Sunday, August 26, 2007

As everyone knows, is a web-based communications network featuring software tools that enable its members to create “profiles” of themselves, that is, public personae, not only in the form of verbal information but also by means of a variety of expressive media such as digital images, video, and music. Indeed, the sheer act of presenting (or representing) oneself is a central activity of MySpace members. In addition to profiling themselves, however, members may also attract other members, who become their “friends,” and contact friends already in their network. Contact takes the form of posting commentary and testimonia on profiles (which are retained or deleted at the profiler’s discretion), which may then be commented on in turn by the profiler or others. The effect is to bring into being a “community” – if that is the right term – that is powerfully centered on individuals and their performance, through the expressive media available to them, of their own personalities. There is nothing necessarily “confessional” about this, though the occasional confession may take place. The atmosphere is more akin to the theatrical: what matters are the style, the stance, the intensity, and attraction of the personalities who appear to one another. Because the performances of their identities are “witnessed,” albeit virtually, by others, the question of who one is has as much to do with the opinions of others as with the raw data of one’s own profile. Seeing and being seen, in other words, or what the social interaction design theorist Adrian Chan characterizes as “presence” – presence constituted through the participation of witnesses who form judgments and comment on what they see – is what matters.

What sort of a “space” is MySpace, then? Some have pointed out that it is not a public space, because the kind of talk that goes on in it is anything but rational deliberation aimed at reaching a consensus on a matter of common concern. (When I asked my 16-year-old daughter whether anyone on MySpace discussed politics, she looked at me in silence but with an expression of grave concern for my mental well-being.) But this is to invoke an overly narrow conception of public space and its value.

For a more expansive perspective, we can turn to the insights of Hannah Arendt. For Arendt, the point of establishing a public space is to enable the experience of freedom and the appearance of individual distinction. Freedom ¬– that is, spontaneous, creative, unscripted activity in speech or deed – is possible to the extent that purely instrumental enterprises, activities that are valuable and meaningful only because they contribute to the achievement of a pre-established goal, are excluded. That exclusion is in large part what constitutes a public space. The participants in a public space come together for the sheer intrinsic pleasure of interacting with one another – seeing and being seen. Since nobody is in charge, there are neither leaders nor followers, but only peers who are at the same time actors and who might, if they are sufficiently impressive, become leaders of a sort and for a time. What matters here is the quality of an actor’s performance, above all his performance of his identity. That, of course, is a matter of taste, an aesthetic judgment, and Arendt insisted that the kind of commentary appropriate to what goes on in public is closer to literary criticism – how does this or that strike us, what does it mean? – than to the application of universal principles in accordance with the rules of rational argumentation.

To a great extent, this is the world of MySpace. Undoubtedly, there are many members who are more concerned with blending in than standing out, and so have little interest in what Arendt characterized as the “fiercely agonal spirit” that dominated what was for her the exemplary public space of the ancient Athenian polis. Nevertheless, agonism is very much on offer in the drive towards self-display, to distinguish oneself from others, to be noticed, to attract an audience, and to do so, again, in freedom – in a non-regulated environment where the only authority is that constituted momentarily by the expressed judgments of witnesses, such that whatever consensus might temporarily be achieved could be undermined at any time by the introduction of a fresh point of view.

As the digital communications theorist Danah Boyd has pointed out, it is no accident that it is young people, primarily teenagers, who have flocked to MySpace. Of course, they call what they do there “hanging out” and being “cool,” not the enactment of freedom. But perhaps they should. Their lives are, after all, profoundly characterized by the two elements that Arendt found most inimical to freedom: subjection to an external, undebatable goal, and regulation by means of rulership and rules. From school to home, this picture changes very little for today’s teenagers, for whom the steady parental and political drumbeat to organize their entire lives according to the imperative of enhancing their future marketability must be very close to unbearable.

Readers of Arendt, however, will no doubt be thinking at this point that Arendt herself was adamant that children must be protected from the potential calamities of the public sphere and its freedom. The public sphere is, she pointed out, essentially anarchic, because no one can predict or control the consequences of what is said and done there. Who one is as a public figure depends on reputation, and a reputation can go overnight from good to bad. Adults can decide to take on the risks of appearing in public, but children need a stabler, safer, more predictable world.

If it were only a matter of reputation, we might be inclined to regard Arendt’s views on children as merely quaint. Today’s teenagers cannot avoid an education in freedom – that is, in imagination and spontaneity – for nothing less will equip them with the spiritual resources to find meaning in a cold and lonely society (certainly not Creationism or Intelligent Design). But as the news media and politicians have lately insisted, there are other dangers that come along with the freedom of expression and communication provided by sites like MySpace – though it is also clear that these dangers have been hysterically exaggerated. Education, awareness, and forms of accountability are clearly in order. But it would be a travesty if, in the name of safety and security, measures were taken to suppress the very features by means of which MySpace shelters freedom for self-assertion and self-development for a generation badly in need of it.


Matthew Cole said...

Interesting stuff. I don't take any issue with your reading of Arendt, but I think your views on teen cyber-culture are a bit off the mark. Being myself a teenager who is very active online and grew up in generation MySpace, I think you grossly exaggerate the "freedom" offered by online expression via networking sites. The type of judgments you mention - "an aesthetic judgment" from our peers of how our identities our performed - and the type of authority you describe - "hat constituted momentarily by the expressed judgments of witnesses" - are precisely the social pressures most relevant to children. Believe me, I can count one hand the number of times I felt overwhelmed by the pressure of my marketability in high school, but I would have to struggle to find a day in the past ten years of my life where I didn't sincerely wonder (and often, worry) how a particular action would strike my peers.

Nick J. Sciullo said...

Networking sites are quite prevalent now. Myspace, Facebook, and even LinkedIn (for the more professional folks) have all become quite popular.

I've been working on a Baudrillard and IMing piece discussing the ways in which IMing is actually killing us--leading us down a road that seeks simply to volley back and forth packets of electrical information. In short, we are becoming typable commodities.

Part of this is because of the "freedom" of the internet. It's a lot easier to be aggressive on IM because you don't have someone looking you in the face. Likewise, networking sites allow you to choose what your profile looks like, who can see it, what it says, and what it does not say.

You never really know what's going on online because everyone is performing identity through a screen. This is not a simple screen like the telephone or a photograph, but a complex layered screen with an endlesss number of reconfigurations.

I do not doubt for a second that societal pressures still play an important roll in deciding whether or not your profile background is 50 Cent or Ashlee Simpson, or if you show you and your parter kissing on the Golden Gate Bridge, but networking sites surely do provide a greater degree of privacy and an interesting screen through which to be "oneself."