Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Social Networks and Political Speech I

Facebook devils me. It is a social networking website that allows anyone with an internet connection - for free - use their server space to host a profile page. The catch, I gather, is that you become the product Facebook intends to sell. When I think about it, it is clear that the 'social media' business model revolves around personal information, to help make more targeted marketing. The more personal information a social media firm can gather and offer to advertisers, the more revenue potential a firm (like Facebook) has.

But there is something more fundamental to Facebook specifically, and social media in general, that piques my interest; the notion of the 'public sphere' entering one's ostensibly private 'social networks'.

First, I'd like to outline my terms a bit. I consider myself an 'Arendtian', so my understanding of the public sphere is largely based on Arendt's definition. In her opus The Human Condition Arendt asserts
[...] that everything that appears in public can be seen and heard by everybody and has the widest possible publicity. For us, appearance—something that is being seen and heard by others as well as by ourselves—constitutes reality. (50 emphasis mine — JMG)
Nowadays, if I have a witty joke joke or a short piece of personal news I want to share, I put it on Facebook; if I have a larger or more unweidly point that I want to examine, I post an essy on this blog. I'm doubtful that my one-liners about the weather, or latest observation on Rick Santorum is "seen and heard by everybody". But it is available for public consumption. I think that the quality of "availability" is important when trying to distinguish between a "public" comment and a "private" thought. The problem now is that private thoughts are publicly available, depending on your security settings. But availability is not the only concern. A speaker's intent certainly has to play a role in distinguishing private and public speech.

Ardent continues:
Compared with the reality which comes from being seen and heard, even the greatest forces of intimate life—the passions of the heard, the thoughts of the mind, the delights of the senses—lead an uncertain, shadowy kind of existance unless and until they are transformed, deprivateized and de-individualized, as it were, into a shape to fit them for public appearance" (50 emphasis mine — JMG)
Look at you newsfeed an ask yourself; are your or your friend's postings being "shape[d] to fit" for public consumption? Does the average facebook poster engage in the mental process of shaping their thoughts for public consuption? Does Facebook "count" as a part of the public sphere under Arendt's framework in the first place?

I ask these questions, becasue ultimately; to be social is to be political. I don't mean this in a heavy-handed "friends don't let friends be convervative/liberal" kind of way. I mean that our individual ethics and political convictions are untimatly products of "being social". Of inter homines esse, as Arendt put it. I think that new social media technology is certainly changing some of those dynamics, and perhaps warping some of our (or Arendt's) longstanding assumptions about how the "private" and "public" spheres are distinguished.

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