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The Internet, a Tool for Art?


About group dynamics


Following the theory of manipulation, special tactics are used to control the masses' perception of information: The bigger the letters of the title on the newspaper's front cover are printed, the more important the issue seems to be. In horror movies, as soon as the music turns slow and dark, we know, something will happen within the next seconds and the killer waits just around the corner. A special tradition in theater was hiring "claques", people who start clapping, so that everyone else in the hall follows and claps too. Similar is the laughter used in sitcoms on TV. Those are simple efforts by a few who control broadcasts and the press, talking to many, into one direction.

The internet is characterized by bidirectional communication. The term "Web 2.0", also called "Social Media" means the focus on user created content, virtual communities and the sharing of information. "2.0" refers to version numbers of software, implicating a "new generation" of the web. This new generation includes platforms like Facebook, Youtube, Myspace, Twitter, Xing and others. While virtual communities grow, private homepages seem to vanish slowly. Instead of private websites, people now have profiles on several platforms. An account is quickly created, no scripting or web designing skills are required. Online platforms are pre-assembled to fit the prosumer's needs, ready to just fill out a form and virtual identities are born within a couple of minutes. The whole architecture of a social network must therefor provide a perfect space for communication. This construct is driven by group dynamics gearing into each other: The operating companies of course have the goal to make money - either by selling user data or by advertising agencies who rent space on their website. Both sources of income, the collection of user data as well as the advertising, depend on traffic. A network only is a network, as long as many people participate. To achieve many users, operators have to provide features like free server space for photo, video or music uploads, an interface that is easy to handle and more or less privacy protection.

Privacy protection is a fine line to tread - on one hand the more information a user can find out about a person he is looking for, the more seductive it might seem to join the network himself (on most social networks people need to have a membership to be able to track other users accounts). On the other hand, the same user, as soon as he has become a member, of course doesn't want to be trackable for everybody (like his employer, parents or ex-girlfriend). At this point the network provider must trick the user into revealing as much as possible. In our disciplinary society, each one of us is free to decide, but always has to take the individual risk. "Account -> Privacy settings" is the tab, where Facebook becomes complicated. It is similar to the first login: under the form you just filled out, you find the sentence "Yes, I have read the terms of service and I agree.". Do you also just click such buttons without reading? Who has ever tried to read it, probably gave up after the 3rd page of officialese, like I did. And - as soon as you are a member and it won't let you log in without confirming the new version of the TOS (terms of service) - regardless what they write, of course you agree. In this way, I postulate, the carrier of facebook could claim my soul without me noticing it at all. This seems like some kind of invisible force upon us. Similar to the concept of the panopticon, in this case there is one imaginary guard who can watch all the others in their light-flooded cells, but no one can see the watchman. We just know he might exist, since there are TOS we didn't read but agreed to - which means there are rules we must be aware of, but we don't really know them. So we pretend having done our homework and do what all lazy children do: We emulate the others.


(documentary, "The Asch Experiment", youtube)


It is all about pretending, since everyone knows virtual space isn't "real". The reputation score is everything. What counts is the number of friends on Facebook, the number of "Like"-clicks, the number of linked pictures on others profiles. If we can't be Superstars, we at least want to be seen and appreciated. Therefor we are free to photoshop our profile pictures, brighten our CVs and earn false recognition to feed our narcissistic hearts, or show up as someone completely different. It would even be possible to say the truth, speak louder than in RL (real life), but it also doesn't matter much if we modify our opinions to match hegemonic trends. Against all of my utopias and hopes for a democratic medium, I fear that the second assumption is the more realistic one. Because networking - connecting to others - is always about wanting to be accepted and loved as an individual. People who are different run the (individual) risk of being locked out.

The social network basically functions similar to Benthams panopticon, but it is not tied to a real, static architecture. It is an imaginary panopticon in our heads, just like video surveillance. Additionally it has one more feature: While other systems need an authority to take care and punish dissidents every once a while, in the pure digital panopticon inhabitants stare into the opposite cells with lust, and automatically discipline (rank and rate) each other with a click on the like-button. The prosumers voluntarily become trapped guards.

They are reacting to each other, not recognizing, that an accurately painted, but distorted image of the real is acting on them. Let's call this the "stupidity of the crowds". The far side is the wisdom of the crowds.




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