Does Facebook Emphasize the 'Me' or the 'I'?

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I haven't met a single person who uses social media heavily who isn't struggling to define what the constant, low-level publicness does to him or her. Even those who are supremely comfortable with the medium ponder if they need to get away from Twitter and Facebook now and again. No one is quite sure what it does to them to have 'friends' instead of friends or to 'like' things instead of liking things. Maybe nothing, maybe a lot.

So, I looked on with interest when University of Maryland graduate student Nathan Jurgenson tweeted about a frame that got his students talking. I like it because it's not an all or nothing question. It's only about what social media amplifies and restrains.

Jurgenson asked his students to consider whether using Facebook emphasized the 'me' or the 'I,' a distinction made by social thinker George Herbert Mead. Here's the Wikipedia paraphrase of Mead's concept:

The "Me" is what is learned in interaction with others and (more generally) with the environment: other people's attitudes, once internalized in the self, constitute the Me... By contrast, 'the "I" is the response of the individual to the attitude of the community'. The "I" acts creatively, though within the context of the me.

In reductive terms, the me cares what people think while the I cares about what it alone thinks.

Most of Jurgenson's students thought Facebook emphasized the me. Which makes sense given that there are such tight feedback loops between what you do and how people react to what you do. It's hard to find the cognitive space to "act creatively." While I wouldn't argue "I-ness" is impossible or even all that difficult on social media, the current crop of social networks looks tilted toward the me from where I sit. What do you think? Does anybody think Twitter and Facebook emphasize the I?

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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