Facebook as False Public

24 02 2014

We make a bold pretence to be separate and autonomous individuals, but really we are social selves. Driven by our evolutionary past to club up, quarrel and cooperate, we are obsessive about status and in-groups and out-groups and who is doing what to whom and how we appear to others. Much of the very contents of our minds are in fact absorbed from our families and cultural contexts, from institutional agendas and the ornate edifices of topical figments we endless build around ourselves. Even the language we use to think and interact binds us to others. Alone and walking slowly down the stairs, we suddenly imagine we are being watched and so experience ourselves from outside. In that instant, this ‘eye of the other’ makes us feel very different indeed, arousing, as it does, an external view, one we never really grasp, one often distorted by our own imaginings. We are, therefore, both a private self and a social one, though perhaps not separate. Certainly, however, we are Janus-faced and our self, if singular, differs when observed from different perspectives.

As social selves, we need recognition of our efforts. We need public space, social interaction and a reflecting community. It is here that we perform our public selves, learn how we affect others and gain that strange visibility of how we appear from outside. In the ancient world, many were given carefully structured public spaces in which to perform this part of themselves, perhaps in discussions within an army forum, or a general democratic assembly, a religious debate, a criminal jury, a coffee-shop, a community group or a political meeting. These public spaces were profoundly educational in that they schooled us in what our collectives required and how we contributed or detracted from that. This was, therefore, not about drawing attention to ourselves. Recognition here meant contributing to a collective endeavour, to a community of concerned citizens, to politics.

Nowadays, of course, we are more studiously separated, atomised and denied public space. Bearers of negative rights, trumpets of our own self-interest and pretending we think for ourselves, we are easy to control. Divided, conquered; there is little politics today, and fewer public spaces. (For most of us, the only thing that comes close is that of our work environment, though this association is for quite different purposes). We thus crave something we will never have and can hardly conceive. This is why the little public spaces we have so regularly degenerate into private ones. Consider the political meetings, training workshops and public debates you have attended only to hear one private concern after another. ‘This happened to me.’ ‘That happened to my friend.’ ‘I believe this.’ ‘I have this problem.’ In this way, we innocently clog up the few public spaces we still have with private concerns, reducing political participation to a therapy group. But still we hunger for public recognition.

Rousseau said that politics is a collective agreement on what should be done. He saw this agreement as not merely a pile of self-interested views but something more, something like a contribution, by individuals, of what their public selves thought we should do. The ‘General Will’ was not, therefore, just a product of collective agreement, but also a gathering of something that resided in us all. There was a part of us, a public part which when combined with that same part in others, generated a vocal plural subject. A public thus appears in space as a combination of public selves. This is what we have lost and what we crave.

Facebook meets that craving. It is dominated by contributions of a private nature, here projected out into what masquerades as a public space but is, in fact, merely a space that gives attention, a publicity engine for the self, a public mirror, a display of misguided public longing. Constituted by private matters and projected into a group of spectators (‘friends’), the ‘eye of the other’ titillates, but it does not educate and it does not combine. Where Facebook has been used to enable public deliberation, it has proven strangely inadequate. It enables us to look at each others’ faces, but do not exchange our public selves.

Facebook is a false public space, one characterised by imagined private selves playing for attention from false public communities. It rehearses the dominance of the private individual, it distorts the notion of a collective quest for understanding and furthers our descent into a politics oriented to attention and appearance. ‘Look at me’ is not the same as ‘let me contribute this’. Effective structures for online public display and political deliberation will continue to evade us if we fail to distinguish between private and public interests, attention-seeking and the urge to contribute, engaged communities or merely piles of imagined spectators. We are recognition-hungry, and we can be relied upon to bolster our sense of self in the only ways left to us. Facebook is a corporation that will teach us one, false, way to make a public space.

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See Follett, M.P., quotes on group interactions – http://womenshistory.about.com/od/quotes/a/follett_3.htm
Rousseau, JJ., The Social Contract
Habermas, J., Encyclopaedia Article: The Public Sphere
Burkitt, I., Social Selves
Honneth, A., Recognition
Kohut, H., Analysis of the Self

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