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A Roland Barthes-style reading of Facebook

Literature 101
6 March 2012

When a Facebook user signs onto his or her account, they are presented with a screen that is mostly white and blue, scattered with photographs and text that calls out to them to be consumed. Photos of friends appear, and when something new is posted, the first instinct is to click it and absorb the content. There is something so satisfying about reading the latest wall posts and “liking” content to express agreement (which no longer means anything because it also means anger, laughter, acknowledgement, understanding and every other emotion one could categorize under “like”). Any changes to the page draw the eye to the new thing, particularly when a notification appears. The image of a small, light blue globe with a red flag and a white number is irresistible; one cannot simply ignore it. It persists until the user opens it to read about how someone has virtually interacted with them. It gives one a sense of popularity to see that little number, in the sense that it is important and valuable to the user’s being that someone did something that interacted with their Facebook account (which for some is synonymous with their conception of their self as a social being).

Photographs users post, pages they “like,” content they update to the “About” section are all personal details that one would likely never post on a public billboard or hang up on a poster in front of their home. Yet users post them to the social realm of Facebook because it feels safe, they know who their “friends” are, they have control over the privacy settings. The question still remains, though, why they feel the need to share that content online in the first place. To habitual, constantly connected Facebook users, the combination of all the content associated with their account defines them socially, and they have been trained to believe that to not participate in the sharing of content, thoughts, photographs and details about one’s personal life is to withdraw from society and to not engage with the rest of the world. This sense of necessary connectedness through social media becomes most acutely felt when one tries to undo the representation of self they have created online. Try and tell a dedicated, addicted Facebook user to go through and unlike every page they’ve ever liked, untag their account from pictures, delete entire albums, stop liking things or posting status updates—deactivate their Facebook! It should not be so hard to untangle from the web of mostly unimportant, oftentimes mindless, content posting, but it is not uncommon for people, even those who express a desire to deactivate, to say that they cannot just leave it all behind. They are their Facebook account and they rely on the availability of others’ profiles. Without Facebook, there is no easy transition that involves wall post and photo stalking and accumulating a better sense of a persona after meeting them. There is a sense of fear when an addicted Facebook user meets someone who doesn’t have a Facebook account. How does one discover this new person’s interests, find out if they’re single, glance through their photos and find conversation topics if not for Facebook—but first, one wonders, how the hell do I get in contact with this person? If these examples are not the case for every user, then at the very least, leaving social media behind feels like breaking important ties with the web of social invitations and interactions. While intellectually most can acknowledge that real, valuable social relations occur separately from the virtual sphere (where, interestingly, one is typically alone and is thus experiencing the antithesis of true sociality), it is still very challenging to actually go through with deactivating and remain permanently reliant on real life, non-Internet-related social interactions. It is undeniable that Facebook does facilitate social relationships and allow for bonds to take place where real life is allowed to take dominance, but social media is a drug that brings you back for more, creates a false sense of being social, and in many ways hinders the user from engaging in real social relationships outside of the tangled realm of self-representation and constantly updating news feeds.


More of this coming soon, since I'm writing my Lit 101: Marxism class final on the topic of Facebook. This short paper was written for class as a Roland Barthes-style reading of a cultural practice. I wrote it after realizing that I am way too entrenched in social media, so the references to the difficulty in detaching oneself from Facebook are from personal experience. But Green Gal just joined Facebook, too, and now I'm not sure how I feel about social media. What do you think about social media?