Serious action

I have a long essay in the latest New Inquiry issue about the metaphor of "microfame" and what sort of ideological work it performs. (It's not online yet, but it will be sometime this month.) I think I let the ideas marinate too long and they ended up saturating my thinking so much that the essay became a stew that I threw whatever I came across into. Every kind of visibility is microfame, everywhere, all the time! This is one of the reasons I'm terrible at working on longer pieces. I spend too much time with the ideas, and when the essay is finished I want to repudiate them all.

One of the dubious claims I was trying to make was that people using social media in a "microfame" sort of way are (1) seeking intensity to make up for the disappointments of everyday social-media use, which stokes a far more intense need for affirmation than the ordinary people in one's community can generally fulfill and (2) seeking a pre-emptive defense against the fateful loss of privacy by turning that eventuality (the transformation into oneself into what law professor Mary Anne Franks calls an "unwilling avatar") into a self-defined risk.

After I finished writing the essay, I read Erving Goffman's "Where the Action Is" (one of the essays in the collection Interaction Ritual), which gave me a clearer way of thinking about online risk-taking and reputation wagers (what Goffman in the essay calls "character contests"). The fringes of social-media connectivity — the encounters where you are constructing a heightened version of oneself not for people who already know you but those whose opinion seems still in play — offer a field for taking calculated risks, for what gamblers have always called "action," an intensity over ventured stakes that makes the present moment seem like the only thing that matters in the world.

When I lived in Las Vegas, I spent a decent amount of time at cheap craps tables, and even there the sense of "action" was palpable, a thing you could almost touch. It communicated from person to person, especially if a table got hot and the same shooter kept rolling for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Winning or losing money was almost beside the point when you begin to feel immersed in action. (For what its worth, in 2004 I wrote a longish essay about Las Vegas here.)

But action can't happen without stakes to gather the affect to you. Gamblers' wagers are monetary and wait for the roll of the dice to decide the outcome; the anxious and microfamous risk their reputation and the immediate deciding outcome is likes, reblogs, and so on. This immediacy screens the larger ramifications of the risk down the line (much like gamblers aren't worried in the moment about being destitute outside the casino).

Goffman theorizes that we seek action to call forth otherwise inaccessible dimensions of  "character" and prove our poise and "composure," a term of art for Goffman that amounts to keeping one's cool and earning a reputation for it — the ability to act natural. Post-hipsterism, we might call it a display of authenticity. Action sets up a contrived situation that lets us show our "natural" character — or at least lets us think others think it is natural.

According to Goffman, "excitement and character display, the by-products of practical gambles, ... become in the case of action the tacit purpose of the whole show." Goffman suggests that we are fundamentally "ambivalent about safe and momentless living," and so we feel a pull away from the comforts of everyday life to the fringes to seek "serious action." At the same time, choosing "action" makes us believe we can assert control over the way our lives are contingent and at the mercy of fate. Through action, we seem to choose the momentous occasions for ourselves. And society tacitly rewards action seekers by confirming and respecting their (illusory) sense of autonomy: Goffman writes, "It is as if the illusion of self-determinancy were a payment society gives to individuals in exchange for their willingness to perform jobs that expose them to risk."

Self-construction has arguably become one of those risky jobs for all of us, given the real subsumption of subjectivity to capital — no ontological security without routing your thoughts and feelings through communicative capitalism's circuits. In my New Inquiry essay, I frame that real subsumption in terms of "the threat of invisibility" — the feeling that one will disappear from meaningful society if one stops participating in online social networks. This is complicated, of course, by the threats inherent in visibility — surveillance, context collapse, harassment, etc. The tension between these simultaneous threats leaves us craving action as a way of re-establishing control.

Most people aren't courageous enough to seek action outright, Goffman argues, so they pursue vicarious substitutes in entertainment (they consume the extreme risky behavior of heroes in books, movies, TV) or in packaged thrills, like amusement-park rides and whatnot.

Here's how Goffman attenuates the division between action seekers and (to quote Bud from Repo Man) "ordinary fucking people":

Looking for where the action is, one arrives at a romantic division of the world. On one side are the safe and silent places, the home, the well-regulated role in business, industry, and the professions; on the other are all those activities that generate expression, requiring the individual to lay himself on the line and place himself in jeopardy during a passing moment. It is from this contrast that we fashion nearly all our commercial fantasies.

Social media, especially highly structured sites like Facebook, are partly akin to the amusement park in providing a controlled way to take risks with identity and behave in risky ways (stalking, sharing "too much," etc.) and partly akin to old vicarious entertainments, only the risk-taking heroes are peers, not fictional characters or celebrities. They are instead the microfamous; they are ourselves. The commercial fantasies are about ourselves. Like the action at plush casinos where you get to play at high-rollerdom, this social media action is "at once vicarious and real." The different social media sites offer different ways to calibrate this balance, but it is easy to get wrong and they encourage that we lose sight of the more far-reaching consequences of impulsive behavior. The vicarious thrill of being able to broadcast, to seize a moment of self-definition (which must be risky — shameful, if you buy into Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's gloss on Silvan Tomkins's affect theory — to feel rich and true) is social media's product for users.

By giving immediate access to the outer reaches of our social networks, the internet encourages us to take social risks to define our character in a moment rather than accept the embedded identity we build over time. Social media supplies high-risk opportunities to definitively establish our presence in absence, in a way that feels like something under our control, something we sought out. Through our composure in the risky performance of self, we prove that the identity we are constructing is also natural, who we really are. It has gravity; we are not simply deletable, ephemeral.

To experience action, people need to go where "the chances that they will be obliged to take chances" increase, Goffman notes. It seems like people figure out where these places are online, whether Tumblr or OkCupid or Craigslist, etc. (ChatRoulette was an example of this phenomenon in condensed, low-stakes form, with no reputation at stake.) Wherever context is likely to be collapsing — but not yet! And not only places, but what sorts of people to follow, to stalk, to contact. People learn how to concentrate self-expression in an online gesture and calibrate the amount of shame in it to make it feel genuine, above and beyond the confirmation of a community. So Goffman's final line in the essay still resonates: "These naked little spasms of the self occur at the end of the world, but there at the end is action and character."