Berlin, May 3rd, 2018.
A chronology of social networks on the web,
from its naive baby-steps to mighty maturity
“To join in the industrial revolution, you need to open a factory; in the Internet revolution, you need to open a laptop”
It was 2007 in the biggest city of the United States’ neighboring country. We had been hearing about this new website that allowed us to somehow build an identity of yours on a virtual space so that connecting with friends and meeting new people online would allegedly be simple and fun. Sounds exciting, we thought. With 12 years old, the possibility of having contact with other people and places through the lenses of a screen with just a click, seemed like an intriguing step to take. At least more compelling than taking turns in the family to use the PC for online games or music download, which was about all the computer entertainment there was for youngsters at the time. I opened up a web page, read ‘Facebook’ at the top. Typed in my name and was automatically led to many more blank squares to fill in with my data. Seemed quite simple, gripping even. Birthdate, location, hobbies, sexual preference, music taste, close friends, relatives, travel; everything you could think of about your past that seemed relevant for building a coherent present, an ideal future. I filled it all in carefully, making sure that my online persona really resembled the one typing the answers, although little did I know that this online persona would later on take up a stance by itself. On the process of building up my amateur profile, I realized that the Facebook text blanks divided in categories were actually helping me to define some of my personal preferences and discover some of my individual features, since I had never before been asked to explicitly type them all out. Let alone for the sake of displaying them publicly as a presentation card to hand out to sciety. Choose a photo, click accept. Done. With that single click, another ‘me’ was born in the web. It has been more than 10 years from that day, and the online Victoria as well as the real one, have shared the process of the social network proliferation as well as the experience of growing up with a virtual echo following –and at times, directing- every step of the trajectory followed by the so-called ‘millennial generation’.
When a 19-year-old sophomore student at Harvard University named Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook in 20041, little did he know that his generation would become the turning point in the globalized world to have grown up without social networks. Little did he know that he had set the watershed that would redefine human interactions and the social structure in which they are created, cultivated and performed. In order to contextualize this leap, the first attempts to centralize social interactions on the web shall be considered. We will take the first e-mail sent as the setting example of people in different places communicating through a web-developed program in order to share information for social means, that is, the first ‘socialization’ on the web. The incitement of this e-mail reveals the human impetus to re-design new ways of enhancing communication using technology as the fundamental tool for achieving ‘optimized’ articulations. Easier, faster, no-sweat. This event took place on 19712, decade in which the internet started to prompt its potential assets and test its useful resources at the same time in which the people who had access to it were barely beginning to understand its workings and get familiarized with how the virtual world operated. The activities in this virtual world were limited to sharing news or posts, facilities provided by servers like BBS3 (Bulletin Board System) and carried on by the Usenet; all of them taking place in the United States and with very limited interfaces, since the data exchange capacity was still reduced. The following decade of the eighties saw the increase of computers wired to the internet (up to 30,000), and the creation of the first real-time-chat called ‘Internet Relay Chat’, which would be starting point for what we know today as instant messaging (provided by applications such as WhatsApp, Telegram). From this count on, determined groups of people deriving from contacts of e-mail discussion lists, group chats, multiplayer games or scientific groups, began to integrate the first examples of what we know today as ‘online communities’. Up to the nineties, these conglomerations ceased to be dispersed around the web and instead began to consolidate into homogeneous groups of people that shared patterns in hobbies, profession, age or ethnicity. Some examples are AsianAvenue founded in 1997 to connect the Asian American community, Black Planet for Afro-Americans two years later and MiGente for Hispano communities in 20004. A site called SixDegrees.com developed from the theory that we are all separated by only 6 degrees of acquaintances from one another, operating with the hopes of interlinking these gaps. Meanwhile, another server called AOL (America Online, called by some ‘the internet before the internet’) generated what we could consider the first precursor to modern social networks, considering that users were able to build up a profile for themselves and write a little biography to accompany it. Further on, the web development progresses and the available technological tools, acclimatized the web’s zeitgeist towards a new wave of social network sites launching at the beginning of the 2000s that shared similar features of personal data identification. These included building up a profile from the user, sharing a short bio, exchange short messages and most importantly, connect with other people and find spread out friends online. Such sites included Friendster (2002), LinkedIn (2003), MySpace (2003) and Hi5 (2004)5. Later on that same year, the all-embracing, enhanced and polished version of them was finally conceived: Facebook. We are back on Harvard Campus, with the student version of Zuckerberg developing a playful website for his colleague students that allowed them to face swap different ‘profile photos’ for merely social entertainment. Given the great success that it had among its peers, he was thus prompted to develop a more sophisticated version that slowly but surely, began to spread among circles of youngsters. Being propelled by this inertia, he at last came up with an online platform (at the beginning, exclusively for students) through which users could participate in a virtual platform that was not solely a random community, but rather a sophisticated social apparatus with its own set of rules, hierarchies and practices. Just 24 hours later, it had more than 1200 users registered. Two years later, there were up to 30 million and the count rises up today to 2.12 billion users (and counting)6. Almost one third of the world wide population is giving in everyday, bit by bit, their most intimate scraps of information on a silver tray for their unseeable fangs to take.
Then November 2007 came and we’re back to my puberty years in Mexico City where I decided to create for myself a Facebook account. But what I didn’t anticipated, was the degree in which I would be bound to it for the next decade (and who knows how much longer) to come. What I didn’t predict, was the way in which my social life during adolescence would revolve around my virtual presence, and its progress -or lack thereof- could be defined by its apparent success. Even so, to act with conscious anticipation at the time wasn’t an option at the time to prevent its foreseen conditions, since the backlash of its outcome become only evident in the aftermath of its fervent indulgence, once the information had been already shared and the data collected. The first weeks with Facebook were rather dull; there was just a few acquaintances who had also ventured into the virtual society and there was barely anything else to do than scroll down the –still- desolated white and blue platform with only a few status and a couple of silly photos to be found. Some months later, the people I knew including friends and relatives started to gradually pop op on Facebook with their brand new profile sporting their favourite music, last visited places, some cute photos and a couple of extra friends of their own. Soon, the Facebook socializing stopped being limited to the people I knew, and started stretching out to people I would like to know and vice versa, stumbling into each other’s contact prompted by the perks from our profiles. Two years later, the ‘like’ button came in, and with it the eagerness of being ‘liked’ and the complex of being ‘disliked’, producing a sense of empowerment by being able to publically react to friends activity on an explicit –yet somehow passive- way. Suddenly, I was already (Facebook) friends with many friends of friends, people I had just heard about, peers I had just seen once or simply people whom their interests looked compelling enough to add them as friends with the hopes of knowing more about them and who knows, maybe even become their friends in real life as well. By indulging in this practice, the Facebook pro-activity ceased to be a casual hobby and started to become a toxic vice that would neglect the seed of the everyday real-life experience for the sake of nurturing the image of the manufactured, synthetic version of it. Moving on to Twitter and Instagram was rather natural, since it only meant for the online character to show other edges of itself within different mediums, but it was no longer a matter of venturing into an unknown virtual zone, as much as it allowed a recognition of diverse networking territory on the web ready to be explored with its own setting. For Twitter that meant reducing any idea to 140 characters and adding a catchy word-play as a hashtag for its format to fit the publication standards, whilst for Instagram it meant choosing the right filter to match a good photo and portray real time life events on a more creative and ‘artistic’ way. As years have gone by, this compliance with the social networks began to turn on the opposite side and what used to be a casual entertainment took the role of addictive ‘stupidification’, an addiction to move around calculated spaces of exposed voyeurism. With the proliferation of e-commerce came the saturation of advertisements popping out in every corner of online platforms, turning any social-network scenario into a set of shop windows, whilst data-broker companies made sure of tracking via algorithms every movement for the use of marketing strategies. On the same course, the saturation of goods and services intertwined with the excessive load of aestheticized information came to be increasingly advertised on the same platforms, moving on to turn the virtual-personas themselves into a form of consumable identity, and finally allowing them to blend in with the fitting image of the exchange-value apparatus. Simultaneously, the information exchanged on the web (data) in the form of public discourse or private conducts, came to be the new capital under which the market can reclaim its quiet earnings whilst boosting its reward on the most practical manner. Hence, by setting up the social custom of being private in public and spurring the trend of portraying something false as truth, the edges of the screen managed to blur the borders of reality in which it can possibly be articulated in, formulating a problematic space of delusive identity. I came to realize that my clicks and taps were accomplices to the patrolled system of unaware by-standers. Hereby, the strict separation between this two worlds and identities, became a matter of ethical awareness and social precariousness, conforming the political responsibility that any movement on the web is charged with. The question was not a dispute between being a part of the virtual world or not, since that query has already been figured out by the necessity of keeping up with our times, but rather the manner in which we will act and claim responsibility over the role we will play in it, the politics that come with it. Therefore, came the moment of deleting any affluent users of mine stepping in this quicksand arena whilst strictly reducing the time of consumption from the only one left; that –goddamn- Facebook. Using it solely for effective communication and worthy exchange of information is the only tool of proactivity in which we can mildly regulate the degree of control that this institution rules over me and my social comrades. To respond with determined criticality to the on-going dialogue between the means of communication and their iteration as vehicles for social control. To shift the reckless online leisure into integral activism as an engine for human emancipation. Hereby, arises the responsibility of breaking out from lingering as a passive victim from the time conditions in which we live in, and instead become an active commander of every trace and route that we partake within their framework. As we come into realization with the potential risks and possible rewards from this conscious practice, the online networking system provides us with the same engine that can serve as both our tool for appeasement or resistance, our cohesion agent or erosive element. The cohesion agent will be able to act as a source of collective recognition through integral distribution of information, whilst the erosive element will attempt to distance us from feasible emancipation and alienate us from critical alliance. It falls completely in our hands then, the possible determination of this decisive turning point, providing us with effective tools to build an artefact of reckless harm or integral cultivation. The effects of its jeopardy, will come as a result of the degree of consciousness with which we tap the screens and keys of our devices, unravelling click by click safe spots in which to articulate our present and canalize the route for truthful information. As we do so, the perseverance for chasing after our virtual integrity shall remain vigorous in the face of compelling displays disguised as admissible truths, orientating with our compass of critical discernment every click that moves us along their sweeping, thriving sphere.
Written by Victoria Martínez
German version: http://berlinergazette.de/digitale-selbstbestimmung-facebook/