“Scarers in Print”: Media Literacy and Media Practice from Our Mutual Friend to Friend Me On Facebook. Part 4

4. Friend Me On Facebook

Last summer, one of my local papers, the Birmingham Mail reported that the appearance of some photographs on Facebook had caused a scandal in the City Council. The images showed a young, Conservative councillor apparently drunk and wearing a bikini. The paper suggested that her fellow councillors believed this made her unfit for office; in her defense, she pointed out that the images were taken while she was at University and before she joined the council. The Birmingham Mail declined comment, but duly republished the images on its website for all to see.1

There have been countless such scandals in the eight years since Facebook has been in existence. Currently with 955 million users and, apparently, the largest archive of images ever assembled, Facebook is both a major cultural institution and an incredible archive of social life. Its success is due to the way it markets mutuality, exploiting the connections between people to both acquire content and the means of organizing it. The desire of users to share the minuitae of their life is surpassed by Facebook’s desire to remember it, and this has produced a vast archive of outsourced, perfect memory. However, although Facebook may be able to remember everything, it has demonstrated that it cannot keep this to itself. Since at least 2007 the press has been running scare stories about job applicants being tripped up by their Facebook profiles and they continue to appear today.2 Whether true or not, the recurrence of such stories indicates a broader cultural anxiety about the persistence of the past. Facebook’s value lies in the difference between the way it permits its users to manipulate content – uploading, downlaoding, writing, and sharing – and the way that it manipulates this material for its own ends. This disjunction means that tensions flare up periodically around privacy, but are really prompted by Facebook’s need to rewrite users’ content for commercial purposes. Whereas it appears to be one type of writing space, where users can write things for select, delimited groups controlling (with some difficulty) who reads what, the boundaries between this network and the rest of Facebook have proven permeable, as have those between Facebook and the rest of the web. Sometimes, this is because the reading and writing machines on which Facebook depends reinscribe material from one context to another; but usually it is because these acts of reinscription have been carried out, intentionally or not, by other users.

The appeal of Facebook for its users lies in the way that it satisfies the desire for gossip, repackaging user-supplied content so that it can be consumed by others. In its commodification of gossip, Facebook is situated firmly in a narrative that runs back to sectors of the nineteenth-century press and beyond. Back in 1982, Walter Ong suggested that electronic media were cultivating a secondary orality, but printed gossip was already remediated in this way, identifying its origins in orality and recapitulating them through written discourse. Facebook is a major writing space and the language of writing is deeply embedded within its interface. One of the oldest features of Facebook is the ‘wall’, where friends can leave messages for both the owner and his or her friends. This simulation of the notice board has has been complemented with a number of additional ways for users to interact, including chat, messaging, company and product pages, and the news feed. Despite the different dynamics each utilises (turn-based instant messaging, comments etc), underpinning all these modes of communication are acts of reading and writing. Content is served from a storage medium, passed over the network, and processed by the user’s device. Facebook’s capacity to startle, to resurrect material from the past, lies in the fact that underneath this network are inscribable spaces.

What Facebook demonstrates are the limits of what is known as the medial ideology. One of the foundational myths of the digital age is that it is defined by information. Early fantasies of cyberspace offered the virtual as an alternative to a materialized real; knowledge work was privileged over other forms of labour; and information itself was increasingly taken to stand for both commodities and capital. These myths persist: this, for instance, is how the information age is presented by Luciano Floridi in Oxford University Press’s recent Information: A Very Short Introduction:

We are modifying our everyday perspective on the ultimate nature of reality, that is, our metaphysics, from a materialist one, in which physical objects and processes play a key role, to an informational one. This shift means that objects and processes are de-physicalized in the sense that they tend to be seen as support-independent (consider a music file). They are typified, in the sense that an instance of an object (my copy of the music file) is as good as its type (your music file of which my copy is an instance). And they are assumed by default to be perfectly clonable, in the sense that my copy and your original become interchangeable. Less stress on the physical nature of objects and processes means that the right of usage is perceived to be at least as important as the right to ownership. Finally, the criterion for existence – what it means for something to exist – is no longer being actually immutable […] or being potentially subject to perception […], but being potentially subject to interaction, even if intangible. To be is to be interactable, even if the interaction is only indirect.3

The information fetish makes it easy to forget the materiality of digital objects and the work required to create and maintain them. It reduces the behaviour of objects to how they appear on the screen, disregarding their dependence on reading and writing, whether carried out by the user’s interaction with hardware, or the more alienated acts carried out by the machine on their behalf. It is a discourse that depends on the absolute distinction between immaterial content and material form, but does not recognize how the former is derived from the latter. It is, in other words, precisely why Walter Ong did not think it worth adopting media theory.

Matthew Kirschenbaum’s important book Mechanisms is a useful critique of this medial ideology. Kirschenbaum distinguishes between two types of materiality: a formal materiality that describes the properties of digital objects as they interact within designed digital environments; and a forensic materiality dedicated to understanding the individuated material traces written into storage media. Kirschenbaum’s analysis is useful because it situates both the computer and the digital environments that it sustains within the long history of writing machines. Ong demonstrated that what made literacy distinct was its dependence upon objects and Kirschenbaum’s critique of the medial ideology restores the digital to its body. What is interesting is that Kirschenbaum delineates two possible sets of conditions for this embodiment. Each is distinct – one concerned with bits, one with magnetic traces in storage media – but they are interconnected and co-present nevertheless. This disinction thus seems to be the product of discourse, a particular way of approaching and delineating the object world. Embodiment, once again, can be seen to be the result of practice.

If literacy is simply deciphering written code, then the competencies from the nondigital world can simply be applied to the digital. But if reading, like writing, involves doing things with objects, then this attitude is naïve at best, negligent at worst. This sounds obvious, but it is worth repeating: to understand textuality in the age of print, it is necessary to attend to the objects that bear inscribed traces and the practices that allow them to become signs. The same is true for the digital world: reading and writing still occur, and they still necessitate configurations of human and nonhuman actors, but the nature of these processes is different because the objects are different. The computer is a universal machine and, as such, is capable of sophisticated simulation. Yet focusing simply on what occurs onscreen – what Nick Montford has called ‘screen essentialism’ –reproduces the logocentricism developed over the course of our long exposure to print and too often mistaken for literacy.4 Digital literacy – and by this I mean a literacy that recognizes the materiality of the digital – will allow us to understand the objects we create and the environments into which they are placed. Just as a denaturalized print literacy is necessary for studying the nineteenth century through the objects that survive, digital literacy is necessary to understand how these objects are remediated in digital form. Without digital literacy, we cannot reckon with Facebook and all those other aggregators of digital content churning out ghosts.

1 I’m not going to provide a link to the article, as that would only perpetrate the sleazy agenda of the paper. The true scandal, of course, is that any young person would want to be a Conservative councillor. [back]
2 Right on cue, two weeks before I gave this as a paper in London, the Guardian published a blog post entitled ‘Could your Facebook page ruin your job prospects?’, 5 March 2012 . [back]
3Luciano Floridi, Information: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 12. [back]
4See Kirschenbaum’s discussion of screen essentialism, Mechanisms, p. 31. [back]