«You see him everyday as you cross West Fourth street. You’ve never spoken to him, but you know his name, his age, major, and relationship sta- tus. ...»
Big Brother Is on the Facebook
You see him everyday as you cross West Fourth street. You’ve never
spoken to him, but you know his name, his age, major, and relationship sta-
tus. You’ve never officially met, but you know what his high school friends
look like, how his spring break trip to Cozumel was, and what he looks like
while under the influence. Giving him the awkward “I-know-you-but-I-prob-
ably-shouldn’t-know-this-much-about-you-so-I’m-not-sure-if-I-say-hello- or-if-I-just-walk-on-by-and-pretend-to-not-see-you” smile, you continue on your way, wondering if you could have sparked conversation by humming one of his favorite tunes or quoting one of his favorite movies. The tension builds, you cross the street, and nothing happens. Heaving a sigh of relief that you haven’t just made a fool of yourself to a complete stranger, you begin to won- der, am I a stalker? No, you reassure yourself, you are simply a member of the Facebook.
In 2004 students at Harvard created the popular website, “Facebook.com,” lovingly and begrudgingly known as “The Facebook,” with a grant of $500,000 from Peter Thiel, founder of Paypal. Members of Facebook, an online social network for college students, can post a personal profile and search through profiles of other students across the country, link- ing themselves to friends at their own school and at other schools. Eventually encompassing more and more universities, the Facebook provides access to more than 25,000 high schools and 2,000 institutions of higher learning (Naing). The creators of Facebook have continued to update and improve the web-profile service, adding the ability to display photos and join interest groups; within the past month, Facebook users have gained the ability to communicate on the Facebook via cell phone and can now search for phone numbers and other personal information from anywhere with decent cell phone reception (Yuan). With more and more features added, students spend more and more time surfing profiles, filing through pictures, and reading favorite quotes.
MERCER STREET - 163 The constantly growing popularity of the Facebook has generated quite a bit of controversy since its inception two years ago. Current discourse on its use runs the gamut from the vehemently opposed to the insouciant to the most vocal champions of the online college-profile service. Most opinion comes from college-aged students—those who traditionally have access to the website. However, though the opinion makers are similar in age and level of education, their opinions are vastly different. Those in favor of the service include D.J. Johnson of Bowling Green State University who writes, “Facebook is the door to the worlds never explored. Millions of people have uploaded information about themselves online in an effort to be read. To be discovered.” He continues, “It’s an optional service, so men and women around the world are voluntarily submitting information for the pleasure of others.” He claims that it is ridiculous to hide our fascination with the site as it has provided beneficial services to millions of users.
Julia James of the University of Alabama disagrees. Explaining the dangers of having your personal information on the web, she claims that “anything negative on your Facebook profile can and will be used against you.” She also addresses the issue that administrators and prospective employers can view the site, which could potentially be problematic. University of Pennsylvania writer Cezary Podkul may quell James’s fears. He writes that Facebook “is a Web site created for fun and amusement” and that “Penn officials have better things to do than comb through the 3.85 million registered Facebook users... looking for incriminating material.” Even if they did, as Johnson might suggest, everything posted online is done voluntarily, and students are well aware of what they are making available for public display.
Employers and college administrators have also taken a stance on the issues that Facebook presents. “It is a tricky issue,” says Catherine Amory, interim director of career services at Northeastern University. “I’m not so sure that students shouldn’t be free to be themselves. On the other hand, if they intend to work for a conservative institution, then they need to be more careful” (qtd. in Lewis). This phrase, however, seems to suggest that we have the freedom to express ourselves—as long as what we express is acceptable to the head of human resources at a blue-chip corporation.
Whatever stance you take, Facebook usage is here to stay. Over 10.5 million unique visitors explored the Facebook in February of 2006 alone, making it one of the most popular sites on the web (Yuan). College newspapers, as well as student sentiment and interest groups on the Facebook itself, curse its hypnotic, addicting powers, yet students are still unable to free themselves from checking the Facebook countless times a day. Even with the knowledge 164 - MERCER STREET of Facebook access by administrators and prospective employers, students fearlessly post incriminating pictures of themselves—some nearly softcore pornography, others more akin to Smirnoff advertisements. Clearly, college students have many better things to do with their lives than sit for hours on end examining the Facebook profiles of their friends and coming up with witty comments to post on their pages (or “walls,” in Facebook lingo), yet for some reason the majority of the college populous is enamored with the Harvard-created site. Why then, when we have the ability to speak face-toface with a vast number of college students simply by walking through our campuses, do we feel the need to use such a profile service?
The Facebook embodies the Big Brother spirit of our generation. While some post purely for viewing by their own friends (and indeed there are privacy controls that allow very limited visibility), many update their pages constantly, knowing that someone will probably see their new silly or sexy picture, perhaps inducing a message or a “poke”—one of the more strange features of the page, which allows users to send any member of the Facebook, even if you have no idea who they are, a message reading, “You have been poked by [insert real name of Creepy McCreepster here].” In a generation when Internet chat rooms and online dating services have been around for most of our lives, we are much more comfortable sending messages to those we don’t know than people have been in the past. Facebook allows us to put every moment of our personal lives up for public display, if we wish. And many do.
Surveillance and voyeurism, binaries evoked by the Facebook, have caused riffs in society for hundreds of years. “The philosopher Jeremy Bentham,” writes Ellen Goodman of the Boston Globe, “once described the MERCER STREET - 165 perfect prison as a ‘panopticon’ where prisoners were under complete surveillance and yet could not see the watcher.” Would modern society feel the same way? As hundreds of thousands of people over the years have applied and auditioned for television programs such as MTV’s The Real World or Big Brother on CBS, it appears as if Bentham’s penitentiary would be far less frightening. On these TV shows, participants have every moment of their lives recorded and broadcast to millions of viewers across the country and the world. By freely giving away their rights to privacy, these individuals seem to illustrate a growing acceptance in today’s culture of constant surveillance.
On any given day, how many times do you think you are captured on video? According to one study, reports Alexandra Marks of the Christian Science Monitor, a Manhattanite is caught on screen an average of 73 times.
Feel like a celebrity? For millions of reality TV viewers, this could be amusing. In an article by New York Times writer Emily Eakin, communications professor Mark Andrejevic of the University of Iowa at Iowa City remarks, “Today, more than twice as many young people apply to MTV’s ‘Real World’ show than to Harvard,” he says. “Clearly, to a post-Cold-War generation of Americans, the prospect of living under surveillance is no longer scary but cool.” Members of our generation are excited by the chance to expose themselves, to get their fifteen minutes of fame. The thought of being overwhelmed by paparazzi is considered glamorous, “an entree into the world of wealth and celebrity,” as Andrejevic writes in his book, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched (qtd. in Eakin). Facebook, too, offers individuals a taste of this celebrity world, as members can have a webpage totally devoted to themselves, where whatever they want to say or display can be viewed by anyone with an Internet connection. We each want a voice. We want to be heard. But do we really want every detail of our personal lives available to the public? To some, the chance to connect with other people via similar experiences, personality traits, and even through compromising pictures is worth the sacrificed security and privacy. Behind the need to display this information is a need for attention. When our need for personal relationships diminishes, so too may our desire to connect with strangers through the Web.
There are other reasons to refuse to sign up for the popular profile service, though. Preserving one’s online anonymity seems to be at the forefront.
Surveillance, to many people, is incredibly intrusive and frightening. The thought of someone viewing personal information causes some to edit their profiles, removing all incriminating or potentially dangerous information.
This self-censorship is reminiscent of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984.
166 - MERCER STREET Andrew Hultkrans writes about the power of Big Brother, the constantly
scrutinizing government in Orwell’s hellish world:
Orwell’s surveillance nightmare 1984 [explores] the collective insanity (and absurd paradoxes) induced by constant panoptic observation. The key to the absolute hegemony of Big Brother is not that “he” is actually watching you at all times (in fact, there is no “he” at all), but that, as in Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon prison, you come to believe he may be watching at you any time, thereby policing yourself. (Hultkrans) The ominous thought of having our actions under perpetual watch can be frightening, and in the case of the Facebook, many are now choosing to remove their information in an attempt to free themselves from an outsider’s field of vision. And while Facebook surveillance is worrisome, it alerts us to the horrifying nature of modern surveillance in our daily lives. With the Facebook, you have the option to keep away from the glare of other members by simply not signing up—the only negative effect being minor social ostracism. We cannot, however, choose when third parties read our e-mails, or whether or not we are recorded when we enter a bank, a grocery store, or a city street.
But what is more puzzling is that we cannot seem to live without the new technologies that make such surveillance possible. “Contemporary consumers,” writes Hultkrans, “clamor for more ATM machines, more point-ofpurchase payment options, more smart cards, digital cash, and online shopping while simultaneously decrying the invasion of privacy intrinsically connected to such cyber-cash convenience.” Though we may not like that our Web surfing can be monitored, it is nearly impossible to imagine a year without the Internet or the myriad of services it brings us. Moreover, in the name of security, our society has for the most part accepted the addition of surveillance devices, as long as surveillance is done in the name of security. We are comforted by the camera lens, believing no harm can come to us under its protective eye. Now, it is impossible to use government as a scapegoat when there is no protestation on a large scale from citizens. Suddenly, by allowing our every move to be monitored, we ourselves are partially to blame.
At the same time, this move towards constant surveillance is not a new one. We have been gravitating towards it since the dawn of human communication, each new technological advance slowly encroaching on our abilities to live free from the scrutiny of others. In Ancient Rome roads connecting outside provinces to the heart of the empire helped officials easily govern people not in immediate view. In Nazi-ruled Germany, the Hitler Youth MERCER STREET - 167 became government watchdogs inside family homes. Now, video cameras in parts of the United Kingdom, the United States, and a host of other countries watch the actions of drivers, automatically sending punitive tickets to those who violate the laws of the road. In 2013 it will even be mandatory for citizens of the U.K. to be included in the National Identification Register, a database that will include biometric information from their compulsory ID cards—including fingerprints, iris scans, and digitized facial scans—along with all of the places of residence of all residents of the United Kingdom throughout their lives (United 2). U.K. Information Commissioner Richard Thomas has announced his fear that we may “sleepwalk into a surveillance society” (“Mass”). My fear is that we already have.