Has postmodern alienation given way to computer-age integration as social media like Facebook and Google Buzz encourage us to reduce, reuse and recycle the trappings of identity?
To much ballyhoo, Google debuted a new service, Google Buzz, in an effort to bring some of the dynamic of social networking and twittering directly into an email client, thus bringing users “beyond status updates.”
Gmail users logged in only to be hijacked to an explanatory introduction page, which bluntly declares, “Buzz is a new way to share updates, photos, videos and more, and start conversations about the things you find interesting.” Without warning, Buzz seizes upon previous correspondents and transforms them into “followers,” and it provides you a space from which to address them en masse. And it makes you into a follower as well. (Follower is quickly supplanting friend as the operative term in social life.)
Google Buzz, whose name — perhaps by design — evokes the noxious concept of buzz marketing, works by automatically creating something like status updates out of our activity on other sites. Any tweets can be duplicated in Buzz. If you post a picture to any of several photo sites, it can be sent automatically to your followers as well. If you like an article in your RSS feed, you can redistribute it with a click. If you write a blog post, it can be sent out to everyone on your list as its published. Basically it assumes that we want the broadest audience for anything we contribute to the internet; otherwise we wouldn’t be bothering. We are always in the process of manufacturing buzz for ourselves. To a degree buzz is our public selves. As far as Google is concerned, built into the notion of “sharing” is “sharing with everybody.” So naturally, the service requires you to opt out of many of its various features and to specifically bar those contacts with whom you are not particularly interested in sharing.
It seems innocuous enough. Who doesn’t want new ways to share? But the generous spirit of universal sharing Google seems eager to promote of course has its commercial underbelly. It’s not surprising that Buzz’s launch coincided with the company’s announcement that it was moving into the broadband business. By offering us easier ways to distribute the content we produce, Google is encouraging us to generate more content, which, unlike Facebook, it need not own and control. The more content that’s out there, the more we need Google’s search capabilities to navigate it. And just as important, Buzz offers Google another source of attenuated relational data — who is connected to whom, how much do they share with one another, what demographic and geographic aspects do they have in common — that can be turned into useful market research as the statistical tools are developed to tease out the meaningful patterns in the deluge of information.
At the level of the subject, network culture moves beyond the fragmented postmodern self and presents an entirely flexible self constituted perpetually and provisionally within the network.
So one of the primary goals of social networks is to encourage us to move faster though a tracked and monitored world, generating more quickly a data trail that can be monetized and exploited, that can be used for consumer profiling and the development of more granular demographic cohorts. The longer the data trail we create through our online peregrinations, the more data amasses that can be associated with our particular profile and then extrapolated to deduce information not only about ourselves and those who evince similar traits in their online behavior, but also everyone who chooses to associate themselves with us in networks, or through blog links or through other tokens of online connection.
Google Buzz is just the most recent example of a broader transformation in the developed world, ushering us out of the postmodern era and into what Kazys Varnelis in this Eurozine essay labels “network culture,” following Manuel Castells and his description of the “network society.” In the realm of aesthetics, network culture replaces “the populist projection of the audience’s desires onto art with the production of art by the audience and the blurring of boundaries between media and public. If appropriation was a key aspect of postmodernism, network culture almost absentmindedly uses remix as its dominant process.” At the level of the subject, network culture moves beyond the fragmented postmodern self, which was still haunted by the loss of a unitary identity, and presents an entirely flexible self constituted perpetually and provisionally within the network.
In postmodernism, Jameson explains, these pressures couple with a final unmooring of the self from any ground as well as the undoing of any coherent temporal sequence, forcing the subject to schizophrenically fragment. With network culture, these shards of the subject take flight, disappearing into the network itself. Less an autonomous individual and more of a construct of the relations it has with others, the contemporary subject is constituted within the network…. In network theory, a node’s relationship to other networks is more important than its own uniqueness. Similarly, today we situate ourselves less as individuals and more as the product of multiple networks composed of both humans and things…. Like the artist, the networked self is an aggregator of information flows, a collection of links to others, a switching machine.
With Buzz (along with the services it emulates and extends) accelerating our consumption of culture online, we fashion more of these relationships and imbue them with information that can be harvested by third parties — like Google. By virtue of our identity work, we perform the labor of expanding the terrain, as well as mapping out the roads and intersections of these multiple networks, pointing the way toward how they may be profitably traversed. This amounts to the subsumption of mediatized identity labor, continuous and accelerating, under capital in the form of media companies. Capitalistic creative destruction plays out at not at the level of the firm so much as at the level of the individual, appearing as compulsory personal reinvention. Our own psychic survival begins to depend on the accumulation of cultural capital, on thriving as a personal brand. We run our self-fashioning as a business, and use the networking tools provided us for marketing purposes.
The internet has thus become a field of simultaneous solipsism; it presents itself as infinitely amenable to users’ desire. We quickly become habituated to shaping our internet experience to suit us, to customize everything to our needs, to our tastes, to suit our ideological proclivities. As Varnelis warns, “It is entirely possible to essentially fabricate the outside world, reducing it to a projection of oneself.” But there’s another way of understanding that solipsism. The mission of Google and the like is to bring all aspects of our lifeworld under their auspices. The flattery we feel at entering a world in which are at the center of everything masks the apparatus that maintains the machine and ultimately establishes the horizons of what is possible within it. (That is Althusser’s basic point in his famous essay about Institutional State Apparatuses.) Identity production appears at first as a more “meaningful” form of work than wage slavery, though eventually the compulsory self-production starts to feel coercive. At that point we may begin to dream of becoming no one, of de-individualizing into the mass, of dissolving in collective experience, in tea party rallies and the like. (See: Erich Fromm, Escape from Freedom; or Eric Hoffer, The True Believer.)
The sum effect of participation in such services as Google Buzz, Twitter and Facebook is to increase the rate at which we believe their is important news about ourselves to share. It is not sufficient to update our status once and leave it for days. The formal qualities of these services help persuade us that we have something new and important to say about ourselves every hour, or every 15 minutes, or every other minute. These gestures intertwine with token efforts to keep up with the updates of everyone else. “Affirming one’s own identity today means affirming the identity of others in a relentless potlatch,” Varnelis notes. We become acculturated to a new speed for the identity production line. From the outside this can seem to betoken a loss of perspective that smacks of clinical narcissism, but from the inside it may well be experienced as a survival instinct, a compulsion to remind the world of one’s continued existence, which is tolerated only on the condition that we are not what we were but have become something else, always.
In some ways, social networking has taken over for the fashion cycle, the legacy modality for the acceleration of culture. The advent of consumer capitalism prompted the pursuit of novelty for its own sake, as obsolescence became a necessary ingredient for the continued expansion of markets. Before the digital era, advertising-supported mass media served the purpose of keeping the fashion wheel turning and coordinating the public toward newly prescribed aspirations. But new technology has removed the need for the mass media to serve as intermediary; the lifestyle advertising it once existed to carry can now be borne by individuals themselves, operating within social networks and defining themselves in terms of brands and commercialized experiences. Thanks to the digitization of sociality, our lifestyle choices can serve as advertisements of themselves whose efficacy can be tracked and modulated and amplified by the purveyors of the networks, while disciplinary voices from the infrastructure of digital friendship can issue friendly warnings to speed up the pace of our consumption of one another. “So-and-so hasn’t posted in a while. Why don’t you prod her to make more updates?” “So-and-so seems to have trouble adding friends. Why don’t you suggest friends for him to connect to and share with?”
One of the most obvious effects of this ideologically compelled cultural acceleration is the sudden surge in attention problems, the sense that “Google is making us stupid,” as Nicholas Carr argued in this Atlantic article. Our ability to concentrate on one particular thing begins to register in our consciousness as an anxious sacrifice, our potential to achieve flow states starts to threaten us, as it entails attentional opportunity costs: If we concentrate on one thing, we are wasting the time that could be spent taking in so many other things pressing on the outer edge of our focus. We have been moved from discrimination to distraction, from contemplation to consumption through increasing fragmentation of thought and constant stimulus to move “forward” to the next thing.
To a degree, we outsourced to the people we share with the work of assembling who we are.
So even though we are presented with complete autonomy in self-creation online (and that promise shores up the ideology of the sovereign individual), the experience of overwhelming choice swamps us, dissolves the self into a series of tentative feints. “As the subject is increasingly less sure of where the self begins and ends, the question of what should be private and what not fades,” Varnelis writes. This is in keeping with the Zuckerbergian assertion that “public” is now the default option. We should share everything without ever stopping to worry whether anyone out there is actively interested. In the emerging social mores, it’s the responsibility of the other (or their automated filters) to decide what to pay attention to. In fact, it is their privilege to have a wealth of detail to sort through, manufacturing serendipity when something delightful is found amidst it all. We share without believing we place a burden on those we share with. We come to fully expect that a good percentage of what we say will be ignored, just as we ignore a good portion of what we are exposed to.
To a degree, we outsourced to the people we share with the work of assembling who we are, as they are invited to sort through the data and see only the person they want to see, brushing past the details they deem irrelevant, scanning and responding just as rapidly as one sorts through an interminable list of Facebook updates. As we grow accustomed to sharing everything to everyone as a default, a new and unprecedented kind of public identity will begin to be fashioned for us: the garbage-dump self. We pile up the information about ourselves out in the open for everyone to see, and our followers, like the dustmen in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, scramble about the heap looking for useful bits among the dross.
But as the data we generate online is more efficiently analyzed, it will be used more and more to predict our proclivities and in some ways determine what we experience online in advance. The web pages become prepared for us, anticipating our desires, if not ultimately determining them. Will this predictive filtering feel like imprisonment, or will we regard it as a useful aid in our efforts to appropriate the “cognitive surplus” that stems from all the reflexive sharing? Google Buzz promises that it “recommends interesting posts and weeds out ones you’re likely to skip,” learning apparently from our attention patterns to show us “just the good stuff.” But once we start seeing “just the good stuff,” we won’t be able to change Google’s notion of what we think is good. We won’t see anything else to prod us out of their rut. At that point, Google will be dictating our sense of others and our sense of self according to the design of its proprietary algorithms, whose ultimate goal can only be guessed at as they assiduously, relentlessly pick over our respective garbage dumps.
Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.