With their particular audience and the chosen values in mind, student-users of Facebook decide what information to post and make present on a daily basis in an effort to accept and adhere those values. Whether through a status update, a photo upload, or a list of favorite movies, student-users are constantly choosing between what to show and how to show it in order to gain approval from their particular audience. Students only have 140 characters or less for each status update to convey not only what they may be doing at that moment but to also to convey a certain image of themselves to their particular audience. Some choose specific language that only their particular audience would understand while others choose to quote famous sayings in order to appear mature and intelligent. Now, students can even tag a member of their particular audience into their status update, insuring that person will definitely read that status update and create an instant connection with that member. Particular audience members can also be tagged in photos, regardless of whether or not they are actually physically present in that photo, so that students can give that photo more presence for particular audience members.
Student-users constantly check their profiles not only to post new information or to see what others have posted but also to see if the information they have posted has been accepted by their particular audience. Regardless of all this power the student-user may think they have over their profile, each decision is rooted in the values of their particular audience. These values are applauded through particular audience members clicking the “Like” button beneath a status update or dismissed through the decision to “un-friend” a person or “untag” a photo and take away the presence that another user tried to create for them. Much like their demand for immediate responses through text messages, student-users crave instant feedback from their particular audience in Facebook to know if what they have posted is acceptable to their online friends.
While the information a student-user posts may seem to them to be an accurate portrayal of who they are in “real-life,” in truth they are still trying to communicate and adhere to the beliefs of their peers. What once may have been considered an outlet for individuality is actually another way students conform to the values of a particular audience. This conformity, unfortunately, takes away the feeling that users “feel protected and less burdened by expectations” from the outside world (Turkle, 2011). The freedom they may feel from “expectations” is really a false freedom as they still have expectations to uphold for their particular audience even though the venue has changed from “real-life” to online.
When students subject themselves to these expectations online, they unknowingly become a version of Foucault’s “docile bodies” under the control of the expectations and values of their particular audience in Facebook. In Discipline and Punish (1975/1991), Foucault states that power lies in the hands of those who can control the body as “it is always the body that is at issue—the body and its forces, their utility and their docility, their distribution and their submission.” In order to be controlled, a body must be docile and willing to be controlled. Once that body is docile, it “may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved” by those in power-often to create and view man as a machine to be used and trained (Foucault, 1975/1991). This “man as a machine” view no longer sees humans as individuals with individual wants and needs but as a massive, pliable group.
With each body docile and susceptible to punishment, those in power give “each individual…his own place; and each place its individual,” thus creating the illusion of freedom by individualizing “bodies by a location that does not give them a fixed position, but distributes them and circulates them in a network of relations” (Foucault, 1975/1991). This “fixed position” can be seen as a cell in a prison or a social class--one with visible walls and one with invisible walls--but walls nonetheless. In these places individuals are part of “a collective and obligatory rhythm, imposed from the outside; it’s a ‘programme’; it assures the elaboration of the act itself; it controls its development and its stages from the inside” (Foucault, 1975/1991). Docile bodies do not question these obligations and these rules.
Also, authorities try to exercise power over bodies by “controlling their relations” and “of separating out their dangerous mixtures” (Foucault, 1975/1991). To do this, authorities exercise “individual control…according to a double mode; that of binary division and branding (mad/sane; dangerous/harmless; normal/abnormal); and that of coercive assignment, of differential distribution (who he is; where he must be; how he is to be characterized; how he is to be recognized; how a constant surveillance is to be exercised over him in an individual way)” (Foucault, 1975/1991). Authorities used to display their power over the docile bodies through physical punishment, but as this display of power caused subjects to resent authority, those in power began to take over our bodies in less-subtle ways.
Social networks, like Facebook, represent one of these less-subtle ways of control over our bodies. Instead of physical cells as our “fixed position,” we have profile pages which give us the illusion of a safe place to create our ideal self. Instead of a traditional view of an authority figure, we have a particular audience which more or less demands that we adhere to their values or we will risk losing virtual friendships. This audience can visit a student-users’ profile page at any time of any day, a “constant surveillance” that gives power to the particular audience to decide what that audience may deem an acceptable profile page (Foucault, 1975/1991). Such control and power may dishearten student-users as they come to realize how much audience values affect their online profile.
This shattering of an idealistic image of Facebook, an image that promises freedom and individuality, may cause many students to want to either rebel entirely against their particular audience and post whatever they want or simply delete their profile as a protest, two choices that do more harm than good. If a student chooses to completely disregard their particular audience in an effort to take away the power that audience has over their online decisions, then that student risks destroying the relationship they need to have with that particular audience. Life, online and offline, does not put us in a bubble, though we often forget when we are online that we are still a part of the social world. Part of our ability to succeed as social beings is the awareness and acceptance of social norms and audience values and adhering to those norms and values. Deleting their online profiles, while a quick fix, also encourages students to ignore the social connections a person has with an audience. Instead of completely disregarding or ignoring social ties, students need to understand, accept, and adapt to audience perceptions and values in order to succeed socially. This acceptance and adaption to social norms and values is tied into James Berlin’s social-epistemic rhetoric.
Social-epistemic rhetoric, according to Berlin, is a method of rhetoric that encourages students to examine “the dialectical interaction of the observer, [and] the discourse community in which the observer is functioning and the material conditions for existence” (Berlin, 2003). While teaching this rhetoric is painful for students because they learn that nothing they do or say is ever free from society. However, since “the self is regarded as the product of a dialectical relationship between the individual and the social,” students soon learn that “self-autonomy and self-fulfillment are thus possible not through becoming detached from the social, but through resisting those social influences that alienate and disempower…in and through social activity” (Berlin, 2003). Only then will students have a “liberated consciousness” needed to truly think critically about their world and become “responsible citizens” as mentioned above.
Since social-epistemic rhetoric is a difficult process to learn, many students try to resist learning it because it shakes them out of their comfort zones; one way to help students conquer this fear is to find a safe place to meet them at and work with that common safe area. Facebook can be this safe place. Students are already avid users of the social network and, when they first walk into the composition classroom, trust Facebook as a technological tool that allows them express their individuality and connect with friends and family. Using this trust as a base, composition instructors can introduce audience awareness and power relations already built into Facebook that students haven’t really noticed or considered before. This can be accomplished by asking students to write about their Facebook profile in a critical way.
One way to have students write critically about their Facebook profile is to ask them to write about why they have a Facebook profile. If they don’t have one, ask them to write about why they choose not to have one. Then, have students open up their Facebook profiles (or look on with a friend of they do not have one) and ask them to focus specifically on their list of friends. Ask students to write about their Facebook friends—Do they have any face-to-face contact with their friends? Do they know all of their friends outside of Facebook? How do they know these friends? How many do they have? How come these particular people are granted the status as “Facebook friends”? What do you have in common with these friends? Students need to take the time to actually write about their relationships with their online friends in order to discover any values that tie them to these friends. Once these values are discovered and admitted, only then can students take the next step to connect their audience’s values with what they upload to their profiles.
This next step is accomplished by asking students to view their profile page and examine their status updates, personal information, and photos in a critical light. Have them write about why they choose to upload and share certain information while ignoring other personal aspects. More specifically, ask them to write about what goes through their minds whenever they are about to post information to their profile page.
Finally, ask students to compare their posting process with the values of their friends for connections between the two. Do students unconsciously make decisions of what they post based on what their audience values and thus expects? Have students talk about how they feel about this realization, as well as if this is realization changes the way they feel about Facebook as a whole. While some students will cling to the idea of Facebook as a “place of hope” and individualism, and thus refuse to admit anything they post is rooted in audience adherence, the idea has been planted into their minds and they are at least thinking about the concept whenever they post information onto their profile page.
Instead of automatically posting whatever comes to mind online, students will begin to think twice before they do so, wondering why they are posting this information and if this information truly represents who they truly are or who they want to appear to be to others. By teaching students audience awareness and how that awareness ties into the information they choose to make present online, we can help students to think critically about online profiles. Once this lesson is planted into their minds, we can help students learn to apply these same strategies when working with anything in the technological realm.