The discussion of how the Internet has transformed the social experience has become lost in its own redundancy. I’m not as interested in the claim itself as I am in where this transformation stems from. I turn to Marx, because who else, in order to reposition the discussion in a more dialectical, open place. Raymond Williams, an esteemed Marxist thinker, defines hegemony as a conglomeration of social practice that allows for domination of any given social structure without the use of force and conceives of culture as a social hold shaped by particular logic .
Ok, maybe read that sentence again. And let’s continue.
With the immediately-ready, tightly-packaged wealth of information provided by the Internet, (which has become increasingly available to most classes in the United States) how does the hegemon function at this very moment, and considering its fluctuating nature, where will it be tomorrow, or, bearing in mind the speed at which our culture now evolves, two minutes from now?
Understanding these vast, ambitious questions requires analysis of the hegemon’s creator. Traditionally, any given hegemony has no concrete designer, but until this post-digital age, we’ve never really experienced a social experience manifest by one designer, the most popular case being Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame. Instead of scrutinizing Zuckerberg as an allusive celebrity, I look to the stylized retelling by Aaron Sorkin, The Social Network, which reifies the hegemon’s creator, so we may better understand the hegemony itself. The Social Network not as a historical reference, but as a representation of the world that inspired Facebook. Zuckerberg is an ideal character produced by that world, so he can be understood as a representation of the hegemon he created.
The film begins as Zuckerberg asks, “How do you distinguish yourself in a population of people who all got 1600’s on their SAT’s?” He refers to the Chinese, who according to Zuckerberg, have more geniuses in their country than the population of the United States alone. So Sorkin establishes his characters in a very real world, one in which the challenges facing youth involve statistical data, standardized test scores, and distinguishing oneself based on such numbers. This is a world familiar to us, as it presents a society in which intellectual individualization is measured by a scale from 0-1600. This is the world of Mark Zuckerberg, a founding member of Generation 2.0. Although the story itself is fictional, there’s still something more real about understanding not necessarily the actual Zuckerberg, but rather the world in which he functions. That world, for all intents and purposes, is totally non-fictional.
So I ask, how does Zuckerberg’s personality and world reflect the social experience he creates? This “Facebook Hegemony” should be understood as the tone-setter for the dominant social experience not only of college students, but as of October 2013, over 500 million people.
The website has dominated the social structure without the use of force, but rather by suggesting we perform by its rules and standards, which include “friending” as many people as you wish (although you will become more popular and enjoy a more active Facebook experience with more “friends”), updating your status frequently, so that every “friend” you’ve collected knows exactly what kind of Lean Cuisine meal you’re enjoying tonight, and updating your hobbies and interests, since your love for Jodi Picoult novels is such a clear indicator of what kind of person you really are. Conversations between friends are public, and have recently become so public that the News Feed actually tracks every single conversation all of your friends are having and presents them on Facebook’s homepage, just in case you wanted to watch Bob and Terry unabashedly flirt on each other’s “walls.” In fact, Bob’s mother can even “like” the searing sexual tension between her son and his high school crush by the simple click of her mouse.
The photo sharing application, a staple of Facebook for years, is of particular interest, as it provides a platform for users to post pictures of themselves violently puking at the most glamorous night clubs around town, so all their “friends” know that they do live a life outside of their Facebook page. Why, you can even tag yourself in your friend’s pictures, even if you weren’t actually there, just to make sure it looked like you were out partying last Saturday night, even though you were really updating your Facebook status, tagging friends’ names, as to suggest how much you’re enjoying the lack of a friend’s physical presence.
This social experience is all-too reminiscent of a college student’s: brazen flirting, romanticized alcoholism, and a painfully-real loneliness that could so easily be cured with some one-on-one time with a best friend, physically sitting nearby, chatting live and hugging lovingly. And of course, by its very nature, this hegemony allows for such live interaction just as it allows for any kind of relief from itself. Facebook has introduced Facebook Connect, which seamlessly integrates every other social networking site with Facebook itself. Tweets, Tumbles, and Yelps all appear live on the Facebook profile as they occur, so even though Facebook clearly dominates the online social experience, it provides alleys through which its users can experience other forms of communication.
Among a given hegemony’s most powerful traits is that it only functions because its subjects are indirectly forced to adhere. Facebook’s intimidating power likely stems from a simple matter of numbers. One would be hard-pressed to find anybody, whether college-aged or retired, who doesn’t have a Facebook. I wouldn’t have been invited to my best friend’s birthday party had it not been for a Facebook event invite, because I, like nearly every single one of my peers, family, and friends, rely so heavily on the website to socialize with my friends. We have no choice in the matter, because we’ve voted for Facebook. And by hegemonic nature, because this social experience was created by a college sophomore, every user no matter how old retroactively experiences the college social scene by clicking through old roommates’ new photos, publicly “liking” them and privately judging them, at a virtual party with millions of guests poking, posting, and sheepishly stalking their latest sexual interest.
This hegemony is truly a product of our time; it utilizes the immense power of the Internet to provide a sort of time machine for its users. The majority of the members of its organization are now past their college years, but with Facebook, they can romanticize that time by situating that social order around their current life. They exist in the present but experience each other through a mode of their past. I don’t mean to criticize at all, but I do wonder—what would a digitally social experience look like without an awkward college sophomore telling us how to behave?
Alexander Seedman (@alexandseedman) writes it all! His journalism has appeared in Capital New York, Gothamist, and NYU Local. His fiction has appeared in Shabby Doll House, Keep This Bag Away From Children, and The Chicago Tribune (when he was 10). He lives and tweets in Brooklyn and greatly looks forward to becoming bionic by the year 2025.