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History and the Virtual: a Review of Christine Rosen’s “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism”

Publié le 1 décembre, 2007 | Pas de commentaires

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Social networking websites like Facebook and Myspace have achieved widespread popularity in only a short time. On any given day swarms of people update and build their contacts on these sites, posing an interesting challenge to traditional notions of human relationships, says author Christine Rosen. Even more interesting though is the possibility that Facebook and Myspace will reflect a radical change in history. Many historical events today will only be understood via the virtual by the historians of tomorrow.

My buddy icon in the virtual museum :)
Gilles Kein, My buddy icon in
the virtualmuseum 🙂
, 2006
Certains droits réservés.

In “Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism”, Rosen argues that the proliferation of social networks like MySpace and Facebook signifies a new economy of human interaction lacking the substance of “real” relationships1.. Since Rosen defends a traditional notion of friendship, she is pessimistic about its future. In response to Rosen’s claim, I will provide a different framework to critically assess how real life events relate to the virtual.

Behind Rosen’s belief in the erosion of friendship lies a normative claim: human beings desire recognition. She interprets the growth of virtual social networks in light of the fact that:

“For centuries, the rich and the powerful documented their existence and their status through painted portraits. A marker of wealth and a bid for immortality, portraits offer intriguing hints about the daily life of their subjects—professions, ambitions, attitudes, and, most importantly, social standing.2

This same narcissism is operative in virtual social networks, says Rosen. However, in contemporary life this narcissism is no longer limited to a few aristocrats. With the proliferation of virtual networks narcissism has become a popular vice. Websites like MySpace and Facebook facilitate a rampant licentiousness. She says “coarseness and vulgarity is commonplace on social networking sites for a reason: it’s an easy way to set oneself apart”3. These sites not only become a haven for those who want attention, but for those who are eager to exploit the user’s desire for recognition, such as spammers, marketers, and politicians.

Rosen’s normative claim contains an implicit critique of human nature and the desire for recognition. What is implied in her analysis is a degeneration of traditional forms of friendship. She believes new media fosters weak relationships and encourages forms of communication limited to gossip, fad, and popular culture. In essence, the growth of communicative technology has made it easier for identities to be expressed in a protean fashion. Virtual social networks are modes which appear to facilitate our desire for expression and recognition, when in reality they only conceal what they are meant to reveal. In the quest to be different what is expressed is banal. Rosen observes “one of the characteristics of MySpace most striking to anyone who spends a few hours trolling its millions of pages: it is an overwhelmingly dull sea of monotonous uniqueness, of conventional individuality, of distinctive sameness.” For her, there is a sense of individuality, but one which is commonly expressed through the use of revealing or shocking images and photographs, which only goes to show virtual social networks cater to the depraved, voyeuristic aspect of human behavior.

Rosen’s critique of virtual networks is not limited to the pervasive, fraudulent self-representation of online users, but also emphasizes the virtual as a place where people should practice some discretion when disclosing personal information. In addition to dangers like the online presence of sexual predators, personal disclosures may readily be accessible to future employers. Rosen elaborates:

“A survey conducted in 2006 by researchers at the University of Dayton found that “40 percent of employers say they would consider the Facebook profile of a potential employee as part of their hiring decision, and several reported rescinding offers after checking out Facebook.4

Virtual representation may effect one’s corporeal reputation, as virtual social networks are not exclusive from the public arena and social evaluation and judgment. As a result, virtual social networks threaten to undermine the traditional notion of friendship, says Rosen. If friendship is understood as a relationship based on reciprocation and “mutual revelations that are concealed from the rest of the world [and which] can only flourish within the boundaries of privacy”5, Rosen is ultimately skeptical of the possibility of deep lasting friendships being formed in the virtual realm. For not only does the virtual realm encourage protean personalities, but the desire for communicating, connecting, and interacting with others is often mediated by an anxiety to achieve a higher social status. In the context of the virtual arena friendships are often devoid of virtue. Friendships are no longer relationships, but opportunities to publicly exhibit how many friends one has. Not only do people lose sight of each other, but the rise of the virtual has made us forget the imperative to substantially improve ourselves.

However, we should not despair at Rosen’s pessimistic portrayal of the evolution of mass-communication. Perhaps the virtual should be evaluated in a different light not solely limited to questions of social relations. It is more intriguing to study the desire for recognition, since it motivated us to invent these virtual domains in the first place. If we are truly to consider the ontological significance of the virtual, we must ask why we want to be recognized and how this desire’s virtual form evolved. What is different now is the transmutation of our desire for recognition, since this desire transcends the different societies that divide human beings. With respect to virtual domains the boundaries are breaking, perhaps due to the single fact that disparate human populations have gathered in a new space to encounter each other.

From that perspective I think we are on the brink of a different history. One where a radical transformation of the human condition will take place in the imaginary spaces of the virtual, since the real histories of human populations are now circulated, remembered, and stored in virtual realms. The acute (re)production of history, in terms of how we analyze, collect, gather and interpret historical data shows how the present is contextualized in the virtual: we enact, imagine, interpret, and remember past histories in virtual spaces and use the data recorded as the measure and standard to judge whatever comes to be. The virtual allows for comparative analyses of different histories, whereby the failed encounters of different cultures and peoples, which resulted in conflict, dispute, murder, and misunderstanding can be delineated and reconstructed. While these analyses cannot change past events, they help to avoid the repetition of past errors and better understand each other. But not only is the past ordered in the virtual space, the present itself is monitored and surveyed. The collection of data is stored in virtual domains, later recalled and distributed as units encoded with information of what has passed. If our understanding of the present is now mediated by the virtual, the future will be understood in virtual terms as well. Predicting future events now depends on a vast virtual library that can catalogue a variety of possible events.

Regardless of any prediction, we won’t arrive at an absolute resolution to any human problem as long as there is a difference between the real and the virtual. This same disjunction is what ultimately makes the proliferation of social networks problematic. Thus it is inevitable that both Facebook and Myspace are criticized for obfuscating the essential aspects of what constitutes real friendship. Rosen’s pessimistic account is not surprising then. Her argument depends on a dualistic representation: that the virtual is the site where our desires can be unconditionally expressed, while the real remains that field of resistance where traditional notions must be defended.

However, the social, cultural, and political energies of many populations are now shifting into the virtual realm, which circumscribes tradition, challenging, transforming, and ultimately questioning its existence. On the surface there seems to be a significant difference between the real world and the virtual world, since the real remains restricted by traditional standards, while the virtual appears as a decadent space where normative standards fall away. But this might not be the case at all, for even though these virtual domains are relatively free, they are still subject to intervention and manipulation. There remains the specter of censorship, a reactionary force that stands opposed to the openness of the virtual. This is because the virtual depends on the material existence of human beings, a material existence not only subject to the laws of biology and physics, but also to the judicial and political wills of various governments and the economic interests of corporations. Thus the spirit of excessive liberation, which exists in the virtual, emerges from the repressed field of natural and social limits. Yet if we look at the concept of the virtual in a revolutionary fashion, it is rather easy to present it as the opposite of reality, as if the communicative situation were dichotomous. There is a good reason for this. A dualistic representation—of the virtual as a site of excessive freedom and of reality as a horizon of decorum and tradition—is a simplification that can easily be understood. However, the distinction between the virtual and the real is specious. If the virtual is a communicative condition of proliferation, of different and irreconcilable expressions of human identities, the general economy of mass communication must be latent in the real world itself. If these differences arise from an immanent desire for recognition, then what is symptomatic of the virtual realm must already be intrinsic to the real, offline condition of human beings.

Rosen’s defense of traditional notions of friendship in light of the proliferation of virtual social networks misses the forest for the trees. Her argument targets the communicative tools that people use for their virtual interaction. What she has missed is that the current deterioration of friendship is not exclusively determined by the virtual, since such deterioration must emanate from the real world itself. Rosen is correct in identifying how virtual networks reveal different forms of human interaction that may create new relationship dynamics. But to blame MySpace or Facebook for exploitation, voyeurism, and people’s inability to understand each other, is to overlook the fact that these networks just might be amplifications of what has been going on for a very long time.


1. Christine Rosen. « Virtual Friendship and the New Narcissism » The New Atlantis. 17 (2007): 26.
2. Rosen, p 15.
3. Rosen 24.
4. Rosen 25.
5. Rosen 26.

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