Facebook was the buzzword this week on the Mount Holyoke College campus. Before lectures, professors have facilitated discussions about the social networking site and excitement and anger are rampant among the student body.
What is the cause of the uproar? A controversial installation that takes virtual photographs posted on Facebook and displays them publicly—without permission from the subjects.
"People keep saying, 'Who is the person responsible for this?' and, 'I know my image is out there, but for some reason to see it physically out there makes me feel weird and exposed,'" said Martha Martinez, creator of The Panopticon: A Facebook Installation.
Since its launch in 2004, social networking site Facebook (and its rival site MySpace) has been plagued with controversy despite its positive aspects, including allowing people across the globe to stay connected cheaply via the Internet. Some countries, like Iran and Syria, have banned the use of Facebook because of fears it allows governmental opposition to fester and helps anti-government groups organize protests and subversive actions. Other countries, like the United Arab Emirates, have banned use of the site because it enables practices, such as online dating in the UAE's case, that are forbidden in their societies. Yet even in countries where the sites are not banned or restricted, problems arise.
Sexual predators peruse networking sites looking for unsuspecting young people to arrange physical meetings with. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that many kids and teens are online pretending to be older than they actually are.
Often people feel a false sense of privacy about what they've posted on their profile pages, not realizing that parents, professors and prospective employers can easily look at information they've posted online that could damage their reputation or chances of getting a job.
This false sense of privacy is the main focus of the installation by Martinez, a Mount Holyoke College senior and studio art major. By taking the virtual information available about some of the Mount Holyoke College students who belong to Facebook—4,882 in total—and transforming it into something tactile, Martinez hopes to expose the unreliability and falseness of the "privacy" many Facebook members feel regarding the information they've posted on the site.
The concept for the installation occurred to Martinez after she rather grudgingly joined Facebook a couple of years ago. According to her, she wasn't being invited to many events because invitations were only sent via Facebook. Also, she wanted to keep in closer contact with her sister, who urged her to create a Facebook account.
"So I joined and was surprised to see that I enjoyed connecting with people," said Martinez. "But I craved an opportunity to have a discourse on this issue."
After telling her friends about her desire for a public discussion of Facebook's pros and cons, Martinez decided she would create an installation.
"At first we were going to only put our pictures up, but then we said to ourselves, 'No, we should be brave artists,'" said Martinez in a recent interview with the Advocate. "Then when we first started working on this about a year ago, some people heard about it and felt that we were intruding on their privacy."
A non-traditional student in the Francis Perkins program at Mount Holyoke, Martinez lives off campus and doesn't know many students besides fellow "FPs."
"I'm not that popular at school," Martinez said with a chuckle. "People were like, 'I don't even know who she is. Is she really allowed to put my face up there?'"
Because of this initial controversy, Martinez and her fellow collaborators—students Nicole Alden, Erica Catalano, Amanda Hu, Leora Morinis and Renee McOwen—kept the project under wraps until a few days before the show's opening last week.
The installation has several elements. The main feature is two walls covered in wallet-sized pictures of hundreds of Mount Holyoke students (taken from Facebook homepages which anyone, Facebook member or not, can view).
"We didn't have to ask permission," said Martinez. "Whatever is up on Facebook is in the public domain. It's free; it's up for grabs. That's scary, and precisely the point [of the installation]. I wanted to look at this cultural phenomenon that has become so quickly accepted… because the thing with Facebook is that an entire community has to buy into it for it to work."
Extension cords are hung haphazardly from the ceiling to give the impression of being "plugged in" the same way Facebook users are plugged in to a computer, according to Martinez. Hanging Plexiglas panels evoke a sleek digital aura.
Images of performance artist McOwen taking her own profile pictures and of Martinez taking photos of McOwen doing this—preceding the opening—are projected onto the panels. Filing cabinets overflow with printed images taken randomly from the cache of photos Facebook users upload to the site.
A looped recording of Martinez and her cohorts deciding which photos to include in the show comprises the audio component of the installation.
"We tried to be fair and honest about it," said Martinez. "We thought, 'How can we select photos randomly?' We would say, 'Okay, click on the first photo album, then the eighth photo.' And that's the one we would choose. We recorded ourselves going through Facebook doing this to show the issues we dealt with, and because it was awkward and there was a lot of laughter."
During the reception McOwen took pictures of people viewing the exhibit—these images were printed out—and a Macbook's photo-booth captured viewers as well. Their images were projected onto the Plexiglass in an attempt to show how even the privacy of non-Facebook users is affected by the networking site.
"I think there's an over-documentation going on in my generation," said Martinez. "If you're at an event with a group of people that have Facebook and people are taking pictures, your picture is likely to end up on Facebook, just by virtue of being at that event.
"For years I wasn't on Facebook, but my picture was. It was strange and disconcerting to me."
Another large part of the installation is half a gallery wall left blank. Sharpie markers hang from telephone wires for viewers to use to write on the wall.
"We wanted to incorporate the wall where people could comment about the installation," said Martinez, "much the same way you can write on someone's virtual wall on Facebook."
Reactions to the installation have been mixed, according to Martinez.
"The three reactions I noticed were that people were either weirded out, upset or excited," said Martinez. "And some people found photographs of themselves and their friends and just walked out with them.
"But the gallery has had nonstop traffic, which is actually unprecedented. That gallery has never seen that much student interest and traffic. So the installation has definitely hit a nerve."
The Panopticon: A Facebook Installation is on view through April 15 at the Blanchard Gallery, Blanchard Student Union, Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, (413) 538-2200.