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

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/10/does-facebook-emphasize-the-me-or-the-i/246467/