D.E. Wittkower's (2010) essay collection Facebook and Philosophy, 50th in the now 80-volume (and counting) series Popular Culture and Philosophy, is an eclectic mix of disciplinary perspectives and theoretical approaches. It ranges in tone from heady philosophical treatises to wry, tongue-in-cheek Facebook breakup letters.
In the decade since Facebook opened its pages to Harvard undergraduates, it has made a lot of friends—and attracted a lot of criticism. While some people love Facebook, others hate it. Whereas some think it's killing real friendship, others consider it a tool of potential political liberation. Indeed, the 23 essays in this collection represent a wide range of responses. Mariam Thalos (2010), for instance, argued that Facebook makes truth in communication impossible. In contrast, Maurice Hamington (2010) posited that Facebook may cultivate a stronger ethic of care. Richard Morgan and John Clulow (2010) hailed the emergence of the iProle, a new class devoted to radical bottom-up political activism who could take over the world, if only its activists could stop taking personality quizzes and get to work.
While the essays appeared five years ago—Facebook recently celebrated its tenth birthday— their insights still seem fresh. Taken together, the essays in Facebook and Philosophy offer a welcome balance: there is no knee-jerk Facebook skepticism or championing here, just thoughtful engagement with the countercultural, friend-defining, liberatory potential—and banal reality—of this era's favorite social network.
Facebook and Philosophy has been divided into five sections: "Facebook Itself," "The Profile and the Self," "Facebook Friends," "Social Networking," and "Activity and Passivity." Audiences will find intriguing insights in all sections, but for the purpose of this essay I will focus on the authors' comments on identity, friendship, and surveillance. These ideas operate in interlocking spheres; Who am I? is defined in part by the question with whom do I choose to share my life?, which in turn raises the question who is sharing my life without my consent?
Several authors remarked on the way Facebook that enables active identity construction. Jeremy Sarachan (2010) read Roland Barthes' theory of viewers' reactions to photography into the construction of the Facebook profile picture. He analyzed, for instance, the identity implications of a low-resolution webcam picture that links the subject to his or her computer, a photo of an object, a picture with friends, or an artistically expressive portrait. The profile picture, Tamara Wandel and Anthony Beavers (2010) suggested, is just one of many play-like choices Facebook users make when trying on new online identities. Through that play, we engage in a process of self-discovery. Because that self-defining process is laid bare in front of our friends, Wandel and Beavers said—though I am not sure I agree—Facebook may nurture the creation of "a more authentic, grounded, and valid self" (p. 95). I am skeptical, for what it's worth, of the book's focus on authenticity of self and interaction; might we have many authentic selves? If identity is fluid, what does it mean for a self to be authentic anyway?
The notions of authenticity and play also drove Rune Vejby and D.E. Wittkower's (2010) chapter about spectacle. Facebook, they observed, is a less passive form of media than entertainment that came before it, with the potential for creating more authentic experiences: In constructing identities, people on Facebook "resist and subvert the spectacle by means of creating situations" (p. 103, emphasis in original). They cited Improv Everywhere's "Freeze Grand Central," as an example of the kind of situationist play that can grow out of social media.
If play is the key to Facebook identity construction, how do our relationships with Facebook friends enable and constrain that play? Is a digital friend analogous to an analog friend? The average Facebook user has 281 friends, Craig Condella (2010) said. Could our relationships with those friends even possibly achieve Aristotle's highest level of friendship, united by virtue? By the sheer volume of surface-level interactions Facebook demands, Condella (2010) suggested, having so many friends "risks choking the deeper sorts of friendships which matter most" (p. 121).
Not all the authors proffered quite such doom-and-gloom pronouncements about friendship—Abrol Fairweather and Jodi Halpern (2010) argued that because Facebook brings us into the daily, lived experience of our friends, it increases our moral imagination and natural sympathy. Hamington (2010) similarly remarked that Facebook, through its chat and comment features, makes it easy for us to turn any superficial friendship relationship into "a caring one" (p. 143).
Yet, as Chris Bloor (2010) warned, "The world is not an entirely friendly place" (p. 150). Facebook makes it easy to share information that could hurt us. Along the same lines, Waddick Doyle and Matthew Fraser (2010) suggested that Facebook has turned everyone into Big Brother: We populate and perpetuate our own panopticon. We feed the capitalist machine with marketable information about ourselves and our friends.
Most of the authors seemed to harbor a hope for meaningful resistance on Facebook, but few observed it working in practice. As a whole, the book suggested that Facebook's radical potentiality has not yet seen fruition. Has that changed since 2010? I'm inclined to say no. Even Arab Spring—the upwelling of protests in 2011 in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia that has been hailed as a paragon of Facebook activism—ultimately owed very little to social media activism. In fact, Arab Spring activists were warned repeatedly not to use Facebook and Twitter as organizing tools, because they were heavily monitored by government officials (Kingsley, 2011). The unanswerability of the questions the book raised attests to the strength and continued relevance of these essays. But it also seems like this debate has, perhaps, reached stasis: though still interesting, maybe these are questions no longer worth asking.
Many in our field have considered and employed various uses of Facebook and other social networking tools in the classroom. Deborah Balzhiser (2011), for example, described her experiences assigning a Facebook profile analysis paper. While she was happy that the assignment led students to think critically about identity construction online, she struggled to get students to address the implications of social networking at a larger cultural level. In Kairos's PraxisWiki section, David T. Coad (2013) offered some ideas about how an instructor might get students thinking more broadly and culturally about Facebook through a series of scaffolded assignments. Bronwyn T. Williams's (2009) Shimmering Literacies also located the role and examined the development of social media literacy in student lives.
To these discussions, Facebook and Philosophy does not have much to add: M. Deanya Lattimore (2010) described trying to bring Facebook into the classroom by encouraging students to join a class Facebook group. She discovered, however, that students were suspicious of her motives. Jared Stein framed this phenomenon, as Lattimore (2010) explained, the "creepy treehouse" problem—a virtual place designed to draw in the younger generation (p. 183). Some authors occasionally mention interacting with ex-students on Facebook, but that is the extent of the book's explicit pedagogical contribution.
Nevertheless, combined with activities like those described by Balzhiser (2011) and Coad (2013), this book provided important insights into how critical social media consciousness could contribute to a well-informed pedagogy.
I would not call this book indispensable for scholars in composition and rhetoric; its philosophy, ultimately, is light on pragmatic utility. It is, however, a resoundingly interesting text, representing a broad range of perspectives and theoretical approaches. Certainly, it could be a useful primer for someone beginning to theorize Facebook.
Compositionists might especially appreciate Vejby and Wittkower's (2010) chapter about authenticity and play—the notion of the spectacle could be a useful way of examining the role of social media in rhetorical circulation. Events become reduced to a series of quickly consumed soundbites and images, which both enables and constrains their effectiveness as tools of social change. Classroom discussions of Facebook might consider how individuals and corporations compose spectacles in the social media age—and whether or how those compositions get read as authentic.
Purely affectively, it is almost universally fun to read, and for that
at least, I recommend it.