Virality virus

Marketing professor Jonah Berger's book Contagious seeks to loose the social disease of word-of-mouth marketing
I have been interested lately in how virality has come to be an end in itself, something increasingly detached from what is made to go viral. Growing investment in social-media metrics seems to have made circulation more participatory; we identify vicariously with the how information travels as much as with the attributes associated with that information. Participating in a "viral" phenomenon induces a feeling of belonging, much as fads have always done, but the barrier of entry seems lower; it takes less commitment to spread a meme. Social media companies would like it to become even more "frictionless." Then we can all be trendy without having to risk a conscious effort. To risk a Yakov Smirnovism, memes circulate us rather than vice versa. Interacting with a meme puts us into circulation as a participant. Mass media made fads part of… Read More...

Promotional culture on Facebook

On social media you are not just the product but the ad
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.… Read More...

Trollope’s Ralph the Heir

A novel-length expose of ambition's relation to moral laziness and indifference
Ralph the Heir (1871) is not among the more heralded novels by Anthony Trollope, who wrote 47 of them. Trollope himself called it "one of the worst novels I have written," that it justified the dictum that "a novelist after fifty should not write love-stories." In his autobiography, he notes that the two main heroes — both, somewhat inconveniently, named Ralph Newton — have no life, and he purports not even to remember the book's heroines. Aside from the usual gratuitous hunting sequences, much of the novel is taken up with a completely detached subplot in which a barrister runs for Parliament in a corrupt election, an account Trollope based on his own bitter electioneering experiences. It's haphazardly plotted and ploddingly repetitive even by Trollope's standards — yes, it's a serialized novel, but the cumbersome reiterations of the characters' various… Read More...

Escape from Love Jail

Surveillance as a way out of the couple form
Watching other people's lives can serve as an escape from our own. This is the basis for all sorts of vicarious entertainment; we record other people's lives (in stories, in writing, on film) in order to consume them. Sometimes these lives are presented as exemplary, sometimes they are cautionary, sometimes they are just other. One of the novelties of social media is that it offers a fantasy version of ourselves constructed from algorithmically processed data for this same sort of vicarious consumption; we can escape from our present self by consuming ourselves as seen through the touchsceeen. But of course, the primary novelty of social media is that it makes possible voyeuristic surveillance that lets us endlessly spy on friends and lovers. Part of our drive to use social media as surveillance (and what other way is there to use… Read More...

Reputation scores and hedged friendship

Reputation-management companies want us to see friendship as a resource to be invested wisely
There is good reason to be concerned about the various data pools of personal information being gathered by communications and social-media companies. It's used to shape the material conditions of our lives -- what we see, what we're permitted to do, who will talk to us, what sort of service we'll receive. That data functions as our proxy, so it makes sense to at least know how extensive it is and whether we need to try to rein in this shadow self. As the Economist reported recently, reputation-management companies like Reputation.com are eager to help with this, offering to monitor mentions of you and develop mop-up strategies for problems. They also hope in the future to somehow sequester your personal data in a "data vault" and let you charge outside parties to access it. I don't know what would prevent… Read More...

Social-media redlining and “social enforcement”

Banks are beginning to determine creditworthiness based on social-media presence
When I was in college, my mother, who worked at a bank, helped me set up what were essentially Potemkin credit card accounts for myself. She thought it was important to start early in forming relationships with banks to build a good credit score for the future. Get yourself in the system, make a few small purchases every month, and establish a track record of paying the bills on time. Perhaps if I were young now, she would be forcing me to sign up for Facebook and managing the sort of contacts I should make there to improve my creditworthiness. As this Economist article reports, banks are beginning to gather online social-media data to perform risk assessment for personal loans. An online bank that opens in America this month will use Facebook data to adjust account holders’ credit-card interest rates.… Read More...

Social discovery vs. sociability

Social relations are most pleasurable when they are pointless
One of things Dan Slater reports on in Love in the Time of Algorithms is online dating's evolution into "social discovery," which is not a matter of algorithms and social media helping users find a romantic partner per se but about their helping users find people with common interests of any sort. In my review of the book, I argued that this was online-dating companies' attempt to rationalize and subsume sociability in general. The implicit pitch of social discovery is this: You can't just meet people in the wild for no preconceived reason at all, without corporate mediation — that would be inconvenient, possibly scary, and worst of all, unpredictably awkward. You should be able to choose the sort of social encounters you want the same way you choose the sort of food you want to eat. It should be a… Read More...

Desiring Machines

A Valentine for Félix Guattari
  The body without organs now falls back on (se rabat sur) desiring-production, attracts it, and appropriates it for its own. The organ-machines now cling to the body without organs as though it were a fencer's padded jacket, or as though these organ-machines were medals pinned onto the jersey of a wrestler who makes them jingle as he starts toward his opponent. An attraction-machine now takes the place, or may take the place, of a repulsion-machine: a miraculating-machine succeeding the paranoiac machine. — Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus "Desiring Machines": [audio:http://thenewinquiry.com/app/uploads/2013/02/05-Desiring-Machines-EDIT2.mp3|titles=Desiring Machines] Read More...

Dominate

Who we "really are" is no longer to be regarded as an a priori thing but as a product of using social media
I recently finished reading The Boy Kings, Katherine Losse's account of what it was like to work at Facebook from 2005 to 2010. It's not a tell-all, burn-all-bridges exposé by any means, but it is fairly critical of Facebook's hubris and its personality-warping effects on users. A year ago I wrote an essay that argued that Facebook was a training ground for becoming a neoliberal subject, and lots of Losse's observations seem to me to confirm that. Connectivity and flexibility for their own sake were valorized at Facebook, even as the site's architecture was designed to capture and digitize more of users' behavior. A hacker ethos was glorified while it was also domesticated; rules were for the little people (or the ordinary Facebook users) while the worthy devise "social hacks" to get ahead through heedless defiance and supplicating sweet talk after… Read More...

Got No Shame, Got No Pride

Rainbow's Down to Earth as queer theoretical intervention. A guest post by J. Temperance
The rainbow as a symbol of gay pride dates to 1978, when a flag made by Gilbert Baker was flown at a march in San Francisco and was widely adopted as a symbol of solidarity after the assassination of Harvey Milk later that year. The band Rainbow dates to 1975, when guitarist Ritchie Blackmore became fed up with the image and musical direction new members David Coverdale and Glenn Hughes had brought to his band Deep Purple — lumbering hard rock-funk fusion; cliched, cocaine-fueled macho posturing — and broke away to form a new group with vocalist Ronnie James Dio. One might have expected Blackmore to be chagrined when "rainbow" began to be associated with a different sort of audience than what is usually thought of for his music. But let's not forget that Deep Purple's crowning achievement was an album called… Read More...

False wins and the machine zone

Zoning out while playing slot machines is not so different from entering the "zone" of positive-psychology's flow states
An essay by Randall Stross in Sunday's New York Times examines the current state of machine-gambling technology. He cites Kevin A. Harrigan, part of the Gambling Research Team at the University of Waterloo, on the phenomenon of “false wins,” payouts that are less the amount wagered, on multi-line slots. As Stross explains: In a typical multi-line slot setup, a player can bet on up to 20 different pay lines in a single game. If a player wins on 9 of the 20 lines, resulting in a net loss, the machine still celebrates the occasion with sound and video effects. Congratulations! You're a loser. Perhaps nothing better captures the affect of consumer capitalism than this idea of a "false win." At the moment of purchase, maybe after waiting in line for a few hours outside an Apple store, we hear all the bells and… Read More...

Dating robots

It makes no sense to imagine robots with the agency to choose to love us. Rather than regard them as not quite adequate humans, robots can be seen as a medium for emotional expression between humans
Would you date a robot? It seems pretty safe. The existence of pickup-artist systems like the ones described in Neil Strauss's The Game  suggests that there is a prevalent fantasy of removing the risks from dating encounters by implementing the equivalent of computer code. The haphazardness of interpersonal chemistry and the daunting asymmetries of personal revelation are replaced with a program ("the game") that seems to comfort the pickup artist and the picked-up target alike. If you execute certain subroutines, you can rely on the calculable probability of certain tasks being completed according to established protocols and within established parameters. Basically you treat the person being picked up like a blinking cursor on a command line, awaiting lines of programming, and that person in turn can enjoy the comforting experience of being programmed, of surrendering safely to a familiar script… Read More...

Everyday schadenfreude

Would any self-respecting person even use social media in the first place?
At Cyborgology, Nathan Jurgenson wrote a post questioning whether people should express relief that Facebook didn't exist at some time in their past. Behind many of the “thank God I didn’t have Facebook back then!” statements is the worry that a less-refined past-self would be exposed to current, different, perhaps hipper or more professional networks. Silly music tastes, less-informed political statements, embarrassing photos of the 15-year-old you: digital dirt from long ago would threaten to debase today’s impeccably curated identity project. The sentiment is almost common enough to be a truism within some groups, but I wonder if we should continue saying it so nonchalantly? I don't know whether this is a truism, at least not in my demographic. Maybe since people know I write critically about Facebook, I tend to be told the opposite: that people wish they had Facebook as… Read More...

Kippers for Breakfast

Guest post by J. Temperance: How Supertramp and Baudrillard reached similar conclusions about the land of plenty
Could we have kippers for breakfast, mummy dear, mummy dear? They got to have 'em in Texas, 'cause everyone's a millionaire —Supertramp, "Breakfast in America" I haven't spent much time in Texas, but I'm pretty sure that everyone there is not a millionaire. I never saw anyone in Texas or anywhere else in America eat kippers for breakfast. I'm not entirely sure what a kipper is. Yet because I was at a vulnerable and impressionable age in 1979 when the English group Supertramp's "Breakfast in America" dominated FM radio, part of my mind has always clung to the idea that in Texas, there are millionaires eating kippers for breakfast. The very fact that I had no idea what that meant was exactly what made it alluring, aspirational. I wasn't sure if I would like to have kippers for breakfast myself (I… Read More...

Serious action

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
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… Read More...

Theory cults

"A: I felt an infinite emptiness. It was terrifying. B: No, that’s good. Do it more."
Most of the 1990s I spent in graduate school studying literature. I mostly remember this period now as UFO abductees remember their abduction: in fraught fragments, anxious dreams. I still occasionally wake up worrying about missed lectures and forgotten papers come due. I know I have 10 double-spaced pages to write, but I don't even remember the assignment! Those graduate-school years form a hole in my personal history; I struggle to reconstruct the logic that led me to the choices I made. Sometimes it seems as if I had fallen in with a cult whose indoctrination tactics involved forcing impoverished recruits like me to drink gallons of coffee between contentious three-hour self-criticism sessions, from which I’ve struggled over the past decade to deprogram myself. In the seminars I took, there was a groveling intensity with regard to recondite questions of… Read More...