Facebook Can Go Public, but Can It Build Solidarity?

Let’s try to get a grasp on where Facebook stands in terms of that super old-school term, “reality.”

Your plight is this: You can’t get to any objective truths that might be present in external reality without running into your own subjective finagling. In cyberspace, the indifferent surrounds of external reality are replaced with a digitized hyperreal, an online indoors of virtual representations. When you enter cyberspace, you enter an interior space which you drive through using the GPS of your own consciousness. This is a space that surpasses the finitude of physical reality, a space where endless reports by innumerable minds draw your own mind into a continuous web of exchange, of dialogue and conversation, “feedback” and comments that expand your intelligence and erudition toward an enlightenment of mind the old analogue world could never deliver.

Or does it?

Is there any hope of reaching a destination different from what your own mental GPS leads you to? Isn’t the problem we face in cyberspace the age-old problem of, How do we move out of our limited reckoning of the world, which is based on our limited experiences of the world, and toward an increased awareness of the world? If we increase and accelerate our opportunities to choose, to go, at a click of a mouse, where we choose to go, are we only repeatedly confirming, by those choices, attitudes and ideas, preferences and beliefs that we already possess? Are we not, then, in a vicious circle, through which we reinforce what and where we already are through a continual feedback loop designed by our own minds? We do not choose what our minds are already positioned against, or what now stands as inconceivable to us.

All this suggests that there are problems in cyberspace that we need to deal with, problems greatly expanded when we recognize that there are beckoning, seductive sirens which fill our paths, regardless of which path we choose, that they accompany our own choosing, and, so, become part of that choosing. Of course, I’m speaking of the market’s steady, unrelenting “cold calls” to our attention, the drummers’ drumming of the urgency to buy, to have, to own, to pull out a credit card.

Facebook has fenced off a portion cyberspace in a proprietary fashion. Here’s the way “You Are Not a Gadget” author Jaron Lanier puts it:

The obvious strategy in the fight for a piece of the advertising pie is to close off substantial parts of the Internet so Google doesn’t see it all anymore. That’s how Facebook hopes to make money, by sealing off a huge amount of user-generated information into a separate, non-Google world. Networks lock in their users, whether it is Facebook’s members or Google’s advertisers.

If you hold that, when you are in cyberspace, you are exercising your social connections, then Facebook is clearly privatizing that space the way a cattleman fences off the open range. This would seem to reduce your opportunities to be sociable. If that’s the case, then you are suspicious of Facebook’s claim to be a social networking service.

If you hold, on the other hand, that when you are in cyberspace, you are exercising your autonomy and your opportunities to self-design and tailor the world to suit you, then Facebook would seem to be increasing your opportunities to live in a personally designed world. If that’s the case, then you agree with Facebook that the social is most social when it is personally controlled. Here “social” really means “personal.” And there’s really no need for a Google search engine in a non-Google world where your own mind does all the searching you care to do.

If the world were a book to be read, it would be best read as a reflection of you, and, so, the name Facebook rings true. On the other hand, for those who are haunted by the presence of physical, external reality, a conflation of that to the physiognomy of your own face would seem to be misguided at best, and perhaps even inexplicably irrational.

There is an assumption made by those who fear a substitution of the virtual for the real, and it is this: That the closer we get to “things as they are,” the better off we are, in the sense that we act pragmatically and not fruitlessly, that we interpret a situation as closely as we can to its own properties and do not allow the extraneous to mislead us.

Does a personal reckoning of physical, external reality fit the bill better than a social reckoning? How liable are you to get a handle on it through your personal picking and choosing, when your space of choice is already limited to the results of your own picking and choosing? The problem that we encountered in cyberspace is that we go round and round in a circle drawn by the limitations of our own minds. You could say that these circles are amplified, because what we do on Facebook is reduce the size of reality to invited friends, to a coterie of the like-minded, a universe amenable to the disposition of your own mind. We have, then, a rigged confirmation of what may be our own misconceptions. Think of the blind man who holds the tail of the elephant and pronounces the elephant to be shaped like a snake joined by more blind men who hold the tail and make the same conclusion.

I won’t argue that societies get closer to reality than individuals do – many can be as easily wrongheaded as one – but I would argue that societies, like our own US society, especially in its extreme divisiveness, is more likely to serve up something unexpected and unconfirming of personal biases than you are to friend such a surprising or potentially threatening idea or person on Facebook.

If there was any doubt that we all take to Facebook because it keeps the odd other out by making us the gatekeeper, that doubt has, I think, faded with Google X’s further fencing off of Facebook’s already personal, proprietary domain to circles of sociability. You can now isolate domains of exchange according to even more narrowly defined boundaries. You can be exclusionary in a way society may not allow. Google X promises a confinement of sociability that will ensure that none of your connections are odd or other.

But why want to include “The Odd Other,” anyway? In Facebook terms, this is the person you “not friend,” or “unfriend” or “defriend” because they, or their ideas, are not amenable to you, or they just annoy you or are too strange or incomprehensible. And so on. The point is that, when you personally design your “social” world not in the world but online, you are empowered in ways that worldly everyday life denies.

We live now in dual acting zones of interrelationship: one on Facebook and the other on the street, face to face. The unfriended goes away virtually, but not really. Although the ability to design a Facebook page that admits friends and not oddballs makes you laugh and feel good and allows you to escape the crap you don’t want to deal with all the time, there’s always the threat that you’ll be entrapped within your own head. There’s always the possibility that, instead of going beyond where your mind is already situation, you draw inward continuously, like the potted plant whose roots draw backward into itself instead of outward to new soil where it can survive. Or, like the lost traveler, you keep going in circles, in the circles of your own mind. Release from that fate is other minds, odd others whose otherness becomes not so other nor so odd once you befriend them.

There is much going on in the outside world of non-cyber reality that encourages such a retreat from the social, political and cultural spheres, so that the concept of “social” itself is no more than what you personally want it to be. There’s a confounding, infuriating political ineptitude accompanied by political and social divisiveness that pushes us all to the comfort zone of a personally designed cyberspace.

Some 80 percent of the US population has long remained so politically naive as to be easily turned from their own best interests. Now, an increasing disturbing awareness of the plight of some 80 percent of the population – some might say 99 percent – has drawn many into a cyberspace retreat, into the cyberspace box which promises them control by personal choice of societal problems, and, specifically, the problem of an economic system that has slowly but steadily brought that 80 percent to their knees. We are thus pushed toward escape in both cyberspace and Facebook by a “Matrix”-like empowered capitalism that acknowledges a threat to itself not in fractured and fractalized Facebook coteries, but in social and political solidarity, the kind that was on display in the Arab Spring revolutions.

The answer to the question of whether social networking hampers or facilitates such solidarity in the United States seems now tied to the future of the Occupy Wall Street movement. This is a movement that is using physical presence in public, physical reality – a reality whose indifference to their aims is evident everywhere, from objective natural sources such as harsh weather to politicized sources such as police brutality – in order to pull us out of our entrapment in inner space. There are also increasing signs that the mobilizing network provided by cyberspace and Facebook can effect real social changes. Social problems demand social solutions and not personal ones, as Richard Wolff repeatedly reminds us, but when we re-deploy cyberspace toward collective action, we expand self-interest toward effective social solidarity. Conservative governors are being recalled by this means; credit card companies have retreated from levying more fees; Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation has reversed its decision to cut off funding to Planned Parenthood and Occupy Wall Street continues its protests by making social use of social media.

In this fashion, Facebook has already begun to go public, which means that cyberspace is now becoming more of an instrument of solidarity than one of seduction, distraction and escape. The domain of the narcissist, the playground of the solipsist, is fast becoming a recruiting ground upon which we can hopefully end both the retreat from and the attack upon the planet and the many odd species who are its inhabitants.