By Raj Kumar Baral
The day when I signed in Facebook for the first time, some six years ago, I had not thought the way I think today about Zukerbergian artifact. My layman understanding about this creation — a cyberspace, a digital platform for posting status and photos— that it functions as a means of communication and evokes peculiar kind of impression among its users either appreciating or condemning, did not long last when my understanding changed and made me think the other way.
These days, every time I sign in, the question “what’s on your mind?” at the top of the wall teases me a lot. Confusion lurks. The single query instigates multiple other questions: Should I instantly write down and post whatever comes into my mind? Is it addressing me or someone else who happens to read it? Why is it so commanding? Why does it want to peep into my private life by entering into my mind? The directness of such expression sometimes infuriates me—the addresser positioning itself in a comfortable zone, perhaps in a position of an authority that possesses the authenticity of questioning. Why it is so demanding and commanding. Due to the absence of the request marker like ‘please’, the addressees are put into a condition that they can be interrogated and asked, a position below the site owner who stands up and looks down with a stern look having an excessive power.
Media technologies, Facebook not being an exception, have been the sites of power exercise upon the powerless. It, to use French political philosopher Louis Althusser’s term, ‘interpellates’ or ‘hails’ the identities of its users who are in subordinate position. The use of the imperatives scattered throughout the wall like “search for people, places and things,” “update status,” “add photos/videos,” “create photo album,” “post,” “see more stories,” is suggestive of it.
The digital rhetoric of Facebook has been establishing a narrative, which underpins a discourse of power positioning that functions in terms of its regulators and users. This digital opera, even in the modern world, has been bolstering the power discrimination through the means of language.
One the other hand, the same Facebook treats everyone as friend reminding the terminology “comrade,” the word communists often use. My seniors as well as juniors have accepted and added me as friend and I have added everyone as my friend. Everyone who has joined Facebook are ‘friends’ irrespective of their professions, ranks, races, genders, classes, or languages; be s/he an American peasant, African artist, Asian scholar, European businessman or Australian student or anyone living in a corner of the word. At this juncture, Facebook seems to be treating everybody in the same level of hierarchy by redrawing the existing boundaries of higher or lower in different names and pretensions. This tendency tunes with Russian critic Mikhail M. Bakhtin’s notion of “carnival” in which all rules, inhibitions, restrictions and regulations that determine the course of everyday life are suspended, and especially all form of hierarchy in society.
As per the report of the first quarter of 2015, it has 1.44 billion active users. They all have the same status as friends whoever he or she is. On this ground Facebook is a utopian platform, having no hierarchy at all.
Yet another feature of Facebook—its democratic nature—is equally amazing. Its polyglossic nature welcomes multiple voices, the voices even from margin. It is as open as tundikhel. Multiple users, irrespective of their position, interact freely on their subjects of interest or anything that appears on the wall.
Use of imperatives everywhere and treating everyone as friend are really contradictory. What does the site owner want to do? What is his politics behind it? Does he want to maintain balance between these two opposites in the line of German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche, who argues the combination of opposites gives birth to a verbal artifact? If not, what is this double standard for? Or the ever growing fame of Facebook these days is due to its ability to bring the opposites together? Or, is this Facebook-friendship conundrum a newer, deconstructive revival of Derrida’s classic question “My friends, there is no friend” as postulated in The Politics of Friendship.
Baral is a Lecturer at the Central Department of English TU, Kritipur.