I write about technology, psychoanalysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek.


October 28, 2011

Social Media & Social Corrosion

Rob Horning’s criticisms of social media often hinge on the extremes that it pushes us to. For example, Twitter lets you know exactly how many people are following you and which of your status updates they like the most and retweet. Facebook has a similar system that measures the number of friends you have and their likes and comments on your status updates. Supposedly, this leads to erosion in authentic interpersonal communication because we are led to instrumentalize our online self-presentation, tailoring it to maximize these metrics.

In this dystopic vision, social interaction is deprived of genuineness because it has been captured by profit-seeking corporate entities, and in a way, their instrumentalization of our relationships leaks out and corrupts them, as we as social media users begin to adopt the logic of profit with others.

I have a problem with this critique for a few reasons. First, it’s all too easy for advocates of social media to point to various studies that show in the words of the users themselves that communication in social media networks is every bit as meaningful and authentic as what takes place offline. Not taking these facts into account makes critics vulnerable to the lazy but nonetheless effective dismissal of “just not getting it,” especially in comparison with social media scholars who display their youthful vigor by patronizingly embracing it in their own lives.

But a more important objection is that pointing out the risk of corruption is not a real critique because it is already well understood by social media users themselves, who take on the job of combatting these extreme effects in order to sustain the network. The fact is that we only go on Facebook because we believe at some level that there is something authentic happening there, and users militate against other users who fall prey to the cynical excesses of personal branding and self-promotion so that they can continue to believe that this is the case. In reality, there is an uneasy tension between the promise of fame, attention and popularity on one hand, and various prohibitions and etiquette that prevent us from surrending too completely to that logic.

The most obvious example of this tension is in Google’s search engine, which is too often forgotten as a type of social network. When I create and publish a page on the web, it registers my socially meaningful act of evaluating the page I’m linking to as interesting, relevant, important and so on. My link is weighted more heavily if I have received lots of links to my site, i.e. my link is more or less meaningful to Google in proportion to the links I have received from others registering me as worthy of attention.

Google harvests this social activity and monetizes it, and this profit-seeking does indeed have a corrupting influence as Horning says. Search engine optimizers and spammers figure out ways of boosting their employers’ sites, often by creating artificial links to the pages they want to drive traffic to. Flooding blog posts with fake comments linking to Viagra sites is one popular strategy.

I emphasis the word artificial because it highlights an important weakness in Google’s algorithm: in its naive form, it assumes that a link is authentic, a genuine social act uncorrupted by the profit motive. The algorithm originated in citation analysis of academic papers where this assumption holds, so it has to be modified to detect that not every link is genuine or users will be flooded with poor quality search results.

SEO and blog spam is Google’s equivalent of social media’s cynical self-promotion. Because they create attention economies to sell page views to advertisers, they create incentives to use them in ways that are socially corrosive. But because of this, various measures are used to mitigate this tendency, including social prohibitions. SEO spammers and relentless self-promoters are widely reviled and considered to be scum.

As Horning notes in a recent blog post, record label A&R departments rely on social media metrics to ensure that the bands they want to promote really do have potential. The problem is ensuring that the Facebook friends and Twitter followers are authentic. Do those numbers represent genuine fan interest? Or have they been boosted artificially with underhanded techniques? Social media ends up prioritizing authenticity even while simultaneously undermining it.

To me, this is the real dystopia: social media harvests our genuine social interactions if we remain as laborers in the social factory. The system itself would collapse if we were ever to seize the means of production. We are reduced beyond mere labor, even beyond slavery. It’s a stupid cliche but maybe here it’s really true - instead we are more like sheep who are penned in and controlled, but with a few exceptions, not so controlled that it disrupts the natural profit-generating milk, wool and lamb production.

In Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, the slave eventually gains self-consciousness and interiority through seeing himself reflected in the work that he is forced to do for the master, which enables him to rise up and struggle again. Social media short circuits this process because of its dual character: for us, it is enjoyment and entertainment, but for Facebook and Twitter, it is instrumentalized labor. Precisely because it is never instrumentalized, we never realize we can go on strike.


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