Neoliberalism and Facebook

via weheartit

My post today will be based on Ilana Gershon’s papers on Facebook and neoliberalism. These papers have yet to be published, so I cannot provide a link here, though one will appear in Anthropological Quarterly (pending revisions).

The relationship between Facebook and neoliberalism starts with an understanding on Hayek’s understanding of the market. He basically feels that the market is an ideal social situation. Why? Well, we don’t really understand the workings of the market very well. We are generally quite bad at processing economic information. Luckily though, the market does this for us. ‘The market managed information in a way no single person could.’ Facebook, and specifically, the act of ‘Facebook stalking’ can be thought of in a similar way:

This web-based social networking site brings people into a system of partial information, in which people view just enough information to want more details about ex-lovers or current lovers, but not enough information to be satisfied. This can lead to hours of Facebook stalking as they try to find information that will produce a satisfying enough context. Hayek argues that this system of partial information is precisely how people experience the market. People only have partial understanding of economic exchanges, they never fully grasp how the market works or how their own actions will affect the market.

Our understanding of markets is incomplete and it is therefore difficult to predict what is going to happen. Likewise, in the context of Facebook, information one can get to is also incomplete:

People describe their experiences of Facebook as providing information about others in the way Hayek imagines information functions – referencing a larger order yet never fully revealing this order, promising sufficient information to lead to action with predictable and predicated outcomes but never fulfilling this promise.

This gets to the crux of Gershon’s argument, which is that neoliberal discourse is not telling in the way of describing how people focus on bits of information, rather than the context as a whole. The compulsion to ‘facebook stalk’ is based on the idea that if one gathers enough information, one will become satisfied in that they know the entire context of their ex-partner or an old friend from high school or whomever. But the truth is, as with our knowledge of markets, it will never be complete and this desire for complete knowledge can never be truly satisfied. Given the frustration involved with this, and the hours spent by ‘Facebook addicts’ in ‘stalking’ people, this can hardly be said to be an ‘ideal social order’. Rather, it tells a tale of being unfulfilled by incomplete levels of knowledge.

This is not necessarily something that is restricted just to Facebook. For instance, one can ‘google stalk’ another person and try to gather sufficient information, but facebook seems like a particularly fetile site for this kind of information gathering because, in many cases, all the people you know are ‘on’ there. I think that, although I don’t think I’ve really spent much time stalking people on facebook, I have certainly gone on to other peoples profiles trying to find missing information about them, not really knowing what that might entail, and, of course, eventually finding either nothing or nothing particularly satisfying.

Facebook is a neoliberal ‘society’ in that, as we list our interests, our favourite quotes, our hobbies and bands, where we’ve lived, gone to school and worked, pictures of us, etc. as though we own ourselves in the same way we might own a business, which is in itself a presupposed neoliberal vision of selfhood. ‘This is the self that Facebook encourages its users to represent, encouraging people to update their profiles constantly through a variety of gimmicky techniques, asking people to see their profile as a display that continually needs to be embellished and managed.’

When the self becomes metaphorically a business, it is a compilation of measurable skills and assets that enters into relationships with other selves that may have different arrays of skills. From a neoliberal perspective, the more skills one has, the better. So too with alliances, the more alliances one has, the better. This is a view that Facebook seems to adopt as well, its interface is constantly suggesting that people add more and more alliances to their profile.

The amount of friends you have says something about your popularity and ability to network, your specific skills and interests are able to define you as a kind of ‘brand’ or ‘genre’ of person.

Additionally, Gershon talks about how the way Facebook is set up so that a neoliberal version of oneself is presented to others effectively makes individuals feel as though they can no longer sustain healthy relationships. She writes:

Facebook, just like the market, provides the conditions for presenting tantalizing incomplete information. As users and former users of Facebook mentioned to me, they often find it difficult to interpret information on Facebook: they feel the site provides both too much information and incomplete information. They describe this combination of excess and incompleteness as obstacles inherent to Facebook, with users trying to interpret the alliances performed on their lover’s Facebook profiles. Incomplete information on its own can be frustrating, yet was not so anxiety-provoking alone to convince these college students to quit Facebook. They quit because of the combination of incomplete information along with a socially constructed sense of obligation to perform being a neoliberal self (a compilation of represented assets that constantly required attention and enhancement). In short, the neoliberal performances of self that Facebook fosters are public performances of promiscuous alliances expressed through the circulation of incomplete information, presenting a promiscuity that some undergraduates fear should be read literally

According to Gershon, the troubles people have with Facebook – their inability to function in their relationships without paranoia as well as their inability to stop obsessing over certain people through the act of ‘stalking’ –  highlight certain problems with taking on this neoliberal persona.

In this way, we can see how the internet, or various parts of the internet, do reflect neoliberal workings in very subtle ways. That said, Gershon does remark that there is nothing inherently neoliberal in facebook as a medium. The interface of facebook does not pre-empt the ways one might make use of the platform. Rather, the designers do and the users do. And indeed, different people do use facebook in different ways, but this neoliberal version of events is informative for this project, because it shows that even social networking websites can act to mimic overarching political ideals in both the way people experience them and in the way social networking can be used to present oneself-as-a-business.

One Response

  1. […] go online, they can pretty much work to recreate the offline world. Neopets is similar, and so is facebook insofar as the information available on facebook is similarly limited as the information available […]

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