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Agency and Anti-Social Networks

posted by:Ryan Bigge // 11:59 PM // November 21, 2006 // ID TRAIL MIX


“A man opposed to inevitable change needn't invariably be called a Luddite. Another choice might be simply to describe him as slow in his processes.”
-- Francis Wolcott (Deadwood, Season 2, Episode Four)

Let me start with a strange but charming article in the Sunday New York Times, written by a 24-year-old market researcher named Theodora Stites. In “Someone to Watch Over Me (on a Google Map),” Stites details her multiple memberships in various online communities. She describes the safety and security of friendships made online due to the distancing effects of computer mediation and jokes about being unable to “log out of” awkward social situations in the physical world, thus prompting her to join Second Life.

Reading the article, I found myself taken aback -- not by the extent of her electronic immersion but by the amount of work (labour, as it were) her routine appeared to entail. As Stites writes, “Every morning, before I brush my teeth, I sign in to my Instant Messenger to let everyone know I'm awake. I check for new e-mail, messages or views, bulletins, invitations, friend requests, comments on my blog or mentions of me or my blog on my friends' blogs.” [i]

This sounds like a lot of effort. I would undoubtedly forget to brush my teeth. Clearly, the target demographic of 14-24 year olds who use MySpace have more free time than beleaguered, 30-something grad students. Although I have social networks in the dirt and flesh world, I do not see the utility of an online equivalent.

Of course, it’s hard not to sound like a young fogey when questioning the curious rituals of the younger generation. I’m reminded of novelist Nicholson Baker, who once published a lengthy, impassioned defense of the card catalog in the New Yorker back in 1994. Swimming against the technological tide is often unpopular, but it remains a useful intellectual exercise.

In a recent online interview with danah boyd, a PhD student at the Berkeley School of Information studying MySpace and MIT’s Henry Jenkins, social networking sites are described as vital resources for students entering primary and secondary schools. According to Jenkins, “The early discussion of the digital divide assumed that the most important concern was insuring access to information as if the web were simply a data bank. Its power comes through participation within its social networks.” [ii]

Jenkins raises important questions relating to the digital divide and making good on access. But when did joining MySpace or Facebook because a necessity, rather than an option? Did we skip a step? At what point does not being a member of a social network site become a liability? At what point does it become impossible to not be a member?

Journalism about social networking sites underscore this aspect of inevitability. In a recent New Yorker article by John Cassidy, Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes explains that, “If you don't have a Facebook profile, you don't have an online identity.” He went on to say that, “It doesn't mean that you are antisocial, or you are a bad person, but where are the traces of your existence in this college community? You don't exist---online, at least. That's why we get so many people to join up. You need to be on it.” [iii]

You need to be on it. Where does choice or agency reside in inevitable change? What if I want to decide for myself? Does that make me “slow in my processes?”

Although I’m aware of the irony inherent in the term (you’re reading this article online, after all), I believe that the neo-Luddite movement offers a useful method of reconsidering the importance of social networking sites. Neo-Luddite philosophy provides a small measure of critical distance from the object of study, along with foregrounding questions of technological determinism. In his recent book Against Technology, Steven E. Jones examines the myth of the Luddites, and how those who smashed looms in 1811 and 1812 continue to inspire and inform debates about technology almost 200 years later.

Incorporating a wide range of writers and thinkers, including William Blake, Mary Shelley, Bill Joy, Edward Tenner and Theodore Kaczynski, Jones investigates how the mythology of the Luddites has persevered and reconfigured itself over time. In its most basic iteration, Jones suggests that, “Many people who identify with the term ‘Luddite’ just want to reduce or control the technology that is all around us and to question its utility – to force us not to take technology for the water in which we swim.” [iv]

The problem for would be loom-smashers, according to Jones, is that “Modern (and now postmodern) technology is routinely understood as an autonomous, disembodied force operating behind any specific application, the effect of a system that is somehow much less material, more ubiquitous, than any mere ‘machinery.’” [v] My technological skepticism is not sufficient enough for me to consider acts of rage against the machinery, but I do think it worthwhile to consider the quality of water that we find ourselves swimming in.

Although not a neo-Luddite, Mark Andrejevic, in his examination of webcams, writes of the Digital Enclosure, a concept that is equally relevant when considering social networking sites. According to Andrejevic, “The de-differentiation of spaces of consumption and production achieved by new media serves as a form of spatial enclosure: a technology for enfolding previously unmonitored activities within the monitoring gaze of marketers.” [vi] I like to think of the digital enclosure as a more theoretically robust update of Rockwell’s 1980s hit “Somebody’s Watching Me.”

There is plenty to surveil. According to various studies, young people spend a significant amount of time using Facebook and MySpace. Cassidy points out that “Two-thirds of Facebook members log on at least once every twenty-four hours, and the typical user spends twenty minutes a day on the site.” [vii] Social networking sites might resemble play, but Andrejevic argues that “Consumers generate marketable commodities by submitting to comprehensive monitoring.” [viii] Which makes MySpace and Facebook participation a form of labour, even if it’s invisible to most users.

Andrejevic’s work helps explain why Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation paid $580 million last year to purchase MySpace. For Andrejevic, the digital enclosure “promises to undo one of the constituent spatial divisions of capitalist modernity: that between sites of labor and leisure.” [ix] Which is to say that 24-year-old Theodora Stites is clearly working two jobs.

Of course, like any theoretical insight, the digital enclosure doesn’t explain everything. I would complement Andrejevic’s work with Angela McRobbie, who has studied how elements of the UK rave scene seeped into the logic of the cultural industries during the 1990s, creating an environment where “the club culture question of ‘are you on the guest list?’ is extended to recruitment and personnel, so that getting an interview for contract creative work depends on informal knowledge and contacts, often friendships.” [x] Without making it explicit, McRobbie is exploring Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of social and cultural capital – that is, the importance of who you know, not what you know. Bourdieu’s concept has been extended by Sarah Thornton (subcultural capital) and Paul Resnick, who created the term sociotechnical capital to describe “productive resources that inhere in patterns of social relations that are maintained with the support of information and communication technologies.” [xi]

Combining agency and sociotechnical capital forces the question: Is there any difference between those excluded from creating a robust social network and those who chose not to participate? How does a neo-Luddite (that is, a conscientious MySpace objector) differ from someone with social network failure? Or, to put it another way, is it possible to communicate intent through a lack of participation?

It appears as though social network sites now offer two polarized options: either the constant, self-generated surveillance of the type described by Stites or the self-negation (“You don’t exist”) that avoidance entails. In a marketplace built on unlimited choice, this lack of options is rather frustrating.

It almost makes you want to smash something …

About the author
Ryan Bigge is completing his Master’s thesis on the transgressive strategies of Vice magazine in the Joint Programme in Communication and Culture at Ryerson University. (rbigge [a] ryerson [dot] ca). His review essay, Making the Invisible Visible: The Neo-Conceptual Tentacles of Mark Lombardi, was published in the Fall 2005 issue of Left History. Ryan has a BA in history from Simon Fraser University.

Zach Devereaux, a doctoral candidate in the Communication and Culture program at Ryerson University, provided invaluable assistance and brainstorming for this paper. Thanks also to Dr. Greg Elmer, Dr. Edward Slopek and Dr. Jennifer Burwell.

[i] Stites, T. (Jul 9, 2006). Someone to Watch Over Me (on a Google Map). New York Times, pg. 9.8
[ii] Jenkins, H. and boyd, d. “Discussion: MySpace and Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA)” at http://www.danah.org/papers/MySpaceDOPA.html accessed 28 August 2006.
[iii] Cassidy, J. (2006). Me media. New Yorker, 82(13), 50-59.
[iv] Jones, S. E. (2006). Against technology : From the luddites to neo-luddism. New York: Routledge. p. 231
[v] Jones, S. E. (2006). Against technology : From the luddites to neo-luddism. New York: Routledge. p. 174-175.
[vi] Cassidy, J. (2006). Me media. New Yorker, 82(13), 50-59. (Archived version lacks pagination.)
[vii] Cassidy, J. (2006). Me media. New Yorker, 82(13), 50-59. (Archived version lacks pagination.)
[viii] Andrejevic, M. (2004). Little Brother is Watching: The Webcam Subculture and the Digital Enclosure. MediaSpace: Place, scale, and culture in a media age. In Couldry N., McCarthy A. (Eds.), . New York: Routledge. (Book retrieved electronically)
[ix] (2004). Andrejevic, M. (2004). Little Brother is Watching: The Webcam Subculture and the Digital Enclosure. MediaSpace: Place, scale, and culture in a media age. In Couldry N., McCarthy A. (Eds.), . New York: Routledge. (Book retrieved electronically)
[x] McRobbie, A. (2002). Clubs to companies: Notes on the decline of political culture in speeded up creative worlds. Cultural Studies, 16(4), 516-531. [p. 523]
[xi] Resnick, P. (2005). Impersonal Sociotechnical Capital, ICTs, and Collective Action Among Strangers in Dutton, W. H. Transforming enterprise : The economic and social implications of information technology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. (p. 400).


i was thinking about this very topic last night while watching a cbc piece on second life (something i had never heard of until yesterday...clearly i am a luddite of the highest order). while there may be distinct reasons for not participating in 'online life' (in protest of the importance of such a life, or lack of a social network at all) the outcomes appear to be the same, an ostracism of sorts. we can be lonely in real life and on-line too (how wonderful! (insert sarcasm here)). what's more, is that i've always thought (although this is a sweeping generalization for which i will likely receive a lot of criticism, given the sheer number of hours that i spend reading and answering e-mails and surfing the web myself) that the more robust one's online life, the less robust their offline life is likely to be.

my (somewhat unclear and rambling) thoughts about all of this was quite neatly summed up in an article in the jan/feb 07 edition of adbusters, which perhaps serendipitously arrived in my mailbox this morning. in "loneliness and technology", jenny uechi talks about how technology and online life generally increases feelings of loneliness and decreases real life human connections. kind of ironic how things invented to increase the communication capacity between humans has actually decreased it...leaving those of us who choose not to participate, or those who cannot participate with the prospect of dying alone, and having no one notice for two years. to me, that's a frightening and incredibly sad state of affairs.

Posted by: angela long at November 21, 2006 02:07 PM

A point well-made; as a low-30-er myself I often have to navigate across the online world and the offline world. But more and more I am asking myself when the distinction will become irrellevant.

Bigge's reference to Stites' *work* before she even brushes her teeth suggests that while there may be a threshold between online and offline activities, there may not be a good reason for some to maintain its integrity. That is to say: the more pervasive ubiquitous technologies are, the more seamless one's interaction with both domains (simultaneously). Therefore, the question is whether the cross [domain] pollination is merely a result of smaller technologies (e.g. blootooth peripherals, piconets, Web2.0, etc.), or whether the cross-over happens intersubjectively--in the space between subjects (between my online self and my offline self). If the latter, I think that moving from online to offline actually happens _outside_ technology; users simply move to a technological platform to express an activity they have already started. I am aware, however, that this may lead us to Aristotle's third man argument--that in invoking a space between one's online and offline identities I am stepping onto the slippery epistemological slope of where our consciousness is seated, and whether one's avatar might be nothing more than a contemporary homunculus.

As usual with my line of thinking this then leads me to question what the on/offline border blend means for identity politics, especially considering recent discussions on federated identity management.

Posted by: Stuart Bailey at November 22, 2006 10:07 AM

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