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No need for architecture, we’ve got Facebook now Edwin Gardner

Edwin Gardner thinks through how social networking via, for example, Facebook is changing how we construct our identities. Who is your Google you? He argues that virtual social spaces are revealing glimpses of new spatial experiences.

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that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.’3 This brings us to consider how these new virtual social spaces work and how individual identities are constructed within them. The problem here is that it’s hard to convey an experience about what this new so­ cial space feels like if you’re not in it. To the outsider upto-the-minute updates on what other people are doing seem pointless. Why would you want to know that ‘I have a hangover from last night’s party’ or that ‘I am reading this or that book’ or that ‘I’m giving in to my chocolate addiction once again’? Why would you broad­ cast this information and why would you follow other people’s snippets of what they’re doing and thinking? Social scientists call this continuous online interac­ tion: ‘ambient awareness’. Ambient awareness is like being physically near to someone and picking up on his or her mood through the little things he or she does – body language, sighs, stray comments – out of the cor­ ner of your eye. Clive Thompson: ‘This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update – each individual bit of social infor­ma­ tion – is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisti­ca­ ted portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of Extra Sensory Perception”, as Haley described

Volume 19

Do you have a Facebook profile or a profile on any other social network? Do you have a Twitter account or any other microblogging account? How do you represent yourself on the web? Do you represent yourself on the web? Perhaps more importantly: are you in control of how you are represented on the web? Do you like what you see when you Google your name? Is that you? One of internet’s early merits was to be able to participate anonymously or reinvent your identity all to­ gether. Today it’s turning into a village where we all know each other; it’s becoming the truly global village McLuhan talked about.1 Yet the global village isn’t nec­ essarily cosmopolitan and it certainly doesn’t mean that one can comfortably disappear in the crowd as we can do in the metropolis. Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, describes the digital social ex­ perience of social networks: ‘It’s just like living in a vil­ lage where it’s actually hard to lie because every­body knows the truth already.’2 The explosion of social net­ working sites is in a sense the reincarnation of the small town where social cohesion is back with a venge­ance. Where one could regard the anonymity of the city as lib­ erating, it is more often experienced as one of the psy­ chological burdens of modern life. Urbanites suffer from collective amnesia about the lion’s share of its inhabit­ ants. The loneliest people often live in the most crowded of places; it’s easy to forget someone when there are so many people. But social networks are helping us fight the social amnesia that comes with a disconnected life. Tufekci: ‘The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea

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No need for architecture, we’ve got Facebook now Edwin Gardner

Edwin Gardner thinks through how social networking via, for example, Facebook is changing how we construct our identities. Who is your Google you? He argues that virtual social spaces are revealing glimpses of new spatial experiences.

Volume19_FINAL.indd 122

that you would drift through life, going from new relation to new relation, that’s very new. It’s just the 20th century.’3 This brings us to consider how these new virtual social spaces work and how individual identities are constructed within them. The problem here is that it’s hard to convey an experience about what this new so­ cial space feels like if you’re not in it. To the outsider upto-the-minute updates on what other people are doing seem pointless. Why would you want to know that ‘I have a hangover from last night’s party’ or that ‘I am reading this or that book’ or that ‘I’m giving in to my chocolate addiction once again’? Why would you broad­ cast this information and why would you follow other people’s snippets of what they’re doing and thinking? Social scientists call this continuous online interac­ tion: ‘ambient awareness’. Ambient awareness is like being physically near to someone and picking up on his or her mood through the little things he or she does – body language, sighs, stray comments – out of the cor­ ner of your eye. Clive Thompson: ‘This is the paradox of ambient awareness. Each little update – each individual bit of social infor­ma­ tion – is insignificant on its own, even supremely mundane. But taken together, over time, the little snippets coalesce into a surprisingly sophisti­ca­ ted portrait of your friends’ and family members’ lives, like thousands of dots making a pointillist painting. This was never before possible, because in the real world, no friend would bother to call you up and detail the sandwiches she was eating. The ambient information becomes like “a type of Extra Sensory Perception”, as Haley described

Volume 19

Do you have a Facebook profile or a profile on any other social network? Do you have a Twitter account or any other microblogging account? How do you represent yourself on the web? Do you represent yourself on the web? Perhaps more importantly: are you in control of how you are represented on the web? Do you like what you see when you Google your name? Is that you? One of internet’s early merits was to be able to participate anonymously or reinvent your identity all to­ gether. Today it’s turning into a village where we all know each other; it’s becoming the truly global village McLuhan talked about.1 Yet the global village isn’t nec­ essarily cosmopolitan and it certainly doesn’t mean that one can comfortably disappear in the crowd as we can do in the metropolis. Zeynep Tufekci, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, describes the digital social ex­ perience of social networks: ‘It’s just like living in a vil­ lage where it’s actually hard to lie because every­body knows the truth already.’2 The explosion of social net­ working sites is in a sense the reincarnation of the small town where social cohesion is back with a venge­ance. Where one could regard the anonymity of the city as lib­ erating, it is more often experienced as one of the psy­ chological burdens of modern life. Urbanites suffer from collective amnesia about the lion’s share of its inhabit­ ants. The loneliest people often live in the most crowded of places; it’s easy to forget someone when there are so many people. But social networks are helping us fight the social amnesia that comes with a disconnected life. Tufekci: ‘The current generation is never unconnected. They’re never losing touch with their friends. So we’re going back to a more normal place, historically. If you look at human history, the idea

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2

it to me, an invisible dimension floating over everyday life. “It’s like I can distantly read every­ one’s mind”, Haley went on to say. “I love that. I feel like I’m getting to something raw about my friends. It’s like I’ve got this heads-up display for them.” It can also lead to more real-life contact because when one member of Haley’s group decides to go out to a bar or see a band and Twitters his plans the others see it and some decide to drop by – ad hoc, self-organizing socializing. And when they do socialize face to face it feels oddly as if they’ve never actually been apart. They don’t need to ask, “So, what have you been up to?” because they already know. Instead, they’ll begin discussing some­thing that one of their friends Twittered that afternoon, as if picking up a conversation in the middle.’4

Volume 19

Social space abandons the actual, built environment in favor of an imagined, virtual one. There is no need for physical architecture anymore to enable social practice... we’ve got Facebook now. In a sense the rise of social networks is the remedy for the alienation and anonymity that inherently comes with metropolitan life. Social networks prove that you can basically so­ cialize anywhere, making architecture’s social function redundant. Yet social practice isn’t suddenly confined to just the digital realm; our town squares are not empty and bars are still crowded. Rather we should regard so­ cial networks as an augmentation of existing social practices. Architecture has most definitely lost ground to the virtual world when it comes to sustaining social contact. For the initiation of social contact face-to-face encounters are still dominant and people find enough motivation to go to events and places. Yet the social web is tightening the thumbscrews on real life space and place. We know about online dating, but other types of social relationships are also initiated through the web. Linked-In and Twitter provide a framework for initiating (professional) relationships. Couch surfing, a social net­ work which helps people find a couch to crash on in vir­ tually any city on the globe, is often the facilitator for new international friendships. These new social spaces have a huge impact on how we deal with our identities as we consciously construct them. Every status update or ‘tweet’ (which is limited to 140 characters) consists of conscious action, shared links, favorite TV shows and groups we join and thus says something about who we are. As Nicolas Carr explains:

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‘... a [Facebook] member named Matt, a recent Yale graduate, describes the Prufrockian anxiety he feels in constructing his online identity. “I want to seem self-aware”, he says, “but not a pretentious asshole”. He goes on to explain why he chose to portray himself with a photograph that shows him “with his eyes closed and his mouth stuffed with cookies”: “I think it’s some­ thing of an achievement to fit six Oreos in one’s mouth, and, more to the point, it relieves me of having to put up a picture with which I’m actually trying to convince people that I look good. In short, I wouldn’t put anything up that I wouldn’t want everyone to see, and I want certain people to get much more out of it than others, and for those certain to be impressed by my cleverness

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tempered by restraint.” So leaving the real world to participate in an online community - or a virtual world like Second Life - doesn’t relieve the anxiety of self-con­ scious­ness; it magnifies it. You become more, not less, exposed.’5 Carr imagines a booming business of consultants and therapists assisting people with the mental afflictions of the digital social arena: ‘avatar anxiety’. People’s doubts and fears when constructing their digital avatars are fertile grounds for deploying the industry of talking, self-help books and psychoanalysis. Where Carr sees a new psychological burden of modernity emerging, Thompson sees the rise of selfconsciousness as reinvigorating a classical virtue: ‘Many of the avid Twitterers, Flickrers and Facebook users I interviewed described an unex­ pected side effect of constant self-disclosure. The act of stopping several times a day to observe what you’re feeling or thinking can become, after weeks and weeks, a sort of philosophical act. It’s like the Greek dictum to “know thyself”, or the therapeutic concept of mindfulness. (Indeed, the question that floats eternally at the top of Twitter’s Web site – “What are you doing?” – can come to seem existentially freighted. What are you doing?)’ Whether we must deal with avatar anxiety or a digital re­ naissance of self-reflection, social media is changing how we relate to ourselves and to space. Tomorrow the ‘invisible dimension floating over everyday life’ that is social media will descend and touch down; it will be­ come omnipresent in the everyday. When the internet becomes truly mobile and computing ubiquitous, when the virtual mixes with the real, and when the interface merges with the face-to-face then we will be in a new place all together.

1 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Ginko Press, 1964). 2 Clive Thompson, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” – New York Times, 5 September 2008. http://www.nytimes. com/2008/09/07/magazine/07awareness-t.html 3 Idem. 4 Idem. 5 ‘The love song of J. Alfred Prufrock’s avatar’, Nicholas Carr on his blog Rough Type 15 May 2006: http://www.roughtype. com/archives/2006/05/the_love_song_o_1.php 6 Clive Thompson [see note 2].

24/03/09 21:55

No Need for Architecture, We've Got Facebook Now  

Edwin Gardner thinks through how social networking via, for example, Facebook is changing how we construct our identities. Who is your Googl...

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