We enter into a strange time, in which an individual could simultaneously exist within the public and private sphere- unknowingly. Social media is a peculiar phenomena through which humans have the capacity to enter closed, demarcated space through which they may share details of their personal lives and experiences- with varying degrees of intimacy- in such a way that information intended for a specified audience of peers can also be transmitted, intentionally or unintentionally, to strangers. At its outset the whole social media experiment, starting with MySpace and eventually exploding to a field where Tumblrs, Instagrams, Snapchats and Twitters vie for their userbases’ attention, was a gigantic unknown. Would it serve as a means to revive the Roman forum for a new modern age? Would be a specialized tools for would-be stalkers and assailants to plan their crimes? No one really knew.
While we still don’t really know, I certainly concur with Felicity Duncan’s observation in her piece “Teens have a smart reason for abandoning Facebook and Twitter”; a shift is happening, but perhaps not in the same way Duncan notes. Duncan cites data to suggest that teenagers are moving away from Facebook and Twitter and into more “narrowcast tools”. I feel the two strongest explanations she offers consist of her first and third, in which she explains that more elderly individuals are gaining access to social media, and that as the phenomena becomes more and more expansive, corporations and institutions are beginning to utilize the tools as a means of assessing an individual.
Duncan uses these two points to argue that teens are shying away from broadcast tools because of an increased sense of accessibility into their private lives by caretaker figures and prospective organizations said teens may become involved with as they become adults. I focus on this point. Duncan notes that many advertisers use Facebook likes in algorithms to better tailor ads for viewers. The shift away from using Twitter and Facebook to more personalized, privatized systems is a means through which teens can escape prying eyes while still remaining social in a 21st century sense. The conceit of Facebook, as evidenced by the idea that you could have “friends” and “like” particular pieces of content was that a means individuals to interact and socialize. This element of socialization, as evidenced by the several millennia through which social media in its current form did not exist, had an intrinsic, privatized quality to it that did not translate readily to the internet. “You shouldn’t post that sort of thing there, someone will find it”, “If it’s on the internet, it’s there forever” and “future employers aren’t going to like seeing that on your feed” are things that individuals have learned- sometimes quite painfully.
Duncan states that “The great promise of social media was that they would create a powerful and open public sphere, in which ideas could spread and networks of political action could form”. While this may have been the promise, there is a disjoint here from the prospect noted by academics and the intent generated by users, who at the outset, were largely younger people. The idea of reviving the Forum was, most likely, not the conceit of the various middle and high schoolers who became the pioneers of social media. This shift, perhaps, is not a sign of the death of the phenomena or the loss of a great promise, but the actualization of intent as seen by the user. With narrowcast tools, it becomes easier to interact more intimately with those one perceives as friends, with less of a need (because ephemerality on the internet is never as true as it seems) to worry about the permanence of content such that it could be scrutinized by unintended viewers (though it likely still is, just a less wholesale scale).
Perhaps further we can see these perceived shifts in social media as a means of properly democratizing “electronic contact zones”, in the words of Cynthia and Richard Selfe. While I do hold contention with many elements of their 1994 text- so much contention that it won’t fit in a single post- I can see these apparent social media shifts that Duncan notes feed back some elements of their discourse on the social politics of interface. My main concern with Selfe and Selfe is that their text feels mired in the shadow of the “Culture Wars”-y element of discourse that cropped up in the 90’s. For reference, their comparative elements are highly polarized. In the beginning section of their discourse in regards to the way computers influence minority students, that they categorize the disparities between the pedagogy surrounding computers at white and non-white schools to lend credence to their idea of a “technological underclass” as claimed by Charles Piller(Piller 218), (Selfe and Selfe 483-484). This, I feel, is a valid point of criticism by using clearly demarcated social, economic and ethnic divisions with the argument centered around the computer’s role in the service- or disservice- done to members of this so-called “underclass”. From here, however, things to start to get…weird.
To be brief in my responses to the aforementioned contentions, Selfe and Selfe attempt to illustrate how the then-current state of interfaces inherently represent capitalistic values, “That interface[Macintosh Computers], and the software applica- tions commonly represented within it, map the virtual world as a desktop- constructing virtual reality, by association, in terms of corporate culture and the values of professional” (Selfe and Selfe 486) . Their claim that the desktop is meant to generate the image of a corporate environment and not, you know, a desk is…dubious but the Selfes go further by trying to illicit other images that could be associated in place of the “corporate” one maintained by the desktop, “the interface does not, for example, represent the world in terms of a kitchen counter top, a mechanic’s workbench, or a fast-food worker… respectively, women in the home, skilled laborers, or the rapidly increasing numbers of employees in the fast-food industry” (Selfe and Selfe 487).
The strict dichotomies drawn here seem highly unnecessarily restrictive in regards to the the way that the language associated with the PC is restrictive to elements of the population, mainly because in addition to the type of work done with the PC as invoked by the corporate image also ties to conceit of the corporate image. These other elements are not closely tied between space and the work they do on the computer in the same fashion, and that’s assuming we accept the “corporate image” claim in the first place. Do we need to to refer to a computer as the “Tabletop or Workbenchtop” to better facilitate access to the non-capitalist, non-corporate entities that wish to use the computer. Do we reconcile the space-as-work-as-association image by giving fast food workers their “Greasycountertop PCs”? You be the judge.
Regardless, Selfe and Selfe do have somewhat interesting claims to make in regards to the ability to personalize the interface itself as they cite the Matrix Communication Associates of Pittsburg’s attempt to market “African American Computer Graphics”. (Selfe and Selfe 499). What we can draw from the Selfes and Duncan is that identity as it relates to power structures is still a thing we talk about in 2017. We have perhaps move passed the idea of :7-Elevens, babies and rocking chairs… pinatas… powwow dances and storytellers” (Selfe and Selfe 500) as defining the way that people choose iconography to represent themselves electronically, and moved to situations in which individuals are now taking initiative to better shape their conceptions of what personal space should look like online.
That being said, I don’t foresee any major shake ups in the basic social media structure of the 2000s any time soon- unless VR tech like the Oculus really take off, sooner rather than later.