Face-to-Facebook, smiling in the eternal party.
Social networking is naturally addictive. It's about exploring something very familiar that has never been available before: staying in touch with past and present friends and acquaintances in a single, potentially infinite, virtual space.
The phenomenon challenges us psychologically, creating situations that previously were not possible. Before the rise of social networking, former friends and acquaintances would tend to drift away from us and potentially become consigned to our personal histories. Having a virtual space with (re)active people constantly updating their activities is the basic, powerful fascination of the social network. But there's another attraction, based on the elusive sport (or perhaps urge) to position ourselves. The answer to the fundamental identity question, "who am I?" can be given only in relation to the others that we interact with (friends, family, work colleagues, and so on). And the answer to this question seems clearer after we take a look at our list of social network friends.
So an intimate involvement and (endless) questioning of our online identity (often literally juxtaposing with our physical one) is perpetrated in the social network game. But social network platforms are not public organizations designed to help support social problems but private corporations. Their mission is not to help people create better social relationships or to help them improve their self-positioning. Their mission is to make money. Economic success for these corporations rests on convincing users to connect to the several hundred people who await them online.
The market value of these companies is proportional to the number of users they have. Facebook is valued at around 50 billion dollars : it sports 500 million users . The game can often translate into a form of social binging in which the number of friends a user has is never enough to satisfy. But what kind of space is Facebook? Facebook is not home - it is way larger and more crowded. And it's not the street, because you're supposed to know everybody in your space. Facebook is an eternal, illusory party, under surveillance and recorded for all time. Its structure invites you to first replicate and then enhance your real social structures, replicating your experiences on your own personal "screen space".
In this unending party, you meet and join old and new friends, acquaintances and relatives. As with most parties everything is private, or restricted to the invited guests, but has the potential to become public, if accidently shared. Here the guests' activity and interests are also recorded through their posts in different formats and media (pictures, movies, trips, preferences, comments). It's an induced immaterial labour with instant gratification. Guests produce content by indirectly answering the question "who am I?" and they get new friends and feedback in the process.
In fact, Facebook’s subliminal mantra seems then to be "be personal, be popular, never stop." It has even gone so far as to make it difficult to notice when a friend closes their account (you need to check the friend’s list to have any idea).
The more successful (and crowded) the party, the more the private funders are happy to put money into it. The price the guests are unconsciously paying is that they are giving away their (constantly updating) virtual identity. Guests, in fact, organize their own space, and therefore their own "party", offering the party owner (Facebook) a connected, heterogeneous group of people who share interests.
As such they offer what can be termed as “crowdsourced targeting” – the indirect identification of people’s targets and desires by the users themselves. In fact the spontaneously posted data provides an endless (almost automatic) mutual profiling, enriching and updating the single virtual identities, in a collective self-positioning. But can profile data be liberated from Facebook’s inexorable logic? The answer is yes, but it's important to focus on the core of the Facebook profiles and see how they are recognized as virtual identities.
First, the profiles sublimate the owners' (real) social actions and references through their virtual presences. Second, they synthesize their effectiveness in representing real people through a specific element: the profile picture. This picture, an important Facebook interface, more often than not shows a face, and a smiling one at that. Our face is our most private space and simultaneously the most exposed one. How many people are allowed to touch our face, for example?
And generally speaking, the face is also one of the major points of reference we have in the world.
There are even "special" regions of the human brain, such as the fusiform face area (FFA), which may have become specialized at facial recognition . Faces are now so exposed that they do not remain private, but are thrust into the public domain and shared (they can even be "tagged" by other people). So any virtual identity (composed of a face picture and some related data) can be stolen and become part of another identity, through a simple re-contextualization of the same data.
Furthermore, "face recognition" techniques can be applied to group vast amount of Facebook pictures. This process is also quite paradoxical, because the "surveillance" aspects (face recognition algorithms are usually used together with surveillance cameras) here are not used to try to identify a suspect or a criminal, but to capture a group people with similar somatic expressions. The resulting scenario is that different elements forming the identities can be remixed, re-contextualized and re-used at will. Facebook data become letters of an unauthorized alphabet to be used to narrate real identities or new identities, forming new characters on a new background.
And this is a potentially open process that anybody can undertake. It becomes more tempting when we realize the vast amount of people who are smiling. When we smile in our profile picture, we are truly smiling at everyone on Facebook.
So any user can easily duplicate any personal picture on his/her hard disk and then upload it somewhere else with different data. The final step is to be aware that almost everything posted online can have a different life if simply recontextualized.
Facebook, an endlessly cool place for so many people, becomes at the same time a goldmine for identity theft and dating - unfortunately, without the user's control. But that's the very nature of Facebook and social media in general. If we start to play with the concepts of identity theft and dating, we should be able to unveil how fragile a virtual identity given to a proprietary platform can be. And how fragile enormous capitalization based on exploiting social systems can be. And it'll eventually mutate, from a plausible translation of real identities into virtual management, to something just for fun, with no assumed guarantee of trust, crumbling the whole market evaluation hysteria that surrounds the crowded, and much hyped, online social platforms.