The Great Exhibition: Facebook & Decentralized Identities in Late Modernity
From May to October of 1850, England hosted “The Great Exhibition” in Hyde Park, London. It was an enormous success, with over six million people having attended it by the time of its closing. It was a spectacle of culture — a museum and a multi-cultural space — and it featured impressive industrial technology that had been developed during the Victorian Era, coming from Britain as well as the rest of the world. Recent accomplishments in railroad technology enabled people to travel to the exhibition and to browse the premier inventions and items that their century had to offer. As the stalls within the building were arranged to feature only the “best” cultural items that each country had to display, it was the perfect opportunity to show off their innovations.
From an anthropological perspective, the space of The Great Exhibition functions as a centripetal point at which people from the periphery of England meet and broaden their consciousness. From within the space, though, the mind may be carried outwards. By looking at tapestries from India one might imagine the entire culture of India. In this way, the imagination is drawn towards precisely that which it cannot see: the origins of what is being represented in the exhibition. While the space itself draws bodies inward, it draws imagination outwards. Both centripetal and centrifugal forces were therefore active within the space of The Great Exhibition.
The purpose of The Great Exhibition was to spread values of internationalism and universal peace around the planet. It interested people in travel and the world in a similar way to how a tourism site does so. If you look at New Zealand’s premier tourism site, for 1 instance, there are photos of its beautiful landscape accompanied by phrases like “Get Inspired!” Websites like this are comparable to sites like the The Great Exhibition as they show people the most tempting (and not necessarily real) representation of a country.
Changes in infrastructure (steam-powered transportation) brought the people of England from all over the periphery of the country into a center, London. It turned London into a centripetal point of tourism. Over a century and a half later, the world saw a renaissance of infrastructural forms. With the creation of digital platforms such as Facebook, users were given the opportunity to visually travel anywhere that there was another Facebook user. The comparison of these two seminal inventions allows us to imagine cyberspace and transportation as similar. Facebook, for some, is a window into the world, and railroads have brought us to places like The Great Exhibition — a space at which to imagine other worlds. Facebook filters out the tangibility of human contact, instead only offering us a visual/aural experience, and yet, it can extend the cultural imagination of the rich and poor and the young and old to places previously unexplored.
Facebook operates as another point of comparison in a number of ways. Social profiles on the website are similar to the stalls at The Great Exhibition. They house multiple exemplifying features, which reference a specific location or entity. These features are identity-forming, and in the case of The Great Exhibition have the power to create nationalistic pride. A Facebook profile is also identity-forming. That is its primary function. It hold within it “statuses” revelatory of the user’s thoughts and feelings, pictures displaying the user’s face, body, and mood, and an “about” page upon which users can further reveal their identities to the world.
Along this line, the “selfie” phenomenon is similar to the stalls in The Great Exhibition. The practice of “selfies” center on putting one’s ideal self-image forward, not all that differently to how, at The Great Exhibition, national stalls featured “the best” that a nation had. To post an “ugly” selfie would be illogical as it defeats the somewhat narcissistic agenda of the practice: which is to gain “likes,” to receive appreciation and flattery, and to garner outside interest and approval. Similarly, an unattractive assortment of cultural objects in The Great Exhibition would garner little interest in the country itself.
Structurally, Facebook is like a museum within the realm of a cyberspace. Even though it is located in a single website, it is by definition translocal and multi-sited. In this way, also, it is similar to The Great Exhibition. It has the power to be simultaneously centrifugal and centripetal. Like other social media platforms, Facebook is a hub of voices. Through its search bar, one has the capacity to find a person from anywhere between The United States and Japan. Once found, you can chat with this stranger, view their uploaded pictures and statuses, read their “about” page, and the list goes on and on. The ease at which one can now travel, communicatively and visually, is extreme. This is largely thanks to platforms like Facebook. In 1851, the world was able to do such a thing on a much smaller scale by purchasing a ticket to The Great Exhibition, and now we have the museum of Facebook.
The sense of translocality that The Great Exhibition holds is represented again in various technoscapes. Sociocultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai first describes the “technoscape” as a concept in his book Modernity at Large. He theorizes five different scapes: ethnoscapes, technoscapes, financescapes, mediascapes and ideoscapes. He argues that these scapes are co-constitutive. These scapes flow through society (re)producing one another. This is fundamental to his theory. “Flow” inaugurates them as fluid and transitive, it describes their reciprocal interaction, and it acknowledges their tendency to morph depending upon shifting global contexts.
Appadurai used “technoscape” to describe the transmission of cultures through technology. He noticed that the internet in particular had transformed the modes through which cultures could interact. As the internet references spaces and cultures that are necessarily outside of itself, it is similar to The Great Exhibition. In chapter two of Modernity at Large, Appadurai describes the ways in which society’s interactive systems have changed. He notices that “Cultural transactions between social groups in the past have generally been restricted, sometimes by the facts of geography and ecology” (Appadurai, 27). He goes on to observe that,
… in the past century, there has been a technological explosion, largely in the domain of transportation and information, that makes the interactions of a print dominated world seem as hard-won and as easily erased as the print revolution made earlier forms of cultural traffic appear. For with the advent of the steamship, the automobile, the airplane, the camera, the computer, and the telephone, we have entered into an altogether new condition of neighborliness, even with those most distant from us. (Appadurai, 28)
The neighborliness described is key to establishing an affinity for world peace and a sense of overall connectedness and tolerance towards that which is “other” or different. The tolerance generated by scapes such as Facebook is measurable, with its impact being most noticeable on the millennial generation. It has been reported upon by Pew Research in a study called Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next. In summarizing the study, they observe that “Millennials remain the most likely of any generation to self-identify as liberals; they are less supportive than their elders of an assertive national security policy and more supportive of a progressive domestic social agenda.” (3, 4) This may be attributed to how, “Among Page 5 of 10 Millennials, 65% say television and 59% cite the internet as their main source for news.” (35) Thanks to broader access to information, tolerance is bred. It is often said that “We fear what we do not understand.” This, when contextualized within the essay, shows us how both The Great Exhibition and Facebook may foster tolerance and a desire for world peace.
The importance of cross-cultural interaction can be seen in the agenda of The Great Exhibition, and then recreated again on Facebook. However, just as with any exhibition, though it is tempting to think of the index as an accurate representation of the culture being referenced, there exists a significant gap between the idealized object and the objective reality that it points to. For instance, with technological interaction on social media, body language and voice are often lost in exchanges between people from different cultures. This creates a gap between truth and imagination. One that is significantly smaller than than those presented in the stalls of The Great Exhibition, but not yet altogether erased.
Oxford professor of anthropology Steven Vertovec comments on the “…wide variety of descriptions surrounding meaning, processes, scales and methods concerning the notion of ‘transnationalism.’” (Vertovec, 447) His paper Conceiving and Researching Transnationalism delves into some of the ways in which it can be imagined. He observes that, “An increasingly significant channel for the flow of cultural phenomena and the transformation of identity is through global media and communications.” (Vertovec, 451) As with so many other things, this is identifiable both within The Great Exhibition as well as Facebook.
New technologies, especially involving telecommunications, serve to connect such networks with increasing speed and efficiency. Transnationalism describes a condition in which, despite great distances and notwithstanding the presence of international borders (and all the laws, regulations and national narratives they Page 6 of 10 represent), certain kinds of relationships have been globally intensified and now take place paradoxically in a planet-spanning yet common — however virtual — arena of activity. (Vertovec, 447)
This description further illuminates the ways in which the world has become culturally enriched through the invention of a virtual arena. The process of enrichment, which has been unfolding throughout history in a myriad of ways — be that crusade, war, or general westernization — is presented manifold in the speed of Facebook. The relative ease at which one can now communicate their ideas cross-culturally is astounding, and it is even more so when compared with other forms of idea-sharing, such as a crusade.
We encounter a productive complication in the Facebook-as-Great-Exhibition-analogy with Bakhtin’s theory of “heteroglossia.” This is talked about in an essay called “Discourse in the Novel” in the book The Dialogic Imagination. In it, Bakhtin is interested mainly in the poetry and novel, but his theory can be applied to Facebook certainly, as well as to The Great Exhibition — although the latter proves to be slightly more of a stretch, it is illuminating as it shows the gap between representation and identity seen within the cultural stands in the exhibition. As they are showing a glamorized depiction of the country to which the refer, they become a slightly diluted form of heteroglossia.
Bakhtin’s theory is about the schizophrenic way that a novel’s narrative is spun. In this critically acclaimed essay, Bakhtin compares poetry to novels and observes the singularity of the former. Poetry is seen, by Bakhtin, to use a single style and language throughout, while novels are a “phenomenon multiform in style and variform in speech and voice,” (Bakhtin, 261). Novels mastered “several heterogeneous stylistic unities, often located on different linguistic levels and subject to different stylistic controls” (Bakhtin, 261). When looking at the recent phenomenon of “vlogging,” for instance, one can see that there is a similar multitude of style and identity-forming language at play. According to one critic, “All good vloggers have a persona, for better or worse.” This, coupled with the widespread realization that a life seen through Facebook is glamorized, not as great as it seems, and ultimately quite superficial, illustrates another propensity towards pluralizing identity that comes up again and again on social media. This is represented in The Great Exhibition with the luxuriously over-glamorized stalls, which represent, either accurately or inaccurately, various countries across the globe.
The world has concerted various arenas in an effort to foster connectedness and world peace. If the Pew Research study is correct, then some, such as the internet, have been more successful than others. Although the tolerance of the millennial generation must be attributed to a number of sources, undeniably the internet must have had an impact. The broad array of information, coupled with cultural exposure, creates a shift in consciousness; generating tolerance and subsequently world peace. Even if the representation of cultures that we are exposed to is glamorized, it still creates shifts in consciousness when imagining “others.”
The importance of examining Facebook alongside The Great Exhibition is that you are encouraged to view the website, and other social media like it, as an exhibition, as not accurately representational of an identity, and ultimately as a nexus which has allowed us to believe that we exist in a new kind of cosmopolitan world.
It offers a semi-superficial smokescreen of being worldly and inter-culturally plugged-in. Its hyper-progressive message of everyone being equal is easily shattered when one looks at the hierarchy created by the “like” or by the amount of “followers” one has.
Facebook has become a matrix through which we may believe we understand a culture or a person when there is a constant and shifting heteroglossia underlying the perceived personas. People flocking to the Great Exhibition had a sense of cosmopolitanism, of pride in their world and in their ability to tolerate multiple cultures at once. In reality, though, the stalls were no more representative of a culture than a Facebook profile is representative of a person. Both glamorize the source that they index in an effort to generate interest.
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota, 1996. Print.
Bakhtin, M. M., and Michael Holquist. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: U of Texas, 1981. Print.
Kohut, Andrew. “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next.” (2010): n. pag. Web. 20 Dec. 2015.
Vertovec, Steven. Conceiving and Researching Transnationalism. N.p.: n.p., 1999. Print.