The Federal Government’s current campaign to filter unseemly Internet content and “protect families online” typifies an established genre of media representation which dismisses social networking sites for their dangerous voyeuristic potential.
To the Government, and the parents of children to whom their messages are routinely directed, online sites like MySpace and Facebook seem to provide evidence that young people have been inadequately informed of the notion of privacy and the risks involved in sharing personal information. Coming alongside the mass appeal of weblogging, SMS, instant messaging and video sites like YouTube, such instances of online culture are regularly criticised for their lack of surveillance by parents who themselves confess bewilderment with the technologies.
Leaving this hypocrisy aside, what would it mean to understand these sites in a different way? To see the popularity of online friendships and communities as a positive shift, or at least a necessary recompense for a range of social and economic changes taking place in the move to an information economy. These include, for instance, the intrusion of work into home and leisure space, the widespread expectation of computer literacy among young people and the long hours culture of middle-class professionals.
The extent to which people choose to conduct significant parts of their personal lives online, from finding the next book they should read to finding a life partner, surely says something about the opportunities available for previous forms of social activity and perhaps their reliability in providing satisfying relationships.
Internet scholars have tended to concur that social networking sites are the domain of young people, encouraged by a soundbite hungry media cycle on the look-out for the latest trends, or institutional constraints leading academics to opportunistically consider their students as representative users. In each case, the relationship these websites have with work, labour and class have been downplayed, despite the fact that they have emerged from, and are largely accessed within, work or vocationally-oriented locations.
Aspiring musicians were the driving force behind the popularity of MySpace (the site’s key feature was to allow the free distribution of band demos) while in Facebook, college and post-tertiary job locations have been crucial to initial membership and subsequent exercises in crafting identity. Indeed, even if it were the case that only young people used these sites, we could argue that this is both sensible and valuable preparation for the labour conditions currently flourishing in the network society - and thus the economy to which educated, tech savvy, English-speaking college kids will contribute.
Available research on “precarious” labour conditions in the e-society shows that the job opportunities developing in this sector are highly competitive, very much premised on who you know as much as what you know, and that in spite of their glamorous image they demand a high degree of sacrificial (i.e. unpaid) labour. Social networking sites have grown in tandem with these conditions: are symptomatic of them as much as they perpetuate them. To regard social networking sites as simply a new form of schoolyard popularity contest fails to recognise this significant development.
The entrepreneurial dimension to friending practices on these sites is captured in the phrase “Thanks for the add”- the ritual acknowledgement shared among MySpace users when someone “adds” you to their list of friends. It’s part of the site’s appeal that even if users are often friends with their online buddies beforehand, on MySpace people that aren’t known personally in so-called real life can be accepted as a friend, whether in recognition of a good profile page, a shared interest, or simply in response to a “friend request”. In this sense, the site pivots on the invitation to display and market a coherent self that can be assessed and consumed by others.
This is the double meaning in my bracketed title: it is both an addition and an endorsement to be allowed to join someone’s group. Due to the taste logic of these sites, the benefit that is recognised here is that friendship allows your own profile to be circulated for free to a wider market of potential friends.
Writing “Thanks for the add” on the publicly visible comments section of a homepage is just one way that friendship is vigorously affirmed on social networking sites. Comment sections, wall space, status updates, inboxes, mobile paging and instant messaging are just some of the ways they incite convivial discourse, meanwhile add-on applications allow gestures and mementos to accrue over time, acting as tangible evidence of friends’ ongoing presence and potential for further “hook-ups” in future.
It is this potential, and the constant and reassuring promise of presence, that is MySpace’s permanent consolation. Social networking sites offer on one convenient page the life narrative as archive; the “full time intimate community” as security blanket.
While its users vary greatly in their level of seriousness and resolve, sites like MySpace foster a new form of literacy among users - what I call a broadcast impulse - which encourages them to articulate and communicate a particular “type”. This is also how online cultures can connect beyond the local location: shared reference points can garner recognition within a familiar set of expectations, activities and aspirations. The broadcast capacity means young people can ensure the image they project is a favourable one, while also allowing them to become skilled in networking to create an archive of “contacts” for the future.