The Guardian ran Tom Hodgkinson blistering critique of Facebook a couple of days ago. While I'm not in the business of defending any particular social networking site – I’m a platform neutral kind of gal - I do however see the value in social networking sites and I am interested in exploring their potential for social participation and for formal and informal education.
I’m going to ignore my lack of surprise that old media fosters and promotes attacks on new media, since what I’m interested in here isn’t the ongoing bun fight between sections of both, but in addressing some of the digital literacy and social participation issues that Hodgkinson's rant raises.
Some of the arguments are Facebook specific, many spill over to address social networking services and those who use them in general. Since the figures are pretty staggering - and aren't showing signs of slowing down, it may be more useful to look at how we can move the arguments and services forward rather than just advising people to opt out, or even worse, start banning stuff.
1. Facebook as a neo-con libertarian social experiment.
One of the main arguments is about association: because Facebook is bankrolled and directed by the Machiavellian neo-con Pay-Pal guy Peter Thiel, and others who can be regarded as ideologically dubious, Facebook membership supports a particular ideology and puts money in to the pocket of those who believe in it. Ownership and profit is a dilemma that most people have to face daily and isn't unfortunately restricted to a single social networking site. If I watch the Simpsons (which I do), however hilariously subversive it might be, I've got to accept I'm supporting the Fox Network and helping the people who make money out of the network make some more money.
Technology is not neutral. Services and products rarely get to be big simply because they are really loveable/offer the best tool set. Tech development is funded for political/ideological ends and motives. Tech is generally designed to serve some non-neutral purpose. Technologies have social and political impacts. And in general, people who are funding stuff are not doing it just for a love of humanity. This doesn't mean that tech can't be used in subversive or in positive ways, just that non of us are operating in an ideologically vacuum.
2. Technology alienates rather than connects.
Hodgekinson argues that Social Networking Services provide the spectacle of community, connection and collaboration whilst actually robbing humans of meaningful, real interactions. Personally, I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who have fallen in love on line, many of whom have gone on to have relationships where they do meet up and get married. Is their online interaction with each other somehow fake? No, of course it isn’t. Hooking up with and getting to know someone online isn’t a shoddy substitute for picking someone up in a bar on a Friday night. It’s just a different type of interaction. Relying on some notion of the real that involves only three dimensional interaction not only dismisses the history and role of information communication technologies (do love letters not count? Does finding out about a war not really mean anything if it’s from the television?), it ignores the fact that the internet and being online isn’t a separate space from 'real world interactions' – its just a different one. My son often meets up with his friends in virtual worlds and on gaming sites. Not only is he continuing and developing his existing friendships, he’s using and developing his social and literacy skills. Maybe not in ways that Hodgkinson appreciates, but certainly in ways which will help him get a job and manage the disparate groups that are typical of friend and family networks within industrial societies.
A part of this argument includes Hodgekinson’s problem with people constructing overly flattering artificial representations of themselves. Again, he hasn’t looked at as many profiles as I have because a lot of them could do with advice in how not to represent yourself to the world. Presenting a more flattering picture of yourself to people you haven't previously met doesn't make you a liar, it makes you normal.
3. Friendship is a universal, unwavering category
Hodgekinson seems to only have one definition for the word friend. ‘(insert social networking service) friends’ – are not necessarily your real friends (unless that’s how you work your connections). They are more often than not a badly thought out disparate set of connections, made up of people you really do know and like, people you went to work or were in formal education with, family members and complete strangers.
4. Facebook as an all encompassing data-leech monster
Actually this would make a great horror movie. Not about Facebook of course - any of the named services would sue. But just some generic social networking site. If any South Korean film producers are reading this – I’m up for scripting. We could launch a brand off the back of it - it would be like Death Cigarettes all over again. Hodgekinson's line “The US defense department and the CIA love technology because it makes spying easier” is going in there.
5. “Facebook is profoundly uncreative”
Social Networking Services and social media tools provide platforms across which users create and deploy their own selection of content. Hodgekinson argues that they aren't providing services of any real value, since users are the ones doing all the hard work. You may as well argue that swimming baths and playgrounds shouldn’t be funded. Does the whole web 2.0 revolution boil down to virtual republics of idiots who donate their labour and data not only for free but in order to be exploited? My guess is that people are pretty much the same offline as they are online, in terms of their interests, intelligence levels and willingness to be exploited. There's no doubt that the internet can be used to support creativity, play, communication, and community building, and offers unprecedented opportunities for social participation and collaboration. Throwing your hands up in horror and going off to plant seeds in your back yard is one way of responding to services and practices you don't like. Or you could actually try doing something about them.