Conceptualizing Facebook as a city

As a visitor to Facebook and not a resident – I don’t maintain an account there myself – it’s been interesting to see how people interact with you when you say you’re not on the site. Usually they say “good on you” or “I will leave it myself, some day…”

What’s striking to me is that people say similar things about living in the countryside rather than the city. Leaving Facebook is a plan for the future, an idealistic thing, maybe something to do for your kids.

This got me thinking about conceptualizing Facebook as a city, and how it relates to that old dead metropolis Geocities. Urban planning isn’t something related to my research but the principles around identity and belonging are not far off, at least; and I found it an interesting thought experiment. We live online, with our friends and colleagues. What kind of a place is the internet – as an accumulation of people working and living together – turning into, should it follow Facebook’s model?

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Now this: this is a city.

Facebook: a walled city

The first thing you notice about Facebook as an outsider is that you can’t get in.You have to be registered. Using the theoretical model of a city, we could imagine Facebook as a city-state with visa restrictions for outsiders: you have to register for citizenship before you enter. Some limited access is available with an invitation from an existing resident, who can render parts of their profile visible, for example. In order to visit the city in full, you have to register.

The walls around Facebook also extend within. This doesn’t mean there are sections within to which you need a transit visa. More accurately, everyone’s apartment within Facebook, their own little patch of the city, has a wall built around it. If you don’t have special permission to enter this wall you might as well be an outsider.

There are no streets.

The artist and architect Constant Nieuwenhuys wrote that a traditional city is quartered by streets which are “quasi-social… laid out logically for circulation -[and] are incidentally used as a meeting place”, while what we might call the modern, urban city provided “minimum social space” with “isolated dwelling units… people meet only by chance and individually, in walkways or the park. Traffic circulation governs everything” (1959, A Different City for a Different Life).  Facebook, similarly, has no streets for people, only conduits for traffic. There is nowhere you will bump into a stranger, have unexpected meetings, or any such romantic old-fashioned social engagements. The function of Facebook pages is to limit people’s interaction to within isolated units, and their movement between these units is strictly controlled. It’s a bit like an American strip mall, where transit from one building to another is done entirely by car, and there is little or no human interaction. You are whisked from one unit for containing humans to another.

There are extremely strict planning laws. Citizens are not allowed to build.

Geocities was not perfect, and was covered in adverts, much like Facebook is, but at least residents were able to build whatever they wanted. You were provided a plot within your chosen neighbourhood and could construct as tall, as pretty, as ugly a page as you wanted (some were hideous). You could have a chat room, pictures, stupid music in the background, as you liked. The fundamental freedom was creativity in the early days of the internet, the freedom to create more or less anything you wanted. Facebook is the opposite.

Having been given a plot in Facebook’s city you may decorate the walls, but the building itself is not yours. You may not construct anything. In the modular Facebook city each isolated unit is identical. Urban planning is done for the residents; their own ideas must not distract them from that which is being provided, the safety and equilibrium of a peaceful plot of your own where there is no noise, no graffiti and everything can be perfectly understood without need for metaphor or poetry.

It is weird to be a woman there

I will not go into this too much, since so many better writers have done so. You could check out Soraya Chemaly’s article from this weekend on “The 12-year old slut meme and Facebook’s misogyny problem” : suffice it to say in Facebook breastfeeding is strictly forbidden but saying “I’d punch you in the face if you were a woman” is a great joke.

The view from outside… a neoliberal city?

With the provisos that I am neither an urban planner nor a Facebook user these are just my impressions, peering over the wall. I tried hard not to write a polemic – people get worthy about Facebook, don’t they? – but just to comment on the architecture of the city. It seems a loveless place. There are no accidents, you don’t meet strangers… and I like strangers!

What is really interesting to me, and I would like your thoughts on this: is Facebook truly a neoliberal city? By this I mean to ask, who really owns the city? Do we have the right to public space on a Facebook-style internet, or is it all privatized and gentrified? And if it’s not our city, and we want it to be ours… how do we reclaim it?

In this rushed, half-draft post, I hope that’s clear…

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