When the English-Polish sociologist Professor Zygmunt Bauman gave a lecture in Padova on 27th May 2011, he was welcomed by a crowd eager to hear his point of view and suggestions on how best to navigate the complexities of modern society. The lecture was part of the Segnavie Festival, a series of talks with prominent speakers presenting their ideas on the most profound changes of our times.
Professor Bauman expressed particularly significant and thought-provoking ideas about social media. One of the key concepts of his sociological research is that we live in a “liquid society”, where reality keeps changing at a very fast pace and individuals need to adapt quickly to survive.
Societal changes require individuals to constantly re-negotiate their identities, how they define themselves and how they want to appear to the others. The fact that society is ‘liquid’ can be perceived both as positive and negative. On the one hand, it is exciting as individuals are given the opportunity to choose their course of life and become something different and better. On the other hand, future becomes completely unpredictable and things happen unexpectedly. This obviously generates great insecurity.
It is a struggle between freedom and security: they are two opposing aspects, both
necessary in a society but which need to be combined and reconciled. Nowadays western societies experience an unprecedented degree of freedom: we are basically allowed to try everything. The price is, however insecurity and uncertainty.
The notion of Belonging: past and present
The need to belong is a fundamental one for human beings. While in the past we used
to belong to a community, nowadays we belong instead to a network. The two are, however, very different. In a community individuals are offered the opportunity to belong while in a network they have to build their own web of relations, creating their own identity and sense of belonging.
In the past the community used to look after the individual offering him/her a secure place to belong to. This was, however, done at the expenses of freedom as the individual was expected to strictly obey the community rules. With networks individuals have instead much more freedom. They can choose who they want to be, shape their identity as they wish and build their network of relations accordingly. As already suggested, the price for this freedom is insecurity. Networks are, in fact, unstable and insecure as the relationships established can be broken easily. All relationships are good as long as they last, they are not a permanent bond.
According to Bauman, Facebook is a gold mine based on fear of loneliness in a world made of fragile relations. This social network appears to be an answer to the fear of being rejected and refused. However, the sense of belonging Facebook offers differs greatly from the one offered by the community. Acutely Bauman describes the social network as ‘microphones in a confessional’. What people used to share just with close and trusted friends, is now shared with a much broader community where the relations are somehow less intimate.
In contemporary society the model of real existence is to be a celebrity featured in a glossy magazine. Making an clever joke, Bauman said that if Descartes were still alive, he would say “I’ve seen on TV what I am” rather than the original statement “cogito, ergo sum”. In this respect Facebook is a cheap and democratic version of the celebrity culture we see on TV. Not everybody has the opportunity to appear on TV and be seen by others but everybody can have a profile on Facebook and put himself/herself there for friends and contacts to look at you.