A little while ago I posted an opinion piece at Inside Higher Ed about “The Flaws of Facebook”:http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2009/02/03/golub that netted the usual motley assemblage of comments from IHE’s public sphere as well as from some “old acquaintances”:http://akma.disseminary.org/?p=1985. The feedback has led me to think quite a bit more about the claims raised in the piece in a way that has proven very fertile, which is great. As a result I’ve thought a lot about the varying degrees of publicity and the shadings of privacy and connection that come with being a teacher and scholar. But there is one part of the article which I think is particularly productive (for me at least) which hasn’t gotten a full airing that I wanted to bring up here.
One of the main claims of my piece is that our everyday face to face interactions with people are ambiguous, polysemous, and constantly being renarrated. We employ a vocabulary of cultural forms to understand who we and they are, and this vocabulary and those understandings vary widely in terms of how precise they are and how much we believe in them. Social Networking sites, on the other hand, describe a social network that is unambiguous, concrete, and univalent. Some people have objected to my piece by saying that Facebook has privacy features, or that more granular definitions of friends and permissions attached to those identities to, say, view restricted contact like personal photos could solve the problems I describe. But however elaborated such a system is, it is still a system in which identities are fixed in clearly defined and unambiguous ways. This is a difference in kind.
Facebook subsumes face-to-face relationships, in other words, in a way similar to the way that governments subsume indigenous identities. Or at least the identities of Papua New Guinean ‘landowners’ that I study. In both cases, an institution identified people as being unambiguously one type or another for the purposes of granting them access to resources and certain types of moral recognition. I think many of the criticisms that people have made of the deforming effects of state recognition on indigenous people could in principle be applied to people on Facebook — although of course the stakes are infinitely lower in the case of Facebook.
Radcliffe-Brown, of course, understood kinship systems as institutions: there were offices that office holders moved through, and lineage systems were hierarchical bureaucracies with ascending and descending units. When the structure-functionalist kool aid wore off, of course, we realized that this was not the case. ‘Tribes’ and ‘Clans’ looked like bureaucracies because they were in fact newly-solidified institutions designed to interface with the colonial forces which were themselves institutionalized and bureaucratic. A major — and not very new or controversial, I hope — claim of my own work is that people like the Ipili I lived with who lived largely without writing or formalized institutions with a separation of office and office holder had identities and relationships that were much more fluid than those of their colonial rulers. And this despite the fact that said colonial rulers believed themselves to be modern, changing, and progressive and believed the people they conquered to be static, unchanging, ossified, etc.
Insofar as indigenous critiques of pathological state systems of recognition are a particular example of a more general criticism of the way that living breathing lifeworlds are formalized — or rather, how the living and breathing world has little solidified models of itself drifting around within it in complexly reflective ways. We might start thinking about the performative nature of these identities: how a new occasion to classify people as friends suddenly makes us rethink not just whether someone is a friend, but what that category means. Perhaps there will someday be computers with databases so massive and logic so fuzzy they will be able to intuit that I want Jim to see photos of my weekend hike, but not Sarah. But in the meantime perhaps we need someone to write a critique of the corrosive bureaucratic imagining of friendship that Facebook promotes. Or perhaps we need an expose of the way that its mechanisms are constantly being detourned by the communities that are constantly appropriating it.