Mapping and Counter-Mapping Facebook

Appearing not once, but twice in Facebook’s Securities and Exchange Commission-mandated IPO Registration document is a beautiful map by Paul Butler. It is not hard to see why the map plays a large role in the document. It symbolizes the global reach and global ambition of Facebook during its recently-completely IPO. Like Facebook itself, the map relies upon an organizing abstraction (“friendship”), presenting it in the somewhat sterile blue, black, and white form fitting for Zuckerberg’s social network.

Butler’s map, and of course Facebook’s successful production of a “social graph,” symbolize a larger turn to transparency in social media. Both make visible things that were previously hidden: the extent of global friendship, the connections between friends and Web sites, and the online movements of users across the Web. They are part of a confessional turn in social media, the previously invisible private emotional lives of users made public via Web 2.0. Transparency isn’t limited to Facebook, but appears in blogs, Youtube, Flickr, and Twitter. It is difficult to deny that, like it or not, these systems are revealing aspects of human interaction that previously operated on a scale we could not comprehend, we could not visualize. Personal, confessional transparency might be the spirit of the age.

But of course, as critical theory has shown, transparency is a slippery concept. As Marilyn Strathern asked in her excellent essay “The Tyranny of Transparency“: “what does visibility conceal?” Very often, the act of producing the visible requires the violence of repression and deferral, and thus visibility is haunted by invisibility.

So what invisible, displaced, and deferred entities might be haunting this beautiful map that reveals Facebook friendship?

For one, Facebook’s massive, centralized server farms to both store and manipulate user data. Here, we can imagine a very different map from Butler’s. Rather than trace the world as a topology of friendship-connections, we could simply draw a line from each Facebook user in the world to one of the handful of server farms located in the United States (in California, North Carolina, and Washington state, although there are plans to build a server farm in the Arctic Circle). Nearly a billion lines converging on a few locations on the coasts of the United States would present a different picture of connection: one that is centralized and hierarchical, one that illustrates the “digital divide” in a wholly different manner than simply mapping network haves and have-nots. The server farms located in the United States undermine the global connections made possible by distributed networks, even as they provide a key infrastructure to enable them. Moreover, the Facebook IPO exacerbates this divide by limiting access to ownership of the social graph to a wealthy few investors.

Butler’s map also is remarkable because of the missing landmasses. Traditional cartography has centered on the mapping of geographic features for shipping and travel. In contrast, in keeping with our Information Age, Butler’s map is one of immaterial flows: the landmasses don’t appear unless there are Facebook connections to illustrate them (consider the missing Russia, China, Amazon region, Saharan Africa, and central Australia). Here space is not obliterated by time but instead is revealed via the social graph – and then it is obliterated. The Earth itself is reimagined to be a Facebook planet, and on Planet Facebook the hard facts of terrain and topography do not hold. The contingencies of location and time are overcome by desire expressed at high speed.

What if instead the Earth was a feature of Butler’s map, besides being simply outlined in blue lines? What if these flows aren’t so immaterial after all? Turning to Maxwell and Miller’s Greening the Media, the server farms, computers, smart phones, and network equipment that underpin the network structure  Butler’s map elides are all punctualizations of highly destructive processes: mining mineral deposits in conflict zonesbrutal work in factories, carbon-intensive shipping, planned obsolescence sold in electronics retailers and in business-to-business catalogs, and most disturbingly,the glut of electronic waste being dumped on the Global South. The manic desire for new devices to maintain or extend our immaterial flows materializes in the mangled bodies of miners caught in accidents, the mangled fingers of Asian women after years of factory electronics production, and the toxic plumes rising above a “recycling center” tended by African children who burn (still working!) electronics for bits of precious metal. Although information technologies are touted to be ecologically friendly (“Go green! Sign up for E-Billing!“), as Maxwell and Miller note on page 6, “in reality, old-time, toxic manufacturing has moved to the Global South, where it is ascendant; pollution levels are rising worldwide; and energy consumption is accelerating in residential and institutional sectors, due almost entirely due to [information technology] usage, despite advances in energy conservation technology…. these are all outcomes of growth in [information technology], the foundation of the so-called knowledge-based economy.” The claim that electronics are somehow ecologically “clean” rests on an ideal of immateriality that cannot ever be, an ideal of immateriality represented by Butler’s map. Had Butler’s map of Facebook connection revealed (i.e., made transparent) this layer of materiality, we may have a different take on our incessant friending, liking, and status updating.

Finally, Butler’s map is indicative of the turn to confessional transparency in social media, where to perform our “authentic” identities, we must constantly declare the sundry details and desires of our lives. Facebook’s constant and subtle interface tweaks (what we might call, following Tim O’Reilly, a “perpetual beta” mentality) centers on making friending, liking, and sharing easier (which is to say, more productive).

So what is hidden from end users in this privileging of authenticity and confession? As an increasing number of critics and users have noted, the constant surveillance of user declarations of desire and the appropriation of user data is one undesired state; this is not visible within the interface, except insofar as the constant changes in Facebook’s design reveals the desire to speed up the production of such data. Marketers are watching what we say and, in Facebook and Google, can use comments as implicit endorsements. The existence of growing databases of user desire remain hidden from public view.

Facebook’s confessional software also represses activities that may prevent its smooth operation. As I argue in my recentSocial Text article (available for free download), these include: the ability for users to customize their pages with Javascript or CSS hacks and thus create “dangerous” spaces that marketers dare not go (think of Myspace); ways to express emotions other than “like”; ad-blocking; intellectual property violations; and the expression of anti-brand messages. Ultimately, this highly constrained software environment reveals a fundamental tension within Facebook: the invitation to become “authentic” contradicts the technical, legal, and cultural limitations imposed upon users.

Ultimately, Butler’s map, a centerpiece of an IPO document meant to transparently reveal Facebook to potential investors, covers up as much as it reveals.

Robert W. Gehl

Robert W. Gehl received a PhD in Cultural Studies from George Mason University in 2010. He is currently an assistant professor of new media in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah. He has published research that critiques the architecture, code, culture, and design of social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and blogs in The International Journal of Cultural Studies, New Media and Society, Television and New Media, First Monday, Lateral: The Journal of the Cultural Studies Association, and Social Text. He is currently working on a book, Reverse Engineering Social Media, on the architecture and political economy of social media (under contract at Temple University Press).