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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Social graph vs. social class

I’ve hated the term social graph since Facebook first seized upon it in 2007 to try to legitimate and intellectualize their project of subsuming people’s social lives. But it turns out the term, which describes the map of connections sustained by a network, may be useful in drawing a distinction between the sort of social organization that social media serve to reinforce and the class-based analyses they work to prevent.

Social media support, obviously, a view of society as a network, in which individual “nodes” define themselves (and their worth) in terms of their difference from other nodes. Each individual’s value lies in developing and expressing that difference, finding comparative advantage relative to others. There has to be something unique that you provide to make you worth linking to, though that uniqueness may consist of the unique access you provide to a bunch of other people as well as the unique information you are in a position to supply. At any rate, establishing connections to others serves to spread awareness of that difference, meaning that the relations charted in that network (aka the social graph) draw lines of competition as well as of mere affiliation.

The connections between people are not uniformly reciprocal; the attention and information flowing along the link between people is not even or balanced. Some are followers, some are followed. Some gain value from their connections given their placement in society to make profitable use of what they glean from the network, whereas others can be relatively taken advantage of by their connections, giving up valuable information (possibly inadvertently) while reaping little of its benefits. Networks allow for co-optation as much as cooperation.

All this means that individuals in the network are faced with an ongoing tactical situation. They are under pressure to constant innovate the nature of their identity in the network to find new advantages, invent new differences, propagate new bases for how they can be judged to their advantage and new implied hierarchies to dominate (e.g. “I’m the person with the coolest Deep Purple bootleg blog”; “I’m the quickest to retweet that post”; “I invented a meme that combines Deleuze passages with pictures of Rihanna”; etc.). They also need to make sure they are establishing the right sorts of connection and managing them appropriately so that some or all of its value accrues to them. Given the nature of the value of communication and the sort of consumerist innovation that goes on in manipulating language and symbols (making memes, inventing styles, etc.), the value of virality (or of fashionability or of novelty or what ever you want to call it) is constantly being produced in networks but is not so easily captured. Lazzarato: “Immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” — in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion.”Networks incubate immaterial labor and Virnoesque virtuosity, in which people “perform their own linguistic faculties” to create social value. Networks can circulate that value, which itself is a kind of productive process adding more value. But networks disguise agency; the collective production of value through network effects and the like make it hard to determine whether any individual involved with the processes (which are ongoing, especially with smartphones serving as immaterial labor gleaners) are being exploited.

Basically we need to make connections based on a semblance of trust (“I won’t exploit what you tell me; I will share back the gains I get from what you share”), making each link a prisoner’s dilemma. Social norms are forced to bear a lot of the burden of sustaining trust in that environment, even as the network structure – which highlights the separateness of each member, denying the possibility of collective identity — works against them. Around the edges of our social networks, the trust frays, but we don’t know where that line is, where the connection is no longer between “friends” but between competitors.

This interpretation of how society is organized — the one that anything labeled as “social” by the tech world helps sustain — precludes an interpretation that acknowledges the possibility of class, of concrete groups with shared interests that they work to construct and then use as the basis for forcing concessions from capital. In the network, you are on your own; its ideology suggests we are all equally points on the great social graph, no different from anyone else save for the labor we put in to establishing connections. This obviates the issues of pre-existing social capital and class habitus that facilitate the formation of better connections and the ability to reap their value instead of being exploited by them.

Since the social graph traces intricate constellations that are always becoming ever more complex, it requires massive computer power and elaborate algorithms to interpret and trace out underlying patterns of significance. Generally, only capital has the resources to summon such power, so the commonalities called into being through such analysis of network data are commercial ones. Retailers can figure out what demographic and lifestyle pattern you fit into, whther you know it or not, and then you with advertising that reinforces your belonging and takes advantage of it. (The third episode of Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self has a section on the roots of this in Values and Lifestyles analysis devised at Stanford in the 1970s.)

But to forge a social class, a different sort of work is required, called forth by a different conception of society, based on antagonisms between blocs (and ongoing fights that require long-term strategies), not antagonisms between individuals (whose spontaneous skirmishes require more or less ad hoc tactics). Think E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which treats class not as a statistical artifact but as something that’s as much forged deliberately by members than ascribed by outside forces. The social graph purports to passively record social arrangements that emerge organically and thus reflect some sort of true and undistorted account of how society works. That conception discourages the possibility of those plotted on the graph from making a social class. Social media users don’t take advantage of their connectedness to undertake the work of finding the bases by which they can see their concerns as being shared, being in some way equivalent. Instead, their connectedness drives them to preen for attention and personal brand enhancement. One must work against social media’s grain to use it to develop lasting, convincing political groupings.

I’ve derived this network vs. class scheme chiefly from chapter 5 of Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, ”Undermining the Defenses of the World of Work,” which  traces how neoliberalism’s ideological propositions about flexibility and autonomy brought on deunionization and crippled the force of critique. Boltanski and Chiapello argue that in the crises capitalism faced from 1968 to the early 1980s the “artistic critique” (emphasizing worker autonomy and on-job creativity) won out over the “social critique” (emphasizing justice and mitigating inequality), leading to the acceptance of neoliberalist reforms as potentially liberating, as defensible progress (and not as dismantling norms of economic security). (Boltanski and Chiapello list autonomy, authenticity, creativity, liberation) The once legitimate artistic critique was rehabilitated by the new spirit of capitalism, and those who persisted in pursuing the tenets of the artistic critique became hipsters rather than social critics. That mode of resistance became instead an entrepreneurial mode of personal branding.

The recuperation of the artistic critique by capitalism did not bring about a transfer to the social critique, which, as we have seen, was itself in crisis. A majority of intellectuals made as it was nothing, and continued to display the hallmarks (notably sartorial) of an opposition to the business world and enterprise, and to regard as transgressive moral and aesthetic positions that were now incorporated into commodity goods, and offered without restrictions to the public at large. The kind of disquiet that this more or less conscious bad faith was bound to provoke found an outlet in the critique of the media and mediatization as the derealization and falsification of a world where they remained the exclusive guardians of authenticity.

The space the artistic critique once opened for conflict was reclaimed for consumerism, and the conflict instead shifted to a politically impotent internecine battle over who is permitted to be authentic. The bad-faith cultural entrepreneurs are at the same time their own critics (hipsters are the quintessential anti-hipsters), and when they aren’t pointing fingers at one another, they denounce the existence of media that allow inauthenticity to flourish. With social media, ex post authenticity is even more irrelevant, since identity is constructed and revised in real time, and no longer is conceived as some original unique content imbued in the self by God or something but instead is a matter of the individual’s evolving place in the network. Identity is both the content and the connections of the single node. A mode of resistance built around some lost basis of authenticity just reveals entitlement and privilege among the resisters, who want to control the value of identity (fix it in place) rather than be subject to its fluidity (and the endless striving that engenders).

Neoliberalism has generally proceeded by disguise class antagonism, the existence of conflictual classes, and replacing them with individuals battling other individuals, whether over matters of taste or broader employment qualifications. Neoliberalism freed us, invited us, to think of everybody as being middle class by default; whatever  work went into building working-class solidarity, “establishing equivalence” among disparate people so they could participate in common struggles has been lost. Instead, we get to be unique idiosyncratic selves with special unique talents, and our main political problem is getting that specialness properly recognized. “Someone tell me how authentic I am, damn it!” And accordingly, we all need to negotiate our wages on an individual basis; no reason to be unionized. It’s all about social and cultural capital, about your human capital. We are all capitalists, at last.

The result of all that?

The opportunities offered for the flourishing of the self went together with the exclusion of those individuals or groups that did not possess the requisite resources to seize those opportunities and, consequently, with an increase in poverty and inequality.

I think that’s what Freddie deBoer is trying to get at from a far more personal angle in this post.

Like neoliberalist ideology and post-Fordist management techniques, social media work to “restore the salience of particularities” and “construct a world sensitive to differences,” to use Boltanski and Chiapello’s phrases. This yields a “confused, fragmented universe, composed solely of a juxtaposition of individual destinies.” We all flounder to get ahead personally but never unite in a meaningfully political way. The 99% dissolves and all that’s shared is statuses, photos, and tweets. And everything remains fucked up and bullshit.

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