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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology.
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“Sharing” Economy and Self-Exploitation


(These are my opening remarks from Rhizome’s Internet Subjects #1 panel yesterday at the New Museum.)

The sharing economy’s rise is a reflection of capitalism’s need to find new profit opportunities in aspects of social life once shielded from the market, in leisure time once withdrawn from waged labor, in spaces and affective resources once withheld from becoming a kind of capital. What sharing companies and apps chiefly do is invite us to turn more of our lives into capital and more of our time into casual labor, thereby extending capitalism’s reach and further entrenching the market as the most appropriate, efficient, and beneficial way to mediate interaction between individuals. For the sharing economy, market relations are the only social relations.

Though the sharing economy appropriates a language of progressive change and collectivity (e.g., “collaborative consumption”) to proselytize for their apps and business models, their effect is to more thoroughly atomize individuals, demanding that they regard themselves as a kind of small enterprise while reducing their social usefulness to the spare capacity they can mobilize for the platforms to broker. Users are asked to scour their lives for marketable time and resources, performing labor that the sharing-economy companies organize and expropriate.

Just as factories allowed deskilled workers to “cooperate” and create value that accrued to the factory owner who brought them together, sharing-economy apps coordinate disparate users and extract value from their being brought together in networks. But unlike the workers who meet on the factory floor, the sharing-app users meet only as commercial adversaries, and build not solidarity but merely a mercantile “trust” that facilitates wary exchange.

Sharing economy apps discredit the very concept of gift-giving and impose reciprocal exploitation on users for the companies’ benefit. The apps’ networks masquerade as ersatz “communities,” but such networks actually constitute a medium designed to allow users to uncover advantages and asymmetries and let us seek out precisely the people we can exploit. Nonmonetized social bonds are made to seem like wasted opportunities. The only “real” bonds between people are the ones verified and rationalized by market exchanges, which are explicable in terms of economic incentives and self-interest. Actual sharing is inexplicable, unreal.

The rhetoric around sharing economy companies tends to celebrate their liberatory use of technology, which is held to irresistibly wring inefficiency from legacy social practices while freeing users from the dread burdens of inconvenience and transaction cost. But in fact the sharing economy epitomizes the deployment of technology to intensify inequality, in this case by creating monopolies that aggregate and co-opt the effort and resources of many users, who are pitted against one another within the platforms. The network becomes an anti-community in which empathy and conviviality are tactics and no succor may be extended without a price attached.

The sharing platforms tend to standardize and commoditize the services they broker (a ride is a ride is a ride), and champion amateurs in the name of disruption. This undercuts any advantage to being highly skilled or professional beyond some bare minimum of competence. The optimistic thing to say about this, perhaps, is that by making services generic, sharing apps may help reverse alienating economic specialization, pointing toward the communist ideal Marx described of everyone being able to hunt in the morning, and write criticism in the evening. But without some sort of guaranteed basic income in place, the casualization of labor to the point of worthlessness leaves workers more economically insecure, rendering them even more desperate to “share” — that is, to self-exploit.

The “Sharing” Economy

I am going to be on a panel at the New Museum on Thursday, June 19 about the “sharing” economy, and why that name is highly misleading. Here’s the flier for it:



Here are some points about the sharing economy that I listed this afternoon on Twitter:

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 3.38.11 PMAnd below is a book review of “sharing” economy “bible” What’s Mine Is Yours that I wrote in October 2010.

Where money is not itself the community, it must dissolve the community. — Karl Marx, Grundrisse

Like capitalism, consumerism has proven adept at assimilating critiques and adapting to them. In so doing, it cuts away the ground underneath the complainers who don’t appreciate its dynamism. When complaints arose that mass markets forced a stultifying conformity on consumers, the market responded with brand campaigns organized around an ethos of individualism, offering superficial options for customization to appease the desire for distinction.

When critics argued that acquiring goods didn’t necessarily lead to lasting happiness and that accumulation of stuff merely puts us on a hedonic treadmill, marketers like Paco Underhill began to emphasize shopping “experiences,” a bit of rhetorical prestidigitation whereby consumer items became souvenirs of promised states of feeling rather than their source. When the problem was with homogenizing brands and the eradication of mom-and-pop stores, corporations rolled out ersatz small brands and adopted old-timey packaging design to recall the heyday of regional businesses.

When social theorists complained about the hollowness of leisure time predominantly spent consuming and collecting goods, consumption began to be represented in marketing discourse as a creative form of meaning  production, with consumers as “co-creators,” using products inventively in off-label ways to enrich their unique identity. When ecological concerns began to be voiced more loudly, the market responded with recyclable packaging and “green” products that offer a moral alibi for our consumer behavior and let us continue our love affair with packaging.

Consumerism’s logic allows it to transform into a form of market research the critiques leveled at it, seeing them as pointing the way to new profit opportunities. The critiques become persausive techniques to reach prepackaged groups of disgruntled consumers, who can be flattered and sold to through marketing that seems to hear them and address their concerns. Hence advertising pitches are constantly being re-tuned to better convey the same message of empowerment of how new innovations really put consumers in charge this time by letting their voices be heard. This customer-service approach co-opts and domesticates any oppositional practices that manage to gain steam, and  protects consumerism’s core operating principles: that social relations must be mediated by products; that shopping is the solution to all personal problems; that only branded goods can be useful or have true, broadly accepted meaning; that life’s purpose derives ultimately from consuming rather than making things. It buys off the casually disaffected, preventing them from ever adopting more uncompromising forms of resistance, and it makes consumerism’s hardened critics seem like inconsolable cranks, like poorly socialized cynics who find happiness only in complaining.

This recuperative tendency of the market ought, then, to encourage skepticism with respect to the latest iteration of this process, “collaborative consumption,” which involves various Internet-assisted methods of peer-to-peer exchange and resource renting, as exhaustively described in Rachel Botsman and Roo Rogers’s  new book What’s Mine Is Yours. After recapping the history of anticonsumerist criticism, touring through conspicuous consumptionthe Diderot effect, the evils of psychologically manipulative marketing, the paradox of choice, and increasing anomie and isolation, the writers proceed to the book’s main purpose, tracing the contours of the redemptive new consumerism, “a healthier more sustainable system with a more fulfilling goal than ‘more stuff.’ ” This new approach to consumption claims and internalizes ideas that have long animated attacks on consumerism, promising to turn them inside out. The new consumerism is not competitive but collaborative, not isolating but unifying, not massified but local, not authoritarian but entrepreneurial and empowering, not wasteful but conservative in the noblest sense of the word.

As Botsman and Rogers detail, the new consumerism derives from the possibilities of mass collaboration and communication offered by new technologies.

The convergence of social networks, a renewed belief in the importance of community, pressing environmental concerns, and cost consciousness are moving us away from the old, top-heavy, centralized, and controlled forms of consumerism toward one of sharing, aggregation, openness, and cooperation.

So if you want to attack the new consumerism, you must not only be a de facto Luddite, but now you also must seem eager to denounce universally cherished ideals like “sharing” and “communities” and “reciprocity.”

In practice, though, the collaborative consumption paradigm merely supplants “more stuff”  with more exchanges, as we are encouraged to take every iota of spare capacity we can identity in our lives — any old clothes, unused equipment, any trips taken with free space in our vehicle, a couch not slept on, a garage not filled with junk — and turn it to account by finding a stranger to give, sell, or rent it to. “At the heart of Collaborative Consumption is the reckoning of how we can take this idling capacity and redistribute it elsewhere.”

This commandment to search for “idling capacity” to exploit hardly mitigates the corrosive psychological influence of capitalism; it extends its calculating instrumentalism and market making to every nook and cranny of our everyday lives. Far from redeeming consumerism, it replaces the serendipity of the thrift store, of the sidewalk discovery, with a competitive, rationalized system for distributing goods to eager early birds, to the most persistent users of cutting-edge gadgetry. Whether or not you believe this will increase our society’s fairness is a good indicator of how much you will enjoy this book.

The theoretical underpinnings for the redistribution (not of income or wealth, mind you, just the stuff you already wish you could get rid of) are a sentimental communitarianism fused with a Hayekian faith in spontaneous order. Together these yield a belief that markets can organize themselves to the benefit of small groups of consumer “peers” while manufacturing grassroots surveillance and enforcement systems (what Botsman and Rogers call “trust”) among them to guarantee the exchanges. “We have returned to a time when if you do something wrong or embarrassing, the whole community will know. Free riders, vandals and abusers are easily weeded out, just as openness, trust and reciprocity are encouraged and rewarded.”

Sharing isn’t simply caring anymore; it’s becoming an alienated system for proving your trustworthiness, your willingness to play ball. Best of all, this kind of discipline is implemented at the level of personal relations rather than impersonal markets. In the realm of collaborative consumption, which Botsman and Rogers eagerly anticipate will be powered in the future by “reputation bank accounts” that permit or deny access to the social product, identity is always at stake, making your consumption behavior everyone else’s business like never before.

Were the emphasis of What’s Mine Is Yours strictly on giving things away, as opposed to reselling them or mediating the exchanges, it might have been a different sort of book, a far more utopian investigation into practical ways to shrink the consumer economy. It would have had to wrestle with the ramifications of advocating a steady-state economy in a society geared to rely on endless growth. But instead, the authors are more interested in the new crop of businesses that have sprung up to reorient some of the anti-capitalistic practices that have emerged online — file sharing, intellectual property theft, amateur samizdat distribution, gift economies, fluid activist groups that are easy to form and fund, and so on — and make them benign compliments to mainstream retail markets. Indeed, conspicuously absent from the book is any indication that any business entities would suffer if we all embraced the new consumerism, a gap that seems dictated by the book’s intended audience: the usual management-level types who consume business books, the sort of people for whom Thomas Friedman is a “thought leader,” as Botsman and Rogers deem him.

With such readers in mind, Botsman and Rogers are in the tricky position of trying to hype collaborative consumption by making it seem more or less normal, something in which “regular” Americans might participate without feeling foolishly liberal. “For the most part, the people participating in Collaborative Consumption are not Pollyannaish do-gooders and still very much believe in the principles of capitalist markets and self-interest,” they are quick to remind readers. They reassure us that “Collaborative Consumption is by no means antibusiness, antiproduct or anticonsumer. People will still ‘shop and companies will still ‘sell,’ ” so there is no need to be alarmed. All that’s needed is an image change for the kind of consumerism that’s already happening: “The message that ‘everybody else is doing it,’ ” they advise, “sometimes works better than trying to appeal to people’s sense of social responsibility or even to their hope of safeguarding resources for future generations.”

Such advice suggests that Botsman and Rogers, for all their enthusiasm about people power and communities, believe that social change will be implemented not by the people or even a vanguard of sharing pioneers, but by the guiding adaptations of  the business community, prodded by entrepreneurs and wise investors. They will take the fringe practices of activists, intended to actually threaten existing social relations, and make them more “practical.” As Stephanie Smith, CEO of WeCommune Inc., a for-profit startup that generates ersatz communes, tells the authors, “What we are interested in doing is making them an integral part of culture, not a counterculture.”

How will anti-consumerist practices be made safe for late capitalism? The authors refurbish familiar homilies about selling brandable services (community building is their chief example) instead of commodities, and preach how business can “reimagine the larger system” of how they market products to integrate them more deeply into the social life of consumers. They don’t recognize the ubiquity of the branding metaphor as endangering human autonomy or dignity; they merely see it as a force to be leveraged for fresh ends. “In the same way that brands have manipulated us to want more and more stuff by connecting advertising campaigns to deep fundamental human needs and motivations, brands can make us want more of the sustainable values and benefits attached to Collaborative Consumption.”

Thus it turns out that the existing systems for social control through intensive marketing and incubating startup companies render more revolutionary approaches to social change superfluous. We just need better brands and shrewder “entrepreneurial leaders” targeting a reconceptualized set of consumer needs (not things but states of mind and services), and of course, angels supplying them with capital.

But are companies like Zipcar and Netflix really the building-block institutions of a better way of life? Do they move society closer to a place where the standard of living and extent of opportunities are improved for all of us? Or are they just companies looking to profit by performing privatized commons-maintenance duties that government should already be performing on our behalf? In one chapter, for instance, Botsman and Rogers tout the potential of alternative currencies (a subject discussed in this earlier Generation Bubble post), but there’s a reason so many people all around the world want legal tender backed by the faith and credit of the U.S. government, as opposed to scrip backed by the faith and credit of an entity that might turn out to be FlyByNightCollaborativity Inc. Virtual money is simply real money in an obfuscating disguise, or it’s what people are receiving in lieu of the real money that ends up in the pockets of the fake money distributors. (Just try spending Disney dollars outside of Disney World.)

Botsman and Rogers’ championing business as the solution to the social problems business has created is certainly pragmatic, but it feels a bit like surrender, an admission that the institutions of consumerism and their motivational apparatus can’t be bettered, and that they will continue to constitute our lifeworld. The authors can’t be faulted for their unmistakable enthusiasm for mitigating the selfish individualism that consumerism inherited from capitalism’s early days. But their vision stops far short of the kind of transformation that could make “sharing” and “collaboration” into something other than marketing buzzwords again.

Vinyl re-enchantment


The Economist‘s website has an article about Record Store Day, a marketing stunt during which a bunch of vinyl-only releases and reissues are choreographed in hopes of driving music buyers to support some brick-and-mortar businesses. Every label wants to piggy-back on the hype of every other release, leading to an overwhelming hodge-podge of material record stores are supposed to carry to be full participants in the event. This creates problems for the stores that the event is supposed to help, saddling them with stock whose appeal to non-hardcore record collectors may already be questionable.

I have never understood the point of Record Store Day, in part because I have not traditionally been sentimental about record stores. I tend to associate them with judgmental clerks and aggressive taste peacocking and stereos playing the most confrontational music the workers could get away with to keep the store clear of unwanted browsers. Independent record stores often seemed more like clubhouses, and I was never confident enough in my tastes to believe I could truly belong. The record store was a place where “nerds” could be vengeful bullies; now that we have a whole culture that is like that, record stores feel a bit redundant in that respect.

But the more salient reason Record Store Day repels me is that it runs counter to what I do find appealing about shopping in small record stores, the fact that I can’t predict what they will actually have in stock. Record Store Day supplies you with a prefab shopping list and an easy way to cross off every item on it — just come early (or have a friend who works at the store; it’s still a private club, a market in which it matters who you know). If I wanted to shop in a market that I knew in advance would have what I want, I would go on to Amazon, or to Spotify. But I started to buy vinyl again not for the records so much as for the intermittent rewards. Going to a used record store not knowing what I will find allows me to go in not knowing for sure even what I want — and this expands my capacity for desiring things. It re-enchants consumption for me, for better or worse. I have a list in my head of records I hope to come across some day, but since I can download all this music to actually listen to it, I am more invested in the quest itself than its completion. It keeps me flipping through crates, looking for a lottery-like payout.

Record stores are a bit like thrift stores in that they produce a sense of rarity and serendipity, a shopping experience that can trump whatever it is one ends up buying. When I go to record stores, I want to enter into a fantasy of one-of-a-kind finds, of consumption sweetened by its contrived precariousness. I want to pretend I’m in a world where you have to earn your consumer pleasures, and where the bond between pleasure and ownership is still tight. (This is a depressing realization.)  It’s not uncommon for me to be so excited about coming across a record I love that I’ll buy it again, “forgetting” that I already have a vinyl copy.

I want there to be some sort of excuse for taking pleasure in the sheer act of buying records. I want to pretend record buying is not just another species of luxury indulgence, so I come up with specious theories about why it is somehow righteous — ethical, even. (Record Store Day smacks of this sort of moral posturing.) In The People’s Platform Astra Taylor makes a strong case for “sustainable cultural consumption” supporting the creative ecosystem of artists by paying for their work — but buying used records hardly qualifies for that. Instead, I am susceptible to fetishizing records as occulted objects, making claims about how they capture the way recorded music is “really” supposed to sound. (The Economist article mentions a museum exhibition in Oakland devoted partly to this premise that listening to vinyl is more “intentional,” whereas this post does some work to demystify the illusion of mistaking nostalgia for a medium for measurable sonic superiority.) I am prone to assigning my records an aura, marveling at their unique patina, the skips and scratches and pops that bequeath me a genuinely unique listening experience. No one else out there gets to enjoy those bona fide skips on the copy of Moby Grape’s Wow that I just bought at the WFMU record fair. Those are now for me alone.

My craving for these purely idiosyncratic consumption experiences has something to do with wanting to enjoy something unsharable, something that can’t go viral, as though that might authenticate it in the solipsistic counter-reality I try to create for myself. The curator of the Oakland exhibition remarks that albums, as material objects, places the emphasis on music appreciation’s “social aspect,” but I think that’s backward. I want to use records to prove that I am “better” than those social pleasures of validation that are now so readily sought for online. I want records so I can try to remind myself  that I can get autonomous joy from a private world of things.

This is essentially sociologist Colin Campbell’s theory of modern consumerism, which is summarized clearly in this paper. The problem with “autonomous hedonism” pursued in the individual imagination is that “the more proficient one becomes at creatively imagining emotions and sensations, the more likely it is that ‘real’ consumption fails to deliver a comparable intensity of pleasure.”

I find that I yearn for pleasure in pure ownership because I don’t have time for use value.  I don’t have any time to play the records I already own. In fact, I resumed buying vinyl a few years ago, before I even had a working turntable. I started to assemble a collection for the sake of the act of collecting, because I was overwhelmed by music online but still wanted to maintain a strong affective bond to it. Keeping buying and enjoying linked in my mind was the only way I could think to do it. My record collection sits in my living room as a testament to the failure of my imagination, the deficiencies in my aesthetic capability. I wonder how many times I will need to play them for penance, until my listening becomes authentic at last.

“Surveillant anxiety” and exceptional conformity


“What does the lived reality of Big Data feel like?” Kate Crawford asks in “The Anxieties of Big Data.” Part of her answer is “surveillant anxiety,”  a double-sided concept meant to capture the mounting fears of both the watchers and the watched, and the way in which they fuel each other. The agencies conducting surveillance collect so much data that “the sheer volume can overwhelm the critical signals in a fog of possible correlations.” The more they know, the more they fear they can’t understand what it indicates. As a consequence they try to collect more data and refine the correlations their algorithms churn up, attenuate the information with theory and expertise from an increasing range of social science disciplines, and make big data smaller, more granular, even as the volume increases. But this only defines more unknown pieces, undertheorized relations between seemingly correlated data points. So the fear intensifies.

At the same time, those surveilled recognize that they are being watched more intently, increasing their fear of what such scrutiny can turn up about them, what sort of synthetic “facts” about them the raw data can be dressed up to suggest. Crawford argues that this leads to a “populace that wishes nothing more than to shed its own subjectivity.” People want to be able to disappear, to blend in, to avoid having subjectivity if all that means is having one ascribed to you.  As the need for social camouflage becomes more urgent, it also becomes — in the classic recuperative manner of capitalism — more aestheticized, stylized. It becomes, as Crawford points out, “normcore.” The anxiety about surveillance, as it is recognized and commercialized, turns into an anxiety about status, about fashionability — about maintaining one’s cool:

the rapid rise of the term normcore is an indication of how the cultural idea of disappearing has become cool at the very historical moment when it has become almost impossible because of big data and widespread surveillance.

The twist that normcore has taken, from being an art term capturing the yearning for desubjectivation over capitalist subjectivity to being a term about a new distinctive fashion trend — suggests how quickly the desire to escape unwarranted institutional notice becomes a desire to be seen in the right way, to control how one is noticed. Left behind is the ability to imagine that social surveillance is not a give; instead it feels even more total, more thoroughly ubiquitous than it probably is in practice. Concepts like normcore help convey the plausibility of a panoptic society, even as the institutions ostensibly operating it are getting overwhelmed by data they can’t process. The concept does the disciplinary work that the hermeneutically challenged agencies can’t.

In other words, normcore is an “apparatus” that controls individual subjects just as much as the state spying agencies. In “What Is an Apparatus?” Giorgio Agamben argues that “what defines the apparatuses that we have to deal with in the current phase of capitalism is that they no longer act as much through the production of a sub­ject, as through the processes of what can be called desubjectification.” In exchange for permitting oneself to be defined by the structuring apparatuses of society, one comes away with a subject that is a nonsubject, one that experiences a distinction in being undistinguished, that revels in exceptional conformity.

Agamben also points out how generic subjectivity leads to a more extensive and pervasive need for surveillance and discipline:

It is only an apparent paradox that the harmless citizen of postindustrial democracies … who readily does everything that he is asked to do, inasmuch as he leaves his everyday gestures and his health, his amusements and his occu­pations, his diet and his desires, to be commanded and controlled in the smallest detail by apparatuses, is also considered by power — perhaps precisely because of this — as a potential terrorist.

The paradox is that the more docile and compliant one is, the more one seems like a suspect in the eyes of authority. This is the governing logic of the big data era, as it has been of every aspiring totalitarian regime. To continue to justify its increasing intrusiveness and expansiveness, our society’s data-collecting capacity requires the view that everyone will ultimately be found guilty.

When everyone is presumed guilty, does that encourage them to be guilty in fact? Since the state already suspects them, will they begin to act suspiciously? Will the additional information the state continually needs to know about us begin to seem inherently subversive to ourselves? Agamben is skeptical about the subversive potential of this “elusive element”

The more apparatuses pervade and disseminate their power in every field of life, the more government will find itself faced with an elusive element, which seems to escape its grasp the more it docilely submits to it. This is neither t0 say that this element constitutes a revolutionary subject in its own right, nor that it can halt or even threaten the governmental machine.

To threaten the “governmental machine” — or to reframe the question in Crawford’s terms, to “find a radical potential in the surveillant anxieties of the big-data era” — Agamben argues that we need to “profane the apparatuses.” If I knew what he meant by that exactly, I would tell you, but it seems to have something to do with reversing the processes of separation, of making “sacred” and therefore unusable, the resources we might otherwise share in common. I am trying to think this through with respect to symbolic resources — signs, signifiers, the things that are temporarily consecrated by fashion (in the service of capitalism’s need for enchanted goods) and then voided (in the service of capitalism’s need for accelerating circulation of goods). With individuated social media, our appropriation of signifiers becomes a process of value creation, and thus a process of re-consecration, of separation, of denying what is common in a common resource, language. Phenomena like normcore seem to yearn to arrest this process and describe a way to be in the world without having to create value. But that is just nostalgia in a time when value is extracted from virtually every move we make. To profane apparatuses, we have to cease to be one ourselves.



Me Meme

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With social media, the compelling opportunities for self-expression outstrip the supply of things we have to confidently say about ourselves. The demand for self-expression overwhelms what we might dredge up from “inside.” So the “self” being expressed has to be posited elsewhere: We start to borrow from the network, from imagined future selves, from the media in which we can now constitute ourselves.

This doesn’t guarantee “personal growth” however. The more we express ourselves for self-definition, the more we limit the self to what we have the means to circulate. The sort of self we can imagine ourselves to be becomes contingent on the available media.

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Social media offer a wealth of new resources (images, links, likes, screen grabs, image macros, serial selfies, emoji, etc.) to continue to bait us into “becoming ourselves.” These seem to let us express the self without the limits of language, or the fixed centrality of the speaking subject. The self expressed through a suite of social-media accounts seems to pour into networked space from all over the place, spilling over the edges of unitary profiles and giving users the freedom to renege on a precomposed identity in favor of ongoing glimpses at the process of self-composition.

The push toward a self-concept of perpetual becoming would seem to thwart subjectivation as social control. But the more we construct identity through the means of social media, the more we self-assimilate to the incentive built into them: to turn all experience into more and more strategic expression.

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How damaging is this? Users generally behave as though social media are safe spaces to reveal the self as an imperfect work in progress, but these media typically compile a permanent archive of our “becoming,” which negates its provisional nature. As much as the self feels uncontainable, yet it is contained.

It becomes the user’s problem to manage the tension between the static profile and the real-time experience of being a self in dynamic social-media feeds. How do users balance the freewheeling pursuit of immediacy, attention and salience within the network with the threat that it will all go on their permanent record?

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The tension between the archive and the feed puts pressure on “authenticity,” which lingers on as a compass for the self. If one believes a unique “true self” exists, then the archive is always inauthenticating it, exposing contradictions, disproving its spontaneity, and undermining its supposed originality.

Active social media use urges a de facto rejection of the “true self” that users may not be ready to accept ideologically. It calls for a self that is reconstituted (for others and for oneself) the same way a recommendation page or a news feed is reconstituted in real time.

This pressure fractures authenticity into two divergent sorts of “self”: a self anchored in a “negative theology,” and a postauthentic self. These work simultaneously as complements.

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The possibility that everything we do on networks is surveilled has generated an urge to remove the “true self” from charted territory.

In an essay for Rhizome about Google Glass, artist Molly Crabapple argued that “the things we once called souls are not legible to algorithms […] The network alters you in ways that make you more legible to the network. But maybe there are some things it still can’t get.”

As we make ourselves, or are made, more legible to the network, we may become more aware of what isn’t translatable to its formats. Deeper engagement with the network could provide a more thorough awareness of our “soul.”

In “Returning the Dream,” Adam Phillips quotes psychologist D.W. Winnicott: “At the center of each person is an incommunicado element, and this is sacred and most worthy of preservation.” Phillips interprets this as a “negative theology of the self” and argues that in Winnicott, “the aim of intimacy is to sponsor the solitary unknowability of the True Self.”

If that’s so, then social media would seem to destroy intimacy, replacing it with sharing and copious self-expression. But there is no reason to equate what is shared in social media with what is “authentic” about the self. Social media can support Winnicott’s negative theology of self by allowing us to express precisely what is inessential about ourselves, establishing the negative space where the ineffable self can reside.

Sharing is thereby a process of shedding, a way to purge what we think we know about ourselves but which is inherently wrong because expressible. Our “true self” is then constituted in the silences. The network, in this sense, actually alters us to have a soul, preparing the ground for it. And intimacy, then, is going over someone’s social media offerings and reassuring them that none of it seems much like them at all. The death of intimacy is when someone looks at your Facebook and thinks you’ve got yourself pegged.

But if our “deepest self” is inexpressible by definition, it is nonsensical to make “expressing the true self” into a life goal. Personal or artistic expression cannot then be about “sincerity” or “authenticity.” Yet few would accept that what they express through social media is inauthentic or false. What is going on there?

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What’s going on there is the postauthentic self. The uselessly inexpressible “true self” would doom us to an unbridgeable isolation despite social media’s ubiquitous connectivity. It requires the postauthentic self as functional complement.

The postauthentic self is premised on the possibility that one’s traces — the ephemera of everyday life that is being ejected from the “negative theology” self — can be processed into a makeshift identity on social media platforms, through feedback and algorithmic processing. This identity can be shared and consumed not only by others but by oneself. You can enjoy yourself as a novelty item rather than confront oneself as a problem to solve, or a set of inborn constraints. The “What Would I Say on Facebook” meme was a small example of this, of how self-expression can be supplanted by self-consumption.

Postauthenticity (you might call it “normcore”) rationalizes the terror of ubiquitous surveillance and makes accelerated consumption benevolent. Doing more online causes not more anxiety about whether what you’re doing is “right” but instead fuels the algorithms’ generating a new version of yourself to consume. The burden of uniqueness is on the algorithm, not us.

Being on social media deepens awareness of what can’t be shared, protecting the exclusionary purity of the inexpressible within us, beyond public appropriation. Meanwhile metrics and algorithms stand in as a quasi-populist proxy for the postauthentic self’s approving other in the circuit of self-production.

From brand to meme

Postauthenticity rejects specific consumerist signifers of the self (their increased circulation in social media makes their meaning unreliable anyway) in favor of the “engagement” metrics that track content, which become the newly reliable basis for the self. With the self grounded in metrics rather than specifics, one positions oneself in the social-media environment less as a personal brand than as a meme. One adopts a “viral self,” anchored in continual demonstrations of its reach, based on ingenious appropriation and aggregation of existing content, not in its fidelity to a static inner truth or set of tastes. It is defined by its ability to circulate, not by the content of what it circulates.

To make the self-as-meme register, it’s imperative to associate oneself with dynamic, emotionally resonant things that circulate virally. When you like a brand, for instance, nothing really happens. Since the viral self is a self constructed to exist in feeds, it requires material that is not inert. By sharing viral content, the self is in play. We don’t circulate memes so much as the memes circulate us.

Virality serves an equally tautological token of authenticity, as the spontaneous yet inexpressible self is for the negative-theology self. It indicates the presence of “real” feeling.

Vicarious identification with metrics

Content recedes to mere alibi for engaging emotionally with the circulation data, leading to vicarious identification with how information travels rather than what that information encodes.

We shift from consumerist pleasures of fantasizing about how owning certain branded goods would make us into a certain kind of person and secure us a certain sort of affirmation to fantasizing about triumphant moments of social quantification, about getting likes and retweets, having lots of Tumblr activity, etc.

Virality becomes the horizon beneath which occurrences no longer figure socially, no longer count for anchoring identity or asserting a self.

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Without viral content, you are in danger of becoming a blank.

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A look at the most notorious supplier of viral content, Upworthy, may shed some further light on how to adopt virality as a technique of the self and engineer it as an end in itself.

No content (or self) is inherently viral; likewise, no content is inherently nonviral. Optimization techniques can always be applied. Upworthy’s putative goal is to get its preferred content past filters and into massive circulation, but their tricks end up trumping the content, so the techniques to circulate the material are more revealing than the “things that matter” that they are about. Circulation itself becomes the content.

Most notorious of these techniques is the much-parodied curiosity gap headline: “You Won’t Believe etc.” But as employees explain in a recent New York magazine profile of the company, the specific formula is not the key and could easily change. What matters are what approached get results, as revealed in A/B tests of competing headlines. Hence the “real version” of any story’s packaging derives from the circulation process, with rejected versions doing nothing to compromise the winning one. Upworthy’s success in social media feed suggests we can approach identity in the same way.

Just as genuineness has proved irrelevant to content’s potential virality (stories are sometimes debunked after going viral), it is also irrelevant to the viral self, whose “authenticity” is an after-effect of having marshaled an audience. “Realness” is a matter of attention metrics rather than the fidelity of the content to some core “truth.”

Typical Upworthy material does not privilege uniqueness or complex emotional responses. Such subtleties belong to the negative-theology-of-self world of being so unique, you cannot be expressed comprehensibly. Rather, Upworthy emphasizes the use of formulas because they are comforting and uncool, and repel cynics who are more invested in exclusion than inclusion. They say they try to “reach people where they’re at”: “You don’t want to be that guy in your Facebook feed going, ‘These ReTHUGlicans out there …’ ”

That may be good advice in itself, but more significant, I think, is the assumption about who “you” are: a guy in a Facebook feed. Upworthy content strives to let you become that guy and not get filtered out yourself from the site of viral selfhood.

Upworthy’s intensive use of formulas illustrates how virality becomes a formal genre, recognizable independent of its circulation data. This helps permit one to experience virality as a feeling and identify with it in the face of inevitably disappointing actual metrics.

By encoding audience enthusiasm at the level of form, viral content permits vicarious participation not only in the viral story — whose apparent popularity helps encourage an indulgent suspension of disbelief—but in the social itself, conceived as a flow of information in social networks. The function of a story in social relations is shifted: it is not retold in time and dependent on co-presence, but instead linked to in space and “told” — that is, the identity quotient harvested — through circulating in networks.

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If virality is the model, then social-media participation ultimately has no “content.” It is just a matter of exchanging and tallying gestures of sharing. As virality supplants authenticity, the emotion that viral content provokes, a feeling of spreading connection, threatens to become the root of “authentic” feeling. Having other sorts of feelings becomes pointless if you can’t be seen having them. We will want to feel only what will spread.

For instance, because I know my reactions reading can be performed on Twitter, I am sure to have a reaction—to method-act my response and see how it goes over. That is an added incentive for emotionality that I don’t get from perusing People in a grocery-store line.

The ubiquity of virality makes it seem as though one can fit in only by spreading oneself indiscriminately. Social media sustain a measurement system that makes “more attention” seem always appropriate and anything less insufficient. If your appropriated content is not circulating ever more widely, then you are disappearing. This can feel like total exclusion: You are adding nothing to the social bottom line. You are not inspiring anybody. But it is also a confirmation of the other sort of “authentic” self  that must disappear to actually exist.