Monday, May 9, 2011

Osama bin Laden, Online Social Networks, and Authenticity


Osama Bin Laden was killed last week.

Yeah, I know, not exactly breaking news. But I know you don't really come to this blog for "news." Instead, as you might expect, I have something to say related to how people responded to this news, specifically on the Internet and on online social networks (surprise!).

Slate's "Culture Gabfest" provided a pretty interesting discussion about how online social networking has effected the reactions to Osama bin Laden's death. I'd like to expand on it slightly.

The always-enlightening Gabfest crowd discussed generally our new-found societal inclination to publicly declare our personally felt sentiments. The argument is that we now live in a society so fixated on authenticity that everyone now feels compelled to share their feelings on this momentous event publicly and immediately, no filtering.

The Gabfest's major misstep is evident in the final moments of the segment: they essentially finish the story with each of them saying that they didn't do this themselves, but everyone else did, so it's a reflection of a cultural force. If it IS a cultural force, why are they immune to it?

I think understanding our obsession with authenticity as some sort of uncontrollable urge to share our feelings is to misstate what social networking actually does accomplish here.

It's certainly true that online social networks make it easier to reflect authentically our own feelings to our friends. But the online social network can do only that: facilitate the offline social network. In other words, the only people who take to Facebook or Twitter to publicly share their emotional reactions to bin Laden's death are the same people that were disseminating these sentiments through their own offline social networks before these websites even existed.

The result is that, while it might look like people are having an unprecedented emotional response to some global piece of news (be it joy at the death of an enemy or shame at the public celebration of a person's death), that emotional response is essentially the same as it has always been, just more visible.

The real novelty in this situation is not that more people are sharing their opinions; it's that more people are seeing each other's opinions. Back on September 11th, 2001, for instance, I could only get the reactions of those people that I saw around me on a daily basis. And believe me, they were vitriolic and extreme and numerous. But they were limited in number by the amount of people in my social network that I saw on any given day.

All online social networks have done is expanded the functional, accessible size of this social network, making these opinions LOOK more common, even though they are as common as they always have been.

But online social networks have also, to a certain extent, democratized the response to situations like this. Offline, the people with whom I correspond most regularly and sunstainedly are those that tend to agree with me. That is the nature of friendship. But online social networks make friendship something a little more broad. A more diverse group of people now have access to my attention, people that I do care about but I wouldn't have heard from in a previous era of information sharing. Essentially, instead of getting the somewhat limited viewpoints of those friends that I already most closely agree with, I get the diverse perspectives of the broadest circle of my friends.

Authenticity is at war with artifice every day. We want to authentically represent ourselves, but we also wear slimming clothes and make-up and only say the things we think won't disrupt or offend those around us. Maybe some of us maintain less distance between impulse and action, but in the end, we shape our actions to what we want those actions to be, not some deep sense of who we are. (Sure, what we want our actions to be is influenced by that deep "who we are," but even if the animus is deep, the agency is at a higher level.)

That war between impulse and control, between authenticity and self-definition still exists online. Online social networks have not achieved some unprecedented level of authenticity in social interaction; they've achieved an unprecedented AMOUNT of social interaction. The nature of that interaction is essentially unchanged, still as authentic or inauthentic as it always has been.

In my opinion, that's probably more useful. How much do we desire a society where people say whatever is on their mind all of the time? How much to we desire pure, unadulterated authenticity? I'd argue that the authenticity that we now have access to is the more useful variety: people can easily, quickly and accurately represent how they see themselves, not necessarily what they objectively are. That, to me, is the bedrock upon which social interaction is built. I'm glad it's the kind of authenticity brought out by such an ambivalence-breeding event like this one.

(Image from this informative post on BlazoMania)