Stephen Burt in the LRB on Facebook, MySpace and the era of social networking

This long and rewarding essay is currently up at the London Review of Books. Burt notes:

Facebook is big, and it seems to be everywhere. Founded in early 2004, restricted first to Harvard, then to students at American universities, and now open to anyone, the site claims 500 million users, having passed MySpace to become the largest social networking site in the world. Social networks – Facebook, MySpace, Orkut, Bebo (big in the UK) and QQ (big in China) – let users build a page about themselves, containing everything from romantic status (‘married’, ‘single’, ‘it’s complicated’) to video clips; each user’s page is linked to the pages of ‘friends’. Social networks aren’t the entire internet (no more than porn, or Google), though (like porn, like Google) they are a big slice: 80 per cent of Britons with internet connections use them. And (like porn, like Google) they are a synecdoche for the internet generally: social networking sites put us in touch with strangers who share our odd interests; reduce the effects of geographic distance; promote bitesize units of image and text; spread up to the minute news; suck away hours; and change how we see ourselves as social beings.full review is here

The full essay is here.

Charles Peterson on Facebook

In the New York Review of Books, Charles Peterson uses a review of two books about social networking – Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires and Julia Angwin’s Stealing MySpace – as the jumping off point for a long meditation on the origins, nature and character of the social networking spaces we inhabit.

In doing so, Peterson makes some extremely insightful points, particularly about Facebook:

Facebook was successful early on because it didn’t depart significantly from how its audience interacted, and because it started at the top of the social hierarchy. Zuckerberg distinguished his site through one innovation: Facebook, initially at least, would be limited to Harvard. The site thus extended one of the primary conceits of education at an elite university: that everyone on campus is, if not a friend, then a potential friend, one already vetted by the authorities. Most previous social networks, such as MySpace and Friendster, had been dogged by the sense that, while one might use them with friends, they were to a substantial degree designed for meeting strangers. But nobody is a stranger in college, or at least that’s the assumption at a school like Harvard, so nobody would be a stranger on Facebook.

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Meaghan Morris dissects the Facebook grizzlers

It’s fair to say Meaghan Morris is one of my intellectual heroines. Her rapier wit and nimble intelligence make her something a national treasure in the intellectual life of this country. A stylist without peer, she is an ornament to the study of culture.

You can therefore imagine my delight on encountering her latest essay, “Grizzing about Facebook,” in the Australian Humanities Review. It’s a carefully argued but effortlessly expressed tip-toe through the vacuous grizzling that so often characterises old media’s response to social networks.

Morris begins with a fairly typical article in the Murdoch newspaper, a sententious editorial the South China Morning Post critcising Mark Zuckerberg’s invention for its supposedly insidious grip on our lives (“Facebook no substitute for real world contact”):

While forming a very small part of the on-line discussion of social networking sites, these stories arise from news media efforts not only to catch a wave of popular interest while reporting actual incidents but also to shape collective perceptions of a wider phenomenon. In the process, journalists often draw on their rich professional reserves of reductively metonymic realism (‘setting the scene’, the ‘character sketch’) to cast social network users as types whose ways of acting are symptomatic or productive of diverse social ills: alongside terrorists and sexual predators there are always students uploading their mobile pics of boorishly drunken parties, ‘stupid girls’ sharing every detail of their vapid daily routines, and workers who boast about bludging but forget that they’ve friended their boss. As in folklore, each of these figures is sustained by a dense field of concrete examples both stellar (Hugh Grant and Bono for Facebook party uploads, MySpace’s Paris Hilton or Twitter’s Ashton Kutcher for cosmic triviality) and ‘it-could-be-you’ mundane (Kyle Doyle’s ‘SICKIE WOO’ Facebook status update). Simultaneously grounded in and abstracted from the real history of on-line culture, such figures ‘stick’ in media memory, powerfully eliciting recognition (the party animal, the princess, the slack worker) while drawing attention away from a myriad other practices thriving on the sites. Stereotypes are forms of apprehension rather than bad representations, and their force is to mobilize familiar knowledge to explain and absorb unfamiliar experience (Morris,Identity 143-44). Continue reading