Here’s an analogy that I’ve been playing with for quite a while. I’ve been trying to find the best way to describe Facebook that adequately sums up the experience; something that serves to capture the many varied aspects of the Facebook experience, and I think I’ve finally found the answer – Facebook is a modern Agora.
This may seem slightly odd, but it’s a metaphor that I’ve found useful when thinking about various Social Networking Sites, and I think it’s worth explaining and fleshing out.
It’s very tempting when thinking of Facebook to think of it as just a social space; an environment for people to act and interact in, and to be social in. However this ignores many important aspects of what makes Facebook the interesting social space that it is. I find that as a whole, it is much better to think of Facebook as an Agora. Though this is may seem an odd analogy, it allows for a consideration of many aspects of the Facebook experience, as you’ll see below.
These discussions of seemingly subtle shifts in nomenclature may seem trivial, yet the more we re-contextualise online spaces, the more we can begin to view them as entirely different beasts. As the overused ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ argument shows, subtle change in how we frame subjects such as Social Networking Sites (SNSs) can allow for a broader consideration of the roles and dynamics of these spaces, and the place and roles the user embodies when using the site.
I’m sure anyone reading this has a basic understanding of what an Agora is, but for the sake of argument, and to highlight important parallels, allow me to take you on a brief history lesson.
Agoras were, in a number of different ways, the social hubs of the Ancient Greek world. Literally meaning a ‘gathering place’, they were, ostensibly, marketplaces for the exchanging of goods and were often located in the centre of Greek city-states. These spaces served as key locales in Greek athletic, artistic, spiritual, and political life.
Originally, they were created as spaces for the gathering of free-born citizens, a place to hear the decrees of the council or the king. However, over time, they increasingly became commercialised spaces where merchants would set up shop.
This meant that Agoras served a twin function. On the one hand, they were important spaces to be and to be seen; they served as places to socialise, interact, discuss politics, and to generally be a part of Ancient Greek life. On the other hand, they served as decidedly commercial spaces. Though this commercial space was confined to particular areas of the agora, it was still a key function of the Agora. The embedded nature of this dual functionality is still reflected in the Greek language today, and from the word Agora, we get two Greek verbs ἀγοράζω, agorázō, “I shop”, and ἀγορεύω, agoreúō, “I speak in public”.
It doesn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to begin to see the parallels between Agoras and Facebook. In many ways, Facebook fills the hole of a modern Agora; it serves, for large numbers of the population, as a key social hub. People go to get news, to socialise, to be seen, to take part in political movements, to see others, to stalk others, and just to hang out.
Like an Agora, Facebook serves as a public space, a place where people meet to interact, and to exchange Social Capital. It is the consistent and (currently) reliably in-vogue place to be; a literal public stage for the performance of social identities. But, undeniably, Facebook has quickly also become a place structured around selling you things. Specific spaces and areas of the site are set aside for the market to do business and sell their goods to you. It is becoming primarily a market, selling you products and adverts, but it also serves as a space for the exchange and regulation of Social Capital
It is also a space that, due to the design of the space, restricts the types of interactions that are possible within the social space. There are expected maxims and preferred modes of social interaction within this space.
We also shouldn’t forget that not only are we being sold to and advertised at, but we are also being observed in a Panoptic manner. We are on display at any possible moment, and companies and stalls that you are hanging around are also potentially listening into you conversations, accessing pertinent information for their businesses. As such, Facebook manages to serve as a public space with the illusion of a level of privacy somehow built in. It’s large, and is a social space populated by many many people, yet it is intimate at the same time.
Perhaps, like the Greek, we need to begin to conflate to social world with the capital world. It’s already happening, yet we don’t seem to view them together, but as separate entities. Numerous Digital academics are guilty of this, focusing on the business and surveillance side of Online Social Spaces, or focusing only on the social aspects. It is important to understand and account for the fact that both inform each other, and that increasingly, you can’t separate one from the other; the social aspects exists hand in hand with the market aspect. This is why the shift towards viewing Facebook as an Agora is an important one.
Rather than insisting that we can separate these aspects from one another, we should embrace the connected nature of these spaces as markets, and socially important arenas. Or, to borrow from the Greeks, fully embrace the dual meaning and inter-relatedness of ἀγοράζω and ἀγορεύω. To attempt to view one, without contextualizing and acknowledging the importance and relatedness of the other is to only view a part of the whole.
So, for me Facebook is no longer an online social space but, perhaps tentatively, an Agora 2.0