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Abstract

This essay argues that the liberal arts must play a role in explaining the origins and consequences of social communications technologies. Once we recognize their function and comprehend their impact on communities, we may consider how best to incorporate social networking and related technologies into a twenty-first-century liberal arts curriculum.

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other related social communications technologies have changed the way human beings communicate. They have given individuals the capacity to disseminate information much more quickly and much more broadly than ever before. They have encouraged people to make their personal photos, religious beliefs, and mobile phone numbers available not just to family and friends but also to co-workers, old elementary school classmates, and even strangers. Social communications technologies have also made it much easier to sustain relationships across distance and time, to rekindle dormant relationships, and to begin new ones. So profoundly have our communicative capacities been altered by these technologies that dramatic and irreversible changes to the very shape and structure of human community must necessarily follow.

There was a time when such a claim might justifiably have been called hyperbolic, but that was before summer 2010, when Facebook surpassed 500 million users, including 41 percent of all Americans and nearly 48 percent of all Canadians (Cowan, 2010, p. 28). Now that there are more people using Facebook than there are people living in North America, it is impossible not to believe that something very significant is happening to the world. And Facebook's unrivaled growth is just the most obvious indication. For instance, in September 2011 the Guardian reported that Twitter now has 100 million active members who post an average of 230 million messages, or "tweets," each day (Kiss, 2011). Similarly, a recent study by Nielsen (2010) reveals that American teenagers between the ages of thirteen and seventeen send and receive an average of 3,339 text messages [End Page 264] a month. Statistics like these cry out for explication. How did Facebook become so popular so quickly? What types of discourse are made possible and impossible by Twitter's microblogging format? Will teenagers' reliance on text messaging negatively impact their ability to communicate face-to-face? It falls to teachers and researchers working in the liberal arts to answer these and the many other questions raised by the ascendance of social communications technologies. As I will argue here, the success of these technologies is premised on their ability to satisfy certain human impulses, impulses that existed long before the Internet. Therefore, understanding Facebook, Twitter, and the like requires comprehension of human aspirations, desires, and customs, as well as comprehension of how those drives and tendencies can be structured by environmental factors. In other words, insofar as social communications technologies are primarily human concerns, then those who study human beings, their creations, and their communities are among the best suited to understand them.

Moreover, given that young people—those who are currently enrolled in university or will enroll soon—are among the most active users of this technology, and are therefore the demographic most powerfully affected by it, liberal arts teachers have an added responsibility to address the subject.1 Insofar as educators consider it important that their students think critically about religious and political institutions, literature, film, and the other media they expose themselves to, and insofar as teachers consider it important that their students become conscious of the ways sexuality, language, socioeconomic class, and race play a role in shaping human identity, it is equally important that they address these new modes of human expression. Technologies, after all, are never neutral. They shape us as we use them.2 That Facebook, along with its corollaries and descendants, "will forever alter, for better or worse, the ways in which people relate in person" (Westlake, 2008, p. 23) seems all but certain. The pressing concern for those working in the liberal arts is how to best understand and, if necessary, intervene in this social communications revolution.

In this essay I will focus on Facebook, the social networking platform that, more than any other technology, has become emblematic of the new communications landscape. This essay is, first, an attempt to explain the reasons for social networking's popularity and second, a preliminary exploration of Facebook's implications. What does it mean to have 500 million people occupying the same space on the Internet? This essay is thus, in part, a response to what Boon and Sinclair (2009) have identified as an "urgent need to theorise online identity," though I am less concerned with "the roles of academics and students, and the codes of practice in such environments," and more interested in the need for liberal arts teachers, programs, and institutions to give more space to social communications technologies in their courses and their curriculums (p. 99). [End Page 265] My hope is that by explaining the causes and the implications of Facebook's stunning ascendance, this essay will serve as a spur to further critical investigation by others. Economists, anthropologists, political scientists, and psychologists as well as experts in narrative and media will be needed to interpret the effects of these new technologies, and the sooner they begin their work, the better.

Facebook and Performance

Much of the work that has already been done on Facebook emphasizes the ways in which the social network is actively redrawing the boundary between the public and the private. Facebook has enabled hundreds of millions of people, particularly young people, to publicize personal information about themselves on the Internet. Some researchers have investigated the personality factors that motivate this kind of information disclosure (Christofides, Muise, & Desmarais, 2009). Others have cautioned us about the "reckless tendency" of some students "to post anything and everything" on the Internet (Peluchette & Karl, 2010, p. 30). Even Tapscott (2008), who is more optimistic about the effects of technology on young people than most, has expressed concern about oversharing online:

Of all my concerns, one big one stands out. [Today's youth] are making a serious mistake, and most of them don't realize it. They're giving away their personal information on social networks and elsewhere and in doing so are undermining their future privacy. They tell me they don't care; it's all about sharing. But here I must speak with the voice of experience. Some day that party picture is going to bite them when they seek a senior corporate job or public office. I think they should wake up, now, and become aware of the extent to which they're sharing parts of themselves that one day they may wish they had kept private.

(p. 7)

However, critics have not reached a consensus about the dangers associated with these digital disclosures. Westlake (2008), for example, argues that Facebook is not the "forum of deviant exhibitionism" that some think it is but, rather, a "forum for the policing and establishing of normative behavior" (p. 35).

Implicit in all of these analyses—and in the general public anxiety over online sharing—is a recognition that all individuals have a public face that must be carefully regulated. On Facebook an ill-considered status update or an unflattering picture posted to a user's profile (perhaps taken and posted without her knowledge) can damage the user's reputation in the eyes of her associates. Even the most prudent and discrete users are not entirely safe from shame and embarrassment, because on Facebook one's reputation is only as good as the [End Page 266] judgment of one's friends. A friend might use foul language or poor grammar on a user's profile; he might post pictures taken after a night of drinking or links to racy Web sites as a joke. In doing so one friend necessarily alters the character of another's public face. Maintaining her reputation, then, requires that the user be vigilant and manage her profile meticulously.

In claiming that a Facebook profile constitutes a public face that can be more or less carefully managed, I am merely stating what other astute critics have already noticed: that Facebook is really a new kind of performance space. Boon and Sinclair (2009), for instance, suggest that all Facebook profiles "contain an element of performativity in their makeup. Our life on the screen embodies, to one extent or another, a life on the stage, albeit a digital one" (p. 103). John Cassidy recognized Facebook's performative aspect some time ago; in an early article on the site written for the New Yorker he discusses how the social network "quickly became a platform for self-promotion, a place to boast and preen and vie for others' attention" (2006, p. 3). Sociologist Duncan Watts in the same article likens spending time on Facebook to "hanging out at the mall": in his estimation the purpose of the site was to see and be seen by others in a social setting (Cassidy, 2006, p. 6). Watts's comparison of Facebook to a digital hangout in which kids pose and show off for one another, gossip and flirt, likewise captures the performative nature of the site. However, it is also important to recognize that Watts made this statement sometime around May 2006; it is important because up to that point Facebook was exclusively the domain of the young. Facebook launched as a service exclusively for college students in 2004. High school students were allowed to join later in 2005, but in fall 2006 Facebook became open to everyone (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 196). And today, if college students and middle school kids are hanging out at the virtual mall that is Facebook, so, too, are parents, politicians, doctors, business people, and university professors. Consequently, the "hanging out at the mall" model, with its connotations of juvenile time-wasting, is now an antiquated way of thinking about what happens on Facebook and what kind of performance space it is. Facebook is now used by hundreds of millions of people, old and young alike; this reality necessitates the development a new model that takes into account the breadth of Facebook's appeal. Here, I will attempt to construct such a model by examining what I consider the key factors contributing to the social network's popularity.

Ultimately, it will become clear that Facebook's primary innovations are actually imitations, digital replications of offline conditions. Facebook has created a space on the Internet that is public in a traditional sense: a space where the user's actions, her appearance, and the things she says are subject to the scrutiny of others. Moreover, there may be consequences of a person's behavior on Facebook that resemble the consequences of her behavior in the offline world. Users thus [End Page 267] perform on Facebook much like they do in the classroom, or at the office, or at a party. This, I submit, is primarily why Facebook became so popular so quickly, not because it was novel but because it was familiar.

For example, In The Facebook Effect, David Kirkpatrick (2010) notes that one of Facebook's particular innovations was ensuring that users identified themselves using their real names. In the beginning, in order to join Facebook, one had to have a recognized university e-mail address. This criterion had the effect of verifying that users really were who they said they were. Facebook was thus a way for people "to reflect online their genuine identity" (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 6). It is important to recognize how revolutionary this idea was. Remember that anonymity has traditionally been one of the Internet's key features. The short history of the Internet is littered with pseudonyms: handles like kittenlover42, sexyguy16, or bc_bosoxfan dominate message boards and the comments sections of online newspapers. It was once common policy on the Internet to keep one's offline identity a secret; to some extent it still is. Before Facebook, one's computer functioned as a disguise, masking one's "genuine identity" within online communities. Facebook changed that, integrating the online performance and the offline person. By prompting users to produce a real name, a real e-mail address, and a real photo, Facebook encouraged users to create online identities that mirrored their offline identities (Kirkpatrick, 2010, pp. 12-13). As a consequence of linking the online self to the offline self, the fluidity and range of one's online performances were severely limited. In a traditional online community such as a chat room it is very easy for a forty-year-old man from Toronto to impersonate a twenty-one-year-old woman from Montreal. In the offline world such a performance would be significantly more complicated, and it would be similarly complicated on Facebook, where one's name and picture—in other words, a relatively authentic representation of selfhood—are required for the site to be functional for the user (Kujath, 2011, p. 76).3 Facebook's first innovation, then, was to allow users to replicate digitally the same identities they inhabit in their day-to-day lives.

Its next innovation was making it possible for one's network—the audience—to contribute to the construction of the user's identity by posting pictures or making comments on one's profile page. On Facebook "identity is not an individual characteristic but a social product created not only by what you share, but also by what others share and say about you" (Christofides et al., 2009, p. 343). According to Dalsgaard (2008), identity on Facebook "is presented relationally, in that a profile without connections to friends would make no sense since that is the whole point of the social networking site" (p. 9). The important thing to recognize is that this collaborative construction of identity is not something Facebook invented but, rather, a digital reproduction of the way [End Page 268] humans are always performing offline. This is a crucial point, and perhaps not an intuitive one, so I will need to explain at some length how user performances on Facebook are remarkably like the performances that people regularly mount in the offline world.

Goffman (2005) is a good starting point, as he articulates offline identity construction in much the same way critics tend to talk about performances on Facebook, emphasizing the collaborative nature of the process: "In any case, while his social face can be his most personal possession and the center of his security and pleasure, it is only on loan to him from society" (p. 10). Goffman theorizes how identities are constructed in the social sphere and at times suggests that identity has no meaning outside of that sphere: "A status, a position, a social place is not a material thing, to be possessed and then displayed; it is a pattern of appropriate conduct, coherent, embellished, and well articulated. Performed with ease or clumsiness, awareness or not, guile or good faith, it is none the less something that must be realized" (1990, p. 81).

On the subject of the collaborative character of human identity, one might also turn to a critic such as Butler (1990), who argues that "gender is the repeated stylization of the body, a set of repeated acts within a highly rigid regulatory frame that congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance, of a natural sort of being" (p. 33). According to Butler, gender does not exist prior to the subject's acting but, rather, is constituted in those actions: "In this sense, gender is always a doing, though not a doing by a subject who might be said to preexist the deed" (1990, p. 25). The real revolution of Butler's work is that she demonstrates how much of human identity—even gender—is actually performed, how much the coherent and individuated subjectivities so fundamental to our political and social institutions are actually defined collaboratively: that is, through a performative transaction between the subject and the spectator.

In his work The End of History and the Last Man, political philosopher Francis Fukuyama (2002) draws upon the work of G. W. F. Hegel to reach similar conclusions. He argues that regimes rise and fall based on their ability or inability to satisfy the inalienable human desire for recognition: "Above all, [a person] desires the desire of other men, that is, to be wanted by others or to be recognized. Indeed, for Hegel an individual could not become self-conscious, that is, become aware of himself as a separate human being, without being recognized by other human beings. Man, in other words, was from the start a social being: his own sense of self-worth and identity is intimately connected with the value that other people place on him" (2002, pp. 146-47).

According to Fukuyama, the trajectory of political change—particularly revolutions that seek to replace autocracies with democracies—has, for centuries, [End Page 269] been motivated by this human desire for recognition. Thus he, like Goffman and Butler, conceives of human identity as a collaborative construction: "To have subjective certainty about one's own sense of worth, it must be recognized by another consciousness" (2002, p. 166).

It is essential to recognize, too, that this idea—that identity, while inextricably bound to a particular individual, is not wholly authored by that individual— is not merely a postmodern notion. Facebook's success cannot be attributed simply to its ability to capitalize on turn-of-the-century attitudes about unstable identities: rather, it seems that Facebook responds to something in the structure of human identity, not a trend but, rather, a truth. Consider, for example, that in the work of William Shakespeare we find arguments very similar to those advanced by Goffman, Butler, and Fukuyama. Honor and reputation are among the major preoccupations of Shakespearean drama. In plays such as Henry IV, >Pt. 1, Othello, Coriolanus, and Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare gives us multiple articulations of the same problem: if honor is the measure of a person's self-worth, then one's value as a leader, or spouse, or person is determined entirely by others. This is an argument that a career theater professional like Shakespeare would no doubt have understood intuitively. Perhaps the clearest articulation of this argument in all of the playwright's work comes in Troilus and >Cressida, Shakespeare's account of the Trojan War. After the Greek hero Achilles has abandoned the campaign against the Trojans (significantly, because he feels that he is not respected), his comrade Ulysses tries to convince him to return, appealing to the hero's lust for fame by claiming

That no man is lord of anything,Though in and of him there be much consisting,Till he communicate his parts to others;Nor doth he of himself know them for aughtTill he behold them formed in th'applauseWhere they're extended; who, like an arch, reverb'rateThe voice again; or, like a gate of steelFronting the sun, receives and renders backHis figure and his heat.

(III.3.1116-23)

Ulysses thus suggests that whatever virtues an individual has are worth nothing "till he communicate his parts to others." So Shakespeare, too, like Goffman, Butler, and Fukuyama—only 400 years earlier—suggests that the self is not self-made but, rather, generated through performance, specifically public performance.

That identity is profoundly performative has therefore been acknowledged by a wide variety of thinkers over a long period of time. Part of the reason [End Page 270] Facebook's ascendance should not be surprising, then, is because it merely encourages users to do online what they have been doing offline all of their lives. Facebook works because its operations and terms are fundamentally familiar to its users. It encourages them to perform their identities in very conventional ways, ways that are typical of the offline world but unprecedented in the online world. Consequently, Facebook has not really changed people so much as it has changed the nature of the Internet. The social network has turned the Internet into a much more traditional public space: that is the nature of its innovation.

My argument is that by encouraging this type of performance, one that is connected to and limited by offline identities and is also collaborative, involving the audience in the production of the identities performed, Facebook has enabled a traditional version of the public sphere to migrate onto the Internet. Facebook is therefore more than simply a tool or a hangout. It is quite literally uncharted territory, territory that is being populated and cultivated at an astounding rate. Facebook may therefore represent a new phase in the evolution of human community. It is necessary, then, for a twenty-first-century liberal arts curriculum to address this phenomenon in a substantive way.

Facebook's Effects

Considine, Horton, and Moorman (2010) have argued that in order to "prepare today's students to succeed in the 21st century, educators must begin to address the complex, high-tech media environments that are part of everyday life. This involves understanding what media and technology do to today's young people along with the equally intriguing issue of what they do with it" (p. 472). Too often it seems that governments, administrators, and teachers take it for granted that equipping students with technology and teaching them mastery over it is a good. But new technologies do not come without consequences, and those consequences need to be weighed carefully. If, for example, I am correct that Facebook has allowed the public sphere to migrate onto the Internet in an unprecedented fashion, then the implications are obviously far-reaching.

While some researchers have already begun to investigate how these technologies affect the social tendencies and attitudes of young people, raising important questions about cyberbullying (Subrahmanyam & Greenfield, 2010) and jealousy (Muise, Christofides, & Desmarais, 2009), much more needs to be done. There is, for example, a discernible tendency in Facebook criticism to focus exclusively on how the social network affects young people. And while this is necessary work, such a tendency suggests that teachers and researchers have not yet let go of the "hanging out at the mall" model for understanding Facebook. Consequently, researchers and students are left with a stunted view of how great Facebook's impact could actually be. [End Page 271]

Some critics have started to recognize the social network's potential power; particularly in the wake of the 2008 presidential election in the United States, researchers have begun to argue that Facebook's political efficacy needs to be taken seriously (Jackson, Dorton, & Heindl, 2010; Park, Kee, & Valenzuela, 2009). One study, for example, contends that Facebook and other social networking sites constitute "a democratic space where public interests, opinions, agendas and problems are formed, transformed, and exchanged by citizens' proactive participation" (Robertson, Vatrapu, & Medina, 2010, p. 13). This broader and more expansive consideration of Facebook's effects needs to be developed further. Facebook is more than a modification of e-mail or the personal Web site. It is more than an electronic yearbook or a virtual mall. Facebook replicates online the essential conditions traditionally found in offline public venues. That has never been done before. As a consequence, the social network has created the conditions that have allowed the public sphere to migrate onto the Internet, and the implications of this migration are varied and great.

By way of example allow me to posit that insofar as Facebook has organized a large population of people on the Internet, and insofar as it has jurisdiction over this community of users, one might be justified in considering Facebook the world's first digital government. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's founder and CEO, has suggested as much: "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" (Kirkpatrick, 2010, p. 254). Recent developments at Facebook support this claim. For example, on February 26, 2009, in response to user uproar over alterations to the company's terms of service, Facebook published a "Statement of Rights and Responsibilities" (sometimes referred to as a "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities"), outlining the terms of the relationship between Facebook and its users. It reads like a code of laws, prohibiting antisocial and duplicitous behavior: "You will not bully, intimidate, or harass any user"; "You will not provide any false personal information on Facebook, or create an account for anyone other than yourself without permission"; "You will not create more than one personal profile" (Facebook, 2010a). This statement was published alongside a list called "Facebook Principles," a kind of constitution, which asserts, "People should have the freedom to share whatever information they want, in any medium and any format, and have the right to connect online with anyone—any person, organization or service—as long as they both consent to the connection"; "People should own their information"; "People should have the freedom to access all of the information made available to them by others" (Facebook, 2009).

Significantly, these two documents were adopted by Facebook as the result of a user vote, in which over 650,000 people participated (Ullyot, 2009). [End Page 272] Professor of Law Jonathan Zittrain (2009) responded to Facebook's decision to hold a user vote by applauding the company for encouraging its users to think of themselves as "Citizens of Facebook."4 Since the vote, Facebook (2010b) has established a permanent page within its network dedicated to Facebook Site Governance; the page informs users of any changes to Facebook's Statement of Rights and Responsibilities and encourages them to comment prior to the adoption of those changes. Its logo is a ballot box.

Also, a recent article in the New York Times reveals that Facebook has established a "virtual police squad charged with taking down content that is illegal or violates Facebook's terms of service" (Helft, 2010). Facebook, like offline political communities, has had to learn how to prioritize and protect competing and conflicting liberties, such as one person's right to free speech and another person's right to be protected from harassment and verbal abuse. All of this points to the fact that Facebook's creators and its users are developing a sense of themselves as belonging to a political community, one that should function in ways similar to political communities in the offline world. Many questions emerge from this argument. Are we watching the transformation of a private company into a democracy? Is such a transformation even possible? What are the costs and benefits associated with Facebook citizenship? How do the rules governing digital politics differ from those governing traditional offline politics? The relevance of these questions to economists, anthropologists, and political scientists should be apparent. Similar points of contact can no doubt be found between Facebook and other disciplines. The idea of a new kind of citizenship, the possibility of a fully developed digital politics, and the transformation of the Internet into a more traditional public space—each of these issues is of pressing concern to human beings. It is essential, then, that liberal arts programs and institutions find ways to seriously consider these phenomena in their classrooms.

Facebook in the Curriculum

If Facebook is indeed both a performance space and a new kind of politics, then the liberal arts are the natural locus for investigating it. Insofar as the liberal arts are concerned with modes of human expression, with cultural and ideological frameworks, and with power and its objects (among other things, obviously), then Facebook and other social communications technologies are suitable subjects for serious study in liberal arts classrooms.

Obviously the easiest way for teachers to incorporate social communications technologies into the curriculum is by discussing them within the contexts of courses that already exist. For instance, in 2009 I dedicated a small portion of an English course on research methods to social networking by exploring Facebook's narrative properties with my students. We examined the various elements that [End Page 273] make up a Facebook profile, such as photographs, status updates, and shared Internet links, and discussed how users employ those elements to construct elaborate stories about who they are as people—continuously updated online autobiographies. In 2011 I visited a sociology class studying surveillance to talk about the ways that Facebook collapses discrete social networks—co-workers, family members, classmates—into one homogeneous mass of Facebook friends and how this new kind of audience demands that users behave in very particular ways online. Finding opportunities like these to explore Facebook within the context of broader investigations of more traditional liberal arts subjects is crucial. Making such connections is, of course, a very effective way for teachers to relate course content to students' everyday lives, but more importantly, incorporating Facebook into class discussions provides students with the opportunity to think critically about a technology that is actively reshaping their world.

However, isolated in-class discussions are just initial steps. Universities need to develop classes dedicated to the study of social communications technologies: film courses on YouTube and anthropology courses on Twitter. Ultimately, arts faculties and liberal arts universities need to invest in digital studies—either though programs or through separate departments dedicated to the subject. The study of digital media and social communications technologies seems sufficiently important to warrant inclusion and status equal to the study of religion, literature, politics, and history. This may seem like a bold suggestion; however, the alternatives are altogether undesirable. One is for the liberal arts to allow social communications technologies to expand and develop, steered mainly by commercial interests, without considering their consequences in a concerted, cooperative way. Another is that arts faculties allow other parts of the university community, namely, engineering, business, and computer science faculties, as well as university administrations under pressure from governments to produce easily measurable economic gains, to dictate their role in a world increasingly dependent upon social communications technology. Certainly, it is not difficult to foresee English Ph.D. graduates being hired to teach Texting for Business courses in the near future. I believe that teachers and researchers working in the liberal arts must engage with the world of social communications technology on their own terms—or be forced to engage with it on someone else's.

To be clear, incorporating social communications technology into the curriculum is not simply a marketing issue, a way to demonstrate relevance to skeptical administrators and university students; rather, social communications technologies warrant the attention of teachers and researchers in liberal arts disciplines. To ignore them would be foolhardy and, I think, unethical. Moreover, it is crucially important for the liberal arts to develop and train a new generation of academics today that will be capable of comprehending the complexities of an evolving technological landscape. [End Page 274]

Facebook's (2012) own press page reveals that the site now has 955 million active users; it seems all but certain that the number will reach one billion before long. The significance of social networking is incontrovertible, and again, Facebook is only the most prominent part of a much broader communications revolution that includes text messaging, Twitter, YouTube, and many other technologies. As these technologies become increasingly integral to how human beings live their lives in the twenty-first century, it will only become more important for teachers and students to confront them in the classroom.

Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore teaches in the Great Books Program at St. Thomas University. He has previously published work on a diversity of subjects including literature, television, political theory, and social media. His current work investigates Shakespeare's anticipation of social contract theory.

Notes

1. A 2011 Pew Research Center poll found that 73 percent of American teenagers and 72 percent of young adults (eighteen-twenty-nine) who use the Internet visit social networking Web sites (Lenhart, Purcell, Smith, & Zickuhr, 2010, pp. 2-3).

2. See Grant, 1986, for an account of how technology shapes its users.

3. Users, for example, are unlikely to share personal information with strangers from Montreal, but they will share that information with a familiar face from their offline social network.

4. See Kirkpatrick, 2010, pp. 307-10, for an account of this episode and Facebook's decision to hold its first user vote.

References

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Additional Information

ISSN
1527-2060
Print ISSN
0021-3667
Pages
264-276
Launched on MUSE
2012-10-03
Open Access
No
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