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Marginal Utility
Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Consistency through adulteration

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An article in a recent issue of the Economist details the tobacco industry’s troubles around the world with maintaining the value of its “intellectual property”: brand names, logos, package designs, and advertising aura. Governments have apparently recognized that tobacco companies have “the best pricing power of any industry,” as a consultant cited in the article somewhat euphemistically put it — that is, their customers are literally addicted to their product and will probably buy it if it came packaged in dog vomit. Given that the companies have that sort of leverage, states are acting to take away their brand power, mandating plain packaging and banning various forms of advertising. “The design of the box is where they must convey not only the name of the brand but abstract qualities, such as masculinity or the idea that a product is ‘premium,’ and worth an extra outlay,” the article explains. “If such traits are stripped from packs, consumers may choose cheaper brands.” But won’t those smokers fail to taste the magic in the more expensive nicotine itself?

The article also points out that the industry has described anti-advertising initiatives as “expropriation of intellectual property” — theft of the immaterial value added to tobacco products over and above whatever intrinsic value they have through advertising and design. Tobacco, seen from this vantage point, is just a (toxic, unfortunately) medium for conveying ideas and social values in a compelling, visceral way. It is just another form of media that we get addicted to.

A cigarette is a cigarette is a cigarette, and when a smoker chooses one brand over another, they are in the realm of pure ideology. They have bought into the idea of the cigarette as a medium, which maybe isn’t physiologically addictive but can be a hard habit to break nonetheless. Ideology is addictive. It feels good to consume an idea like, say, “masculinity” as so much smoke you blow out of your mouth. It functions like a tautological argument: I can’t explain in logical terms why the Marlboro makes me feel more manly, but I can feel something indisputable happening in my lungs. It is reassuring to feel why you believe something on the bodily level, even if that feeling is ultimately associated arbitrarily with what it represents for you.

Governments, then, are trying to turn tobacco from a medium back into a generic substance again. They want to strip tobacco down to its core compulsive essence so that smokers must face that they smoke because they are nicotine addicts, not because they are brand loyalists, or because they like the message the cigarette medium can convey: that they are young or rebellious or sexy or sophisticated or cool or whatever other abstract idea companies have managed to associate with smoking. Rather than regulate the messages cigarettes communicate, the government is trying to make cigarettes noncommunicative by censoring the messages packaged around them, as if people won’t think to feel anything about smoking if the discourse around it is somehow stripped of all allusiveness. As if then they will just be addicted to smoking qua smoking or, even more abstract, addicted to the state of being addicted.

This seems an unlikely outcome. It seems more plausible that addiction generates its own rationalizations, its own myths, its own ideology. We need to experience a physical grounding for our ideological beliefs, and we need to have ideological excuses for our physical addictions, so they tend to work in tandem, symbiotically. The compulsion to smoke drives a quest for ideological rationalizations (“smoking is cool”), just as the need for belief drives the quest for compulsive, physically affective practices that seem uncontestably “real.” Compulsion authenticates practices and the ideas associated with them; it removes incentives and calculations from the equation. You do and feel and believe because you have to, altogether. At a certain point it seems inconceivable that I decided to smoke; the taste for what smoking represents to me no longer seems optional, a conniving ploy at something, either. It feels reflexive, like a craving.

Brands can seem like a way to add a phony value to an otherwise undifferentiated commodity. But they also mark the entry point for consumers into some vicarious fantasy, some idea tangential to consumption. The potential value of a brand rests in the conflation of compulsion and the desire to believe. It must make you feel as though you are choosing and also have no choice.

When governments mandate that cigarette packaging must be ugly, it may be that smokers’ ideas of beauty will change. There is no reference point for beauty that compulsion can’t shift, no absolute ugliness that can anchor a sense of repulsion where we once felt compelled. A substance makes us compulsive and we put that compulsion to use to make something else, some idea of ourselves, feel desperately necessary, mandatory, inescapable. We’ll create a brand-shaped hole wherever we project our compulsions.

So it seems doubtful to me that a government can take a thing that has functioned as a medium, as a vehicle for wishes and fears and fantasies, and nullify it simply by making it plain. The smallest differences can be made to signify. Our desire to enjoy brands is probably stronger even than the desire to smoke. We can’t suppress the yearning to have a specific name for the things we love.






Social media as masochism


When I read anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s book on gambling, Addiction by Design, it started me thinking of how machine gambling works as an analogue for social media: Both facilitate an escapism through engagement, an immersion in immediate risk-taking routines that obscures the larger existential crises. (A lot more about that in this post.)

Both also seem like masochistic practices that one adopts to escape or offload the burden of self. You do these things to forget about who you are and how you are responsible for how you are seen. That maybe makes more obvious sense about gambling machines, which narrow subjective experience to immediate and arbitrary reward seeking, but perhaps seems like a paradoxical thing to claim about social media, given that they ostensibly serve to build up, circulate, and store the self (or at least the carefully curated tokens of identity). It might seem weird to say that we express ourselves to escape ourselves. But self-expression can dissolve the self as well as build some enduring, legible version of a self.

This 1988 paper by psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Masochism as Escape From Self,” may help in addressing the apparent paradox. He argues that masochism is essentially the shadow of individualism. The pressures of having a unique self — the “high-level self-awareness” and high-pressure decisionmaking involved — can become aversive, and lead to an intensification of the desire to escape from self.


He adds later that “there may even be a cyclic escalation, in which the more responsibility and esteem a person accumulates, the more difficult and exhausting it is to sustain them.” He also notes that “high levels of esteem and agency produce the most complex and elaborate selves, which may also be the most burdensome selves. As a result such individuals may seek the strongest modes of escape—such as masochism.”

Much of social media is a calculated effort to “accumulate” esteem and grant agency. It seems plausible that the intense self-consciousness of ongoing social-media use (certainly a “recalcitrant social environment,” despite its responsiveness) could trigger an intense need to escape from self. Social-media use intensifies self-consciousness through a deeper awareness of the contingencies and vulnerability of our identity, leading to a greater need to escape from it, or at least suspend our consciousness of it.

Somewhat less plausible maybe, though I still believe this is worth exploring, is the possibility that the escape from self that social-media necessitates is often sought through an intensification of social-media use. If some portion of social media use can be characterized as masochistic, or if it can be at once masochistic and self-aggrandizing, then it may be used to alleviate the “burden of self” Baumeister describes even as it intensifies it. Not only would this let us keep obeying the imperative to “express ourselves” and build out our all-important online reputations and networks, but it would allow us to address the anxiety of self-consciousness in the environment that prompts it. To address and control how social media make us feel would seem to require deeper engagement with social media, as in a negative feedback loop. Social media, in other words, has affordances to make “self-construction” masochistic and self-negating — as well as addictive, or self-affirming, or strategic. (Social media makes the self cohere in contradictions.)

According to Baumeister, masochism allows people to escape the self by orienting them on the immediacy of physical experience and by allowing them to dissociate through the creation and inhabitation of a “fantasized identity”:

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Those points about fluid identity and physicality seem not to correspond to social-media use; social media seem detached from physical reality (the “digital dualism” illusion), and sites are frequently committed to imposing real-names on users. But social media can be visceral. Your pulse can race, your stomach drop, as you check to see what has been said about you, to you. You can find yourself unable to tear yourself away from a screen in a chat, held cruelly in suspense as you wait for a response to a message that seems dumber and more misreadable as it hangs there. And as much as real name policies are imposed, alternate identities proliferate, even within the same profiles. The “real-name” identity anchors the creation of fantasized identities, gives them an online baseline from which to differentiate, become operant.

Intensive sharing on social media, then, can cease to seem a building up of a self but its dissolution. That’s not merely in the sense that the more information there is in an archive, the harder it is to assemble into a coherent identity; it’s also a phenomenological dissolution: The acts of engaging with social media become points of narrowed attentional focus, akin to the masochistic myopia that Baumeister notes in the literature. He cites Elaine Scarry to claim that pain destroys our will to consider symbolic meanings and abstractions — the essential components of social identity.


Each act of social-media participation plays on the level of symbolic meaning and identity, but awareness of the ongoing ramifications of this may be so overwhelming as to need to be deferred. More sharing defers that recognition while exacerbating the problem, in part because of that knowledge — the humiliation potentially inherent in sharing can evoke a sharp psychic pain of vulnerability that overwhelms itself. Sharing also figures as a gesture of seizing control of the moment in which pain and humiliation will be administered, and the anxiety can also be diverted to a “fantasy” version of the self that is being elaborated in online platforms and thereby disavowed. (The online self, the avatar, is vulnerable, not me — even if that avatar bears my real name and I occasionally identify with it fully and proudly.)

Baumeister’s analysis hinges on distinguishing between a qualitatively “high” and a “low” level of self-awareness. Judging by the following description, the “high” level sounds a lot like conventional, neoliberalistic use of social media to establish one’s flexibility, fitness, and capacity for projects by building up a network and an archive of self. The “‘low” level sounds like the zoned-out flow experience Schüll associates with poker-machine compulsives (more from me about that here).


In social media, the archive can take on the roles of what Baumeister calls the “high-level awareness of self” so that we don’t have to and can lapse into self-annihilating flow instead by attuning to its rhythms of checking, updating, responding, waiting. Those rhythms are easier to find if we post a lot and post intense or risky or embarrassing things that can desubjectivze us through humiliation and/or pain. The platform’s constrictions take on the function of bondage, restricting autonomy to a limited set of actions.

But the key to social media’s masochistic potential is in how it seems to guarantee an audience. Baumeister notes that “use of mirrors or even audiences in S&M probably also intensifies the immediate, low-level awareness of self. Through the mirror or audience, the masochist’s attention is drawn to his or her immediate condition and predicament…the witness confirms the loss of self by conferring social reality.” Social media, of course, is both a mirror and an audience at once.

Masochistic acts of sharing are meant to invoke an audience, but not for the continuous, archived self — not for the ongoing, identity-signifying connotations of what is shared. Instead the audience is invoked to energize the obliteratingly powerful affect of the present moment by seeming to confirm its humiliating reality, the fantasy identity crystallized in that moment. One puts an aspect of oneself (actual or invented) out there to dream of it being mocked, and that pain of mockery disassociates us from the deeper vulnerabilities of the “real self” that is being deferred and protected for the moment.

The overload

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This New York article by Casey Johnston about the death of the chronological feed colors within the lines of these sorts of pieces: It takes for granted that people suffer from information overload as if it is some sort of act of god, and that algorithmic curation is therefore an inevitable and necessary attempt to fix the problem. Users are treated as incapable of curating their own feeds, because they are either too lazy, too passive, or too indiscriminate — presumably users follow or friend people whose posts they have no interest in seeing out of politeness or an intent to curry favor with them, and then they end up inundated. As Johnston writes, “It’s difficult for users to adequately curate their own feeds. Most people just follow their friends.“

That claim concedes too much, I think, to social-media-company ideology about how platforms are supposed to be used. What makes such personal curation difficult is not the effort required in doing it (make a Twitter list, start a Facebook group), but the effort it takes to overcome everyone assuming and insisting that it is so so difficult.

Platforms like to promulgate the idea that users are not inclined to decide for themselves what they want, and that they are instead eager to be persuaded and served things they haven’t chosen, like ads. Not only can’t we curate our information feeds, but we can’t curate our personal desires, so we welcome ads and algorithms to solve the overwhelming problem for us.

Johnston acknowledges that maybe companies shouldn’t be trusted to do this sorting and don’t have our interests in mind, but then basically shrugs: “It’s an understandable fear. But, well, that ship has sailed.” We should just give up and roll with it, apparently. Sweet surrender.

Using social media that implements an algorithmically curated feed reinforces for users that they shouldn’t be expected to deliberate over any desires or guide their own information-search processes. Such platforms teach users helplessness. Staging information overload deliberately helps with the lessons. The point is to make the surrender pleasurable, as Will Davies suggests here. As with the “sublime” in aesthetic theory, we are overloaded with information so that we can enjoy being overpowered.

That is why platforms have always tried to saturate users with information and encourage them to constantly add more people and services to their feeds. The overload is intentional. Overload is the point, just like “too many channels (and nothin’ on)” is the whole point of having cable. Social media platforms foreground the metrics that drive overload, opting people in when possible and encouraging them to friend and follow everyone and everything they can.

Such promiscuity leads to the kinds of “context collapse” that companies are invoking to explain why users are posting less. But clearly the platforms prefer “context collapse” to communication. Their business model relies on having a lot of users spending a lot of time on the site, not necessarily on users posting a lot about themselves. Context collapse may make users post less, but it also generates a prurience about what others post; it salts all posts with a sense of risk that makes them more compelling. It also orients users toward consumption rather than production; or rather, it encourages them to limit their own “prosumption” to safe practices — sharing links to signal their own identity, endorsing other people’s content with likes, and so on.

This suits social media platforms just fine; the more programmatic your engagement is with their platform, the better. Ideally you watch your feed like television. Just as algorithmic sorting is posited as something users demand to deal with information overload (when really it allows platforms to serve ads in with content), “context collapse” is deployed to make it seem like users’ sinking into passivity is their own fault and not the platform’s — and meanwhile social media follow the path of all previous mass-media technologies, toward emphasizing the few broadcasting to the many.

We’re supposed to believe that users posting less constitutes some sort of threat to Facebook: If we stop posting, they won’t have as much data about users to use to target ads better. But that is not necessarily the case: Facebook gets the data it needs about users by spying on their browsing activity and keeping track of their likes and other sorts of non-posting behavior. The chief thing that user posts are good for, from the platform’s point of view, is keeping other people engaged with the site.

But a site that is made up only of friends talking to friends is an uncomfortable place to serve ads — the primary business of Facebook. (It doesn’t exist primarily to facilitate connection or even data collection on individuals; those are subordinate to gluing eyes to screens and guaranteeing they see ads.) Hence Facebook seeks a blend of friend-to-friend recognition (the social glue that makes checking Facebook nearly mandatory) with the ordinary sort of culture-industry product that we are well-accustomed to seeing ads with — the sort of content that people typically link to and share, the “quality” content that Facebook optimizes its feed (with constant tinkering and rejiggering) to prioritize.

In re-sorting users feeds, however, feed-curation algorithms aren’t trying to solve information overload; they are hoping to prolong it and make it more enjoyably overwhelming. The sublime overload inculcates users with passivity toward their own curiosity. The procedures that pretend to manage the overload instead direct the users’ surrendered attention toward ads. With their lowered resistance and learned helplessness, they should be more easily persuaded than ever.

Both information overload and context collapse are deliberately induced — they are features masquerading as bugs. Both help us enjoy a more passive attitude toward consuming social media, offering plausible deniability to ourselves when we see the ship of active engagement has sailed.