Monday, December 20, 2010

About Time

The selection of the TIME Person of the Year always marks an interesting cultural moment. In my 2006 summary of the year in digital rhetoric I opened my annual video with the TIME cover with the mirrored page that announced that the person of the year was "You." The subtitle explained that Web 2.0 was to be a new era of second-person culture: "Yes, you. You control the Information Age. Welcome to your world."

This year the TIME cover offers not a reflection of the reader's face but a youthful blue-eyed visage with freckles, stubble, with shine under his eyes. The 2006 cover made some sense in light of the 2006 elections in which social media shaped results in both the House and the Senate. In 2010 the only newsworthy event tied to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is the debut of the film The Social Network. One might argue that this is really a story about cinema not the World Wide Web, as a particular film gears up for the Oscar race.

Indeed, much of the article about Zuckerberg that serves as the cover story for the TIME issue
is devoted to differences between fact and fiction in relationship to the David Fincher film. Apparently Zuckerberg is warm and well-liked, didn't have to struggle to get the girl of his dreams, and never drank appletinis.

The reality is that Zuckerberg isn't alienated, and he isn't a loner. He's the opposite. He's spent his whole life in tight, supportive, intensely connected social environments: first in the bosom of the Zuckerberg family, then in the dorms at Harvard and now at Facebook, where his best friends are his staff, there are no offices and work is awesome. Zuckerberg loves being around people. He didn't build Facebook so he could have a social life like the rest of us. He built it because he wanted the rest of us to have his.

The claim for Zuckerberg's historical significance has to do with TIME book reviewer Lev Grossman's argument that Zuckerberg is undoing the nineteen-sixties and the Internet that it created. (Some familiar with the marketing of print books may remember that Grossman's book The Magicians was hawked by its publisher with a free stand-alone first chapter.)

Facebook is the realization of a dream. but it's also the death of a dream, one that began in the late 1960s. That's when the architecture of the Internet was first laid out, and it's a period piece. The Internet is designed the way it is to accommodate any number of practical considerations, but it's also an expression of 1960s counterculture. No single computer runs the network. No one is in charge. It's a paradise of equality and anonymity, an electronic commune.

In the 1970s the communes faded away, but the Internet only grew, and that countercultural attitude lingered. The presiding myth of the Internet through the 1980s and 1990s was that when you went online, you could shed your earthly baggage and be whoever you wanted. Your age, your gender, your race, your job, your marriage, where you lived, where you went to school — all that fell away. In effect, the social experiments of the 1960s were restaged online. Log on, tune in, drop out.

We all know how that ended. When the Web arrived in the early 1990s, it went mainstream. The number of people on the Internet exploded, from 2.6 million in 1990 to 385 million in 2000, and we messed up the scene. The equality and anonymity that made the Internet so liberating in its early days turned out to be disastrously disinhibiting. They made the Internet a haven for pornographers and hatemongers and a free-for-all for scammers, hackers and virus writers.
. . .
It grew because it gave people something they wanted. All that stuff that the Internet enabled you to leave behind, all the trappings of ordinary bourgeois existence — your job, your family, your background? On Facebook, you take it with you. It's who you are.

Zuckerberg has retrofitted the Internet's idealistic 1960s-era infrastructure with a more pragmatic millennial sensibility. Anonymity may allow people to reveal their true selves, but maybe our true selves aren't our best selves. Facebook makes cyberspace more like the real world: dull but civilized. The masked-ball period of the Internet is ending. Where people led double lives, real and virtual, now they lead single ones again.

The fact that people yearned not to be liberated from their daily lives but to be more deeply embedded in them is an extraordinary insight, as basic and era-defining in its way as Jobs' realization that people prefer a graphical desktop to a command line or pretty computers to boring beige ones.

Here Grossman tells a familiar story about the relationship of the Internet to counter-culture, one considerably less complex than the one told by Manuel Castells that involves "the techno-meritocratic culture," "the hacker culture," "the virtual communitarian culture," and "the entrepreneurial culture" and the sometimes volatile “intersection of big science, military research, and libertarian culture" and its amalgams of identity positions.

Grossman's narrative about the potential twin threats to privacy and the public good posed by Facebook also lacks the deep thinking of Siva Vaidhyanathan's The Googlization of Everything about the social web and its corporate ideology.

Finally, the assertion that Facebook is a juggernaut headed for global dominance ignores the phenomenon of individual national social networks and fragmented social and linguistic spaces that Geert Lovink has described.

Grossman offers a diverting account of Zuckerberg the polymath empath but his assertion that Zuckerberg is reshaping the architecture of the Internet just isn't true. Particularly at a time when a number of policy issues are at stake that require forms of civic education and collective deliberation about the social web, we don't need more great-man histories. Instead, understanding complex issues like IP address shortages, threats to network neutrality, the new domestic spaces of ubiquitous computing, and our place as humans in the Internet of things will take more than a hagiography for TIME's Person of the Year in 2010.

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