The Dark Side of the Social Network

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Back when I was writing the introduction to a (then) new chapter for the sixth edition of Signs of Life in the U.S.A. called “You-Topian Dreams: MySpace, Your Space, and the Semiotics of Web 2.0,” MySpace was still far and away the most popular social networking site compared to sites like Facebook and Friendster. In the interval between the sixth and the just-completed seventh edition of Signs of Life, however, Facebook has overwhelmed MySpace in popularity, having crossed over what Malcolm Gladwell has called “the tipping point,” and in so doing has become a snowballing international corporate phenomenon rivaling even Google in wealth and power. The rise of Facebook calls for a thorough semiotic analysis, an exploration that has already begun through the work of such researchers as danah boyd, who has found a startling socioeconomic and racial component in the eclipse of MySpace. (Simply put, boyd’s demographic investigations suggest that MySpace has been deserted by white middle-class users who have fled to the tonier pastures of Harvard-born Facebook.) There will be much more research in the years to come, and this blog is no place for a complete analysis, but I would like to tease out one angle of the decidedly overdetermined Facebook phenomenon that I find to be both significant and troubling. This signifier appeared in some comments I read recently on an online forum where I spend a fair amount of time. Though the forum is devoted to a particular hobby and the technical gear needed to pursue it, it has evolved into something very much like a social networking site, with members interacting in quite personal ways, referring to each other as “family,” exchanging photographs and MP3 music files, and even raising money when a member suffers an economic reversal. Of course, many members of the forum also have Facebook pages, and they also interact with each other there. The other day, one member who had not yet joined Facebook did so, and reported the fact to the forum. She also put out a call for “friends.” Immediately, forum members with Facebook pages chimed in and a flurry of “friending” transpired. In the midst of this someone remarked how a certain unpopular member of the forum had only two friends on Facebook, and a lot of virtual giggling broke out. The people involved here are all middle-aged, so I was particularly struck by their regression to grade-school antics. The competition for friends on Facebook, and the way people keep score on such matters, has been much remarked (and even noted by the management of Facebook itself, which, I have read, has limited the number of friends users can have in an attempt to get some control over the “friending” frenzy). Clearly, the tyranny of the playground popularity poll can endure into middle age, but there is something more profound going on that lies at the heart of American culture. That something is the fundamental contradiction between the simultaneous American tendencies toward social populism and social elitism that I explored many years ago in my book The Signs of Our Time. The chapter “Masters of Desire: The Culture of American Advertising” looked at the way the populist/elitist dichotomy unfolds in American ad campaigns, but the same contradiction is to be found throughout our society. It therefore comes as no surprise to me to find it on Facebook. How so? It’s really rather simple. The apparent appeal of Facebook is populist: it is a site for gathering and sharing, a place where people can come together and interact regardless of their social status. But as danah boyd’s work warns us, there is an anything-but-populist undercurrent at work. Boyd notes the racial and socioeconomic traces of elitism on Facebook, but the other elitist dimension is the aforementioned competition for friends. By striving to outdo each other in “friending” statistics, Facebook subscribers are engaging in a scramble for distinction, for an on-site superiority. There is also a growing exclusivity in the way that bloggers are apparently moving from the universally accessible spaces of the Web to the privately accessed pages of Facebook. The populist appeal of blogging appears to be transitioning to a more elite sense of belonging to a club—a very large club, but a club nonetheless that you have to join if you want to engage with the group. And that, too, is an anything-but-populist phenomenon. So is Facebook, in essence, populist or elitist? Yes.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.