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Why Facebook is the new Jurassic Park: Web 2.0 and Actor-Network Theory

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In the opening scenes of Jurassic Park when John Hammond’s invited guests embark upon their tour in the automated jeeps, they are whisked through the gargantuan ingression with the cinematography and the music creating a sense of grandeur, danger and wonderment. “What have they got in here, King Kong?” marvels Goldlum’s (annoying) character in reference to the giant gates that kept King Kong at bay. The giant electric fences ring the park and their catastrophic failure leads to the major premise and action of the film.

Fast-forward to 2009 and a pre-historic site of conflict of a different kind, Facebook. There has a lot written about Facebook’s continued malaise and their recent thematic change has been seen by many to be more ‘Twitter-like‘, which is difficult to argue against. Their constant shifting of layouts and architecture makes it all the more difficult to navigate and often vital pieces of information are lost, and the controversy surrounding their hording of user’s content only served to damage further their reputation as a ‘for-the-user’ institution. However, the main ‘problem’ I have with Facebook now is that it seems all too Jurassic Park. You have to get there, enter through massive gates and once inside, it’s all a bit messy and rushed, which leads to lawyers getting eaten by T-Rex’s (ok maybe not that bit but here’s hoping). It’s not quite as crazy an analogy as you might first expect. Facebook are very keen to let you know you’re there – heavy branding; the infrastructure of the site is such that the navigation panels remain in place as you move around meaning that not that much of the page is malleable; even the links you click from it have a Facebook banner atop. It’s all just a bit too ‘labeled’ or like a walled city, entering through the massive gates (or domain name – FACEBOOK.COM!!).

Then consider Twitter. Those who use it will tell you that the web page twitter.com is one of the least-used interfaces for updating their status. TwitterFox is a favourite of mine, but there are numerous others which people use, among the most popular are tweetdeck and possibly dabr. The mobile usage of twitter was one of it’s main catalysts of growth, whereas for Facebook, it was mostly an afterthought and it’s features are severely reduced on a mobile service. The now (semi-)famous twitchhiker said that twitter is like an infrastructure rather than a ‘website’, and this is something with which I agree – it has diffused and permeated people’s web interfaces, mostly discreetly and become simply for many, an alternative mode of communication.

Such an ontology can be attributed with many other Web 2.0 techniques. The ease at which features from one site can be embedded in another means that the boundaries of traditional domains and websites are being eroded and people are bringing what they want from the web in one place, rather than one place linking to all the others. Google Maps can be embedded in websites, twitter feeds into a blog, YouTube embedding – the list is increasing daily.

In an earlier blog post, I championed the use of Actor-Network Theory (ANT) with the epistemology of Web 2.0, and it seems that this is increasingly so the case. The network metaphor is often a very spatial one, with nodes and networks continually spreading further and further into the ether, connecting endless amounts of actors and bringing them more and more into the complexity of the central network. But ANT tells us that “there exists no place that can be said to be ‘non-local’. If something is to be ‘delocalized’, it means that it is being sent from one place to some other place, not from one place to no place”. Latour (2005: 179). In other words, when it comes to information communication in web 2.0 environments, when it is ‘delocalised’, it is not in some form ‘out there’, it is simply another place. The ease at which we can bring various threads of information and visualisations from disparate places to one place (be it our blog, our RSS feeder or whatever) it collapses the network in on itself and does away with the whole ‘spatial’ network metaphor altogether. Instead, it is an ‘actor-network’, one which is comprised of action and relationality. The network is purported by the performance of actors (us, our laptops, the servers, camera phones etc.) and it is this energising which creates the network, not other way round.

There are many websites which are attempting to ‘delocalise’ their operations, with the BBC football gossip column offering widgets for blogs and Facebook pages, ebay offering ‘ebay to go‘ which allows you to embed an auction in your blog, thetrainline offering desktop gadgets, the list is seemingly endless.  The decomposition of traditional meta-narrative ‘boundaries’ is a key kernel of thought in social science literature at present and I think that it can be attributed to websites; the gates of Jurassic Park were eventually breached – and the same seems to happening to traditional web architectures.

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Author: Oli

Human Geographer at Royal Holloway, University of London

2 thoughts on “Why Facebook is the new Jurassic Park: Web 2.0 and Actor-Network Theory

  1. Great post, I am currently writing an essay on the relevance of actor network theory for interrogating the social web – may use some of your comments in my upcoming essay (will fully credit you of course).

    You may find my post on Trafigura and ANT of interest..

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