On Networked Publics and the Facebook

At a recent party, an acquaintance asked where I’d disappeared to. Nowhere, I said, and when I inquired into what prompted their question, they responded by saying that they couldn’t find me on the Facebook. I was a little surprised about this since I am hardly the first person to deactivate or delete an account; in the United States and the European Union, the Facebook’s membership has peaked and has been declining for a few years while engagement is in a steep decline.

Still, the Facebook has effectively replaced most social communication for many people, so I initially had some anxiety about deactivating my account. I thought it would be hard to go without the Facebook since it gathered together people from throughout my life and career and also hosted a few key discussion groups that I enjoyed (mainly pertaining to modular synthesis). Two months later, I don’t feel I am missing out on anything; on the contrary, I am more at ease. Losing the constant noise of the Facebook feed is a joy. If anyone actually wants to get in touch, I am here.

The connections we establish on Facebook are superficial. Birthdays are a case in point: it’s lovely when people remember your birthday, but they don’t really, the Facebook prompts them too. And a couple of happy birthdays doesn’t excuse the toxic impact the site has had on politics, which I find much more oppressive than Twitter, which is used by a large number of journalists and bloggers. My most active Twitter circle is composed of some of the best writers in the architecture and urbanism today as well as a smattering of people involved with digital culture. So, when I mentioned I was quitting Facebook, William Ball sent a link to a scary article by Timothy McLaughlin about how Facebook’s rise in Mynamar fueled genocide while Frank Pasquale lamented that Facebook might wind up like Big Tobacco, accepting the shrinking of its domestic market since it is doing so well overseas.        

This gets me to thinking. Something has changed in network culture: the 2016 election and the end of the Facebook’s growth in the US and EU are indicators that the heady exuberance about the Net has turned to anxiety and dismay. That the methods of communication used by networked publics are fundamentally flawed in a way that earlier publics were not isn’t just something that scholars talk about anymore, it’s something we all face, daily. Back when we took on the term as an object of study at the Annenberg Center for Communications, we understood “networked publics” to refer to a group of individuals with a particular interest in connecting together digitally. Some researchers—not coincidentally sponsored by technology corporations rather than universities—mistakenly depicted social network sites as networked publics in themselves. This is a category error: with few exceptions (the first incarnation of aSmallWorld, intended as a gathering place for the mega-rich and their hangers-on comes to mind), social networking sites act not as publics in themselves but rather as hosts or platforms on which, in theory, individuals could participate in a variety of different publics.

But they don’t. Algorithms ensure posts only reach individuals who “like” similar content, inhibiting the discussion and deliberation necessary to create a public, supplanting it with a brown slime of happy (or angry, or sad, depending on sorts of things one “likes”) posts. Social networking sites profit off of various malignant actors who promote content covertly. Controversy is good, creating more engagement, regardless of the human cost.

If publics can’t form on social networking sites and if, for many people, social networking sites are the primary means of interacting with others, is it possible that publics and public discourse are becoming extinct as a consequence? When I see people saying “it’s time for us to have a conversation” when they really want to shame you into accepting whatever idea they have adopted as their cause that day, I wonder if we have become completely unable to engage in actual public discourse. After all, the modern category of the public is less than four centuries old. Why should we be so bold as to think it will endure?

 

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