Saturday, 7 June 2008

The (hyper)reality of social networking

I was reading about hyperreality when I started thinking of how it relates to the social networking phenomenon and communities built around it. Is there a connection between the two? Maybe. In fact someone else has already discussed this topic in this rather interesting post.

My favourite definition of hyperreality is Umberto Eco's one: "the authentic fake". As you would expect the web is full of information about hyperreality, for example this is fairly complete article with examples.

I'll try to write down my thoughts on how social networking community members do live in a hyperreal world. I should warn you though: I may sound cynical and destructive. Far from me: I think there's a place for social networking web sites and services (after all I am blogger too) and there's nothing wrong with being a consumer of these services. As far as I am concerned now I am just trying to understand the mechanics, why they work and why they exist the way they are now, and how they will transform in the future to come. So bear with me on this aspect.

At the core of the meaning of hyperreality is the ambiguity between "real" and "fake" reality that arises when facts and events or objects are filtered by a multitude of media.

Members of communities built around any of the latest and cutest Web2.0 website interact by the means and rules offered by the portal they use (Facebook, MySpace and the like). This medium filters the behaviour adopted by people. Actually, members of any community, in a way, always interact within an accepted framework: think of the rules, implicit (values, culture) or explicit (laws), that manage our relationship in a social environment and how they drive our behaviour.
The main difference, though, is that people meeting face to face have other means (environment, body language, time...) that contribute to maximise the possibility that facts and events are perceived and understood correctly and close to the reality.

Now back to the social networking. As said the web shapes the behaviour; there's also in the mix the fact that content and messages are exchanged using a different time pattern compared to normal face to face relationships. A message, a profile, a blog post, a twit is sent to the server and then delivered to the intender recipient(s). The recipient(s) reads it, digests it, formulates a response and eventually sends it back. This, to me, contributes to the creation of a world and of a reality that is transformed: what the recipient perceives is the autentically "fake" reality that the sender wants to transmit having lost its immediacy and being tailored to the media chosen to operate upon. Besides the fact that sender and recipient know that the content being generated is public.
I like to think that communities in Facebook (I am not picking on Facebook, it's just an example) are equivalent to the community of house mates in the BigBrother house (or, for argument's sake, to any other reality). The media, the place and being observed changes the behaviour allowing the community (participants and viewers) to create a fake real world.

So, it seems that social networking is son of its time: it has been made possible by new technologies - higher network speed, new web site capabilities, etc - and it's expression of our current time where appearance rules.

I have a memory from my infancy: if you're Italian or you watch Italian TV you know about the Mulino Bianco commercial (this is one of the many) which epitomises the (hyper)real world. We (the community of consumers) are let to believe that that is a beautiful real place with a real family where - obviously - plumcakes and brioches are soft and tasty.

Is there any difference between the Mulino Bianco ad and any of the profiles in Facebook? Let alone the style and the manufacture - Facebook users may not be professional advertisers - the communality is that both are hyperworld where the authors want the recipients to walk in and live the life they want them to live.

In this context let me fool around. If hyperreality is made of hyperreal facts and hyperreal events that exist in a hyperreal world, then Twitter allows users to exchange hyperreal facts; MySpace and Facebook as hyperreal multi-worlds; SecondLife as real hyperreal world.

The astute reader may now say that hyperreality is just a play on words, people make real money with this sites, businesses and enterprises back them up. It depends, it's a matter of prospective. Vegas and its casinos is extreme hyperreality made true. Punters entering a casino get in a manufactured hyperreal place where everything is obviously fake to let you believe that our money is fake too. Incidentally, those who think that your money isn't fake are casino owners who live in the real reality of gambling business.

So, who's making real money in this hyperreal world? I guess those who are able to spoil the user data by aggregating it and extract useful market information, for example. I suspect that biases will eliminate each other when aggregated, providing the clever data manager with information to use at his like (hopefully within the boundaries of the data protection acts).

A real example is available here: it describes how Amazon makes money using information extracted by user generated data.

Yes, clearly this is a win-win situation. Community members get value by being able to cultivate their social aspirations, voyeurism, need to be heard, trend and fashion, benefiting of other members' experience. Providers - on the other side - are able to target established communities by processing generating data, aggregating it with the purpose of extracting financially useful information (read the Facebook case study).

I am sure there's more to say. I stop now but I am interested to hear from you, dear reader, your view on this.


Anonymous said...

excellent post :) please write more about that, if you have time.

Anonymous said...

excellent post :) please write more about that, if you have time.

Paige said...

Fantastic post - I also thought the same and am currently planning a cultural studies essay based upon this idea