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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Social Media Is Not Self-Expression

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1. Subjectivation is not a flowering of autonomy and freedom; it’s the end product of procedures that train an individual in compliance and docility. One accepts structuring codes in exchange for an internal psychic coherence. Becoming yourself is not a growth process but a surrender of possibilities that we learn to regard as egregious, unbecoming. “Being yourself” is inherently limiting. It is liberatory only in the sense of freeing one temporarily from existential doubts. (Not a small thing!) So the social order is protected not by preventing “self-expression” and identity formation but encouraging it as a way of forcing people to limit and discipline themselves — to take responsibility for building and cleaning their own cage. Thus, the dissemination of social-media platforms becomes a flexible tool for social control. The more that individuals express through these codified, networked, formatted means to construct a “personal brand” identity, the more they self-assimilate, adopting the incentive structures of capitalist social order as their own. (The machinations of Big Data make this more obvious. The more data you supply, the more the algorithms can determine your reality.) Expunge the seriality built into these platforms, embrace a more radical form of difference.

2. In an essay about PJ Harvey’s 4-Track Demos, Michael Barthel writes:

while she was able to hole up in a seaside restaurant and produce a masterpiece, I need constant feedback and encouragement in order not to end up curled in some dark corner of my house, eating potato chips and refreshing my Tumblr feed in the hope that someone will have “liked” my Photoshopped picture of Kanye West in a balloon chair.

He’s being a bit facetious, but this is basically what I’m trying to get at above: the difference between an inner-directed process of discovery and a kind of outer-directed pseudo-creativity that in its pursuit of attention gets overwhelmed by desperation. I’m trading in a very dubious kind of dichotomizing here, I know — artists make a lot of great work for no greater purpose than attention-seeking, and the idea that anything is truly “inner-directed” may be a ideological illusion, given how we all develop interiority in relation to a social world that precedes us and enables us to survive. But what I am trying to emphasize here is how production in social media is often sold to users of these platforms as self-expressive creativity, as self-discovery, as an elaboration of the self even, but it is really a narrowing of the self to the reductive, defensive aim of getting recognition, reassurance of one’s own existence, that one belongs. That kind of “creativity” may crowd out the more antisocial kind that may entail reclusion, social disappearance, indifference to reputation and social capital, to being someone in particular in a network. Self-invention in social media that is perpetually in search of “feedback” is really just the production of communication, which gives value not to the self but to the network that gets to carry more data (and store it, and sell it).

Actual “self-invention” — if we are measuring it in range of expressivity — appears more like self-dissolution. We’re born into social life and shaped by it; self-discovery may thus entail a destruction of social bonds, not a sounding of them.

Barthel lauds the “demos, experiments, collaborative public works, jokes, notes, reading lists, sketches, appreciations, outbursts of pique” that are “absolutely vital to continuing the business of creation.” But the degree that these are all affixed to a personal brand when serially broadcast on social media depletes their vitality. If PJ Harvey released the demos as she made them to a Myspace page, would there ever have been a finished Rid of Me? Would the end product merely have been PJ Harvey, as the fecund musician?

Social media structure creative effort (e.g., Barthel’s list above) ideologically as “self-creating,” but they often end up as anxiety-inducing, exposing the self’s ad hoc incompleteness while structuring the demand for a fawning audience to complete us, validate every effort, as a natural expectation. Validation is nice, but as a goal for creative effort, it is somewhat limited. The quest for validation must inevitably restrict itself to the tools of attracting attention: the blunt instruments of novelty and prurience  (“Kanye West in a balloon chair”). The self one tries to express tends to be new, exciting, confessional, sexy, etc., because it plays as an advertisement. Identity is a series of ads for a product that doesn’t exist.

The process can’t quell anxiety; this kind of self-expression can only intensify it, focus it onto a few social-media posts that await judgment, narrow it to the latest instances of sharing. Social media’s quantifying metrics aggravate the problem, making expression into a series of discrete items to be counted, ranked. It serves as the infrastructure for a feedback loop that orients expression toward the anxiety of what the numbers will be and accelerates it, as we try to better those numbers, and thereby demonstrate that the self-monitoring is teaching us something about how to become more “relevant.”

The alternative would seem to be a sort of deep focus in isolation, in which one accepts the incompleteness that comes from being apart from an audience, that comes from not seeking final judgment on what one is doing and letting it remain ambiguous, open-ended, of the present moment and not assimilated to an archive of identity. To put that tritely: The best way to be yourself is to not be anybody in particular but to just be.

3. So is the solution to get off the Internet? If social media structure social behavior this way, just don’t use them, right? Problem solved. Paul Miller’s 2013 account at the Verge of his year without Internet use suggests it’s not so simple. Miller went searching for “meaning” offline, fearing that Internet use was reducing his attention span and preoccupying him with trivia. It turns out that, after a momentary shock of having his habits disrupted, Miller fell back into the same feelings of ambient discontent, only spiked with a more intense feeling of loneliness. It’s hard to escape the idea of a “connected world” all around you, and there is no denying that being online metes out “connectedness” in measured, addictive doses. But those doses contain real sociality, and they are reshaping society collectively. Whether or not you use social media personally, your social being is affected by that reshaping. You don’t get to leave all of society’s preoccupations behind.

Facebook is possibly more in the foreground for those who don’t use it than for those who have accepted it as social infrastructure. You have to expend more effort not knowing a meme than letting it pass through you. Social relations are not one-way; you can’t dictate how they are on the basis of personal preference. As Miller puts it, describing his too-broad, too pointed defiance of the social norms around him, “I fell out of sync with the flow of life.” Pretending you can avoid these social aspects of life because they are supposedly external, artificial, inauthentic, and unreal, is to have a very impoverished idea of reality, of authenticity, of unique selfhood.

The inescapable reciprocity of social relations comes into much sharper relief when you stop using social media, which thrive on the basis of the control over reciprocity they try to provide. They give a crypto-dashboard to social life, making it seem like a personal consumption experience, but that is always an illusion, always scattered by the anxiety of waiting, watching for responses, and by the whiplash alternation between omnipotence and vulnerability.

Miller’s fable ends up offering the lesson that the digital and the physical are actually interpenetrated, and all the personal problems he recognizes in himself aren’t a matter of technologically mediated social reality but are basically his fault. This seems too neat of a moral to this story. Nothing is better for protecting the status quo than convincing people that their problems are their own and are entirely their personal responsibility. This is basically how neoliberalism works: “personal responsibility” is elevated over the possibility of collective action, a reiteration of requirement to “express oneself” as an isolated self, free of social determination, free for “whatever.”

What is odd is that the connectivity of the internet exacerbates that sort of neoliberal ideology rather than mitigating it. Connectivity atomizes rather than collectivizes. But that is because most people’s experience of the internet is mediated by capitalist entities, or rather, for the sake of simplicity, by capitalism itself. You can go offline, but that doesn’t remove you from the alienating properties of life in capitalist society. So the same “personal problems” the Internet supposedly made you experience still exist for you if you go offline, because you are still in a capitalist society. Capitalist imperatives are still shaping your subjectivity, structuring your time and your experience of curiosity, leisure, work, life. The internet is not the problem; capitalism is the problem.

Social media offer a single profile for our singular identity, but our consciousness comprises multiple forms of identity simultaneously: We are at once a unique bundle of sense impressions and memories, and a social individual imbued with a collectively constructed sense of value and possibility. Things like Facebook give the impression that these different, contestable and often contradictory identities (and their different contexts) can be conveniently flattened out, with users suddenly having more control and autonomy in their piloting through everyday life. That is not only what for-profit companies like Facebook want, but it is also what will feel natural to subjects already accustomed to capitalist values of convenience, capitalist imperatives for efficiency, and so on.

So Miller is right to note that “the internet isn’t an individual pursuit, it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.” That’s part of why simply abandoning it won’t enhance our sense of freedom or selfhood. But because we “do” the internet with each other as capitalist subjects, we use it to intensify the social relations familiar from capitalism, with all the asymmetries and exploitation that comes with it. We “do” it as isolated nodes, letting social-media services further suppress our sense of collectivity and possibility. The work of being online doesn’t simply fatten profits for Facebook; it also reproduces the condition that make Facebook necessary. As Lazzarato puts it, immaterial “labour produces not only commodities, but first and foremost the capital relationship.”

4. Exodus won’t yield freedom. The problem is not that the online self is “inauthentic” and the offline self is real; it’s that the self derived from the data processing of our digital traces doesn’t correspond with our active efforts to shape an offline/online hybrid identity for our genuine social ties. What seems necessary instead is a way to augment our sense of “transindividuality,” in which social being doesn’t come at the expense of individuality. This might be a way out of the trap of capitalist subjectivity, and the compulsive need to keep serially producing in a condition of anxiety to seem to manifest and discover the self as some transcendent thing at once unfettered by and validated through social mediation. Instead of using social media to master the social component of our own identity, we must use them to better balance the multitudes within.

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