Social networks–a history and philosophy topic?

Ask yourself what Facebook has to do with history and philosophy. If you said not too much, perhaps you need to think again. Two professor’s in SIUE’s College of Arts and Sciences would not only disagree with you, they would probably suggest that you sign up for their course.

A collage of various social network logos. courtesy of

This fall, a new interdisciplinary studies course is being offered by Jeffrey Manuel, assistant of historical studies, and Matt Schunke, assistant professor of philosophy. Both Manuel and Schunke share an interest in exploring digital technologies, social networks, and what those two things mean in today’s society. Schunke stated that he believes that it is something that students will latch into as a topic.

“It is something that I think students would latch on to as fun but at the same time provides a really nice venue to do some very serious thinking on concepts of the self, ethical issues, what is friendship. All of these questions get asked in new ways in the environment of social networks. So I think that’s why we choose the topic,” said Schunke. “There are lots of interesting questions how we interact with people, what is it to be a self on Facebook–and that’s one of the fundamental questions we’re going to ask.”

Schunke stated there are many philosophical questions that emerge when people begin to think about what role Facebook and other social media networks play in an individual’s life.

“I think some of it will have to do with self-formation–how our selves are shaped by technologies. For that, we’re going to look at Michel Foucault on technologies of the self and the idea that our selves are not a static entity, but they are created or formed. Our question will be  how does that take place within the environment of social networks and the unique dynamics that emerge therein. For example,  your digital self is always there even when you aren’t,” said Schunke. “You are always on Facebook. People can always be interacting with you even when you are not there.”

This idea is echoed in Manuel’s approach to the course.

“I plan to approach the course as a set of interrelated questions about social networking rather than a specific body of content that students need to know. Social networking has become a hugely important part of many peoples’ lives, so it naturally leads to important questions about how it’s changing us, why it has happened, and how we should think about it,” said Manuel.

The question of how ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ Facebook is in modern culture is not a concept that the course will attempt to answer. Rather, the course will be designed to help students think through the philosophical questions the arise from using Facebook.

“I don’t think we have a really strong stance in terms of this is good or bad. And we definitely don’t want to have the class function in that way. We hope to convey to students that it is a highly ambivalent thing. I think the course readings will indicate that. We want to show there is a debate going on about this that is very live and there are reasonable positions on both sides and have students form their own views on it,” Schunke stated.

The course will also serve to show students the relevance of academic studies in their own lives. Schunke stated that many times students feel that academia has few practical applications to their lives.

“We’re very much more in the mindset that we need to expose students to what is out there on the topic. I think that what we’re also interested in showing them the relevance of current research on the topic.  Often research in the university feels very abstract.” said Schunke. “This gives them a chance to say ‘Wow, this is really relevant to something that I am very much connected to.’”

“I hope that students who take the class will leave with a deeper, more deliberate mindset about social networking,” said Manuel. “It’s something that many students use everyday, sometimes for many hours a day, so I encourage students to make that engagement meaningful.”

Along with the questions of self, Schunke hopes that students will also look at the different ways that social media allows people to change who they are. Schunke stated that there is a multitude of ways that people engage social networks, even creating different personas within the network.

“There is this real question that we have to wrestle with–which I am highly ambivalent on–what are these interactions that one has on Facebook? Authentic? Real? Are they legitimate? There are a lot of people who are really skeptical of it and I think this is also a question where it will be really interesting to see the student perspective because most of them are  digital natives, and they’re sort of Facebook natives. They grew up being on Facebook. So, to hear what their perspectives are on meeting people on Facebook, interacting with people in that way, what does that mean for them will be very interesting.”

The course is set up as an interdisciplinary course because it will allow the flexibility the course needs to stay relevant. Schunke stated that the literature is interdisciplinary because it pulls on the history of technology, on philosophy, and psychology, as well as a number of other academic resources. The topic also demands flexibility because it is so current and rapidly changing. But, that doesn’t eliminate the need to put historical context on the topic.

“From a historical perspective, the recent rise of social networking raises some fascinating questions. They all boil down to a version of: is this really new? Human have been engaging with new forms of information since the birth of language, so I think it’s important to consider whether any new technology is really all that different from what’s come before,” Manuel said. “The development of the printing press, the telephone, and the television all led to heated debates about how communication technology was changing people. Previous ‘networks’ like the post office also led to major changes in politics and society. The course will hopefully look at several examples of these and compare them to more recent social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter.”

Schunke stated that the course text is not set yet, but that they hope to use texts such as “The Digital Divide” by Mark Bauerlein, “Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other” by Sherry Turkle, “Everything Bad is Good For You” by Steven Johnson.


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