Social Networks seen through Foucault’s Looking Glass

In his essay Of Other Spaces Michel Foucault develops the concept of heterotopic spaces – an approach I would like to apply to the conceptual framework of Social Networks

Foucault’s notion of the heterotopic space focuses on spatial issues entirely, while for the moment it dismisses the relevancy of time. Time as we keep (history) and measure (memory) it is not a prevailing entity for Foucault’s heterotopic space. Even though termed differently, the idea of heterotopic spaces is inherent to the concept of Social Networks (such as Facebook, partly Twitter, Google+ just to mentioned the most important ones).

Heterotopic spaces, Foucault argues, are spaces that contradict given norms and function in accordance with their own sets of rules. The heterotopic space provides the opportunity to reflect, reconsider and contrast immediate reality. “Places of this kind [heterotopias] are outside of all places, even though it may be possible to indicate their location in reality. Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias” (Foucault 52). The heterotopia is thus a term spatially specifying the postmodern in-between-space. Both spaces originate from crisis-shaken circumstances which they counteract and circumvent. A heterotopia may be mediated through a looking glass (i.e. a mirror).

„The mirror is, after all, a utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal, virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there, there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent […]

By creating profiles of  our Selfs on Social Networks we change views entirely. It is not only that we see our Selfs mirrored, we even create the mirror itself. We tell the Social Networks what we want our own Selfs to look like. Thus, being inhabitants of Social Networks we do not simply enter heterotopic spaces, but we shape them alltogether.

Within the heterotopic spaces, i.e. is the Social Networks users can roam freely, they can blur borders and even move them. Social laws (may they be written or unwritten) do not exist in these spaces. Inside the heterotopic Networks officialdom and supremacy have no jurisdiction (in an ideal Social Network World that would be true). This legal and social void defines the Social Networks as “terra incognita” (an unknown land to be discovered). Although, through the Users‘  inhabiting the heterotopic Networks, sets of internalized values and rules are introduced into the void with him, these rules and values do not have to be integrated into a given (white) system. The contrary is the case, the terra incognita will obey and function in accordance to the Users‘ notions and beliefs. The heterotopia, i.e. the void within the terra incognita, endows the User with creative powers. Seizing on Foucault’s idea that heterotopias enfold persistent effectiveness when entities like time and space are subdued to individual re:definition. This „makes this place [the Social Networks] that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with all the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there.“

Thus paradigms and ordering entities can be remodeled by the residents (Users) of such places. The deadlock of time and history inside the heterotopic Networks is signified by what the Users describe as plain „vertigo“ (the reality of the digital). It is the User who is in charge of setting the paradigms that define identity. Which is exactly what brings the heterotopic to function – the User breaks with realities entities and inside the in-between all communication and information progress or stop at his command – a fact that shapes attitudes that seem to culminate in serious image neurosis: Users who feel determined to shape “their” heterotopic spaces by means of exclusion and inclusion.

Foucault Quotes taken from his essay: Of Other Spaces, (1967)

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