I have recently been reading, slowly and with considerable effort, Hannah Arendt's The Human Condition. What I have read seems to suggest a surprising conclusion: Facebook.com, and many other comparable forms of what is commonly called "social media" or "social computing", is not fundamentally "social".
I try to explain the line of this thought, with help from Arendt's book. A fundamental concept for her is vita activa, consisting of three fundamental human activities labor, work, and action. They designate, respectively, the biological processes of life, the activity of man towards the world, and the activity of man towards other human beings.
Vita activa is rooted in the classical world of ancient Greek city-states, where the free citizens considered life's true worthiness to be found from the public activity in the city, polis (whence "politics"). For Aristotle, public active life, bios politikos, was one of the ways of life man can choose in freedom, in independence of life's bare necessities (that is, labor and work). To excel in bios politikos was to rise over the bestiality of just living and multiplying; a life spent in the privacy of "one's own", idion, was literally "idiotic".
We have long lost the privative trait of the word "privacy", literally meaning the state of being deprived of the active public life amongst peers, which for Greeks was the highest and most uniquely human of man's activities. Arendt explains this as a side-effect of the rise of the social, the "rise of housekeeping, its activities, problems, and organizational devices from the shadowy interior of the household into the light of the public sphere" (pg. 38), concomitant with the decline of the classic civilization.
Similarly, with the modern rise of the mass society, Arendt's own framework, "the various social groups have suffered the same absorption into one society that the family units had suffered earlier" (pg. 41). The resulting modern equality, based on society's inherent conformism, is very different from equality in the Greek city-states, where free life amongst free peers was fiercely competitive, requiring "everybody constantly to distinguish himself from all others" (pg. 41). It was only this public sphere where men could really show who they really were as individual and unique human beings.
Arendt explains that it is the modern conformism, that men behave instead of acting with respect to each other, that lies at the root of modern social sciences starting from classical economics, studying large uniform populations with help of laws of statistics. She writes: "If economics is the science of society in its early stages, when it could impose its rules of behavior only on sections of the population and on parts of their activities, the rise of the 'behavioral sciences' indicates clearly the final stage of this development, when mass society has devoured all strata of the nation and 'social behavior' has become the standard for all regions of life" (pg. 45).
Arendt wrote here book in 1958, perhaps at the peak moment of the "mass society" that she studies so sharply. Now, sixty years later, we already live in a different world, a compelling overall picture of which has been painted by Manuel Castells in his The Information Age. Economy, Society and Culture. This world, called "network society" by Castells, is driven two major developments: various kinds of networks binding developed regions and their elites globally in dynamic whole; and new identities developed to replace the old ones such as nation-states inherited from the now defunct mass society. Thus, our world is definitely no longer "mass society", but rather characterised by incessant networking and fierce individualism.
And this brings me, finally, to social media. Just a few years ago, "social computing" was considered as something best exemplified by Amazon.com. This characterisation is indeed apt: Amazon excels precisely in capturing information of the behaviour of a large user population, and applying methods of statistical modelling to create models powerful enough the make fairly good guesses of what items a certain person might be interested to buy in the future.
(I must make a detour here. My younger son studies archaeology, and took a course in Akkadian just for the fun of it. For this, he needed an English-Akkadian dictionary, which I bought for him from Amazon.de. For a long time, the service kept recommending me books such as "Beginner's course of French" and like. Of course, the statistical cluster of Akkadian speakers must be fairly small these days, considering that the language has been extinct for more than 3,000 years.)
Thus, Amazon.com is social media in the truest meaning of the word. But how about Facebook?
As I see it, Facebook is primarily a platform of building and maintaining a (somewhat playful) digital identity through action, and making that visible to other people who the service calls "friends" but who more aptly might be called "peers".
Now, one could very well approach Facebook as a social platform, and hence study its mass of users and their behaviour with methods of statistics. This would actually constitute an interesting line of research, and I fully expect that some of Facebook's "applications" eventually turn out to be experiments of some clever sociology postgrads.
This angle nevertheless misses the point. I suggest that Facebook should really be viewed as the digital version of the Greek agora where the individualistic peers are expressing their uniqueness through actions, a kind of bios politikos in its more restricted way. To be excluded from such peer interaction, while not literally meaning the end of life worthy of living, would surely not appeal to Facebook's fans the least. It is thus logical that their views of privacy (as explained in Vilma's earlier blog) are not unlike those of the ancient Greeks.
Thus, I am led to the punch line of this blog: Facebook is not social media. Instead, it is action media.
Is this a useful way to look at Facebook, in that it suggests an angle of illuminating research? I don't know, but I would be interested to see somebody give it a go.