Facebook and the Return of the Repressed, or Watching Political Comedy on a Social Network
Ethan Thompson / Texas A&M – Corpus Christi

SNL on Facebook

The Political is Personal

Judging by increased mainstream news attention and, more importantly, my own friend list, the 2008 holiday season marked a tipping point for Facebook, the “Target” of social networks to MySpace’s “WalMart.”1 My millennial undergraduates were the first to bring Facebook to my attention, of course, and when I signed up I soon found many of my TV studies comrades. While the “out of the past” section of my friend list grew slowly over the last couple of years with the addition of old friends, it has in the last couple of months seriously snowballed to include many more I’m happy to reconnect with, and others that I hadn’t thought much about since I last saw them wandering the beige hallways of my alma mater.2 I speculate this tipping point was brought about by scenes reminiscent of a Harold Pinter play:

A living-room in a seaside town. Two old friends, Mitch and Tim, sit blankly in front of a television set. Mitch gets up silently and sits down at a computer. Tim continues staring at the TV.

Tim: What are you doing?

Mitch: I’m going on Facebook.

Silence.

Tim: Isn’t that for high school kids?

Silence.

Mitch: No.

Silence.

Tim: Really?

Mitch: (defensively) No, actually.

Several days later, Tim signs up on Facebook and soon embarrassing old pictures of Mitch (or me) start showing up on the Internet for the viewing pleasure of current friends and colleagues. All that is perfectly fine with me; what I am interested in discussing here is how such shifts in social networks affect the circulation and consumption of political comedy via the posting of links and videos. If Tim posts a video of Tina Fey caricaturing Sarah Palin on SNL, for example, does it means something different to Mitch than if he had watched it live on TV himself, or if he had sought it out himself on Hulu.com? Are Mitch and Tim more or less likely to talk about such content? Or is Mitch going to take this as an opportunity to sever ties with Tim for good?

For those of us interested in how comedy can articulate cultural criticisms when people have their guard down, the posting of videos on social networks like Facebook demands special attention. To borrow the language of Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding,” posting videos on a network “structures the polysemy” of political comedy by impacting the content of the comedy or comic performance itself, and, more importantly, by framing the “decoding” or consumption of the post in a more personal way. One of the oft-made promises of new media has been to get what you want, when you want it: “personalized” media tailored to your tastes and desires. What you instead get via your friends’ Facebook posts is “personal” media because it is posted on your network “feed” by people you know. It is not targeted to you as an individual. Rather, it is there for you because someone else is your friend. Social network posting is a different kind of distribution that is limited not so much by institutional control or technological limitations, but by which people you allow in your network and whose posts you continue to allow to be published in your feed.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bdnTr84Anc4[/youtube]

That’s What Friends Are For…Posting Shaggy Dog Videos

Certain Payoff? The editing-down of TV content for posting necessarily abbreviates video to the most desirable parts. When you are watching a posted video, you do so with the understanding that unnecessary material has been taken out, and that there is a definite payoff before the time runs out. Our anticipation of payoff does not only have to do with tighter joke-telling economics through better editing, but because we know a friend bothered to post it. Such a video is not there because it’s the “least objectionable” thing a friend happened to come across, but because he or she thought there was something notably amusing about it. Consequently, we watch more attentively, knowing all along how much longer the video has to play till the payoff. We look closely for it, determined that it’s there if we just stick things out. The “shaggy dog” joke that draws out the anticipation of a punchline without ever providing it, is thus more cruelly performed via Facebook post.

Post and Response. The ease with which you can immediately post a video and share it with your network of friends is one of the best parts of Facebook not just because posting is so simple, but because it’s so easy for others to comment and form a conversation. Posting is about sharing; viewing and commenting go hand-in-hand and this is facilitated by the site’s design. For political comedy to have wider effects upon how people think, individuals need to talk with one another about what they see and what they think about it. I would have loved to have been trading issues of Mad Magazine with friends back in the 1950s, when it took on everything on early TV from Disneyland to the Army-McCarthy hearings. However, I much prefer not to have to wait until all my friends have borrowed my magazine and passed it from one another before we can talk about it.3 Nowadays, if I miss an episode of The Daily Show, I know for certain that one of my friends will post any particularly striking segment.4

As the Facebook network expands backwards, though, what gets posted is more often not suited to my current cultural and political tastes. Because of this, there is something a little unexpected about this personal media network: rather than being a homogeneous community for sharing and consuming media culture suited to your tastes, a Facebook network is as diverse as you allow it to be, and the social dynamics of including past friends may help avoid the “echo-chamber” potential of online communities. Sharing material culture like magazines is easily limited to one’s immediate peer group. Even topics of water-cooler conversation are easily edited according to those who gather round.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tdaLCcPHZE0[/youtube]

Thank You For Being a Friend…Who Obsesses about Politics and The Golden Girls

The 2008 holiday season also marked the final lame-duck death throes of Bush 44. Facebook’s streamlining of its posting process occurred more or less as the 2008 presidential campaign was winding up during the fall. I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that this fall marked a highpoint for the distribution and discussion of political comedy. The popularity of Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin caricature was the most prominent example. But there were many more originated on web-TV than adapted from broadcast or cable networks. Some of that material was undoubtedly racist or sexist and therefore offensive regardless of whether one was liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat. However, satire by definition has a point of view, and therefore posting it inevitably grates against the political sensibilities of some of your friends, and posting a satiric video may draw a response directly in proportion to their political sentiments. Whether those responses are treated as opportunities to engage and exchange ideas, or to “unfriend” and make one’s network more ideologically homogeneous, is a matter of individual taste.

This seems a rich area for audience study. To what extent do individuals edit their friend lists when people post videos they perceive as incompatible with their own politics? Do they talk about such things through commenting, or cut to the chase and “un-friend”? Pursuing such questions will be important to assessing the changing cultural role of political comedy as its distribution flourishes through social networks like Facebook.

Image Credits:

1. The Political is Personal
2. Front Page Image

Please feel free to comment.

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  1. For the most recent (and funniest) of these, see “Why Facebook is for Old Fogies,” Lev Grossman. []
  2. On the “high-schooly” nature of Facebook, see Michele Byars’ Flow column, “I Lost my Wife to Facebook, and Other Myths that Might be True,” []
  3. Not to mention how long it would be between the airing of said TV program and the appearing of its parodic double in the magazine. []
  4. Though I’m emphasizing a difference between “personal” and “personalized,” I must admit that my friend’s posts are far more effective personalization than Amazon’s guesses at what books I might be interested in, forever skewed by a course I took 10 years ago on jazz & film. []

10 comments

  • Thanks for the excellent column, Ethan. Framing political satire through the mechanics of personal sharing nicely emphasizes the importance that these videos carry not only in larger ideological terms but in our personal lives as well.

    I’m glad that you highlighted the ways in which political similarities and differences between friends can be foregrounded on Facebook. I”ve always known which of my friends I should avoid discussing politics with, lest I become agitated. But when something that they have posted and that I virulently disagree with pops up on my news feed, I often see it before being able to ignore it. In that sense, the ease of political expression on Facebook really does represent the return of the repressed, as it reminds me of the negotiations that I make with a few of my friends while discussing politics (or avoiding the topic altogether) and the ways in which I ignore some of their beliefs simply to get along with them.

    Of course, in the case of casual acquaintances and high school classmates that I haven’t seen in years, I have absolutely no trouble simply defriending them and keeping my news feed clear of racist garbage and accusations of “socialism” against Barack Obama. Of course, I’m not sure what that says about me, since I suppose I’m just repressing that stuff all over again…

  • In answer to your last question about people editing their friends list based on objectionable content, I bet that is a fairly rare occurrence–or if it does happen, it probably has more to do with objectionable taste than objectionable politics. For example, I can’t imagine being sent anything that would truly offend me politically (since I would probably hazard that the sender was sharing it out of mutual disgust, incredulity, or outrage); however, if someone kept sending me Dane Cook clips because he truly thought they were hilarious, I may have to reevaluate that friendship. In other words, a survey of my own facebook list would suggest communities of shared taste trump shared political beliefs (even if the two are frequently mapped onto one another). Then again, there are very few people on my list that I haven’t had some form of interpersonal contact with in the past five years or so, suggesting we carry certain taste/politics bubbles with us through real life that pre-filter who we or will not stay in contact with (at least to the extent that one can assume some remnant of a shared “sensibility” or even sense of humor). If, however, a former high school classmate befriended me and then starting posting NRA videos or Heritage foundation lectures (non-ironicallly, of course), then I would have no choice but to cyber-nuke them.

  • To what extent are “objectionable politics” positioned as issues of taste? As in, how many fratboys have said of late “whatever dude, The New York Post cartoon of cops shooting an ape-like Barack Obama is just funny”? Calling the debates among the “Scrubs” vs. “Arrested Development” Facebookers (as has happened among my little Facebook circle) somehow more “revelatory” than the debates about whether or not it’s okay to call Nancy Pelosi a “dumb bitch” (same circle, incidentally) illustrates nothing if not the LIMITS of the taste/politics argument.

    This isn’t to say, of course, that the two aren’t related, obviously, it’s just that following “the taste” argument to some conclusion elides the extent to which “it’s a structuring structure” for politics — not some linear, causal determinant. If the age of postmodernity can be characterized as featuring “a certain arbitrariness of the sign”, when media scholars wring those signs out and try to extrapolate too much about what it means when people are eagerly awaiting “Everybody Loves Raymond” on DVD, it very quickly gets reductive. That’s BEFORE we even get to what it means to those who are Facebook friends with them.

    Articulating politics as taste allows several different things, not the least of which = a way out of having to talk about messy things. For what it’s worth, those of us close to our undergrad years often find that Facebook connects us to the nice guy from across the hall in the dorm freshman year. He still likes Dave Matthews, unfortunately, but that was mostly just funny. And THEN I find out that he has taken to posting things about Nancy Pelosi being “a retarded bitch.” THAT GUY got deleted from my friend list. STAT.

  • A very intriguing column, Ethan, and an equally intriguing set of responses. Perhaps I am the anomaly, but I tend to use my Facebook friend community’s free distributive labor for the following purposes:

    A) as a wide-ranging but informed filter that allows me not to have to pay attention to everything circulating in our mediasphere, because inevitably the peeps in my friend network, conservative and liberal, will help me fill in the gaps and cue me to stuff I’ve missed. In this sense, my friend network is partly strategic and I don’t assume everyone in it shares either my political or taste sensibilities (which is, I think, an important distinction between the promise of customization, which allows you to filter out anything and anyone objectionable, and the networked programming schedule that Facebook enables, where access to content is determined not only by who you choose to friend or not, but also by who your friends choose to friend and engage with – the two degrees of separation rule – which means you cannot entirely filter out undesirable materials as you might in a more gated community).

    B) as a means of vicariously spying on the life I could have been leading had I maintained certain old acquaintances from high school and my undergrad years. Some members of this group offend me with their posts, but I also get a strange (if also melancholic) pleasure from recognizing the gap between my political sensibilities and theirs. Not pleasure in their bad taste or regressive politics (at least from my standpoint), but in my ability to feel self-satisfied with “how far I’ve come” in comparison. Lets face it, lots of folks also watch Bill O’Reilly smugly, and while I prefer the filter of John Stewart, I am still capable of feeling superior when a right-leaning pal of yesteryear posts an O’Reilly clip free of irony (as an aside, this whole “friend” network on facebook is so bizarre. 75% of the people in my network are acquaintences, colleagues, students, and people who barely spoke to me in grade 10).

    I do agree with Ethan, though, that quite often my reading of a video post is absolutely framed by my (pre-formed and often stereotypical) impressions of its poster, who takes on a kind of cultural intermediary or punditry role, translating the clip by imbuing it with a piece of their occupational, social, or political identity/capital through their act of filtering it onto facebook and attaching their profile pic and possibly a one line assessment to it. In this sense, I find that taste and politics are sutured together in the Facebook experience, because your taste in friends likely shapes the political content you will encounter (if any), and your opinions about your Facebook friends’ tastes are certainly partly shaped by the political (and apolitical) materials they upload.

  • Thank you for the great article, I have been asking some of these same questions myself lately.

    I’m interested in what motivates someone to post a video on Facebook, and where. For example, what are the different motivations for posting a video directly to my own wall versus posting it on several friends’ walls or simply including the link in a private message? Also, I’m curious what leads individuals to leave a comment about a video – and to what extent does their relationship with the video poster affect the likelihood that they will or or will not leave a comment. Likewise, what motivates individuals to actually watch the videos they are exposed to via their news feeds. While I think Facebook has the potential for cross-cutting exposure due to the heterogeneous nature of people’s virtual networks, I am curious to what extent people actually choose to expose themselves to cross-cutting ideas. I would venture to guess that some people may see a link or video in their news feed and depending on who posted it and what the perceived politcal slant is, a lot of people might simply choose not to watch something because they know it is not a perspective with which they will agree. While Facebook is definitely a heterogeneous network for most people, I think we need to be cautious before we assume that heterogeneity will automatically lead to cross-cutting exposure or that it actually combats the “echo-chamber” potential.

  • I have almost 300 so called “friends” on facebook and most of them are people that I really do not know. They added me and I confirmed them. I do not consider facebook as a place where you have social close network of “real” people. So, I simply do not see the videos they send as “compatible” or “incompatible” for me.

    The policy of facebook encourages the user to add as many friends as he/she can and they even draw for him a progress line. Many people add each other to enlarge their lists or get to know new people.

  • I’m originally from a very conservative town in Northern Idaho; I went to undergrad at a very liberal liberal arts school; I’ve spent the last four years in graduate school with even more liberal graduate students. As such, my friend list represents a mishmash of political leanings. And yet, the vast, vast majority of political postings, videos, status updates, and article links I’ve seen — now OR during the election — come from my graduate student friends.

    For me, the reasoning is simple: graduate students have the least healthy relationship with Facebook.

    I might amend that slightly: graduate students have the most obsessive, dependent relationship with Facebook. I’ve thought about this extensively in an attempt to understand my own (admittedly unhealthy) relationship with Facebook — why do I check it everytime I check my email? Why can’t/don’t I just cancel my account? Or treat it as a once-a-day dessert?

    Grad students spend tremendous amounts of time alone. With their computers. On the internet. Out of choice, to some extent, but also out of necessity. Writing papers and reading books are tremendously solitary activities. And yet we can’t disconnect completely from the internet, because who knows if you’ll need to find out a year on imdb.com? So we write a paragraph on a paper, then reward ourselves/distract ourselves with a brief perusal of the news feed. We don’t have time for our friends — always reading, always writing — but we can make selected time for our mediated friends. We can’t go spend an evening debating the merits and atrocities of *Slumdog Millionaire* over beers — too much grading! — but we can certainly participate in a wall-argument, spreading our points over multiple posts (which indeed took place on my wall last month — over 40 posts in all). And along these lines, we share our politics not necessarily by going to a rally, volunteering, or even blogging, but by posting bits of political fodder on our pages.

    Thus I’d be wary of attributing these practices to the Facebook community as a whole. By no means am I implying that non-academics have no interest in politics or, at the very least, don’t manifest that interest on Facebook — thousands certainly do. But we academics seem to have a particular interest in doing so — a tendency that we should keep in mind when theorizing the involvement other others.

  • A previous poster touched on this briefly, but I think it’s important to emphasize the nature of the “facebook friend.” Just like you, I have received those time-travel inducing friend requests from elementary school cohorts, but at the same time, I have accepted requests from people with some common tie, even though I may have never spoken to them in my life. Because of this, homogeneity comes into question, as the people who are featured in one’s news feed may not actually constitute a meaningful presence in the user’s life. In this way, their posts take on that distant, impersonal feel of an advertiser’s. Posts from these types of users may still be appealing, but payoff – due to discrepancies in personality and humor – may not be as strong as it would be from posts by someone who is more than just a “facebook friend.”

    I find the notion of judging online media by its poster a very interesting one, because it seems to humanize the posting process. Unlike flipping through channels on TV, where images with a lack of meaningful ties are being thrown at you, this pre-viewing process of determining a clip’s worth takes into account outside influences that have a strong impact on the material in question. This connection between the post and the poster is similar to the celebrity influence we see every day in tabloids and fashion magazines: i.e. Yesterday, this was just a dog-carrier. But today, now that Paris Hilton has been photographed toting it, the simple object is imbued with a whole different meaning.

    The framework of Facebook makes it possible to either post a link directly to your profile for all to see, or to share a link with another user specifically. From experience, I would say that public posts to your profile are generally much safer, much more mainstream than those shared more directly with friends, because since Facebook IS a social networking tool, we are constantly aware of our reputation and how that reputation is communicated through our technological interactions. You mentioned Stuart Hill’s notion of encoding/decoding and the polysemic nature of images, and I believe that this idea of public/private posting is an integral part of that when discussing media sharing on Facebook. As i stated earlier, posting a link or video directly to your profile is an immediate reflection of YOUR personality, YOUR sense of humor, and YOUR tastes and preferences. Sharing links with a specific friend, however, imbues the clip with a very separate meaning. Now, the clip becomes a manifestation of the relationship between two people, and any outsider will not be able to fully understand the reason for the clip’s presence. For some reason, this clip made one poster think about the other, and so an integral connection to the clip is formed, which I would argue is invariably different from the nature of a more publicly-posted clip.

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  • Joseph Braverman

    This is an excellent article that articulates why posting videos on Facebook is so significant to our culture. When it comes to videos highlighting political commentary and satire, there are both good and negative impacts that come when they are posted on social networks. What is good, is that it brings important news topics to a younger audiences attention, who may not watch the news on a general basis. It will also get users interested, and be able to discuss intellectually about what the political news video is speaking about. This forum space allows various viewpoints to be shared, and knowledge of another’s perspective is gained. The problem with this lies in that the video that is being posted is so selective. Without the full story, or segment, backing the video, all you actually get is a small fragment of a much larger puzzle. Therefore, pulling small pieces could be seen as pushing one’s opinion on others within their social network by means of selectively drawing out clips from television programs that for maybe one instance defends and persuades their viewpoint. I disagree, however, that posting political videos will result in people “unfriending” one another. Since the majority of users see facebook as a place where others may network, and share information, I don’t think they would “unfriend” a person, because that is equivalent of denying the person due to their freedom of expressions. The youth, in particular, is more liberal and accepting of different types of viewpoints, and since the majority of facebook users are the youth, it would not make sense that people would “unfriend” each other due to posting videos that conflict with their politics/viewpoints.

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