In the early advents of the Internet, utopian commentators believed it would be the great equalizer. The Internet had the potential to empower and, according to the EFF, encourage the free and open flow of information and communication. Many believed it would remove race, gender and socioeconomic biases that exist offline.
I recently read through Mathieu O’Neil’s CyberChiefs and his measure of authority within autonomous communities provided a good framework for my argument. He based this idea on one of Weber’s four types of social action- charismatic authority. Index authority relies on two forces: distribution and aggregation (p. 43). Index authority rewards those with preferential attachment and centrality. This is exactly how Google’s PageRank works.
“…the authority of actors is derived from their relative position in an index of web pages, which is the core component of search engines…links made by other sites and decisions made by internet users when confronted with the result of a query determine the ranking of websites.”*
While O’Neil examined how autonomy on the Web encourages authority, Facebook removes any form of autonomy. It reveals exactly what we want others to see and the representations what we want to present. Facebook blends the idea of Weber’s charismatic authority and O’Neil’s index authority. Let’s call this authority ‘quality of life’ authority. As we scroll through the timeline, we find ourselves within a feed of vacations, material possessions, baby announcements, home purchasing, job promotions and creative musings. In Facebook everyone is on vacation! To examine how ‘quality of life’ is assigned, we need to work through how charismatic authority and index authority are assigned.
Charismatic authority is nothing more than proving strength of life. It can be irrational. I would argue that every time we post something, the more likely we are adding to our charismatic authority. Facebook also promotes the amount of friends we have, which is a sign of the relationships we have established. We may subconsciously view a person who has 300 friends differently than one who has 12 friends and little activity.
Index authority is product of centrality. In both of these concepts, the content we produce can viewed as nodes.
“Social network analysis has long held that individual centrality in a network is strongly associated with power”**
Centrality is the amount of connections establish by a node in a network. Every time we establish a new connection on Facebook our possible distribution grow. Facebook would call this reach. Essentially, we increase possible connections the more we engage with content on our newsfeed.
Notice the dense cluster of nodes surrounding a specific node
Centrality is a function of preferential attachment. It can best be described by the saying: “the rich get richer”. The more connections a node has, the more likely it will gain new ones. We create the same environment as we comment and ‘like’ other people’s posts. In another sense, we are casting a vote. We approve of a message, think your promotion is awesome or “wish we were there”. Not only are we literally preferring a person’s content, but Facebook algorithm takes this as sign and the content enjoys increased centrality.
As these processes play out, we begin to assign authority to other users. We assign authority based on interactions. We assign authority through what we choose to comment on and what we ‘like’. As interactions increase, content through Facebook’s algorithms assume increased connectivity- thus, timeline views increase. Facebook rewards people who present more positive views of themselves and those are the presentations that people interact with. Authority at this point, becomes “quality of life”. It is through this assignment that we begin to create hierarchies in our mind.
The problem with Facebook becomes our natural inclination to group ourselves with those similar to us. I would be lying if I said I did not compare my life to others who I feel are similar in ‘quality of life”. Our peer group becomes our marker for success and Facebook makes damn sure the happenings of others (generally positive happenings) are known. It is the constant need for approval (through posting) and others desire to do the approving, that creates the perpetual “vacation-promotion-I am awesome” cycle. We cannot help but make continual assessments.
A quick model:
“I am on an awesome vacation” post is made – people comment and ‘like’ post – processes of preferred attachment and centrality take over – quality of life authority is assigned – a hierarchy is created
*O’Neil, M. (2012) Wikipedia and authority. Retrieved from: http://www.academia.edu/713563/Wikipedia_and_authority
**Brass, D & Krackardt (1999). The social capital of twenty-first century leaders.