Headlines, 2012: “Next time you’re hiring, forget personality tests, just check out the applicant’s Facebook profile instead.” – “Stephanie Watanabe spent nearly four hours Thursday night unfriending about 700 of her Facebook friends—and she isn’t done yet” – “Facebook apology or jail time: Ohio man gets to choose” – “Study: Facebook users getting less friendly” – “Women tend to have stronger feelings regarding who has access to their personal information” (Mary Madden) – “All dressed up and no place to go” (Wall Street Journal) – “I’m making more of an effort to be social these days, because I don’t want to be alone, and I want to meet people” (Cindy Sherman) – “30 percent posted updates that met the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for a symptom of depression, reporting feelings of worthlessness or hopelessness, insomnia or sleeping too much, and difficulty concentrating” – Control your patients: “Do you hire someone in the clinic to look at Facebook all day?” Dr. Moreno asked. “That’s not practical and borders on creepy.” – “Hunt for Berlin police officer pictured giving Nazi salute on Facebook” – “15-year-old takes to Facebook to curse and complain about her parents. The disgusted father later blasts her laptop with a gun.”
The use of the word “social” in the context of information technology goes back to the very beginnings of cybernetics. It later pops up in the 1980s context of “groupware.” The recent materialist school of Friedrich Kittler and others dismissed the use of the word “social” as irrelevant fluff—what computers do is calculate, they do not interfere in human relations. Holistic hippies, on the other hand, have ignored this cynical machine knowledge and have advanced a positive, humanistic view that emphasizes computers as tools for personal liberation. This individualistic emphasis on interface design, usability, and so on was initially matched with an interest in the community aspect of computer networking. Before the “dot-com” venture capitalist takeover of the field in the second half of the 1990s, progressive computing was primarily seen as a tool for collaboration among people.
In a chapter entitled “How Computer Networks Became Social,” Sydney media theorist Chris Chesher maps out the historical development of computer networks, from sociometry and social network analysis—an “offline” science (and a field of study that goes back to the 1930s) that examines the dynamics of human networks—to Granowetter’s theory of the strengths of weak links in 1973, to Castells’s The Network Society in 1996, to the current mapping efforts of the techno-scientists that gather under the umbrella of Actor Network Theory. The conceptual leap relevant here concerns the move from groups, lists, forums, and communities to the emphasis on empowering loosely connected individuals in networks. This shift happened during the neoliberal 1990s and was facilitated by growing computing power, storage capacity, and internet bandwidth, as well as easier interfaces on smaller and smaller (mobile) devices. This is where we enter the Empire of the Social. It must also be said that “the social” could only become technical, and become so successful, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, when state communism no longer posed a (military) threat to free-market capitalism.
If we want to answer the question of what the “social” in today’s “social media” really means, a starting point could be the notion of the disappearance of the social as described by Jean Baudrillard, the French sociologist who theorized the changing role of the subject as consumer. According to Baudrillard, at some point the social lost its historical role and imploded into the media. If the social is no longer the once dangerous mix of politicized proletarians, of the frustrated, unemployed, and dirty clochards that hang out on the streets waiting for the next opportunity to revolt under whatever banner, then how do social elements manifest themselves in the digital networked age?
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