Facebook's new algorithms promise us more intimacy, more contacts with a narrow set of close "friends". That is great, no doubt. But there is a category of people who may not benefit from it - who may even lose a lot from it. That category is known as the public intellectual: people driven by social or political commitment, who speak out on behalf of people who have no voice in the public domain, and who try to bring about change by doing so.
“Voice” is a term we all know, but it also has a more technical meaning. It stands for the way in which people manage to make themselves understood or fail to do so. It is the issue that for example defines linguistic inequality in contemporary societies. The world is characterized by structural inequality, also when it comes to being understood by others (Blommaert, 2005). Voice and identity are interconnected because Voice is everything we say, do, write, how we dress etc. Those are the elements that make your identity. Voice is “the capacity to understand, and of someone to make him/herself understood in a socio-cultural space’’ (Blommaert, 2005). Voice, read in that sense, is what excludes many people from being heard in the public sphere.
The public intellectual
Someone who understood this quite clearly was the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre; a public intellectual with great influence, who at a point in history became an intellectual celebrity. He had a traditional kind of vocation because he portrayed the public intellectual as the one who denounces injustice wherever it occurs in the name of truth and freedom (Kellner, 1995). Michel Foucault, on the other hand, flatly rejected this – it was one of the many points on which both disagreed with each other. Foucault stated that the role of the intellectual is not any more to be placed “somewhat ahead and to the side” to convey the truth of the collectivity. The role of the public intellectual is to defy the forms of power that surround him/herself (more) directly. In Foucault words “rather, it is to struggle against the forms of power that transform him into its object and instrument in the sphere of ´knowledge´, ´truth´ and ´discourse´” (Deleuze & Foucault, 1997). As soon as we open our mouths to communicate, power and knowledge are at play.
To speak or not to speak is maybe not the most important question anymore. The question is who will hear the voice of the public intellectual.
Foucault’s main quest was to theorize power. He claimed that power is everywhere and that one cannot escape from the complex relations of power that construct society. It's a system of power that blocks and invalidates the discourse and knowledge of the public intellectual who spoke on behalf of those who could not speak themselves (Deleuze & Foucault, 1997). For the public intellectual’s own position is politically loaded with regard to privilege, so mechanisms of power are at play in the act of speaking (Daldal, 2014). Thus, we can never speak on behalf of others; we would be talking about ourselves. But we could still expose the systems of power that silence specific voices in the public domain, make certain things unspeakable and others into topic of hot and perpetual debate.
But the meaning of discourse and impact depends not only on the one who performs the speech acts. It also depends on the speaker’s position and the context of the speaking acts; and of course, there is the role of the audience acting upon and/or affected by the words (Alcoff, 2008). And this, of course, turns a general question into a specific one.
Smaller bubbles, smaller publics?
Now, how about Facebook and the public intellectual? Given Facebook’s new algorithms and measures, which are taken to give users a ‘personalized’ newsfeed, what is the public intellectual’s position?
What if an intellectual in a privileged position would detect something in society that is worth addressing, such as an injustice, in what way should they speak on behalf of the people subject to these practices? Will his or her voice be picked up on Facebook, or will the algorithm downgrade this type of discourse because intellectual influence in the contemporary world is different from it once was?
According to Facebook, everyone seems to favor being entertained rather than informed. People joke around on Facebook threads, and the majority of the comments has a non-serious tone. And since Facebook announced that it is updating what will appear on people’s news feeds, one can imagine the creation of an echo chamber, which filters the information people receive so that it keeps supporting their existing opinions.
Facebook announced a new ranking signal to surface content that is most informative to the person to the top. But what is informative? Facebook will prioritize stories shared by friends and family, so will we get an even more restricted filter bubble? But also the tendency of users to keep their activity to a limited set of pages which allows news consumption on Facebook to be governed by a selective exposure. This then reinforces their existing opinions because the algorithm delivers users news sources that they have shown interest in before.
We can see Facebook at work as a ‘sequestration’, which is a tool of power. It fixes users by forming habits through which the social membership of individuals is defined and produces the norm, which leads individuals to get tied up by the various institutional mechanisms and knowledge structures. Foucault calls this the ‘apparatuses of production’, that maintain and increase the exercise of power within the society (Foucault, 1973).
Lastly, to extend Foucault’s words: Facebook increases its control precisely by bringing us “closer” to each other, in ever smaller bubbles. The new algorithms reduce the scope of who can be addressed by Facebook communication, narrowing our audiences to those who already are very familiar with us. Satre's notion of public intellectual, but also Foucault's, critically depended on the access one could get to a wide and highly diverse audience. So here is the problem for public intellectuals in the days of the new Facebook algorithms: the “public in “public intellectual’’ is becoming less and less public.
Alcoff, L. (1992). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, 20(1), 5-32. doi:10.2307/1354221
Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bouchard, D. F. (1973). The Intellectuals and Power: A Discussion between Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze. Language, Counter-memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews (pp. 205-217). Ithaca, United States: Cornell University Press.
Daldal, A. (2014). Power and Ideology in Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci: A Comparative Analysis. Review of History and Political Science, 2(2), 149-167.
Harcourt, B., Ewald, F., & Fontana, A. (Reds.). (2016). The Punitive Society: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1972-1973. doi:10.1057/9781137532091
Kellner, D. (1995). Intellectuals and new technology. Media, culture and society, 17, 427-448.