Because I wrote a thesis on this topic, I should know how to explain phenomena that take place in virtual environments. Allow me to indulge…
While Friendster remains to be the number one social networking site (SNS) in the Philippines, I’ve observed that more and more people “jump ship” to other SNS’s like Multiply, MySpace, and lately, Facebook. Which begs the question: why?
In my thesis, I wrote:
Because the “self” created in the virtual environment – in this case Friendster – is completely devoid of cognition and of feeling and of other things that make an individual an individual, it has no recourse but to be articulated in terms of what is available to the thinking, practicing individual. It is solely defined by the structures surrounding it: the limitations provided for by the layout of the Friendster profile, the limitations of one’s connection speed, the limitations of one’s knowledge of coding and programming, and so on. But the most important limitation that should be noted is the limitation of the self in attempting to articulate itself: to concretize its abstractness, to make itself known. (2007: 326)
While I myself am a bit disillusioned by Friendster, you have to give credit where credit is due: Friendster “revolutionized” (using that term loosely) social networking. But as a rejoinder to the “limits” I talked about, a service like Multiply offers an all-in-one solution for presumed “needs” like blogging and multimedia: you can’t share your favorite music in Friendster (yet) without using Imeem, for example. Besides, more and more Friends are added to Friend Lists: a sort of “Friend overload.”
The difference is that there really isn’t any added responsibility for people to maintain close contacts, much less establish them. In my correspondence with Andrew Feenberg of Simon Fraser University, one of his biggest disagreements with my thesis was that I seemed to take the term “friend” seriously. “Friend,” as it seems, is a linguistic limitation. But the way I saw it, I had to take it seriously: because Friend Lists in Friendster start with adding real friends and end up in the mere acceptance of invitations, the very definition of friendship is challenged.
But every social networking site – be it Friendster or Facebook – comes with waiving responsibilities in establishing close contacts. There really is no responsibility to maintain close associations in an SNS: the absence of this responsibility means that certain “responsibilities” come to the fore, like tricking out Profiles by adding widgets and embedded video. The real, actual responsibility still lies outside the realm of the SNS.
Regardless of jumping ship, however, the limit still exists. You still don’t know who you are.