Habits of Living Thinkathon — Day 4 Live Blog: Wendy Chun on Friends

Posted by Jadine Lannon at Sep 30, 2012 07:00 PM |
The Habits of Living Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) is being hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, from September 26 to 29, 2012. The event brings together a range of multi-disciplinary scholars and practitioners. The aim of the workshop is to generate a dialogue on the notion of surrogate structures that have become visible landmarks of contemporary life, and to produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

Wendy Chun talked to us today about what it means to be a friend. She began with a brief overview of network theory, with a focus on the dilemmas of the constant mapping. Moving on, she asked us to think about how networks are related to habits, as habits focus us on the duration of events. This is important for the understanding of networks, as networks require the constant generation of associated events that seem stable. Wendy then asked us to think about the difference between communities and networks, and helped us to think about the extent that networks are imagined (in Benedict Anderson’s sense of the imagined). Throughout this discussion, she continues to come back to the theme of “you,” the idea that networks enable us not only to see ourselves and our place in relation to other nodes in the network, but that simultaneous access of a network, a moment of “we,” will actually cause the network to fall into crisis,

Using this “you” framework, Wendy moves onto a discussion of the internet and how it has moved from being seen as a anonymous free space to a semi-private space where freedom stems from private authentication by others in your network. It is at this point that she asks us how we understand the idea of “friend”; are friendships mutual bonds created for support in times of crisis, or are they sometimes one-way affections where the act of requesting friendship creates the connection? How much has friendship become about broadcasting our connections—our place in the network?

Cyber friendship, especially in the Facebook understanding of “friend,” becomes a method that we can use to understand our strange relationship with safety on online spaces—we desire security, and want to trust and authenticate our relationships with friends, but by pursuing this we can often put our friends into danger, or at least into realms that may not always be seen as “safe”, which now is often interpreted as “private.” For example, by “liking” a friend’s link on Facebook, we create tangible information for Facebook to collect and use about both our friends and ourselves. This method of capturing data only works when you are enmeshed in a network of friends. If our need for safety/privacy is what places in danger on the Internet, it is not security that tames networks by personalizing them that will help us; instead, we need to understand and accept that intimacy and danger in online spaces go hand-in-hand.

As a finishing note, Wendy describes to us a phishing attack that she suffered. After clicking a link sent to her by a friend on Facebook, she sent phishing spam to all of her friends—all of the members of her network. This event created a moment of understanding for her, as she realized that her spam messages reminded her friends that they were part of her network, and that she liked them enough to put them at risk.

Participant discussion began with a focus on how theory becomes implicated into networks, and how networks can be used to give oversights of theory. Participants asked: what does theorizing networks do to the networks, and the members in the networks? Can Facebook be seen as theory, particularly in the ideas of the existence of events without witnesses and how friendships are created and understood?

Participants also pointed out that it is wrong to be suspicious of organizations like Facebook, because it is not Facebook that betrays you but your friends. This is the implicit agreement of Facebook friendship—the agreement to be friends implicates the transmission of secrecy/vulnerability. Machines cannot betray, but humans, friends, can and often do, even in ways that may be involuntary.

Further discussion focused on both how friendships and application suggestions give us the ability to understand how we are building and presenting ourselves. This two-way communication with technologies that implicate networks puts us into a state of permanent crisis where we must continue to be active to connect, as connecting becomes the main activity of becoming and staying networked. This moved into a discussion on the creation of traces of networks that are constantly in motion, and constantly on the verge of disappearing.

Wendy’s discussion of friendship as an often one-way activity, particularly on Facebook where one member must request friendship with another, was a completely new way of thinking about the essence of friendship for me. How much does this cyber, “Facebook” method of creating friendship through the declaration of association cut into the real world? Are nonhuman agreements of friendship (i.e.: Facebook friends) reflections of significant real-world events, in the sense that they are often a nonhuman promise to pursue future friendship in the physical world that is made real through its broadcast on the network? What does this mean for real-world meetings that don’t cumulate in “friending”? What happens to the structure of real-world friendship if the promise of friendship that was broadcasted is never followed through? What does “defriending” mean? What does defriending do to networks?

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