Performatives In Social Media

Ever since I discovered them, I’ve been fascinated by something called “performatives” in speech. These are statements that inherently change the state of affairs. The classic one is “naming,” as in “your name is. . . .” Before the statement, I did not have a name (or it was different).  After that statement, I did. It was the statement itself that gave me the name.

Another one is “I nominate you.” Before I say that, you are not nominated. After I say it, you are. My saying it makes it so.

Performatives came to my mind when I read recently of the woman who got jailed for violating a protection order — by poking someone on Facebook.

Picture poking Jeffs Video poking me by Flickr user ogimogi
"Picture poking Jeff's Video poking me" by Flickr user ogimogi

In trying to explain to the uninitiated what a Facebook “poke” is, the article says:

“Poking is a feature unique to Facebook that conveys no other message but informing a user they have been ‘poked’ by another user.”

This is a kind of performative, although trivial in its meaning.

Social media is filled with such performatives, in fact you could say that this is its currency.

Simply by virtually saying “I follow you,” this makes it so in Twitter. By saying “I accept your friendship,” it’s made manifest in Facebook. I only “like” something after I have said I “like” it.

Social media, in other words, is a semiotician’s playground. Of course this is nothing new, but think about the consequence this has on the so-called real world.

Because there is a land that so many of us occupy, in which performatives hold such sway and power, the very utterance of certain words and phrases (“poke,” “like,” “friend”) can give rise to all manner of effects. Why, I can get arrested!

This is a major shift in social relations, one which we are only beginning to grapple with. It is both exhilarating and frightening to imagine what our social norms will be in ten years, given the trajectory we are on.

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