Having Your Digital Cake and Eating It, Too
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.
If you want to know more:
- If you have an academic login, you can read Alan Gross’ argument on visuals here: “Toward a Theory of Visual-Verbal Interaction: The Example of Lavoisier” Or see the opposite perspective that supports visuals as complete arguments: Birdsell and Groake’s “Outlines of a Theory of Visual Argument” [PDF]
- Then again, maybe Facebook’s welcome screen is really a secret message.
- Everybody has their own analytic lens. This guy got excited about the friendship visualization because it was constructed in the statistical package R.