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Having Your Digital Cake and Eating It, Too

September 12, 2012

Everyone today has an opinion about Facebook’s effects on society. It’s an old kind of question. In ancient Greece, Plato famously had mixed feelings about this new information storage and transmission technology called “writing” – he thought it diminished the need for memorization. So it’s not like we’re going to solve the debate in a blog post. But we can learn more about what our societal goals are by studying the different ways we portray technology. In this post I’d like to discuss two ways Facebook presents itself that contradict each other. I haven’t heard anyone mention this contradiction that’s in visual form, a contradiction between the meaning of two pictures.

How exactly does one analyze two pictures rhetorically? Very carefully.

Seriously, though, it can be difficult to adapt the rhetorical terminology of studying verbal arguments to study strategic images. There’s an ongoing debate, but Alan Gross speaks for many when he argues that images by themselves can only be evidence for a claim, not the claim+evidence that we think of as an argument. (That is, he wants us to not say, “The image argues that…”) So as we look at these pictures from Facebook, I’ll point out the claim that the picture is evidence for.

Here’s the first picture. It’s what you see if you go to Facebook’s homepage and it doesn’t know who you are.

Ignore the text for now; I just want to analyze the picture. The overall claim of the page, as we can see from the sign up at the right and the log in boxes at the top, is something like “You should be a part of Facebook.” With that claim in mind, what does the image say?

The yellow silhouettes are Facebook’s iconic representation of people. Some of them are on the map at major places (California, England/France, Moscow, India, Syndey), helping us see the “people” as representative of everyone in those cities. And some of them are on the map in more random places (West Africa, northern South America, Egypt), leading us to see the “people” as also existing in remote areas. So the icons seem to represent everyone in the world.

If you’re feeling a little boxed in at being represented as being from a single place (and as someone who grew up in California, went to high school and college in Florida, and lives in Pittsburgh, I can relate to that), embrace it: the grey hashed lines are your salvation. Being grey (not black) and hashed (not complete), the lines signal something intangible (hint: friendship!!).  So if you feel constrained by your geography, Facebook can connect you to anyone in the world. California to West Africa, Japan to India – through Facebook, the image suggests, you can become friends with anyone. And that’s why you should be a part of Facebook.

But wait, there’s a second image that Facebook uses. This one was designed by an intern, was spread around the Internet, and then Facebook used it as part of about 20 images in their S-1, when they applied to trade on the NASDAQ stock market.

We’ll analyze this picture from when Facebook used it in the S-1 filing (it does come with a caption: “Our mission: to make the world more open and connected,” but I’m ignoring that for now). We can take the claim of the S-1 to be something like, “Facebook is worth investing your money in.” What does the picture say?

Paul Butler, the guy who designed the image, explains in his blog post that the whiteness of each line corresponds to the number of friend connections between those cities. So rather than the first picture, in which hypothetical friend connections were placed over a geographical outline, here any outline comes from the friend connections themselves.

And the outline – when I look at it at least – is an outline of the world. There are exceptions, of course: Brazil is hard to see (they use Orkut); Russia and China are missing (Russia uses vKontakte and Facebook is blocked in China); people in central Africa don’t have Internet; and nobody lives in western Australia except for Perth. But overall you see the shape of each of the continents, sometimes in quite a bit of detail (Italy is crystal clear).

What that means, then, is that Facebook friendship tends to reinforce geographical boundaries – through Facebook, you will solidify friendship with the people you interact with most. And that’s why Facebook is a good investment.

It’s a visual contradiction. The first image promises unlimited potential; the second image exalts connecting primarily with people who you know.

So which is it? Trying to reconcile fully Facebook’s self-presentation on this point would take another whole blog post, but I would suggest it has to do with a dual role of technology in society. In the short term, technology is adaptive, solving a felt need like connecting friends (as in the second image). In the long term, though, it can be transformative, inventing uses like redefining friendship (as in the first image). We tend to think of these two functions as separate–a technology either transforms society or it adapts to it. But by recognizing these two different functions as functions of time, and by seeing how creators and users employ them rhetorically, we can have a more productive social conversation about how to react to technologies.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 13, 2012 1:47 pm

    This is an interesting perspective on a complaint I’ve heard about Facebook and other social networking utilities: they don’t actually make the world more “open and connected” instead, they (as you said) reinforce existing connections. Very rarely do you actually discover or meet people through social networking, especially in closed environments like Facebook (This is one of the benefits, I think, of more public tools like Google+ and Twitter because they make it easier to forge new connections, but I digress).

    This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as you pointed out, it’s contradictory to the supposed mission of Facebook and one of the most common accolades of social media in general: to make the world more open. In fact, it may actually do the opposite by making your world tighter and more closed.

    It’s easy to see those lines and think, “Hey look how connected the world is!” without really thinking about the implications of those lines. The thing to do when you hear descriptions like “open and connected” (or any bit of rhetoric, really) is ask yourself whether or not the thing said is actually true in your life, a jump I don’t often make myself.

    Good post, thanks.

  2. Will Penman permalink
    September 13, 2012 5:45 pm

    Hi Sarah, thanks. I agree with you that self-reflection can go a long way. Although by the same token, thinking that your own experience is typical of everyone on a social network can be just as ineffective as accepting everything you hear!

    What surprised me initially about these two pictures was that they didn’t even provide a consistent picture. But you’ve made me wonder if that split between a technology’s adaptive and transformative roles is something we partake in individually, too? I mean, sometimes I hate on Facebook, but then other times I’m shocked that someone would be willing NOT to participate. It’s like I’m saying “I don’t need Facebook for friendship” but then also “Facebook is a huge social requirement for contemporary friendship!” So I wonder if self-reflection would lead to seeing our own presentations of technology as contradictory, too, not just Facebook corporate’s.

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