The Social Network: Reading the Consumers of Popular Culture

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When performing semiotic readings of popular culture, it’s useful to look not only at the messages they send (advertisements, television programs, movies, consumer products, and so forth) but at the audiences for those messages (consumers and viewers). In the past, conducting such analyses was rather arduous, requiring the creation of laborious surveys and the targeting of likely respondents, or reading the smattering of letters to the editors of newspapers or magazines. But today, thanks to interactive media, the responses of very large numbers of consumers/viewers are immediately available on innumerable Web locations, from the Yahoo news page to YouTube to personal blogs, and everything in between. This dense and rich trove of information about how the consumers of popular culture read and respond to it is a superb resource for semioticians seeking the significance of contemporary popular culture. To put this another way, the old Baudrillardian rules have been abrogated in the era of Web 2.0:  consumers of media content not only consume popular cultural artifacts today but actively contribute to the discourse that surrounds them, creating a two-way semiotic street upon which the readers of culture are becoming as significant as the cultural artifacts themselves. A case in point: I’ve been interested recently in the reception of the current hit movie The Social Network. Since Facebook has become one of the world’s premier sites for the sharing and creation of Web content—as opposed to its merely passive consumption—what viewers have to say about the film is especially significant. One comment that has emerged rather quickly is that the movie portrays women in a misogynistic fashion. (See here, here, and here for examples.) Such responses reflect what Cultural Studies pioneer Stuart Hall has called “resistant readings” of the movie, a refusal to take the message on its own terms on behalf of a political critique. Indeed, disappointment has been expressed in Aaron Sorkin, who, as the creator The West Wing, was expected to create more enlightened fare than the sort of thing one may find in The Social Network. The fact that Sorkin's defense of his movie can be found all over the Internet is not nearly as interesting as the viewer defenses of the film that also can be found online. What I find most interesting are the responses of women who are defending the movie’s alleged sexism on the grounds that it simply represents the sorts of things that really do happen on college campuses, and that there is no need for critics (especially male critics) to police the sexual activities of women: women can take control of their own sexuality, thank you, such responses argue. Having gone to college in the era of second wave feminism, when women and men alike learned to become resistant readers of popular media and critiqued the sexist conventions of such movies as American Graffiti, I find such responses to be striking signifiers of the feminist third wave, where the emphasis is more on women taking control of their own sexuality than on criticizing the treatment of women as sex objects. Thus, while some viewers of The Social Network see what Ariel Levy has called a “raunch culture” that has reduced women to their lowest sexual denominator, others are seeing it as an honest representation of smart women doing what they like. I for one was surprised to see that such a high-profile movie was being made about the creation of Facebook in the first place. MySpace preceded Facebook by years, but I am not aware of any feature films about its history, nor about YouTube, or Yahoo, or Google, or Apple, or Microsoft …or, in short, about any of the other high-profile, digital-age startups that made a few young men (at least one of them from Harvard) very rich. Why should there already be a movie about this relative latecomer to digital fame and fortune? For me, the signification lies in the especially intense way that the users of Facebook have identified with the site and made it such an intimate part of their lives. In contrast to MySpace, Facebook has become the social networking site of choice for adults, college age and up. As danah boyd has pointed out, Facebook is the preferred site of white, middle-class (and upward) users for whom it is a special, almost exclusive, community with a social prestige value that MySpace lacks. To them Mark Zuckerberg is a culture hero, and, I suspect, not someone that they want to see messed with. The fact that the Facebook story involves social elites (Harvard students) who became even more elite lends an added piquancy to the demonstrated popularity of the film, which has topped the box office charts for two weeks running. In the midst of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, Americans are flocking to watch a movie about privileged people becoming even more privileged. But there’s nothing new in that: the Great Depression was also the era of Hollywood’s Golden Age, wherein fantasies of wealth, glamour, sex, and romance were popular distractions from the realities of everyday life.
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.