If definitions of self are as multiple as we have previously suggested, then these do not limit themselves to philosophical works but proliferate, in implicit or explicit form, in other media. Such (re)definitions of self can easily be isolated in the various social networks’ ways of presenting members to one another. Attempts at deconstructing these definitions have already been undertaken, notably by Zadie Smith in her review of The Social Network from 2010.
In particular, Smith’s review takes aims at Facebook’s definition of self and person and provides much in the way of rich instruction on differing, contemporary conceptions of the former. One question that falls out of her treatment is the following: when approaching self, how does one avoid being either overly reductive or overly romantic? Smith sets up the dilemma as follows:
Specifically we have different ideas about what a person is, or should be. I often worry that my idea of personhood is nostalgic, irrational, inaccurate. Perhaps Generation Facebook have built their virtual mansions in good faith, in order to house the People 2.0 they genuinely are, and if I feel uncomfortable within them it is because I am stuck at Person 1.0. Then again, the more time I spend with the tail end of Generation Facebook (in the shape of my students) the more convinced I become that some of the software currently shaping their generation is unworthy of them. They are more interesting than it is. They deserve better.
Although the question of reduction and romance receives considerable exposure in the text, nowhere else does the author approach it from this more general perspective. Instead, she turns to more concrete questions of how this or that service either reduces or fails to reduce the human person. Likewise is occluded the offhand suggestion that the world may be home to different kinds of personhood or selfhood, incapable of relation to broader traits, which merits greater treatment as well.
These preliminaries aside, we can turn back to Smith’s approach to Facebook and self. The author notes that, while Facebook aims to promote communication between users and display their genuine interests, a series of new design policies has, in fact, had the opposite effect. With lower privacy standards come lower degrees of authenticity:
What’s striking about Zuckerberg’s vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose. For a revealing moment Facebook forgot that. Or else got bored of waiting for us to change in the ways it’s betting we will. On the question of privacy, Zuckerberg informed the world: “That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.” On this occasion, the world protested, loudly, and so Facebook has responded with “Groups,” a site revamp that will allow people to divide their friends into “cliques,” some who see more of our profile and some who see less.
Given the broad appeal of the notion “authenticity” with today’s younger generations and the need to be true to oneself, a platform producing the inverse effect in its users proves deeply unsuited to their needs for self-articulation. Instead of articulating their sense of self, users suppress, on Smith’s view, precisely that which sets them out from others and hence ushers in mechanisms tending towards conformity. It is precisely to this flattening effect that Smith attributes the social network’s lack of merit as regards its users.
With this in mind, Smith calls upon the mid 20th century work of Jaron Lanier, a technology expert of a philosophical bent. Connecting Facebook’s flattening effect with informational reductionism, the author sketches out the problem of self underlying social media networks:
Lanier is interested in the ways in which people “reduce themselves” in order to make a computer’s description of them appear more accurate. “Information systems,” he writes, “need to have information in order to run, but information underrepresents reality” (my italics). In Lanier’s view, there is no perfect computer analogue for what we call a “person.” In life, we all profess to know this, but when we get online it becomes easy to forget. In Facebook, as it is with other online social networks, life is turned into a database, and this is a degradation, Lanier argues, which is ‘based on [a] philosophical mistake…the belief that computers can presently represent human thought or human relationships. These are things computers cannot currently do.’
In short, computers qua information systems lack the capacity, as presently constituted, to recreate personhood and self in all its complexities. Yet it is not for nothing that Smith gently sets aside the question of whether computer might in the future be able to represent human thought or relationships. This stems primarily from the “romantic” or “nostalgic” traces of her own thinking as regards self. The question is, however, one to which we shall have to return when considering reduction and romance anew.
Smith continues to highlighting the way in which different purposes animate software, understood as means of presentation, and thus result in wildly different products:
We know the consequences of this instinctively; we feel them. We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing “in” the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online “eventually becomes their truth”? What Lanier, a software expert, reveals to me, a software idiot, is what must be obvious (to software experts): software is not neutral. Different software embeds different philosophies, and these philosophies, as they become ubiquitous, become invisible.
However ‘natural’ the way of presenting oneself to others may feel, that presentation stems from a distinct purpose in view of which the the software was designed. In the case of Facebook, this owes to the need to advertise and move product. If it has become standard in this day and age to demonstrate our sense of self through brands and purchases, even down to the advertising which appeals to us, Smith wants to emphasize that it need not be this way. In calling attention to the medium, might we also awaken to our deeper needs?
Lanier wants us to be attentive to the software into which we are “locked in.” Is it really fulfilling our needs? Or are we reducing the needs we feel in order to convince ourselves that the software isn’t limited?
Although their argument turns on a minimally substantivist notion of needs and self, it does have its appeal in that users complain not infrequently of a lack that they experience in their day-to-day use of social media. As Smith sees it through Lanier’s lens, authenticity precedes sharing, be it logically, practically or otherwise. In the terms we have set out above, this position consists in holding that self-articulation must come before communication of self to others.
“You have to be somebody,” Lanier writes, “before you can share yourself.” But to Zuckerberg sharing your choices with everybody (and doing what they do) is being somebody.