Savage Minds: Notes and Queries in Anthropology — A Group Blog » Facebook and the disambiguation of relationships

Relationships are more than artificial pigeonholes. Rex, at Savage Minds, compares Facebook (and by extension Web 2.0) identities and relationships to those of indigenous vs. colonial cultures.

Facebook subsumes face-to-face relationships, in other words, in a way similar to the way that governments subsume indigenous identities. Or at least the identities of Papua New Guinean ‘landowners' that I study. In both cases, an institution identified people as being unambiguously one type or another for the purposes of granting them access to resources and certain types of moral recognition. I think many of the criticisms that people have made of the deforming effects of state recognition on indigenous people could in principle be applied to people on Facebook—although of course the stakes are infinitely lower in the case of Facebook.


Insofar as indigenous critiques of pathological state systems of recognition are a particular example of a more general criticism of the way that living breathing lifeworlds are formalized—or rather, how the living and breathing world has little solidified models of itself drifting around within it in complexly reflective ways. We might start thinking about the performative nature of these identities: how a new occasion to classify people as friends suddenly makes us rethink not just whether someone is a friend, but what that category means. Perhaps there will someday be computers with databases so massive and logic so fuzzy they will be able to intuit that I want Jim to see photos of my weekend hike, but not Sarah. But in the meantime perhaps we need someone to write a critique of the corrosive bureaucratic imagining of friendship that Facebook promotes. Or perhaps we need an expose of the way that its mechanisms are constantly being detourned by the communities that are constantly appropriating it.

The lens with which we view ourselves, and our relationships with others, colours our perception of both. If that lens imposes a bureaucratic structure, we pigeonhole people into appropriate boxes, without the fluidity and organic nature we might otherwise see.


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