Wizards of Like

The News Feed algorithm is made to serve ads, not please users
A year ago, when the emotional manipulation paper became a scandal, it became clear that many Facebook users hadn’t before considered how their News Feeds were manipulated; they were inclined to instinctively accept the feed as a natural flow. That seems to reflect consumers’ attitude toward television, where content simply flows from channels and we don’t generally stop to think about the decisions that led to that content being there and how it might have been different. We just immerse in it or change the channel; we don’t try to commander the broadcasting tower. Social media’s advent was supposed to do away with central broadcast towers, but it hasn’t really turned out that way. Instead mass media companies distribute their products through the platforms and consumers’ role is to boost the signal for them. The fact that consumers create content… Read More...

Notes on sexting scandals

Metrics are more shameful than nudity
1. A few weeks ago, the New York Times, among many other media outlets, reported the uncovering of a “sexting ring” in a rural Colorado high school involving more than a hundred students circulating nude photos on cell phones and secreting them away on “vault apps” that hide image troves behind a calculator interface. Administrators responded by forcing the school’s football team to forfeit a game and convening emergency community meetings to deal with the “scandal.” According to the Times article, students “described a competitive point system that classmates used to accrue photographs. Different point values were assigned to different students. Students who collected naked photographs gained points by adding these desirable children to their collections.” The student with the largest collection was described by a peer as “the pimp of pictures.” 2. It’s not yet clear whether the images… Read More...

Finer Things

The American Psycho of 1980s pop albums
I have long had a lot of respect for the music criticism of Patrick Bateman. In his three oft-praised (and deservedly so) essays in American Psycho on poptimism and the rise of 1980s adult-contemporary, he scrutinizes the inescapable radio sound of the time, examining albums and artists so iconic, so popular, that they could have seemed too ubiquitous to bother to assess, to omnipresent to secure any critical distance from. Analyzing monoliths like Genesis's Invisible Touch or Huey Lewis and the News's Sports could easily have seemed as beside the point as evaluating the sunshine, or water (which Bateman also takes on, in a tour de force, back-of-a-cab lecture on the differences between mineral, spring, distilled, and purified waters and brands). But Bateman finds a way in by resolutely remaining on the surface, generating an implicit, searching critique through what his intentionally… Read More...

Do the Robot

The threat of automation is a good way to force workers to "love what they do"
Good news for the labor theory of value, from a recent article from the Harvard Business Review: "Automation Won't Replace People as Your Competitive Advantage." That's meant to be reassuring. Even if we can't imagine any jobs so specialized or service-intensive that a robot can't steal them, we can rest assured that capital won't always find it profitable to go with the machines. Humans, it turns out, have creative and affective faculties beyond strict functionality — the article's authors, drawing on a new management tract called Humans Are Underrated, identify "empathy" and "storytelling" — and companies will need to find a way to take advantage of these to beat out competitors. At the end of the day, you can't really exploit a robot the way you can a person. As the authors of the article explain, "You will always need good people. And you need a… Read More...

Notes toward a reconceptualization of Boney M.’s “Daddy Cool”

Is Daddy Cool anti-Oedipus?
Indeed, what about "Daddy Cool"? What is his place in the Symbolic Order? What is the particular "daddy issue" that this improbable musical concoction articulates, a song that ritually and quite literally intones the name of the father and asserts the Law while nonetheless impelling listeners toward the dissolution of self in dance-floor jouissance? What are the relations of desire that structure the subject under the sign of the phallus? Are we oedipalized by this seductive father figure? Can he release our flows or simply canalize them? What, after all, is so "cool" about this big Other, Daddy Cool, such that he can make us "crazy like a fool" about him? And is this patriarchally induced insanity in fact the first step toward a deterritorialization sufficient to decenter and trouble, if not entirely undermine, Daddy's rei(g)n? Deleuze and Guattari, of course,… Read More...

Know Your Product

Social media caters to the pleasure of being both product and consumer
It's common to critique social media by pointing out that users believe they are consumers but are in fact are the product, a packaged and labelled audience being sold to marketers, the real "users" of ad-supported social media. Or worse, users are both the product and the labor making the product, all for the benefit of the social-media companies that own it. This means we are not merely deluded but also exploited when we think of ourselves as "consuming" social media. The assumption in this critique is that we don't want to be a product and instead want the agency and autonomous expression that social media seem to promise. From that point of view, users sign up on Facebook with the goal of expressing themselves and hearing what their friends have to say, but are eventually warped into becoming a… Read More...

Signs of ephemerality

Learning from Train
What happens when what is archived no longer seems to qualify as part of what is authentic about you? The allure of ephemerality intensifies. 1. Ephemerality as a strategy for generating authenticity. The untenability of old notions of authenticity becomes more apparent the more one is entrenched in mediated social networks that archive data about a user. Because social media turn so much experience into representations, social media eradicate the possibility of spontaneity (another legacy notion of what is authentic), as we plan for the mediation of what we are doing even as we are doing it. (See Nathan Jurgenson on the idea of the "Facebook eye" here.) As the data accumulates, it begins to make identity appear incremental instead of given all at once, born into us like a soul, dictating our personality from some permanent, essential inner core. Instead identity is an open… Read More...

Fun Will Find a Way

Pablo Cruise is the sound of the fun morality
In 1969, in the midst of unprecedented civic unrest in the United States fueled by an imperialistic war abroad and rampant institutionally supported racism at home, the Stooges — a band from Detroit that experienced the riots of 1967 at close proximity — released the song "No Fun." Maybe it wasn't meant as a manifesto, but it is hard to imagine a more stark rejection of the "fun morality" of consumer capitalism that was reaching ascendency in the advertising imagery of the era. In this period, lifestyle and luxury magazines championed and illustrated a hedonistic lifestyle that was meant to be both the respite and reward for eschewing political engagement. Corporations were in the process of appropriating youth trends and choreographing them to the program of enforced leisure spending and addiction to ephemeral novelty, labeling shifting fashion winds and permissive… Read More...

Feedbags

You don't control an algorithm by feeding more information to it; you teach it to control you better
You don't control an algorithm by feeding more information to it; you teach it to control you better. Facebook is updating the way it implements its News Feed algorithm, which controls what users see when they open up Facebook and just begin scrolling. In apparent response to criticism that the algorithm is an opaque black box that displays content to users that suits Facebook more than the users' interests, Facebook will now allow users to supply information to directly tweak the algorithm on their end, instead of having to try to blindly guide the algorithm through behavior (from within and outside Facebook) that Facebook may or may not capture and process. Rather than like a bunch of posts by a person in hopes of seeing that person's posts more regularly, you can now tell Facebook whose posts you always want… Read More...

Media and Consumer Desire

The demand for media supplants the demand for stuff
Historian Neil Harris’s 1978 essay “The Drama of Consumer Desire” (included in this collection) is an attempt to historicize the transformation of consumption into consumerism, tracking how the connections between consumer products and personal identity began to be forged by the beginning of the 20th century. He is mainly concerned with the “works of fiction which placed the buying process within the social experience”: how characters in novels modeled for readers what it meant to be a consumer, and how to derive pleasure from consumption beyond the use value of any particular good. Novels were part of the larger ideological matrix encompassing all media that performed this function, operating in the face of what was initially a conservative critique that recognized how “mass society” threatened traditional class hierarchies and religious-based notions of what was proper behavior, particularly for those in dominated social positions. (Incidentally,… Read More...

The Acquisitive Gaze

Pinterest demands you shop forever
1. In its early mission statement, Pinterest described itself as primarily a social network that was “connecting people all over the world based on shared tastes and interests.” But as the site grew, it became more clear that users were less interested in being connected to people than to stuff itself. Now Pinterest describes itself as “a place to discover ideas for all your projects and interests, hand-picked by people like you.” Recent reports that Pinterest intends to introduce a “Buy” button suggest that the site is not content to let users rest with “discovering ideas” but instead would like to convert idea-discovery into a mere precursor for purchases rather than an end in itself. Pinterest has emerged as a para-retailing apparatus for “social shopping,” in which users add value for retailers by organizing consumer desire into various moods and… Read More...

Collector’s Item

You can't collect the things, in themselves; you can only collect yourself.
I am in the process of moving, which entails packing up my record collection, and confronting some awkward questions about why I even have one. The collection is not about the music: I don't own a single record that I don't also have in digital form on an array of hard drives and triple-redundant backups. And though I am as prone as anyone to fetishize the "warm" sound of real vinyl, I'm also self-aware enough to be skeptical of my own ears. Plus, down that road leads to things like obsessive fretting about which plants the records were manufactured at and the need to get "hot pressings" to hear how the recording should "really" sound. For me, MP3s are basically fine. Beyond that, the collection's bulk makes it incredibly inconvenient, though therein may lie its actual appeal. The inconvenience enchants… Read More...

Permanent Recorder

Rather than establish the conditions for self-knowledge, does data destroy them?
It used to be easy to mock reality TV for having nothing to do with actual reality — the scenarios were contrived and pre-mediated, the performances were semi-scripted, the performers were hyper-self-conscious. These shows were more a negation of reality than a representation of it; part of their appeal seemed to be in how they helped clarify for viewers the genuine "reality" of their own behavior, in contrast with the freak shows they were seeing on the screen. To be real with people, these shows seemed to suggest, just don't act like you are on television. But now we are all on television all the time. The once inverted anti-reality of reality TV has turned out to be prefigurative. In a recent essay for the New York Times, Colson Whitehead seizes on the reality TV conceit of a "loser edit" —… Read More...

Authentic sharing

Despite its communitarian rhetoric the sharing economy actually promises consumers an escape from community
"Sharing economy," of course, is a gratingly inappropriate terms to describe a business approach that entails precisely the opposite, that renders the social field an arena for microentrepreneurship and nothing else. Yet the vestiges of "sharing" rhetoric clings to such companies as Airbnb and a host of smaller startups that purport to build "trust" and "community" among strangers by getting them to be more efficient and render effective customer service to one another. What more could you ask of a friend? By bringing a commercial ethos to bear on exchanges that were once outside the market, the civilizing process that is often attributed to the "bourgeois virtues" of capitalism — with successful economic exchange building the only form of social trust necessary — gets to spread itself over all possible human relationships. The only real community is a marketplace in which everyone… Read More...

A Man Alone

Farewell, Rod McKuen, may your cities never be so lonesome again
Rod McKuen died a few days ago. Because I have spent a lot of time in thrift stores, I feel like I know him well, since that's where lots of his poetry books (Listen to the Warm, Lonesome Cities, etc.) have ended up, alongside the works of kindred spirits Walter and Margaret Keane. His albums, sometimes featuring his singing but generally he just recites his poetry over light-orchestral music, can be found there too. I like "The Flower People": "I like people with flowers. Because they are trying." Artists like McKuen and the Keanes, who achieved unprecedented levels of success with the mass-market audience in the 1960s while being derided by critics for peddling "sentimental" maudlin kitsch, fascinate me — probably a hangover from graduate school, when I spent a lot of time studying the 18th century vogue for "sensibility"… Read More...

Simple and Plain

Elvis was a hero to most
Today is Elvis Presley's birthday. He would have been 80. Most people accept that he died in 1977, at the age of 42, which means I am older now than he ever was, a fact I have a hard time wrapping my head around. I'm currently reading Careless Love, the second volume of Peter Guralnick's biography of Elvis, and it is bringing me down. It's about how fame was a collective punishment we administered to Elvis, which he would not survive. Fame allowed him to coast along when he should have been stretching himself; like a gifted child praised too much too soon, it made him incapable of coping with challenges. Fame allowed his manager, Colonel Parker, to construe Elvis's talent as a cash machine. Parker encouraged in Elvis a zero-sum attitude toward his art, so that he demanded as much… Read More...