Sunday, April 12, 2009

Bruno Latour, Facebook, and some Moonbats

On the (misguided) attempt to reduce social media to a series of complex interactions

Do you guys know Bruno Latour?

I'm new to Latour, having been only recently introduced to his work by my friend and colleague, Katie Clinton. A few weeks back we read and discussed a canonical Latour piece, "On Interobjectivity," for our weekly reading group, the Fireside Moonbats.

I'm not going to pretend I understand most of what's going on in this piece. Any attempt to summarize it would just reveal my hem, so I'll leave that to someone better equipped. It's one key idea from that piece that interests me for the purpose of this post: The distinction Latour makes between complexity and complication. He writes:

'Complex' will signify the simultaneous presence in all interactions of a great number of variables, which cannot be treated discretely. 'Complicated' will mean the successive presence of discrete variables, which can be treated one by one, and folded into one another in the form of a black box. Complicated is just as different from complex as simple is.

Latour uses groups of monkeys (complex) in contrast to human societies (complicated). For Latour, "complex" describes a social society wherein interactions between members are intricate and informed by multiple dynamics and variables--but all of these variables are present in the interaction. A society is "complicated" when its moments and interactions are colored by a limitless number of discrete variables, layered throughout history, hidden beneath the surface and spreading out in every cultural direction. As Latour explains,

We say, without giving the matter too much thought, that we engage in 'face to face' interactions. Indeed we do, but the clothing that we are wearing comes from elsewhere and was manufactured a long time ago; the words we use were not formed for this occasion; the walls we have been leaning on were designed by an architect for a client, and constructed by workers - people who are absent today, although their action continues to make itself felt. The very person we are addressing is a product of a history that goes far beyond the framework of our relationship. If one attempted to draw a spatio-temporal map of what is present in the interaction, and to draw up a list of everyone who in one form or another were present, one would not sketch out a well-demarcated frame, but a convoluted network with a multiplicity of highly diverse dates, places and people. Those who believe in social structures often make the same criticism of interactionists, but they draw quite another lesson from it. They suggest that nothing happens in interactions that is not an activation or materialization of what is already completely contained elsewhere in the structure - give or take a few minor adjustments. But interaction does more than adjust, it constructs - we learned this from the monkeys as well as from Goffman and from the ethnomethodologists. However, it displays contradictory forms: it is a framework (which permits circumscription) and a network (which dislocates simultaneity, proximity and personality). Where can those contradictory qualities in humans come from, and why are they so different from interaction as understood by primatologists with respect to naked, co-present monkeys?

If it seems confusing and heady, it is. I suspect it's even more confusing, even headier, than it seems. But the distinction Latour makes--these terms "complex" and "complicated"--have some use for us in considering how to talk about the values and norms of social media. I'm increasingly encountering people who view Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks as as high-tech versions of Foucault's panopticon. For them, too much social media is a bad thing: It means you're always on, it means someone is always watching you.

Add to this a critical mass of media analysts (especially marketers and PR people, who are doing their best to find a way in to a world that seems cultured and maintained by and for the young) seem to work from a general assumption that social media work by leveraging our narcissism. PR guy Brett Borders identifies an entire category of self-absorbed social media users: "Social Media Narcissists." What is a social media narcissist? Borders writes:

There are plenty of people online who have managed to create a sizable audience without much in the way of skills or selfless community contributions. These social media narcissists participate heavily in the online conversation, but if you look closely you will see that most of it is just chatter about themselves, their opinions and their friends.

Some of my friends agree. "It's so weird," said one friend, an academic who's approximately my age, about the phenomenon of the constantly updated Facebook status. "Everybody can see what you're doing, all the time. It's why I've never posted a status update, and why I never will."

My sense of it, though, is that people who think a "close look" at the "chatter" on Facebook, Twitter, and similar networks amounts to self-centered self-promotion either aren't looking as closely as they think they are or are confusing the Latourian notions of complication and complexity. Facebook may seem like a flat social environment in which every monkey is watching every other monkey to figure out where the tribe is going, but in fact, every interaction is the product of an infinite number of variables that exist outside of that moment, that update, and that social environment. In this way, social media is complicated, not simply complex.

Presumably, calling most of what happens in social media "just chatter" is a way to relegate it to meaningless drivel: Picture yourself sitting on the train after a hard day at work. Picture a smiling, absurdly cheerful woman sitting next to you and telling you all about herself, her day, what's on her mind right now. Picture this happening incessantly, consistently, every single day, eventually driving you away from public transportation altogether. Picture yourself buying a nice, sensible SUV.

Nobody likes chatter, after all (even though we all engage in it from time to time). We're a culture that thrives on complication, that doesn't really know what to do with mere complexity. If all that happened within social media sites was chatter, engagement with and use of these tools wouldn't be rising so dramatically.

The game of social media is, after all, figuring out the rules, working through the layers of what seems at first like complexity. We are never exactly the words we type into the "what's on your mind?" box (formerly "What are you doing right now?"), just as we are never just the words we say to the person sitting next to us on the train.

Quick personal example: Recently, I had a friendly argument with a Facebook friend when I posted a link to my blog on her wall. Here's how the interaction went, with names and pics blurred out to protect those not directly affiliated with sleeping alone and starting out early:

Did I violate an unspoken Facebook norm? Oh, probably. What's more interesting to me, though, is the public scolding and my reaction to it. First, if I had violated a similar norm in a "face to face" interaction, this person might have taken me aside to let me know--but she might not have said anything at all, since she wouldn't necessarily have had the authority to do so. She's a friend, but not a close friend; a colleague, but not a coworker. It's not that the social hierarchies that govern our offline existences disappear in online social networks; it's that new hierarchies, new norms for engagement not linked to traditional cultural markers, emerge and get negotiated.

Which is why I reacted so strongly to what amounted to a public scolding. My friend chose to respond to my comment with a scolding instead of simply removing the post, which Facebook makes it pretty easy to do. I had posted something to her wall; she found it inappropriate and assumed the authority to tell me so; and my reaction? I was mad. What right does anybody have to tell me what I can or can't do on Facebook? I thought, outraged and annoyed. That was me questioning whether she really had the authority to chastise me out in the public square, where everybody could see.

If this moment were nothing more than idle chatter, my friend and I would not have reacted as we did. She would have, perhaps, seen my posting as a violation of norms, but she would have chosen to ignore it instead of responding. And I could have ignored her response, but I didn't.

As a complicated society, we are more than Latour's mass of monkeys whose choice of direction for travel arises anew each morning, from "an order that no one member has given, and that none can claim as their own." And Facebook, and other types of social media, provide new words and worlds for intricate, infinite, and complicated relationships, given the users' capacity to make it so.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Brilliant Jenna. I feel like I almost understand Latour's distinction. But more than anything this is a wonderful way to frame and open up a debate. Has H. read? We started to have this conversation last week but you spell it out in a way that makes me feel quite inarticulate. Turn it into an article and submit it to innovate. I think it offers a powerful set of tools to open up a debate out our changing sense of self and community.

Yearning for a more complex existence after a rather complicated day.

The person who is almost your age? I wish


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