Confucian Ethics versus Facebook (or, social media in general): A Losing Battle?

Confucian Ethics versus Facebook (or, social media in general): A Losing Battle?

(This post also appears on Warp, Weft, and Way.)

As an on-going project (see also, Dao, Harmony and Personhood: Towards a Confucian Ethics of Technology), I have attempted to analyse new media (or, information technology) from a Confucian perspective. But, it is only until recently that I really started to examine the relation between (or, in fact, the compatibility of) social media and the Confucian way of life. And, I started with the hope that Confucian ethics/Confucian philosophy will have something positive to contribute to the existing philosophical discussion on the benefits and harms. Unfortunately, when I proceed with my analysis, it becomes apparent that the Confucian way of life seems to be rather incompatible with the design (and, depends on how one theorises the relations between design and use, use) of social media. So, the obvious question is: Is the Confucian way of life impractical and/or inadequate, if social media is here to stay?

Intuitively, my answer is no; but, at the moment, I have difficulties to articulate it. Anyhow, it might well due to my defected exposition of the Confucian way of life that leads to this negative conclusion.

Any comments and suggestions are welcome!

Work in progress – Please do not cite, quote or summarise or circulate without permission.

Social Media: Affordances and Dynamics

My analysis will be building on danah boyd’s theoretical and ethnographic studies of social media. boyd sought to understand social media through the notion of networked publics, which are publics “transformed by networked media [e.g. ICTs], its properties and its potentials”. (‘Social Network Sites as Networked Publics’, in: A Networked Self, p. 42) Networked publics, accordingly, distinguish themselves by their structural foundation, i.e. bits, and the affordances available to the architecture of bits, namely “persistence”, “replicablity”, “scalability”, “searchability” and “shareability”. (‘Social Networking Sites…’, pp. 40-42 & pp. 45-48; Papacharissi & Gibson’s ‘15 Mins of Privacy‘, p. 76) boyd argued these properties of networked publics have supported three dynamics, which have come to dominate the network publics, namely

Invisible audiences: Not all audiences are visible when a person is contributing online, nor are they necessarily co-present.

Collapsed contexts: The lack of spatial, social, and temporal boundaries makes it difficult to maintain distinct social contexts.

The blurring of public and private: Without control over context, public and private become meaningless binaries, are scaled in new ways, and are difficult to maintain as distinct.

(boyd ‘Social Networking Sites’, p.49)

These dynamics seem to me sit uncomfortably with Confucian values. Now, I will attempt to illustrate how and why social media, with the dynamics identified by boyd, is a poor match for the Confucian way of life.

Social Media and Confucian Way of Life: A Losing Battle?

The existence of invisible audiences on social media is problematic to the Confucian way of life. Since users’ audiences can be neither visible nor co-present at the time when the users ‘say’ (or ‘do’) something on social media, e.g. social networking sites, microblogs, etc, they are in effect interacting with someone who they do not know with certainty. This is not to claim that invisible audiences do not exist prior to social media. Of course, invisible audiences―who are unknown and/or absent―exist in the offline world too. In the offline world, people can interact with someone who is not co-present through writing. There, however, the person in absent is not unknown. Similarly, people can interact with someone who they do not know through writing and/or (public) speech, but, they can still draw a sensible boundary of intended and unintended audiences through the writing’s and speech’s style, genre and context, and thereby assume and perform their roles accordingly. In this respect, (invisible) audiences in the offline world are to a large degree still identifiable to people. Social media, on the other hand, admits a much lesser degree of identifiability. This lack of identifiability is best illustrated by social networking sites: when users disclose themselves through social networking sites such as Facebook, in which other people―as long as they have been granted the permission (i.e., in Facebook’s default setting, when they are ‘friend’)―can view them; these people are all audiences, and they are indifferent to the users. The users, in this case, cannot specify their audiences and differentiate them. This uncertainty about their audiences makes it difficult, if not impossible, for the users to assume and perform the right roles with respect to their (online) audiences because in order to do so, the users need to know who they are interacting with.

It becomes especially troubling to Confucians if we consider the online world to be a continuum of the offline world, as all users’ offline relationships, e.g. family, friends, colleagues, etc., are at the same time potential invisible audiences so long as they are online too; being (potential) invisible audiences, however, they have barred the users from assuming and performing the right roles with regard to them even if the users have no problem to do so in the offline world. So understood, social media at its worst engenders a world in which people constantly fail to assume their roles. Since (social) roles are, according to Confucianism, constitutive of one’s personhood, and one can only become a person if his or her roles are properly performed (with the responsibilities properly fulfilled), Confucians should evaluate social media negatively because of the (online) world it engenders.

Invisible audiences, of course, are not a problem only for the Confucian way of life; it is a problem for any users of social media, as they too need to know if what they say or do are appropriate or not. To counter the problem arises from invisible audiences, one strategy for the users is to imagine who they are interacting with when they are using social media. This strategy helps to reduce uncertainty on the users’ side because the users can then delimit their behaviours and practices in accordance to the type of audiences imagined. Yet, I think, imagined audiences are too thin for the users to determine their roles correctly. Since imagining audiences is essentially a strategy for limiting behaviours and practices, unless the users have imagined a concrete relationship, it cannot tell what roles people ought to assume and perform. At the same time, because of the existence of invisible audiences, even if the users have assumed and performed some roles correctly through some types of imagined audiences, they remain constantly open to other relationships they are unaware of, and, thereby, cannot account for. In short, the existence of invisible audiences on social media has created an environment which renders the Confucian way of life hard to live by.

The same is also true of following rites, i.e. another important component for living the Confucian way of life. To reiterate, rites is a set of proper conducts and attitudes for a specific situation. The multiplicity and simultaneity of relationships that social media affords make it difficult―again, if not impossible―to follow rites, as which rites to follow are determined by who the person is interacting with and related to. This issue is further aggravated by another dynamics on social media, namely the collapsed contexts. On social media, contexts are mixed and merged by default; however, people need to know what contexts they are in if they are to know what are the proper conducts and attitudes to have. Contexts are ethically constitutive of the Confucian way of life, as it requires people to have proper a set of conducts and attitudes, which is context-dependent, e.g. a familial context and a professional context clearly demand a different set of proper conducts and attitudes. In other words, the Confucian way of life needs to maintain, at least, an epistemic separation of various types of contexts. Collapsed contexts on social media, therefore, entail an enormous difficulty for people to know what are the proper conducts and attitudes to have in the (online) world.

Finally, the blurring of public and private should worry Confucians too. However, unlike the current debate on this issue, which is often framed as a privacy issues, Confucians’ worry on the blurring of public and private is of a different nature. Firstly, Confucians do not distinguish sharply between the public and private with respect to self-cultivation and self-transform because they believe people’s self-cultivation and self-transformation in the private sphere will essentially carry onto their public sphere (and vice versa). Hence, both the public and private are of equal moral significance as they are, and should be, subjected to the same level of (moral) scrutiny. Secondly, in accordance to Confucian non-individualistic view of person, the term ‘private’ is not to be understood at an individual level; instead, it is to be understood at a familial level. Hence, the private sphere refers to the familial sphere from a Confucian point of view. So construed, the Confucians’ worry over the blurring of public and private is not about individual privacy but about changes at the familial level.

Confucians’ insistence on the priority of familial relationships and the importance of filiality and fraternity, however, has already hinted that a separation between the public and private ought to be maintained. In Confucianism, the familial relationships are a model for other non-familial relationships. Family (or, the familial sphere) is believed to be distinct from other spheres in that the roles and role responsibilities in familial relationships are driven by natural affections and trust, i.e. parent-children and sibling; therefore, it provides qualitatively different feedbacks to people in their learning to become a person. And, it is also where people learn to socialise through assuming and performing the roles and fulfilling the responsibilities, and, thereby, to eventually achieve proper conducts and attitudes towards the non-familial members in the society. Hence, family is essential in people’s (moral) development from the Confucian point of view.

The blurring of public and private leads to the disappearance not only of the private sphere but also the familial sphere; in doing so, it also takes away the space where people learn to become a person and to achieve proper conducts and attitudes towards non-familial members. Indeed, by breaking down the barriers between the public, private and familial sphere, it seems to neutralise familial and non-familial relationships, and depreciate the importance of the former, too. Most importantly, perhaps, is that without the familial sphere, every (wrong)doings are subjected to risks of publicshaming, which is detrimental to people’s development. In short, the blurring of public and private has eliminated a domain crucial to the Confucian way of life.

To summarise, the three dynamics supported by social media, i.e. (i) invisible audiences, (ii) collapsed contexts and (iii) the blurring of public and private, have engendered an online world that is rather inhospitable to the Confucian way of life. Alternatively, since the Confucian way of life is hard to live by with social media, I believe Confucians will inevitably see it as undesirable.