The "i" in Facebook

by Elison Alcovendaz

You are spread out on the couch with the laptop. Or you are out somewhere, bored, and pull out your cell phone. You log in to Facebook. You are going to say something funny. Or smart. Or controversial. Or you are going to post a picture of your kids. Or an article you read. Or one of those postcard thingies that got old last year. But before you hit the "Post" button you: check your grammar, make sure it's as funny as you think it is, check to see who might be offended, make sure certain people won't see it, or if it's a picture of yourself, you make sure you don't look fat, or that you are making one of those ugly faces you tend to make, or that the photo wasn't taken from the wrong angle. And if you pass all these checkpoints (and tons more), you will hit the "Post" button. Maybe.

Louis Althusser, a French philosopher who died in 1990, would have loved dissecting Facebook. Althusser believed that because ideologies (consumerism, patriarchy, whatever you want to throw in here) already are entrenched in society, we are already subjects (to these ideologies) once we are born. Then, as we go through life, we become complicit in our own domination by said ideologies. This is Althusser's theory of interpellation at work. However, Althusser's theory also suggests something interesting about identity. In Althusser's example, a man is walking along a crowded street when a police officer says "Hey, you there!" and an individual, thinking he or she is called, turns around. It is in this turning around that the individual confirms they are a subject.

How often does this happen? You see someone on the street and they call your name. Your identity is thus confirmed. Or, for most of your young life, you sit in a school desk and, several times a day, hear your name called to which you respond with a raised hand or a simple, "Here." Again, your identify is confirmed. Or you get a text, email, call, etc. and you text, email, call that person back. Two identities are thus confirmed. 

These examples are reductive, but Althusser might suggest that interpellation only shows that we are subjected to a higher power, an authority, that our own identities are not controlled by us but instead by other forces. For example, ideas of what it means to be a man, a woman, American, an immigrant, black, white, straight, gay, a parent, and a million other things are already preordained by the society we are born into. There's a reason why, conventionally, a baby boy's clothes are blue and a girl's are pink, why the traditional business garb for women includes heels, why we have certain holidays but not others, why we use certain textbooks and not others, why mothers and fathers traditionally have had different roles in the family. Althusser might suggest that all of these are ways to keep us subjected. While we think we're in control, in reality these ideologies, these "proper" ways of being and living are constantly and invisibly acting upon us, shaping our choices, actions, and behaviors. 

Facebook appears to be a relief from this. Finally, we can control our identities after all! We can choose what Profile Picture to use! We can easily show people what we like and what we don't like! We can choose the company we keep! We can filter the information that the world learns about us! In the real world, we used to have this power. We wore clothes, cut our hair, used certain language, befriended certain people because it said something about who we were. But what happened when you went to the store for a quick grab and didn't wear your best clothes? Or when you were having that conversation and what you meant to say came out wrong? Or you befriended the wrong person? Not a problem on Facebook. Change the picture if you don't look good, or better yet, never post it at all! Flubbed something you said? Edit it! Made friends with someone who turned out not to be so great? Delete them! 

This is Facebook's greatest strength - the idea that we can participate in society and actually control and shape the way that people see us. Most of us post pictures that don't really look like us on an everyday basis. On Facebook, we can make ourselves funnier, more intelligent, more compassionate; in general, we can be a better, more beautiful version of ourselves. Because we can control the information, because we can edit our mistakes, we finally have the opportunity to be the best us that we could ever be and we don't even have to really work at it.

And yet, if Althusser was correct, we are essentially participating in an even more dominant ideology: we are being pulled away from Althusser's street to Facebook, where interpellation happens on a second-by-second basis. No longer do we have to go out and participate in the world, endure the crowded street and wait for someone to notice us or call our name; no longer do we actually have to shake a hand or pick up a phone. We "like" someone's status update. They "like" our status updates. Our identities - our funny, genius, controversial, caring, awesome, beautiful, relevant identities - are being confirmed so quickly it becomes a drug. How many of us have tried to quit Facebook only to return? We cannot get this kind of identity confirmation out on the street. Of course it doesn't matter that we all established our profiles using the same template, with the same colors; we are all individuals in control of our selves.

I admit it. I like Facebook. I like when someone likes something I said. I like putting my best version of myself out there. I can only hope that I'm not Narcissus, staring at an image of myself that isn't the real me.