Facebook cyborg

Purely in the interests of researching new communications channels, I’ve been busy playing with Facebook. Really, the only way to understand a lot of Web 2.0 stuff is to have a go, so that’s what I’ve been doing… researching tirelessly on the university’s behalf. So what is this Facebook mallarkey then? Among other things, it seems to me
– It’s a seductive toy, or rather, a bottomless toybox – sharing and using an endless succession of gadgets is part of the fun. (An example: a list of movies I’ve rated, which can be compared with your ratings to see how our tastes match.)
– It’s a way of communicating – distinctively, through lots of mini-bites of phatic communication – the most basic of which is the content-free ‘poke’ function, which just tells the recipient they’ve been poked. (Honestly, it’s that innocent – no need to invoke an HR procedure…)
– It’s like MySpace – but also like the front door of someone’s house or the clothes they put on – in that it’s an expression of identity.

The final of these is interesting. Social networking has created new ways to present oneself to the online world, and Facebook is (currently) one way this happens. But the medium itself isn’t neutral… In his interesting book about PowerPoint, David Byrne (yes, the Talking Heads bloke) explores some ways in which the popular presentation software shapes what is being communicated. For instance, our thoughts don’t come in bullet points, but that’s how they’re likely to end up in a public presentation because that’s what PPT does, specially if you use the wizards and templates. Similarly, Facebook channels one’s presentation of oneself into a collage of cultural choices, a way of writing, a visual presentation with a particular set of nuances. Which is fine – I don’t wish to take a puritan stance and say this is some kind of oppressive wickedness – just that it’s good to be aware of how these things work. To me the opportunity to have an electronic ‘face’ visible to a distributed network of friends is another way for technology to augment my physical body – like my walking boots, spectacles and diary which enable me to walk, see and remember things better than I could naturally. Maybe one day I’ll have breast implants, or a pacemaker. Westerners are all living in a world where technologies extend our capability, arguably becoming part of identity in the process. To quote Donna Haraway, ‘we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism, in short, we are all cyborgs’. (A Cyborg Manifesto)

So Facebook is a handy tool – slightly interesting, somewhat useful. There’s a price to pay, a kind of toll – in that it comes with a heavy freight of cultural baggage. For instance, I just added the ‘Coffee’ application – a toy which let’s you arrange to have a boiled beverage with me (and feel free to do so.) The default venue and the application icon is Starbucks… Now if I was a developer I could make my own Facebook app with, say, a picture of a bone china teapot with a Union Jack on it, and a Lyons Corner House as the default meeting place. But, dude, it would still come cocooned in US college/IT geek/Web 2.0 discourse – it’s customisable, but only up to a point. Again, I don’t think this is super-bad – Facebook users aren’t hypnotised into becoming instant Californians. We may be cyborgs but we aren’t robots – people are highly skilled at using the tools and either ignoring the cultural packaging, or adopting parts of it, for a bit of a giggle.

As for marketing – one can advertise on Facebook, for relatively big bucks – eg Liverpool’s ubiquitous ads for online Masters. However that’s not using the medium, just piggybacking on it. I would rather try a more grassroots approach, creating groups and events, using the highly targeted and realtively unintrusive flyers and (gasp) actually communicating with people.

Got to go, I’ve just been poked…