When considering Facebook as a social prosthetic, the most prominent source of discussion that we have encountered in this course is undoubtedly the 2010 documentary titled Catfish, a film that “grapples with the issues of reality and fantasy in the online age” (McWeeny). (For a full plot summary of the film, see this IMDB article – note that it does contain spoilers.) The film’s somewhat melancholy conclusion reveals Angela, a forlorn woman living out the failed possibilities of her youth via the opportunity for fantasy afforded by Facebook. This is perhaps the ultimate example of the possibilities for self-compartmentalization afforded by the internet. Time is not as significant here as the total refragmenting and remodulation of Angela’s social identity via Facebook as a social prosthetic. Through Facebook, she is able to split, modify, and extend herself into the virtual world to satisfy desires that have fallen short in the real world. This is flows back to the concept of the allure of social play that I expanded out of the fragments of my second essay on the Time/Space page of this blog. The benefits that Angela gleans from her multiple relations with Nev are, although transitory and not grounded in the physical world, entirely real and even potentially socially therapeutic for the period of time over which Nev believes her story.
This element of belief, as Drew McWeeny points out in his online review of the film, is central to the legitimization of virtual social remixes. The way McWeeny sees it, the internet is “a place where [people] can live any life they want as long as they can get someone else to believe them. That belief is a key part of the equation, and without it, the fantasy doesn’t matter.” Although this characterization of modded social avatars as “fantasy” strikes me as somewhat harsh and exclusionary, I find McWeeny’s argument to be significant in that it incorporates the concept of the necessity of interactivity into social relations on the internet. It is not enough to simply put forth a modded personality; other people must accept it as real (or at least willingly suspend their disbelief) for it to offer any reciprocal benefits and for the alternate identity to truly be capable of serving its intended function. If Nev had simply started by doing some more thorough research on the alleged facts that Angela was feeding him through her multiple avatars, the events in the film might never have taken place. McWeeny cites Nev’s naivety as something that brings the legitimacy of the movie into question, and I can’t say that I disagree with him. However, what I can say is that naivety far from nonexistent on the internet, and that even in far less ample quantities, it can still legitimize a number of significant virtual manifestations of social play. Towards the end of his review, McWeeny makes a comment that seems to make allusion in layman’s terms to one of the key concepts of Boellstorf’s and others’ theories on social interactions online:
“Language defines us in face to face encounters, but not the way it defines us online, and when we respond to someone’s words, no matter how ‘honest’ they are or are not, the response is something real and valid, and relationships in this digital age have evolved into something new, something strange, something worth understanding.”
So what does all of this say about the rest of us as Facebook users?
The following quote is taken from the video that appears that the bottom of the article, and it is ostensibly a comment made by McWeeny himself:
“Certainly, if you’ve had any online life for any extended period of time, you’ve dealt with people who are not who or what they say they are. And it’s inevitable, I think there is something about this medium that has unleashed a side of us that no other communications medium has. The phone doesn’t do this…there’s never really been a way for people to just step into new lives like this, to this degree.”
I think that in the context of Boellstorff’s discussions on escapism, this assertion may seem a bit extreme. However, I also think it is at least worth considering just how much easier it is to participate in this kind of complete escapism via social networking sites like Facebook. See Notes of Future Projects for more.
Additionally, for a similar discussion on Facebook and Catfish, check out Heather Shapiro’s “Facebook or Fakebook?” blog page. Shapiro approaches many of the same issues I did with a special focus on fragmentation of personality. I especially resonate with the last paragraph in this piece, in which she makes the point that the pieces of ourselves that we display on the internet, no matter how fragmented or altered they may be, are still real reflections of some piece of who we really are.
Arpita Varghese takes a very different approach to the Facebook issue by discussing it as an example of alienation in her blog. As an example, she cites the disparity between online and physical support for the Occupy Chapel Hill movement. While about 50 people attend the general assembly, and only 4 camp regularly, the Facebook page has 1317 likes (up 6 people even from the time that Varghese wrote her analysis). She claims that while Facebook does not physically people from participating more actively in an event in the physical world, it is becoming a sort of proxy by which people’s needs to feel supportive of social movements and the like. She writes that liking a Facebook page for something is “becoming the way of expressing support” for it. While I agree that “liking” has become a popular and powerful form of social expression, I would disagree that, were Chapel Hill’s Facebook page nonexistent, the movement itself would have more physical world participants. On the contrary, I feel that many of the Facebook supportive population for the OCH movement might not have otherwise supported the it in real life. These people seem to me to be employing Facebook as a social lubricant (as Varghese discusses elsewhere in her blog), making connections via the ease and availability of the information on the internet. Instead of serving as a distraction from the actual world, I see the Facebook page phenomenon as being a powerful way of disseminating socially relevant information to a populous that would otherwise be apathetic to (or ignorant of) the issue. In this way, I think that Facebook pages actually hold the potential for increased physical support, not reduction of it.
McWeeny, Drew. “Review: Catfish Offers up Big Mysteries, Unclear Answers – HitFix.com.” HitFix. HitFix, 17 Sept. 2010. Web.
12 Dec. 201