Interpassivity on Facebook

On: October 16, 2009
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About Marc Stumpel
Marc Stumpel holds a MA degree in New Media from the University of Amsterdam. His main research interest is the antagonism within the political and economic dimensions of digital culture. Especially in relation to social media. Marc also holds the degree: Bachelor of Communication & Multimedia Design, Business & Organisation, Interactive Media at the Hoogeschool van Amsterdam (2005-2009). In addition to his academic work, Marc is a musician and producer under the alias of Zuurstof. Follow Marc on twitter: @Zuurstof


Social networks give online opportunities to construct social connections, stay in touch with our friends and create/share user-generated content. They are characterized by interactivity; users are capable to react to each others’ actions. However, as our connections grow, our interactivity inherently might not. Therefore the question arises: what role does passivity play in social networks?

At first sight this may be a personal question; we all have our own way of interacting in these networks and maintaining our social connections. However, as our presence and absence in social networks plays an increasingly important role in our ‘real’ social lives, it might be good to take a look at some ways social networks allow users to be passive instead of being active. I will specifically focus on Facebook, but first let’s have a look at an alternative perspective on interactivity.

In ‘The Interpassive Subject’, the Slovenian sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic, Slavoj Žižek terms ‘interpassivity’ as an opposing concept to interactivity. Not only new media objects, but every form of media, gives the subject (the user) the sense of interactivity. However, Žižek argues that the object is active instead of the subject, who’s passive. He states that with interactivity a false activity occurs: ’you think you are active, while your true position, as it is embodied in the fetish, is passive’. Žižek refers to the Marxist notion of commodity-fetishism to imply that social relations are increasingly reduced to objects (Žižek, 1998).

To clarify interpassivity, Žižek uses an example of someone who lets the VCR record movies, without watching them and feeling profoundly satisfied about it. He lets the VCR ‘enjoy’ the film for him as it were. The VCR watches movies on behalf of the user. From this perspective, the VCR is a medium of symbolic registration, which he calls in Lacanian terms ‘The Big Other’ (Žižek, 1998: p7). This is a clear example where an object literally takes over activities from the user.

On the other hand Žižek also describes a form of interpassivity where substitution takes place; all kinds of emotions can be moved from a subject to an object (Žižek 1998: p4). To illustrate this substituted interpassivity, Žižek uses the example of a television-show with ‘canned laughter’ to indicate that the object can influence the subject before interaction can take place. The subject’s laughter is pre-mediated as it where. The subject can experience the same emotion without laughing, because the laughing is substituted by the television. In this case Žižek would call the subject’s interpassivity ‘laughing trough the Other’.

Žižek’s interpassivity is based upon a situation where an individual seems or feels active but is instead passive trough substitution or the assigning of activities to an object. However, social networks contain a lot of individuals that are connected to others trough the same object. How does the notion of interpassivity translate in the use of Facebook?

Facebook is known for its newsfeed system: a list of friends’ updates that displays on the main page. The newsfeed consist of updates by individual users who are aware that their friends may not even read their updates, because the newsfeed is time-bound. Besides, it’s very likely that the users do not have their Facebook startpage opened constantly, which means that they can easily miss messages. Weather you open the page or not, Facebook receives everybody’s status update for you and you’re able to read the updates later. Thus, the newsfeed system can be perceived as a symbolic registration system like the VCR used in Žižek’s example; as the user doesn’t read his friends’ updates, Facebook does.

Highlights and email notifications
Facebook users might not always be able to see every link, photo or video that every other user submits on their profile page. This is why on the right side of the page there are ‘highlights’ to see what posts other friends reacted to. This way Facebook will actively show things that might be of interest to the users. The same goes for email notifications from inbox messages. You don’t have to constantly check your Facebook inbox, as you receive a link in your email when you receive a new message. Facebooks’ (default) active way of notifying users allow them to be passive, while the notifications itself can lead to reactions.

Substituted sociality and interpassive social enhancement
It’s harsh, but I think it’s quite possible for (real) social relations to become substituted interpassively on Facebook. While users are communicating with their online friends, their social communication in the ‘physical’ world can become less important to them. I’d argue that friendships can turn into a more passive one trough an interpassive sociality that occurs on Facebook. However, on the contrary, people that do care more about their ‘real’ social life, rather than about their digital one, can join Facebook, which allows them to still connect to people who are using it more actively than they are. Even if they do not like to use the service or visit the site often. Facebook is able to enhance their social lifes by making it possible for other users to connect to them, while personally they’re not actively involved on Facebook at all.

The ‘like’ button
If you like something, you can click on the ‘like’ button beneath an update, to show everyone that you do. I’d argue that this is also a case of substitution, where the ‘liking’ something is actively expressed by Facebook, while the passive user doesn’t have to literally express the emotion. The user ‘likes it trough Facebook’, which applies to Žižek’s idea of being or acting through the Other.

Facebook is a new media object that allows users to interact with each other, but I’d say that this interactivity is overrated; in many cases Facebook users seem more active than they really are. Facebook is often ‘active’ for its passive users. Žižek’s notion of interpassivity challenges and encourages us to think about how ‘active’ our interactions with new media objects really are. And as we have seen, they allow us to be interpassive too.

The Interpassive Subject. Slavoj Žižek. Centre Georges Pompidou. Paris, Traverses. 1998.

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