Friday, May 16, 2008

Always Already Affect: Social Network Spaces as Personal Sites of Comfort and Communication

Ok, what I am about to type is nothing too radical, or new (scholars such as Danah Boyd and bloggers such as Robert Scoble have said it before): digitally enabled social networks are about trust. I would add to that that all social networks are about some level of trust. However what seems different about MySpace and Facebook when compared to the names I have in my PDA, family unit and the people who I talk with at the water cooler is that this trust accompanied by huge dollops of aesthetic display (particularly MySpace and, to a lesser extent, FaceBook), affect and play. It doesn't take a genius to see how MySpace differs from LinkedIn -- LinkedIn has the clean sterility of a high-priced lawyer's reception area. MySpace, on the other hand, specializes on messiness. I prefer the happy medium of FaceBook, but have profiles on all three networks. In FaceBook I get to choose my apps and pics and even possible music, but I like the fact that I cannot (or at least do not know how to) change my background imagery. When I hit my FaceBook or my soon-to-be wife goes to her MySpace there is a sense of affectionate retreat, a sort of virtual Calgon Bubble bath that washes over my eyes and "takes me away" from the kiddos, cats, jobs, whatever is pestering me. This is particularly the case with MySpace. When I go to FaceBook I often hold the illusion that I could do some "networking" and have even established a couple of groups through which I work and communicate. With MySpace, forget professional behavior. Unless it is some band, I quickly delete any attempt to solicit brands from my contacts, messages, etc. It's MySpace dammit, so let's keep it amateurish thank you.

As some of you may know I love amateurism -- I am of the opinion that expertise tends to be overvalued in our culture and many of our problems could be addressed by collective, passionate and not-for-profit discussions. I think this is called democracy, sometimes, and I like that. But online social networks aren't democratic utopias, they just give us the feeling that they could be democratic utopias (see Richard Dyer's writings in Only Entertainment as they apply here). Not all blogs and profiles are equal in influence. Nor does everyone have equal access. That said, these spaces do enable many of the similar effects social clubs that proliferated throughout the 20th century and whose spaces often morphed into private nightclubs of association and gesture, i.e. sexual flirtation and dance. In short, these are spaces of association that create specific "vibes" and "feelings" through multiple modes of selection and protocol.

It is also these aesthetic features that I find so under-theorized and examined. In all of the research I have seen about these spaces is has more to do with what people do there, who goes there, etc. That's interesting, but it's a limited understanding of how these spaces work as displays of affection, which is one of the reasons, to quote Danah Boyd's work, so many Why Youth 'Heart' Social Network Sites. And, of course, these spaces allow anyone to develop and live out their affection in what Raymond Williams once called a structure of feeling. These lived and felt relations are somewhat new in the sense that this space of affection exists in an always-already manner that can be accessed asynchronous of one's self engagement. We have always had these texts in our lives, texts such as journals, diaries, memoirs, etc. Yet somehow this combination of journal/avatar, a space of "face" and "ownership" not only seems as if we don't quite understand how these textual spaces operate, but it seems as if we just beginning to get beyond the obvious pronouncements that these are spaces of passionate amateurs but beginning to understand why these spaces allow us to best feel the passions of others.