My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Stage-managing the most popular one-person show

The Facebook image for those with no profiles, modified to wear Groucho Marx glasses

Each time I try to compose a post for my philosophy class, I resolve not to discuss Facebook or Google this time. I keep mentioning them, using them as examples, to the point where one might think I spend all my time using one or both of those services. Not so. Not even close.

Wait, sorry, need to check Gmail on my Android phone….

Well, I will succeed in not mentioning Facebook and Google eventually. Not today. No, because for my second critical response, I am discussing "Friend Me if You Facebook: Generation Y and Performative Surveillance," by E.J. Westlake. This article is in volume 52 of TDR: The Drama Review, available through Project MUSE (couldn't find an openly-available copy, sorry). We will be discussing this during week eight of class.

This is an article that is exactly what it says on the tin (or title, as the case may be). Westlake discusses how Generation Y uses Facebook, arguing that members of older generations tend to be dismissive of Generation Y's proactive use of Facebook, focusing on it only as a tool that promotes exhibitionism and apathy. At the same time, she examines how one's activities on Facebook is a performance of the self, bringing us in some Erving Goffman for the theory side, which brings back memories of the first-year sociology course I took. Finally, Westlake also explores how this performance of self is mediated by Facebook's enforcement of a panoptic sense of surveillance and self-policing, or what she terms performative surveillance.

Westlake begins with an anecdote about how she discovered the introduction of Facebook's News Feed. I was aware that Facebook had not always had the News Feed, but having joined after its introduction, I've never been able to imagine Facebook without it, despite my dislike of its user interface design. Considering the outcry raised over Facebook's privacy issues in the past few years, it was fascinating to read about how users objected to the News Feed (22). Can you imagine anyone doing that now? (My objections are purely from an interface perspective.) This alone is a useful reminder that time changes the perspective on everything, and that which we find unsettling or invasive at first may soon become the status quo.

Westlake singles out Facebook for analysis because of its insistence upon the convergence of online and offline geography. Although other services, such as MySpace, allow for the creation of subjectivities and a performance of self, Facebook's ideology and structure encourages people to interact with other people in their real-world location (25). Westlake sees this as a way of fundamentally altering how we relate to each other, and she rejects the "prevailing attitudes of Baby Boomers and Generation X-ers that Generation Y is somehow socially and politically disengaged because of technology" (23). Why the difference in perspective? Westlake attributes this to the performance of self.

When we interact online, just as when we interact in person, we present a facet of ourselves based on our audience. We perform. Facebook is special because the dynamic, ongoing nature of our updates to our profiles means the performance itself is ongoing, so the selves we present are ever-changing. Moreover, "the predominantly Generation Y Facebook community uses Facebook to define the boundaries of normative behavior through unique performances of an online self" (23), so Facebook is a medium through which Generation Y is changing the standards of social interaction. As a result, instead of deviating from social norms by posting drunk photos, Facebook users "establish and reinforce social norms, but also resist being fixed as rigid, unchanging subjects" (23).

Consider this for a moment: every user's Facebook profile is like a constantly-changing, continually-updated autobiography. Unlike a school yearbook or a memoir, written once and then fixed in text and left to moulder on a bookshelf, Facebook profiles are an ongoing presentation of ourselves in the moment. To a Facebook user, the idea that one's profile would ever be frozen or left in stasis would be silly: change is constant and expected.

Westlake examines several ways in which people use Facebook as a performance. Fictional profiles--either impersonating real people or portraying fictional characters--are one example. I don't pay attention to such profiles, but I found Westlake's mention of them interesting because it's an example of a use of Facebook that is non-normative, in the sense that this is not how Facebook expects one to use the service. Indeed, fake profiles are banned by the Terms of Use, and one of the self-policing surveillance/discipline actions Westlake notes is the reporting of such profiles:

Users can also police Facebook deviants by reporting inappropriate photographs, fake profiles, and vulgar Wall posts. Facebook has an elaborate Code of Conduct and encourages users to click on "Report Abuse" links on every page.… While users can conceivably create fake profiles based on anyone, fake profiles are rigorously policed on Facebook.… It takes only one user reporting a fake profile for the profile to be removed. (34)

As with Winokur's critique of the Internet as a panopticon, there is not a bijective correspondence between this notion and Facebook, simply because of the differences in architecture. Nevertheless, it is clear that surveillance and self-surveillance is present. There is a certain amount of self-censorship at work. Most of us don't post drunk photos:

While researchers in a recent University of Dayton study expressed concern over the fact that 8 percent of Facebook users surveyed reported exaggerating the amount of drinking or drug use in their profiles, what they don't mention is the reverse: that an overwhelming majority of users do not exaggerate or highlight so-called deviant behavior. (32)

We are aware that others are going to view our profiles and judge us, so for the most part we curtail our activities--moderate our performance of self. I am very much aware of this in my own activities, not only when I post to Facebook, but when I tweet or write a blog post. The latter activity in particular is always interesting, since my father and my paternal grandparents read my blog, so there is always a part of me aware of that. Additionally, when I post something online, it is there forever. It might not go away, not even if I try to delete it. As I grow and mature, what I have written in the past might come back to haunt me, even if I don't consider it "deviant" behaviour at the time I write. For example, while rummaging through my blog archives, I've discovered I once claimed to enjoy The Da Vinci Code, which is far from my current opinion (I guess this my equivalent of "Big Hair"). How we choose to deal with these snapshots of our past selves is an individual matter, although some, including Google's former CEO Eric Schmidt, have suggested that some youth will change their names to escape the records of their online past. That is rather extreme in my case.

Facebook users also participate in the policing of others, as noted above in the case of fake profiles. In fact, Facebook relies on its users to self-police. No matter how many people it hires to process reports, it cannot possibly have enough people to scour all the posts and profiles created each day. Perhaps most importantly, Westlake notes that despite the community's own role in policing such profiles, "users continue to create fake profiles, showing a willingness on the part of the Facebook community to play with the rules established by Facebook administrators" (35). However, she also notes that users will receive criticism for having too few or too many friends (36). Thus, although those foreign to Facebook often see it as something outside, something Other, which promotes deviance and exhibitionism, it is clear that there are norms within Facebook, maintained by the self-policing user base, and not following those norms is what earns censure: "Facebook is a forum for the policing and establishing of normative behavior, more than the imagined forum of deviant exhibitionism" (35).

Westlake is very persuasive. Maybe it's because I am a member of Generation Y, and even if I don't use Facebook with some of the passion or intensity that my peers do, I like it as a communication tool. Nevertheless, I appreciate that she has taken the time to view the service as a sign of the new present rather than a deviation from the old past. That Facebook is changing our interactions seems undeniable. However, unlike what some claim, I agree with Westlake that "Facebook is not a substitute for social interaction," and

Generation Y … will take what older generations view as a social disadvantage and create new norms for performances of self, and these norms are likely to be established online as they are in face-to-face interaction. (31)

This seems to be a quieter form of revolution than the type we generally like to ascribe to the Internet. "I'm creating new norms for performances of self" just doesn't have the same ring as, "Man, I'm rebelling against the Man, man. Down with the establishment!" does. But the Internet doesn't have to be revolutionary all the time, or consistently loud in its revolutionary quality. Westlake has done what some journalists and scholars seem reluctant to do, which is treat Facebook and other network-related phenomena as something more than a passing fad or an unpleasant deviation from the norms of their society.

In her rejection of this perspective, Westlake is placing herself opposite journalists like Robert J. Samuelson, who calls the Internet "ExhibitioNet" which "has unleashed the greatest outburst of mass exhibitionism in human history" (31). This is reminiscent of our readings of Guy Debord's ruminations on the spectacle. Do you think that our performances of self are a form of spectacle? If so, what does this say about the way we enforce and police performances according to emergent norms?

For some additional reading, I--well, I don't have any reading. I do have two podcasts, a video, and an infographic though.

  • Episode 67 of Spark has an interview with Paul Taylor, founder of Arcalife, a service that wants to preserve family history including social networking. Would you want family members to keep your Facebook profile around for posterity?
  • Westlake also mentions that, "Unlike older people, Generation Y-ers may not understand the purpose of public protest and are not likely to march in the streets to voice their views," but they do join Facebook groups in force (38). Spark interviewed an internet psychologist who created a fake petition group to see if people were just doing this for the sake of, well, joining petition groups.
  • Joel Jacob posted this in one of our weekly discussion forums, but I shall share it again for those classmates who missed it and for my wider audience: "You need to get off Facebook" is a short video that seems to deliver a message opposite to Westlake's thesis. It's interesting to note that, unlike most of the opposition Westlake cites, this video is from a member of Generation Y.
  • Lastly, Matt McKeon has an interactive infographic that visualizes the history of Facebook's default privacy settings. Click on the chart to advance through the last five years and see how more and more of your personal data is available by default. If Facebook profiles are truly a performance of the self, it's worth knowing who the audience is, no?

But wait, I have a bonus question! We often refer to the Internet as liberating or freedom-enhancing, especially for minorities or the oppressed. But is this the case? If Facebook establishes a new standard of normative behaviour through the performative surveillance of its users, does it also create exclusionary practices similar to those created by offline norms? How does this affect non-normative groups?