider, “from a quasi-superegoic position of neutral self-observation ... what we really are and really want, beneath whatever social masks and roles we may from time to time have taken up”.
Since about 2008, Facebook’s core business, its means of making money, has been advertising, but it is claimed that this is purely a means rather than an aim, and in any case “the word advertising is really no longer the right word for what is going on at Facebook” (Kirkpatrick, 263). Rather, Kirkpatrick argues that Facebook provides a space in which producers and consumers interact to the point of becoming indistinct as mutual users of the site. From the beginning “Thefacebook had no content of its own. It was merely a piece of software – a platform for content created by its users” (31) in which marketers can now pay for visibility for their products but “can no longer control the conversation” about them (263). For Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook ‘monetization’ merely generates the revenue necessary for a much more profound social project. The company is “founded on a radical social premise – that an enveloping transparency will overtake modern life”, and this premise is the foundation of Facebook’s utopian promise. As the story of Oscar Morales relates, Facebook can be an effective tool working for popular causes in the aid of the state – no doubt in other states it can work against them. As such, however, Facebook is not a neutral ‘tool’ for the political expression of popular reason. It is a form that is itself transformative of other political structures, ushering in a new kind of governmentality. “In a lot of ways”, Zuckerberg argues, “Facebook is more like a government than a traditional company. We have this large community of people, and more than other technology companies we’re really setting policies”. While particular technology companies are always vulnerable to the rapid exploitation of new technological innovations and a certain boredom threshold concerning their formats, Facebook has it seems made a decisive breakthrough in its reformatting of the social bond. In its infinite streams of commentary, ‘likes’ and followers of Groups and interests, Facebook has transformed the meaning of ‘Friendship’ and opened it up so that a transparent – or ‘transparental’ – love has become the principle of a new technology of neoliberal governance. Whatever the fate of Facebook, for this model to become truly revolutionary would require a further turn clockwise towards the discourse of the Master in which love for the face of the ‘transparental’ One, the index of the multiple, supports the total operationalization of social reality without remainder other than the facelessness that is produced as its surplus and condition.
From Scott Wilson, ‘Prosopopeia to Prosopagnosia: Dante on Facebook’ in Glossator 5 (2011): 19-56.