You’ve got….a problem.

The mediated discourse surrounding online interpersonal relationships has a striking characteristic; either social media is doing harm or it’s doing wonders. Rarely did I find stories building a case for both without some bias. I think this accounts for the struggle humanity faces against an intangible world that is both a haven for opportunity and danger. We are trying to make sense of it all.

The article, “Facebook a ‘tool’ for cheating spouses, some say” written by the CNN Wire staff, revolves around Ken Savage, a 38-year-old man who found his wife cheating on him with an old boyfriend whom she reconnected with on Facebook. To help himself and others cope, Savage created the website, a space to discuss freely one’s first-hand accounts of online cheating. The story mentions that his wife was recovering from depression and “dependence on prescription drugs,” but it fails to share that Ken himself was unaware of her addiction. He tells the whole story on his website. Thus, right from the start Facebook – the assumed messy and deceptive virtual world – is positioned at the core of their breakup. But what about their relationship outside of Facebook? Why are those facts hidden from the reader?

boyd’s essay, “Friends, Friendster..” reflects on how the word “Friendship” is used in media discourse. Similar to when a student requests his professor on Facebook, Ken’s wife strikes a “Friendship” online with her ex-boyfriend. Looking through the lens of online Friendship, we are struck with ambiguity. There is no distinction between professionalism and casualness on Facebook – everyone is translated into a Friend. Our social behaviors are granted extreme leeway online and that manifests into articles like this, portraying two worlds in competition. Though the article does a good job at providing statistics and comments from lawyers and psychologists, I challenge one statement in particular. Attorneys in the survey found that the number one site used “as evidence” for divorces is Facebook. It certainly sounds like with the advent of Facebook there are now so many more separations – but maybe they have been there all along. Perhaps, it is the platform that visualizes the statistics for us.

The 2011 Toyota Venza Commerical adds an interesting element to this discussion. Basically it paints two pictures – quite sarcastically. It’s the younger, “more social” people vs. the older, “less connected” people. Or so it seems – watch for yourself.

This video plays right into one of boyd’s predictions. As social media  sites become culturally embedded, we are subject to shifts in understanding. For the generations that have grown up with social media, there is an expectation to take part in that “shared identity” and for some that online experience becomes their reference point for what friendship means (Baym 86). 19 Friends vs. 687 Friends – whose viewpoint do we cater to? Clearly this advertisement is directed towards that older group, poking fun at the rather sedentary and superficial experience of socializing online.

If we look at these two stories (and Life 2.0) through the social presence theory, we may understand the perspectives of the cheating wife and the social media obsessed (Baym 52). I’m not saying we are to agree or disagree, but rather dig beneath our assumptions. These users perceive their environment as merely an extension of their physical world. Whereas other users like Ken and the family members in Life 2.0, are not engaged in that normalized interaction. Pursing relationships online becomes simply another task to prioritize – and that’s the divide. After reading the CNN article, my feelings toward Life 2.0 are heightened. Both pieces use addiction as a catalyst for irresponsible behavior, but then juxtapose this empowered medium with opinions that denounce its strength. If a user feels his identity manifests through digital mediums, who are we to say that’s “ludicrous” or false? But at the same time, how can we submit to social media when we are its designers? Aren’t we left facing ourselves?

What struck me about this topic are its incredibly vast display of opinions and perspectives. I think mediated discourse stays true to boyd‘s suggestion of evaluating social network sites “on their own terms.” I would also add, “on their unique affordances.” If we play the addiction card then it is only fair to showcase the moderate users. If we criticize the cheaters then we have to applaud the faithful. If we start to define online relationships, we can’t abandon the physical ones. As the two worlds collide, testing our priorities, how can we speak to everyone?

Danger and opportunity. Love and loss. Connections and disconnections. Real and fake. Hope and deception. Mediated discourse, if we seek it out, shares the good and the bad. At the core of what I observe, are stories, despite their bias, in search of answers to human connection. How and where we fulfill these needs is interesting, but not as powerful as why. What would we see if discourse took that angle?

Although “you’ve got mail” has transformed into “you’ve got friends” and “you’ve got connections,” it doesn’t change our desire to be needed.


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1 Comment

  1. lauraportwoodstacer

     /  February 22, 2012

    Thanks for linking to that commercial – it’s a great illustration of your point about popular discourse!


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