Promotional culture on Facebook

The language of self-discovery has to come from somewhere; we don’t invent the words to match our unique feelings. So maybe it’s not so strange for Facebook to provide users with a roster of possible emotions, reified as emoticons, to assign to their updates. The provision of a field and a checklist of possibilities doesn’t merely allow us to express a pre-existing emotion; it presents an opportunity to decide to feel something specific, to refine a vague affect into a particular emotion that we consciously embrace. The prompt to name a feeling is the impetus to have one.

In an essay at Cyborgology, Whitney Erin Boesel suggests the emoticons are  a safe way for Facebook to introduce negative affect onto its network (addressing its Dislike problem) without upsetting its core product for users, self-affirmation, or its core product for clients, rich user data.

When I “dislike” a post, my friend feels bad and doesn’t want to post for a while. When I click “feeling sad,” however, it prompts my friends to interact with me to cheer me up—and interaction is what keeps Facebook running. More interaction means more information. The emoticon statuses, therefore, are actually kind of clever: they take my previously threatening negative affect and repackage it both as more information about me and as a way to fuel the free-labor fires of Facebook’s sharing engine.

Of course, the standardized format in which Facebook would like you to express your emotions makes your feelings machine-readable and thus easier to process into marketable information, as Will Oremus explains in this Slate essay:

Turning informal, colloquial language into usable data is really hard. Even the smartest computers today are terrible at detecting irony, interpreting slang, or drawing inferences about people’s mental states based on their words … But emoticons, along with hashtagsphoto tags“about” pages, and even the ubiquitous “like” button, appear to be part of a grand Facebook strategy to get its users to do a lot of the hard work themselves.

But the work is not merely a matter of formatting our feelings so that our affect can be accurately indexed to other data points. (As Boesel suggests, advertisers will likely be eager to capitalize on knowing when users are anxious and vulnerable. “I’m now taking bets on how long it’ll take before I post that I’m ‘feeling sad’ today, see ads for ice cream and Prozac tomorrow, and see ads for weight loss products and dating services next week.”) It’s also a demand to conjure a feeling in the first place — to become more emotionally engaged on a conscious level while using Facebook by selecting a ready-to-wear feeling. The process consoles users with the fantasy that emotions are something we choose, not something that overwhelms us. So while it might be worrisome that Facebook is asking us to “reduce” our emotional palette to those which it has bothered to make smiley faces for, we shouldn’t overlook the way the emoticon scheme makes us shoppers for new, bonus feelings à la carte. It asks us to make feelings that Facebook can then repurpose as encouragement to use Facebook more. The elicited, reified feelings are emotions in the form of ads.

It’s worth remembering that every additional interaction with Facebook’s interface generates another discrete piece of information that Facebook can use in three ways: (1) as content for other users, (2) as information for data aggregators like Acxiom and ad buyers, and (3) as an advertisement for itself, as proof of the awesome generativity of Facebook and the fun engagement it demonstrably elicits. It’s easy to overlook in the midst of all the sharing and self-expression that every Facebook share serves also as an ad for Facebook. It exhibits what Andrew Wernick, in Promotional Culture, calls “promotional reflexivity” — it’s a good whose use value is inseparable from its brand equity. Facebook is one of those goods through which we identify ourselves with a brand, take on the brand’s successes as indicative of our own. The most obvious “promotional commodity” (to use another of Wernick’s terms) is a shirt that is merely a vehicles for logos,

as opposed to a particularly effective garment. But Facebook also functions as a promotional commodity (if not an entire promotional culture in its own right), only its brand equity is synonymous with its network effects. The more people who use it, the more value it has for users and the more valuable it appears to everyone — users, would-be users, investors, etc. Just as all ads are advertising not just specific goods but consumerism as a whole, every Facebook profile promotes using the social network as a way of life. You can’t use Facebook without shilling for it; you are a FB sales rep when you extend invite people to join, to friend you. You are a FB sales rep when you talk about yourself.

On Facebook, one’s self, captured as a profile, becomes a promotional commodity as well, encouraging others to consume you for the benefit of promoting you and thereby promoting themselves for knowing you. (Win-win!) Your “value” to others is instantiated as self-promotion. What they get out of reading your updates about yourself is not just the content of the information but also participation in the building of Brand You. And you perform the same service for them, consuming them as product and championing them as a quasi-artisan producer of that product. Whether we admit it or not, we all like to consume ad discourse as entertainment, to the degree that if a cultural product is not at once identifiably an ad, we might suspect whether or not it even counts as entertainment. Facebook and other social media extend this to our “friends”; they supply us the relief of being able to consume friendship as advertisement, reassuring us that these are connections worth having made.

Wernick argues of the earlier promotional culture that everyone is “being encouraged to focus their energies not on realizing themselves as self-activating subjects but on maximizing their value as circulating tokens of exchange.” The “possessive” individual of capitalism described by C.B. Macpherson, Wernick suggests, has been supplanted by the promotional individual, delineated as other-directedness in Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd. But using Facebook lets us inhabit three different integral subject positions in a promotional culture simultaneously — we are the consumer of an ad, the producer of an ad, and an ad itself all at once. We are in production, circulation, and consumption. That is, we are “subjectivized” into advertising discourse in three separate ways that each reinforce the logic of the others. Our promotional-culture self becomes three-dimensional, rather than the reductive one-dimensional man of yore. We maximize our value as a circulating token at the same time we realize ourselves as a self-activating subject. It becomes harder to imagine being a subject at all without also being circulated as a product. In this climate, becoming an ad, a lifestyle exemplar, is the best way to be yourself.