Monday, December 17, 2007

Postmodernism and MySpace

Thousands of people flock to every day, often as a part of their daily routine. It is a social networking website where people can create and update personal profiles, see if their friends have left comments or messages, listen to music, upload photos, or write blog entries. is one of the most-visited websites in the world (“Alexa”). A lot has changed since 1990, when Mark Poster wrote The Mode of Information, especially in the realm of electronic communication and the Internet (which was just starting to see usage beyond the military ARPAnet), but at the same time, much of what he wrote is still accurate to this day. MySpace serves to illustrate some of the concepts of postmodernism in relation to electronic communication, in particular the Superpanopticon, as described by Poster.

In the spirit of postmodernism, it seems appropriate to begin this essay with a disclaimer from an essay I wrote last semester with a classmate:
We have quite a few limitations and boundaries in our research and analysis. Fundamentally, there is no such thing as universal truth, so we cannot proclaim the truth of anything we read nor anything we write. How we interpret what we read and how we present our analysis are products of the situations in which we have been raised, the educations we have received, and our own individual understandings of life and reality. (McChesney-Young and Ericksen)

This concept of the nonexistence of universal truth is one element of the elusive concept of postmodernism. In The Mode of Information, Poster repeatedly criticizes philosophers for falling prey to “totalization”; that is, presenting their concepts as metanarratives, encompassing and explaining reality with the truth, such that it applies to everything and every situation (23). Thus I will take care not to “make claims that are beyond the situated finitude” of myself (Poster 64).

To begin, Poster distinguishes electronic communication from previous forms of communication, saying that it transcends the boundaries of time and space by which we have been limited so far. He says, “The body is no longer an effective limit of the subject’s position” (15). I can be looking at the MySpace profile of someone across the country, while my profile (a representation of myself, a subject) is being viewed on the other side of the world. As Poster says, I am “dispersed across social space” (16). Last year there were well over 100 million user profiles on MySpace, from all around the country and all around the world, from many different walks of life (Cashmere). Unlike books or other physical media, electronic media are not material. A MySpace profile does not sit on a shelf, nor does it need to be put in a mailbox to be sent to another person to see. This is a fundamental difference, according to Poster: “Speech is framed by space/time coordinates of dramatic action. Writing is framed by space/time coordinates of books and sheets of paper…. Electronic language, on the contrary, does not lend itself to being framed. It is everywhere and nowhere, always and never” (Poster 85). In its nature as electronic communication, MySpace (and all of the Internet) is postmodern.

With hundreds of thousands of user profiles, MySpace is a huge collection of information about people. It is a database of people’s interests, favorite things, and demographic information. Poster describes the computer database in relation to the “Superpanopticon” as another facet of postmodern society. The Panopticon was conceived as a tool for efficient surveillance in prisons. One guard would be in a central tower that could see into all the prison cells, but the prisoners would not be able to see which way the guard was looking, so at any given moment, they may be watched. The idea, then, is that they will behave as if they are always being watched without the need to hire a guard for every prisoner. Foucault borrowed this concept from Bentham and expanded it to describe society. “In capitalist society, regulation takes the form of discourses/practices that produce and reproduce the norm. The school, the asylum, the factory, the barracks to greater or lesser degrees and with considerable variation all imitate the Panopticon” (Poster 91).

In contrast with the prison, today’s structure could be called a “Superpanopticon, a system of surveillance without walls, windows, towers, or guards” (Poster 93). Both technical and cultural change have allowed this. People readily participate in this system of surveillance without the overt coercion one would experience in a prison. We freely give away our information to get library cards, credit cards, driver’s licenses, magazine subscriptions, and so on. Our information is stored in many databases, and our records could be examined at any time. Since the Patriot Act, the government is able to demand access to library records, which may make people think twice about checking out books on Islamic fundamentalism and suicide bombing, even if it’s just for a research paper. “The discourse of databases, the Superpanopticon, is a means of controlling masses in the postmodern, postindustrial mode of information” (Poster 97).

The databases that Poster describes are basically one-sided. Someone inputs information, and it stays there, as opposed to a message being sent to a person, who then may respond. MySpace, however, is different. While the user does submit his or her information, which is stored on a server somewhere (which could be anywhere in the world), that information is then available to anyone with an internet connection, unless the user sets their privacy settings otherwise (most don’t). Poster refers to databases in which one’s information is probably not regularly viewed, but still serve as sufficient surveillance for social control. MySpace, however, is designed so users’ information is viewed regularly, by many people. One can search, browse, or navigate from one profile to the next. From personal experience, I’ve searched for and found old friends on MySpace, and I’ve also received messages including, “wassup girl what's poppin enjoying your precious face is a trip to heaven , just wanna get to know , please you and make love to your mind.… I live near downtown oakland by my self so ain't go none to worry” (d-jay). Not only do News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch have access to my information, but Christina, my friend from ten years ago, and d-jay, the lonely man in Oakland, may be looking at my profile at any moment. This is an extra component of surveillance to be added to the Superpanopticon.

I did a study of gender performance on MySpace and found that user profiles are very gendered in their appearances and content (for example, women’s profiles have a lot of pink and hearts and men’s profiles have a lot of violent images and black). This is an example of the normative function of MySpace. We act according to conventions so when someone looks us up, we are presenting our public identities. Foucault says, “It is not that the beautiful totality of the individual is amputated, repressed, altered by our social order, it is rather that the individual is carefully fabricated in it, according to a whole technique of forces and bodies” (qtd. in Poster 93). Online identities, like profiles on MySpace, can construct us as much as we construct them.

Postmodernism is a broad theory that encompasses others rather than replacing or going side by side with them. For example, we can look at MySpace and the Superpanopticon from a Marxist perspective. MySpace is owned by a huge media corporation, News Corporation. To begin with, the database compiled by the site has a wealth of marketing information. What are people’s favorite TV shows? What are their interests? The services are free, but there are advertisements on every page. The text ads appear to be done through Google, which comes up with ads that relate to your searches. If I go onto a forum and search for “textbooks,” before there are any results, there are links to Amazon, Alibris, and other online booksellers. Interestingly, when browsing through some forums I saw the sponsored links on the side included “Edward Gorey T-Shirts” and “Find Singer Jobs – Free.” It seems an unlikely coincidence that I say in my profile that I like to sing and I like Edward Gorey, and these rather obscure ads just happen to show up. It appears that they look at the user profile content to target ads. Poster writes that, “The principle of private property is threatened in the domain of information” (73). Since information is not material, it is not subject to the same market rules of supply and demand as conventional products, which makes it more of a challenge to commodify. Through advertising, however, MySpace maintains the capitalist order.

We can use other theories within postmodernism as well. As we speak of surveillance, we can look at MySpace and the Superpanopticon in terms of psychoanalysis as well. As in viewing films, there may be elements of scopophilia and ego-identification when we look at profiles. Semiotics is a significant field in postmodernism, though it does not play much of a role in the Superpanopticon (in that it is not discussed as such by Poster, though anything that can be conceived of as a sign falls under the realm of semiotics). However, semiotics can be used to show polysemy, which undermines metanarratives, which I discuss in the beginning of this essay. Content analysis is potentially problematic under postmodernism, because it claims to be objective, at least relatively speaking. The problem occurs if the analysis does not recognize that there is no true objectivity and proposes a universal truth, which is not acceptable in postmodernism.

Postmodernism is complex, difficult to understand, and some people say it doesn’t even exist. Some say that it’s great and others that it’s terrible. I say that there are valid points within postmodernism, but I am yet to be convinced that the distinction between modernism and postmodernism is so great that it calls for a newly-named era. Postmodernism can be used well to describe aspects of our culture and social structures, but it should not be seen as the all-encompassing reality—certainly not a universal truth, as that would involve the totalization which it decries. We can see that phenomena like MySpace, which postmodernism can explain, do exist, so there are useful ideas. There are other concepts from postmodernism, like intertextuality, which could explain MySpace well, though they did not fall within the focus of this essay. Ideas from postmodernism can be useful and need not be a cause for pessimism, but the theory is not a complete description of the world as it is today.

Works Cited:

“Alexa Top 500 Sites.” Alexa: The Web Information Company. 10 Dec. 2007

Cashmore, Pete. “MySpace Hits 100 Million Accounts.” Mashable: Social Networking News. 9 Aug. 2006. 15 Dec. 2007

d-jay. “wassup.” MySpace message to the author. 11 Apr. 2006.

McChesney-Young, Amber, and Ryan Ericksen. “CAFTA, ALBA and Public Discourse.” 26 Apr. 2007. Not published (needless to say), but available from amccyoung at gmail dot com upon request.

Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1990.

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