Monthly Archives: August 2011

Zygmunt Bauman, Consuming Life

Bauman argues that a consumer society means not that people are preoccupied with consumer goods at the expense of meaningful work, or even that consuming has become most people’s idea of meaningful work, but that it is a society in which all agents are commodities, consumer goods.

Under whatever rubric their preoccupations would be classified by governmental archivists or investigative journalists, the activity in which all of them are engaged (whether by choice, necessity, or most commonly both) is marketing. The test they need to pass in order to be admitted to the social prizes they covet demands them to recast themselves as commodities: that is, as products capable of catching the attention and attracting demand and customers.

This fits in with an attention-economy analysis of society, as well as an analysis that focuses on neoliberalist governmentality pushing social change and changes in prevailing forms of subjectivity. Thrust into precarity, we must spend increasing portions of our consciousness on self-marketing for survival, for social recognition, for reassurance that we won’t be excluded. The attention economy recasts us as consumers of one another, precluding other forms of association. The consumer society justifies itself by redefining freedom as a kind of personal development — the opportunity to measurably improve your value on the various markets that have begun to supplant family, friendship, community and other social relations (or reshape them in the image of markets). Social relations are characterized as exchanges, and personal traits as both capital and commodities.

Bauman argues that capitalism is reproduced by reproducing the wage relation — labor bought by capital. For this to routinely occur uninterrupted, labor must be “attractive” to capital: It must be well groomed and compliant, dependably instrumentalized. It must be perpetually recommodified. Once upon a time, the welfare state took partially responsibility for this, helping people become presentable to capital as potential workers (skilled, fed, socialized, etc.). Neoliberalism has made this the individual’s responsibility. The result, Bauman claims, is that labor starts to become less desirable-seeming, competition in the labor market intensifies, and atomistic individualism is thereby reinforced. The risk of being a “zero-marginal-product” worker has been shifted to individuals, who fight amongst themselves in a zero-sum game.

So the overall task of sustaining the saleability of labour en masse is left to the private worries of individual men and women (for instance, by switching the costs of skill acquisition to private, and personal, funds), and they are now advised by politicians and cajoled by advertisers to use their own wits and resources to stay on the market, to increase their market value or not let it drop, and to earn the appreciation of prospective buyers….

Shifting the task of recommoditizing labour to the market is the deepest meaning of the state’s conversion to the cult of ‘deregulation’ and ‘privatization’….

In the society of consumers no one can become a subject without first turning into a commodity, and no one can keep his or her subjectness secure without perpetually resuscitating, resurrecting and replenishing the capacities expected and required of a sellable commodity. The ‘subjectivity’ of the ‘subject’, and most of what that subjectivity enables the subject to achieve, is focused on an unending effort to itself become, and remain, a sellable commodity.

LinkedIn and Facebook and so on make for obvious vectors for this ideology — providing preformatted spaces and networking mechanisms with which to sell oneself. Personal branding and competitive identity-making both reinforce the naturalness of individualism, of the individual self as a kind of property belonging to oneself. Proving you are an individual amounts to protecting that property, proving its existence, establishing the claim to that latent self-capital. To forgo the personal identity as brand begins to feel like a forfeit of capital rather than an attempt to preserve autonomy, to escape economic determinism. We end up rejecting subjectvity that is not monetizable, self-construction that is not sold out as a prerequisite.

Bauman coins the term “subjectivity fetishism” to describe the means by which we lose sight of our self-construction — this permits every subject to believe itself unique and autonomous though all our built out of the same commodities and brands.

Bauman connects this self-commoditization and self-exploitation to the pursuit of fame for its own sake. The preoccupation with celebrity is a manifestation of the attention economy’s primacy in our efforts to imagine our economic viability, our economic survival. It reflects the personality training we all must submit to in order to qualify for work in tightening labor markets, in which more and more jobs have affective/service components. Bauman wants to link the attention economy to consumer society directly; fame is simply necessary self-commodification, to fit into the social world made entirely of consumer-commodities. This leads to “social deskilling” — necessitates treating others as objects for instrumental use. Thus is born the convenience ethic that rules consumerism — consumption efficiency (and the resulting acceleration of exchange and consumption) trumps the complexity of mutual social relations, collaborative identity, etc. Better to consume others, count up their attention, than to make something together with mutual, reciprocal attention. Relations in consumer society can only be conceived as an exchange — a “contract in our mutual interest,” as the Gang of Four song goes. Noninstrumental human contact registers only as a nuisance.

Thus consumerist subjectivity makes love more or less impossible by precluding the emotional effort it requires in favor of mutual manipulation and quid pro quo exchanges.

Love, we may say, abstains from promising an easy passage to happiness and meaning. A ‘pure relationship’ inspired by consumerist practices promises that passage to be easy and trouble-free, while rendering happiness and meaning hostages to fate – more like a lottery win than an act of creation and dedicated effort.

Chapter one differentiates between consumerism and consumption, with the former defined as an ideological condition in which consumption becomes people’s reason for living:

We may say that ‘consumerism’ is a type of social arrangement that results from recycling mundane, permanent and so to speak ‘regime-neutral’ human wants, desires and longings into the
principal propelling and operating force of society, a force that coordinates systemic reproduction, social integration, social stratification and the formation of human individuals, as well as playing a major role in the processes of individual and group selfidentification and in the selection and pursuit of individual life policies. ‘Consumerism’ arrives when consumption takes over that linchpin role which was played by work in the society of producers.

Buying things replaces doing things as a chief source of one’s self-concept. But Bauman needn’t set this up as an opposition, as a replacement. Consumer societies are ones in which the nature of work has changed to embrace consumption as a form of labor. They are societies in which life is organized around consumption as work rather than leisure. This organization manifests as an overriding concern with personal identity as conveyed through commodities functioning as signifiers. Self-fashioning permits consumption to become productive, creating semiotic value for the panoply of commodities (goods and services) brought to market. The suppression of class and rise of the more amorphous status as the indicator of where one is in the social hierarchy also allows consumerism to thrive, as it becomes the means of attenuating subtle shades of distinction through consumption tastes and the modes of expressing/publicizing them.

ego depletion and freedom of choice; semiocapital as the power to overwhelm with decisions

1. Consumerism is sustained by the ideology that freedom of choice is the only relevant freedom; it implies that society has mastered scarcity and that accumulating things is the primary universal human good, that which allows us to understand and relate to the motives of others. We are bound together by our collective materialism. Choosing among things, in a consumer society, is what allows us to feel autonomous (no one tells us how we must spend our money) and express, or even discover, our unique individuality. The belief that more is better carries over to this sphere so that making more choices seems to mean a more attenuated, bigger, more successful self. The more choices we can make and broadcast to others, the more of a recognized identity we have. We are winning.

If we believe this, then it seems like good policy to maximize the opportunities to make consumer choices for as many people as possible. This will give more people a sense of autonomy, social recognition and personal meaning. Considering the amount of time and space devoted to retail in the U.S., it seems as though we are implementing this ideology collectively. The public policy goals become higher incomes, more stores, and reliable media through which to display personal consumption. This will yield a population that is fulfilling its dreams of self-actualization.

2. But when you add the possibility of ego depletion to this version of identity, it no longer coheres. If we think we want more choices to manifest who we really are, then it can’t be that having to make more choices exhausts our capability to make decisions we will stand behind over time. Rational choice theory obviously depends on the chooser being rational; but if making choices depletes the capability for rational thought, then the whole edifice crumbles. Instead of elaborating a more coherent self through a series of decisions, one establishes an increasingly incoherent and disunified self that is increasingly unpredictable and illegible to others.

As this NYT piece by John Tierney explains, sustaining a sense of self requires constant energy; choice making drains that energy, blurring the outlines of the self we are projecting to others and ourselves. We lose the energy to think about who we are and act accordingly, and we begin acting efficiently instead, with increasingly less interest in coherence, justice, consistency, morality, etc. Economists would have us believe their is an authenticity in efficiency itself, that it is the real underlying all of our incentive-driven behavior. But it may be that efficiency is merely part of pre-consciousness; it is a residual, a placeholder, what remains when subjectivity can’t be achieved.

3. Considering ego depletion and its possible link to impulsivity, one can see how overloading individuals with opportunities to choose can become a deliberate strategy to encourage exhaustion and render people easier to control. As decision fatigue sets in, morality and personal idiosyncrasies are overridden by one’s underlying desire for conservative efficiency, which is eminently predictable. Maximizing choices doesn’t foster autonomy and creativity in self-realization; it does the opposite, reducing people to more or less uniform impulses. Tierney points out: “Decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as Jonathan Levav, the Stanford professor, demonstrated in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars.” The more options and so forth we are confronted with, the less resistance we can mount and the more likely it is we can be brought to the decision that the other parties want us to reach. Complexity, elaborate customization possibilities, are a strategy for controlling people, not for giving them the opportunity to mirror their uniqueness in a particular commodity. Customization is a mode of control rather than liberation.

Likewise, consumerism generally is a control strategy based on exhaustion, not fulfillment. “When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops, too,” Tierney writes. And without will, there is no individual self, no responsible citizen.

4. Franco Berardi’s theory of “cognitarian subjectivation” seems to be about this: “Today it is the social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods. The social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of networked production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the cognitive class.” So what is at stake in the attention economy is this level of energy that individuals can commit to forming a resisting self. The economy is being organized increasingly to harness the energy we spend making consumerist choices to create our identity within consumerism’s code; we are being driven to spend energy in that way — in making choices that deplete us emotionally. The mode of exploitation is oversaturation.

But we are articulating our identities not outside attention-depleting media but within them. As Bauman points out in Consuming Life, we make ourselves into commodities to complete for attention in a consumer society, in which recognition is parceled out chiefly to commodities and all evaluative criteria are derived not from morality or religion but from consumer markets. Since we fashion ourselves as personal brands, we insert ourselves deliberately into broadcast media rather than, say, constructing ourselves within a local community, whose limits and contingencies we accept as the price of a coherent self. Personal branding promises the limitless self, along the same lines as the fantasy of the growing self made possible by the endless series of choices. What Berardi declares can’t be repeated enough, as a form of ideological inoculation: “Acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.”

Information kills pleasure. It requires processing that proscribes pleasure but seduces us with the possibility that processing can be pleasure — it can, but only if you will yourself into autism. (If you become an “infovore,” as Tyler Cowen calls it.

The surfeit of information makes it harder and harder for us to be, to emerge as a self from the morass of choice. Efforts to accelerate consumption should be regarded with suspicion — these do not help us achieve more; they revert us to the pre-identity of efficiency and serve the prerogatives of capital. As Berardi puts it (cryptically): “Capital becomes the generalized semiotic flux that runs through the veins of the global economy, while labor becomes the constant activation of the intelligence of countless semiotic agents linked to one another.” In the future, we’ll have an economy based on the labor of sociality in social media networks that are subsumed by capital: that is, we’ll fight for attention on Facebook, etc., and that effort will be harvestable as data by the firms that own the networks, who will sell us tools derived from that data to abet our struggle for more attention. “Semiocapital” is the amalgam of attention-grabbing uses of language and other signs, and the conduits for circulating them. It is the value in being able to guarantee moments of short-circuiting decision overload in a population; to possess semiocapital is to have is the ability to overwhelm with novelties, the power to implement fashion change at an increasing rate.

dividuals and social media; premediated identity

From Digital Suicide and the Biopolitics of Leaving Facebook, by Tero Karppi in Transformations 20:

Karppi discusses social media in terms of “premediation,” which is not clearly defined. But one can get a sense of what it might mean in this example: Maybe the most evident example that shows the premediation in actions happens when one tries to deactivate one’s Facebook account…. Not only the present situation of choosing to confirm the disconnection is mediated but also the future is premediated by showing a set of pictures of friends “who will miss you” after deactivating the account. Here premediation relies heavily on the affects created by profile pictures and names of the user’s Facebook friends. Notably these images are not limited to profile pictures but also posted pictures where the user appears tagged with a friend or a sibling may be shown.

One cannot stress enough the importance of the posted image next to the profile pictures among friends who are said to miss one after disconnection since it leads towards the logics of how Facebook works and also what many of the users who are afraid of losing their privacy dread: it is the content the users themselves create that is used for different purposes which escape their original intentions. Entering to the time of premediation means also entering to a time of databases and data mining, where any piece of data may be accessed and used at any given point of time (Savat 52-53). It is here where the subjectivity of the user starts to unfold. When entering social networks we move from being individuals towards the being of what Deleuze calls “dividuals.” In social networks we become codes, images, posts that cannot be reduced to our offline presence.

That is, the divide bewteen a “real” offline self and an online self that merely represents it is untenable — online and offline behavior blend seamlessly in elaborating an identity that persists across online and offline spaces. Another way of putting that is that the self is augmented by online behaviors, not merely represented. The significance, according to Karppi and his sources, is that the self, far from preceding the online representation of itself, is actually constructed according to the infrastructure established by digital networks. (I’ve been arguing something similar for a while, that social media invite ongoing self-fashioning, worsening the sense of ontological crisis brought on by modernity.) Subjectivity is “premediated,” preformatted to suit information-processing needs. How we are processed then feeds back into the self’s ongoing construction, determining what information it sees, who sees it, what sort of recognition it receives, and so on. The term dividual is a kind of shorthand for a constructed self that is not entirely within one’s own control — a quantified self that comes alive in how the data is parsed in technological systems, not a self that can exist autonomously.

We begin to exist simultaneously in different databases, information banks and other technomaterial assemblages. This, in fact, is what many of the Facebook users fear and loathe: their data being used, distributed and exploited by third parties such as marketing ventures or central intelligence agencies. As Genosko writes, “offline individual” is merely one actualisation of the dividual because “nobody totally corresponds to their data double or silhouette” (101). The catch is that after logging in to a social network service there really is no return to the offline individuality. Even if we deactivate our account we remain in the databases of Facebook as a potential resource for exploitation.

Lost in the somewhat obvious point that Facebook exploits our “sharing” via partnerships with data miners and advertisers and so on is the more interesting claim that a particular identity is realized for ourselves through that process, one that threatens to become more significant from whatever one we might be more actively constructed for ourselves in the moment, or in other sorts of networks. This is different that the “digital divide” fallacy; the problem is not that the online self is “inauthentic” and the offline self is real; it’s that the self derived from the data processing of our digital traces doesn’t correspond with our active efforts to shape an offline/online hybrid identity for our genuine social ties. That identity gets usurped by the “dividual” one generated for commercial and social-control purposes, and reintrojected into our lives by virtue of the ways institutions can distribute that dividual self in social networks.

That is a terrible explanation of what I mean. Let me try again: we are actively using social media to create and share a self, one we think is consistent and autonomous, not dependent on the medium itself for its genuineness. But this data we generate online is combined with other digital traces we generate unknowingly, and then reprocessed by institutions and companies to create our demographic “dividual” self — the self relevant to marketeers and the state. This construct then guides what we see online (through recommendation engines and tailored pages and filtering and so forth), reinforcing that dividual construct — our active identity begins to merge with the one that emerges from how our data is processed in the media we use. It also shapes what about us presented to others in our networks. Others are as overwhelmed as we are and just as subject to be manipulated by selective filtering. All this is possible because we don’t own the networks or the filters; the companies that do own social media (an unprecedentedly powerful means of public identity construction, mediation, and sustenance) want to create us as subjects that suit their ends. (Is that at all clearer?)

Social media are mirrors and projectors, but we don’t control the images that result in either case, though we are led to believe that we do. So not only do we chase some illusion of a final, authentic, autonomous self through broadcasting with these media, the very process of broadcasting steers us toward elaborating a self that has less to do with our intentions and more to do to formatting ourselves (“premediating”) for more efficient processing. We turn ourselvs into useful data, but it’s not necessarily useful for us, even if we are aggressive about using social media for self-branding purposes — itself a dubious practice with regard to escaping reflexivity and engaging with some sort of “natural” self. But if there is no natural self to discover, then the reflexivity just reflects the always present alienation that derives from being constructed by our social environment; the subjective experience of how our subjectivity is constructed is to desperately try to direct the construction process ourselves after the fact. Self-consciousness is a residual aftereffect of being constituted as a self by outside forces that presents itself to consciousness as preceding the fact. In other words, the things we seize upon to construct our identity have already constructed us; that’s why they are ready at hand.

Lazzarato makes this point in “The Machine,” an essay Karppi cites. Lazzarato is talking about TV and voting, but his (somewhat overstated) points hold for all social media, I think:

On television, you are always in danger of being trapped in the dominant meanings and subjectivations, no matter what you say or do. You speak, but you run the risk of saying nothing of what really matters to you. All the enunciative devices in our democratic societies — surveys, marketing, elections, political and union representation, etc. — represent more or less sophisticated variations on this division of the subject whereby the subject of enunciation must be reflected in the subject of the statement. As a voter, you are called upon to give your views as a subject of enunciation, but you are simultaneously spoken as the subject of the statement since your freedom of expression amounts to nothing more than a choice from among possible options which have already been codified and standardized. The election, like surveys, marketing, and political and union representation, presupposes a consensus on issues on which you haven’t actually been consulted. The more you express yourself and speak and the more you interact with the machine of communication, the more you abandon what you actually wanted to say, because the communicational devices disconnect you from your own collective arrangements of enunciation and draw you into other collective arrangements (television, in this instance).

Karppi then asks a good question: “If our every action in Facebook is premediated and controlled by pre-emptive strategies, for which we ourselves provide the means by sharing content and information, how are we ever able to disconnect from these services?” Implicit in the question is the notion that we become dependent on the preformatted selves these services give to us and distribute in our name (or as our name). The rest of the essay deals with services that allow for “digital suicide” — these seem like peripheral phenomena to me, stunts, even if they do “introduce different potential ways to exist in social networks.” These amount to being present as a nonpresence, static and thus generating no usuable data.

Alice Marwick’s "Status Update" (chapters 5-8)

Chapter 5 (chapter about self-branding)

1. The personal brand is, Marwick argues, “an edited self, requiring emotional labor to maintain a business-friendly self-presentation despite the advocacy of transparency and openness by social media culture.” This is a key point: personal branding requires ceaseless labor, akin to the perpetual retraining required by post-Fordism and labor conditions or precarity. Social media self-creation is not (merely) a liberating opportunity at self-expression, as it may naively be conceived, but is instead a mandatory form of discipline and self-monitoring that workers must perform to enhance their employability. “Self-branding is not about living publically. It is about constructing a strategic self-image to appeal to a particular audience and furthering that image through every online and offline action.” It has nothing to do with authenticity but the fantasy of authenticity becomes a prod to continual maintenance of the self.

“The branded self that results is highly visible and relentlessly self-promoting, creating a new version of the entrepreneur known for his or her performed identity rather than accomplishments.” (299) Or you might say the only possible accomplishments for neoliberal subjects are performances of the self, the chief accessible capital to grow and invest is that which is rooted in the personal brand. Careers are replaced by personal brands or enterprise selves. This sort of identity suits the risk shifting under neoliberal regimes: “Self-branding encourages people to take on the responsibility of economic uncertainty by constructing identities that fit current business trends” (305).

By creating an atmosphere of lateral and almost passive surveillance, capitalist social media create and sustain the requirement of perpetual self-editing work: “the collaborative, networked audience of social media requires people to engage in unpaid emotional and immaterial labor to keep their brand image pure” (347). Marwick notes that social media need not automatically function this way, to enforce neoliberal subjectivity (she argues that early social media allowed for free play of identity). But social media have been subsumed by capital, have be enlisted by capital, and have achieved scale through accommodating capitalist aims. “These are not values that are somehow inherent in internet technologies; rather, they are market values being mapped over a particular use case of social media.”

But why this mapping over? I think the scaling up of networks to increase their efficacy meshes with capitalist imperative of growth — early social media withered away because they didn’t scale, and failed to achieve the size for network effects to kick in. Google’s insistence on real identities in Google+ seems related to the need for authenticatable identity in order for network effects to kick in. Real identities leads to the kind of participation that scales; free play is disintegrative. And capitalist incentives also kick in to help nascent networks grow; interested parties market them, instrumentalize them, etc. Free-play networks only rely on pleasure to expand, and pleasure is not about growth, size, organization; pleasure is entropic, ephemeral.

Capitalism appropriates social media, and ideology of tech utopianism, to generalize neoliberal subjectivity and enforce it upon everyone. Other potentialities in social media are suppressed, never reach efficacious scale — they are pre-empted by commercial social media, among other things. Self-branding is not a personal choice; it is a requisite survival mechanism.

2. Marwick works through the usage of neoliberalism to settle on a meaning derived from Foucault and Aihwa Ong: neoliberalism involves governmentality through the broadened use of markets as metaphors for how human social behavior must be organized. People become subject to the fun morality in that they must maximize utility in the form of commodified, quantified pleasure to be “normal.” The self becomes legible only insofar as its behavior fits this general imperative.

3. This is a useful distinction between identifying with corporate brands and self-branding: “Self-branding is significantly different from the use of brands as identity markers, since it actively teaches people to view active identity construction as a product. Thus, people define themselves both through brands and as brands. This ability has been amplified by the internet” (312). Rather than augment the self with the overtones of an external brand, self-branding involves limiting identity to a factitious creation entirely government by its marketing potential. A layer of reflexivity is added to one’s conception of oneself: the level of editing the self and to fully become the redacted version of oneself.

4. Self-branding thrives given the technological “affordances” of social media: “Social media configures these values through technical status affordances, bringing the potential audience to the forefront by turning ephemeral status or reputation information into quantifiable metrics, such as blog analytics, number of Facebook friends or Twitter followers. Comments, references, and Twitter @replies become indicators of successful self-branding, demonstrating value through the awareness of others” (315). Social media allows us to quantify our personal branding efforts and subject them to cost-benefit-style analyses. It permits the sort of alienation required to craft identity as a product while still inhabiting it.

5. Long fieldwork section of anecdotes of self-branders in Silicon Valley. Not surprising that these people would use social media to commodify themselves; yearning to see an account of the more subtle ways this affects people who are not professionally implicated in the roll-out of Web 2.0. She looks at some moronic-sounding self-help books that basically argue that if financial success doesn’t result from assiduous self-regard, it’s your fault and you need to work harder or believe in yourself more: “failing to achieve economic success is not due to structural equality, a lousy economy, or stagnating wages; instead, it is the fault of the worker, who is positioned as an entrepreneur without a safety net.” That’s pretty much the neoliberal order in a nutshell. “The entrepreneurs of Web 2.0 are proof of concept that neoliberalism can work,” she claims, but they are uniquely incentivized to buy into neoliberal subjectivity to the degree that it can be used to render their tech firms and skills socially necessary. They try to generalize an ethos embodied by the tech they have develop capitalistically. They have invented tech that supports capitalism because capitalism was the reason for its development (if that is not too tautological). The tech ends up being deterministic in that sense; it is developed to replicate the capitalism that enriches its developers.

6. This is the characteristic consequence of self-branding on friendship: “People also had to demonstrate relational ties between themselves and members of their audience, and this often required performing intimacy and interest in others, even when it was lacking. Interpersonal relationships were intertwined with self-branding edicts, and the two often clashed.” There is no way to gauge what is strategy and what is concern for the other. It is impossible to figure out when you are not merely being used.

7. Marwick argues that social media fosters a new sort of entrepreneur. Neoliberalism presumes an entrepreneurial self, but the nature of what entrepreneurship means changes within the field supplied by social media. People pursue attention, celebrity, an expansive identity, personal brand equity moreso than traditional forms of capital. These new forms of capital may begin as intermediary steps toward accumulating traditional hard capital, but become goals in their own right. Amassing personal brand equity becomes necessary for survival, much as accumulating capital is necessarily for the survival of firms in Marx’s analysis (accumulation as the Moses and prophets” for capitalists).

8. Marwick fuses Lazzarauto’s immaterial labor with Hochschild “emotional labor” to describe social media behavior as “immaterial emotional labor” — not entirely sure how this is different from “affective labor,” which Hardt and Berardi among others use. Marwick is mainly concerned with the emotional effort required to share and self-promote and kiss ass and so forth, the sort of labor that is vastly expanded by perpetual, open-ended connectivity. She links the problem to social media’s dogmatizing of “authenticity” — a fictional construct used to browbeat people into greater performativity in search of that alleged inner truth. There is no authenticity, only contexts that prompt us to behave in various ways, emphasize different dimensions of our potentiality.

9. I don’t get why Marwick want to defend self-branding in abstract but condemn it in its neoliberal expression. I don;t think these are separable. Personal branding is contingent on neoliberal ideology’s ascendency. There isn’t one without the other. So this seems right: “The problem is that self-branding, as a practical technique, is limited and will only be successful for a slim sliver of the population, yet it is being advocated as a universal solution to the economic downturn that can be adopted by anyone.” It is always and ever a “practical technique.” that is it’s inherent definition. There is no such thing as impractical self-branding. You only brand because it is entrepreneurially useful, and the celebration of self-branding is always an ideological justification of inequality of opportunity and outcomes, of generalized precarity as a way to separate the deserving from the undeserving on the basis of how much cultural capital they have coming into the game and how willing they are to debase themselves in feats of flexibility.

Chapter 6 (chapter about “lifestreaming” and lateral surveillance)


1. Disclosure is a form of publicity for the personal brand. It is the attempt to attract an audience similar to the way a TV show tries to draw ratings. Makes one an attention broker — you can sell the attention you receive to a third party (i.e. an advertiser).

2. “networked lifestreaming often creates anxieties about performing identity in front of an audience, and the extra layers of social information can result in intense social problems colloquially referred to as drama” — you can say that again. It invites “remixing” of others’ lives for entertainment, self-promotion or sheer impishness.

3. After listing some of the supposed benefits of “lifestreaming” (it simulates co-presence), Marwick nails the problems with it: “First, that the lifestream and networked audience creates and publicizes social information that, when combined, is more revealing than the sum of its parts. Second, that intimacy and conflict are often performed for an audience, or to elicit reactions from others. And third, that the context of constant self-monitoring often instigates paranoia and surveillance.” Personal information becomes decontextualized and available for ready remixing.

4. “Context-collapse” problems of lifestreaming — the supply of material that is removable from its immediate context and can be used for other purposes (gossip mongering; advertising; profiling; surveillance, etc.). “First, social media encourages people to reveal or publicize information within a context that may feel social (e.g. performing for a networked audience made up of friends and acquaintances), but in reality is accessible to anyone.” Then “the combination of digital information from many disparate sources into the lifestream results in emergent social information that is more than the sum of its parts.” In sharing, we believe we have a certain amount of control of how the info will be interpreted, but in reality we have no clue, considering the vast amount of cross-referencing and recombinations that are possible. We surrender control of the stories that can be plausibly told about us but sharing habitually across various persistent platforms. “The accessibility and persistence of personal information tracked and broadcast through social media creates an extra layer of relational data that is not easily explained by the dichotomy of public or private” (402). Following danah boyd, Marwick argues we should view these problems through the lens of the public/publicity dichotomy (not public/private). “Information that is public can, in theory, be accessed by virtually anyone, but in practice will probably only be seen by a few. Information that is publicized is strategically made visible to a greater audience through three dimensions: the effort it takes to find information, the ease of locating that information (e.g. searchability), and the interest in that information” (404). Participating in social media is an act of publicity, whether we want it to be or not, it seems to me. Social-media companies try to play it both ways, but in the end, they encourage the repurposing of information to make it more attention-grabbing — they are in the attention business, and all content can usefully be “improved” by making it more enticing to more people, regardless of the original intentions of the person who supplied it. That is why it is so important that Facebook and not users own the content served by Facebook. They want to use your public information and make it publicity.

5. Mandatory publicity and lateral surveillance tends to be justified with cant about the authtentic person having nothing to hide or fear from “living in public”: But “the idea of a single, authentic self, although it carries a great deal of currency in contemporary American culture, is a social construction, and at odds with actual social practice.” Publicity leads to more time spent in self-justification rather than in living; boundaries allow for minimal time and energy wasted on identity management. Boundaries allow for relatively shallow identities to be inhabited to facilitate action in the moment. Without boundaries, “chilling effects” set in, where people refuse to act from fear of having to be permanently associated with a particular deed and have to integrate it into a unitary identity.

Marwick points out the dubious functions of openness ideology:

First, promoting absolute openness disregards the privilege of most people in the tech scene. It is one thing for a wealthy, white male programmer to admit that he sometimes smokes pot. It is another for an undocumented worker to publicize his immigration status, or for a woman escaping a domestic violence situation to reveal her home address. Advocating openness ignores the very circumstances that may make transparency dangerous. Second, upholding personal transparency
as an ideal supports the business models of social software, which profit from information disclosure.

(414) Openness cant, like most things that increase surveillance, serves the interests of tech companies and the state; it preserve status quo distributions of power.

6. Editing the mandatory lifestream (mandatory for purposes of personal branding in the neoliberal economy) becomes a major amount of work — of “immaterial emotional labor” (419) in Marwick’s phrase — the effort to seem authentic and connected online to make your personal online brand seem legitimate. It is generally uncompensated affective labor that nonetheless throws off useful marketing information and so on. Marwick also includes “monitoring” in this category — checking ot see that other people in your network are not sharing things about you that tarnish the story you are telling about yourself — there is no end to that sort of labor, and no guarantee it will even be efficacious.

Chapter 8: Conclusion
1. Good summation:

I argue that Web 2.0 discourse as instantiated in software inculcates a neoliberal subjectivity which encourages people to see themselves as users, products, and packaged commodities. Social media teaches users to create an edited persona, whether based on a celebrity or a brand, and use it to boost social status by strategically appealing to viewers and sharing personal information. Status, a primary motivator for human action in all social contexts, is measured in these applications primarily by attention, visibility, and access to others; people are rewarded for engaging in behaviors that get them attention. These behaviors and methods of identity construction constitute emotional, immaterial labor, which is both creative and affective. This labor is exchanged for the relational and personal benefits provided by social media, such as support, intimacy, and connection. The labor value is converted into literal capital by social media companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, who profit from personal disclosure and the attraction of users to their products. This exchange commodifies identity, emotion, and relationships within a digital context. Social media, which teaches this way of thinking about the self, constitutes a technology of subjectivity. This subjectivity incorporates strategies of commodification and promotion drawn from advertising, marketing, and celebrity culture and applies them to the self and its relationships to others. Web 2.0 therefore teaches a way of understanding oneself that supports a neoliberal culture in which market-based principles are used to evaluate success or failure in daily life. These principles in turn support the business models of social technologies, which depend on selling eyeballs to advertisers or personal information to data-mining firms (both which treat the user, or the user‘s digital dossier, as a salable commodity).

Yes yes yes. Social media, as a technology of subjectivity, ends up shaping the ways we can conceive of ourselves, encouraging us to see ourselves as consumer goods. This ties in nicely with the thesis Zygmunt Bauman elaborates in Consuming Life and suggests how social media support consumer society as well as neoliberalism.

2. Also worth remembering: “While the networked audience provides external validation, emotional support, and a general feeling of ambient awareness for many users, it also consciously or unconsciously limits and circumscribes self presentation choices.” Surveillance makes you feel known, obviously, but it limits you to behaving in ways that can be countenanced, regardless of whether they suit some inner sense of self. Whether that inner sense is a real, ontological thing is another question.

Social deskilling

I picked up the term social deskilling from sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s book Consuming Life. It’s a variant on Harry Braverman’s concept of labor deskilling (outlined in Labor and Monopoly Capital), management’s effort to control knowledge of labor processes and thereby make labor itself more abstract and workers interchangeable. Jobs are deskilled when management controls the division of labor and restricts individual workers’ understanding of the total process, reducing them to minutely defined job functions and training them to rely entirely on following orders.

Social deskilling is an erosion of the skills necessary to maintain relationships. As with labor deskilling, social deskilling involves a radical simplification of what individuals are expected to do to fulfill their role in denoting the existence of a relationship. Social media facilitates this streamlining in the name of convenience (think friending, push-button liking, etc.). Social media commodify friendship, encourage us to consume it as though it were a quantified, reified good rather than engage in it as an ongoing practice. Social relations no longer are supposed to require reciprocal co-presence and attention; instead they are timeshifted like TV programs and consumed at each individual party’s convenience. They are expected to provide novel sensations and not fall into the routine cycles of human association, the mundane frailties that drive us to seek comfort from one another.

Bauman links deskilling to the commodification of life necessitated by the “society of consumers.” Because consumer goods embody our culture’s values, we are driven to emulate their form and commodify ourselves to receive the kinds of recognition we are familiar with from consumer society. Once we have commodified ourselves, friendship occurs as exchanges in markets. Bauman points to online dating services as paradigmatic:

Clearly, the people turning to internet agencies for help have been pampered by the user-friendly consumer market which promises to make every choice secure and every transaction one-off and without obligation, an act with ‘no hidden costs’, ‘nothing more to pay, ever’, ‘no strings attached’, ‘no agent will call’. The side-effect (one could say, using the currently fashionable expression, the ‘collateral casualty’) of such a cosseted existence – minimizing risks, heavily reducing or abdicating responsibility and carrying an a priori neutralized subjectivity of the protagonists – has proved however to be a considerable amount of social deskilling….
Internet agencies derive most of their attraction from recasting the sought-after human partners as the kinds of commodities which well-trained consumers are used to confronting and know how to handle. The more seasoned and ‘mature’ their clients become, the more they are taken aback, confused and embarrassed when they come ‘face to face’ and discover that the looks must be reciprocated and that in ‘transactions’ they, the subjects, are also objects.

I think social media have picked up where dating services leave off (remember early social networks like Friendster were rooted in dating), subsuming as much of social experience as it can cajole its users into performing within their confines. Social media supply a structure for social experience that seems to absolve it of its necessary awkwardness. But this leaves us less equipped to deal with the inevitable friction involved in forming groups or any other social interaction, making us more reliant on technological interfaces to mask tensions and obviate the need for negotiation. This doesn’t seem to bode well for political organization, let alone intimacy (the friction and tension is the substance of the relation, ultimately, not its unfortunate by-product — meeting and accepting the reality of the consciousness of the other is difficult). It does bode well for commercial interests and intensified consumption. The explosion of online pornography and its growing acceptance is another aspect of social deskilling — maybe what you might call sexual deskilling. The complexities and unpredictability of sexual intercourse is replaced by the rapid consumption of images in an instrumental fashion. The skills of seduction and alert sympathetic attention to the other are replaced with a passive ability to process images, attenuate visual fetishes.

Bauman is a bit mechanistic in his description of how advertising works to brainwash us into accepting this, but I think his account of commodified social relations and their emphasis on convenience over caring is otherwise apt:

As the skills needed to converse and seek understanding dwindle, what used to be a challenge to be confronted point blank and then coped with turns increasingly into a pretext for breaking off communication, for escaping and burning bridges behind you. Busy earning more for things they feel they need for happiness, men and women have less time for mutual empathy and for intense, sometimes tortuous and painful, but always lengthy and energy-consuming negotiations, let alone for a resolution of their mutual misunderstandings and disagreements. This sets in motion another vicious circle:the better they succeed in ‘materializing’ their love relationship (as the continuous flow of advertising messages prompts them to do), the fewer opportunities are left for the mutually sympathetic understanding called for by the notorious power/care ambiguity of love. Family members are tempted to avoid confrontation and seek respite (or better still a permanent shelter) from domestic infighting; and then the urge to ‘materialize’ love and loving care acquires yet more impetus, as the more time-consuming and energy consuming alternatives become ever less attainable at a time when they are more and more needed because of the steadily growing number of points of contention, grudges to be placated and disagreements clamoring for resolution.

When friendship is commodified, it becomes subject to the acceleration pressures built in to consumer-capitalist ideology: that is, it must be up-to-date, collectible, easy to use, easy to deploy as a signifier, and it must complete with all the other packaged experiences that we must consume to experience and enrich our status and enhance the fullness of our lives. Technology is often sold to us with this implicit agenda: it will allow us to consume more faster, turning experience into information that can be processed and rebroadcast for our own identity-constructing purposes. Consumerism presupposes that the purpose of life is to “experience” as many consumer goods as possible by buying them or at least by exercising our vaunted freedom of choice to select them. What matters is not the sensual experience to be derived from goods but the signifying power they have in networks to communicate our status — how much we know and can access. At the same time, the accelerated rate of exchange (of goods and information, or increasingly, informational goods, the only sort there is) increases the circulation of goods and allows for more money to change hands and more opportunities for profits to be realized.

social currency; reputational currency obviates trust by abstracting it

From this article by Eli Gothill.

Prior to the web, social assets like individuals’ reputation were stored in the collective memory of the communities they belonged to. As people within a community listen to your jokes, they begin to seek out your company more, and word gets around that you’re funny. However, if you were to move to a different place, your reputation would not come with you. Online, as reputation can now be measured in the form of social gestures, we have a way of making it explicit, publicly recorded, and therefore available more globally, albeit in different ways.

Trust becomes disembedded, fungible, abstracted. But this seems to alter the fundamentally local nature of trust as traditionally understood, opening up the concept to various subversive strategies, to possibilities of manufacturing a sort of ersatz trust that is rooted in captured online gestures but has no basis in community interaction or sustained commitment to a group’s well-being. That is, it reduces the broader notion of trust (which has to do with community values being sustained) to reputation (which has to do with strictly personal goals and tactics for achieving them).

Social currency — the term the author is using for these captured social gestures — is a bit of a misnomer since it posits individuals who participate in collective behavior only to augment their strictly personal reputation. Individual identity is rigorously maintained in the face of groups that form, militating against the possibility of group identity or group responsibility. Basically social currency is a euphemism for personal branding, exploiting social interactions to build personal brand equity under the assumption that all social interactions are governed by a consumerist ideology and take a market-like form. In other words, when ever we have a social encounter, we meet as traders looking for a profitable exchange to enhance our brand value. The purpose of social encounters is strictly for exchange and not for any ephemeral or misconstrued pleasures that supposedly come from uninstrumentalized company-keeping.

Obviously social media encourage this kind of reputational accounting. It makes them the central banks of the new “social currency,” the management of which puts them at the heart of social exchange. This allows them to broker attention (selling ads to third parties which can be interjected as the social media companies oversee social exchanges) as well as theoretically collect interchange fees for guaranteeing trust between parties. But the quantification of reputation in social media also encourages us to regard building trust as the goal of behavior rather than its by-product, a condition that upends the standard logic of social behavior. It allows trust to stand independent of relationships and casts social relations into the form of a game we play to further exogenous goals. (We have “friendships” to enhance trust scores; friendship in itself becomes apparently worthless if it’s not improving our metrics.)

Reputation-measuring systems are a mode of social deskilling. Social media companies has an incentive to erode our natural skills of etiquette and social navigation so that we become more reliant on the companies to manage our awkwardness for us.

attention as currency (1)

Apologies in advance for the level of abstraction in this post. Much of this is derived from Georg Franck’s essay The Economy of Attention.

A good way to think about social media is to see them as producing attention as a commodity, extending the function of earlier forms of media. Media broker audiences of varying qualities, selling them off to firms that try to transmute attention into other forms of profit. Advertising is traditionally the means of exchanging attention for money, though the rate of exchange is affected obscurely by the nature of specific ads, which can attract attention on their own and are of varying effectiveness in converting attention into action, sales. Media secure measurable amounts of attention (volume of attention, nature of those paying it) and sell it to advertisers and marketers (first attention-money conversion), who then apply the attention to some advertising content in hopes that this application will lead to increased sales (second attention-money conversion). Attention is the locus of value, not the information being paid attention to. The information may inflect the value of attention but it is not the source of value. It is attention’s alibi, as Baudrillard might say. Information is the medium of which attention is the content (not vice versa).

But is the value in attention merely a matter of what sort of increased sales it can lead to? Or is attention more akin to labor as a commodity — is attention a form of exchangeable abstract labor? When attention is sold, what is sold is the ability of those paying attention to valorize what they are made to pay attention to? This may take the form of buying an advertised good, but it may also take the form of increasing the status of the objected paid attention to, enriching its potential store of symbolic meanings, etc.

Celebrity, fame, prominence have no meaning outside the media that circulates them, determines their relative amount; it doesn’t refer outside the system. When it seems to, it is an illusion, or it is the fame system parasitically attaching itself to a different system for distributing recognition. To put that more clearly: the attention economy takes the value of attention for granted and treats it as abstract (it doesn’t refer beyond itself to some other source for its meaning or its value). But human recognition outside of the attention economy depends on the content of what is being recognized, and does not treat that recognition as an exchange or an investment (it is not strategic, not an effort to enhance value of attention being paid).

Attention can function as a currency, measuring the worth of something in terms of how much attention is congealed (like living labor, say, in Marxist theory) in it. Attention itself is a matter of time and a matter of the quality (or prominence) of the person paying it, however, which makes it a highly variable, unstable currency, leaving unanswered the question of what makes a person paying attention more valuable than another — is it simply a matter of how much congealed attention a particular attention-payer previously accrued and now embodies? Also, attention varies not only in time and quality of mind paying attention, but in intensity — so it appears it may be infinitely subdivided. It can be increased in the face of limited time by making attention paid more intense, by making the person paying it more valuable (but again, by what measure?), by increasing the number of objects in the relevant field of attention. Production in this field relates directly to what may the ultimate source of economic value: human engagement.

Social media increase the amount of attention paid by people to other people, enhancing the quality/prominence of attention payers (they embody more attention) and thus increasing the value of aggregate attention pool, the amount of attention-value that can be attached to other things, can be exchanged, and so on. Social media liberate prominence from the need for particular talents — removes the scarcity of media space within which to manufacture prominence, celebrity. Not everyone will be as famous as everyone else, but everyone can be increasing their notoriety at varying rates within social media, offering those media ongoing opportunities to sell more attention to third parties outside the vaorizing person-to-person attention exchanges. In other words, in social media we pay attention to each other, increasing the value of our attention to third parties, to whom it is sold, either as potential (we can be induced to pay attention to some third party thing in the future) or as a fait accompli (we can be sold as having paid attention to some third party thing, glamorizing it a little bit with our own prominence).

Franck defines the media business model this way, as hinging on the separation between wages paid in attention and those paid in cash. Media companies can rake in cash and pay out mainly attention. The key point, though, is that media function as a business because they produce and distribute attention, NOT information. Information production and dissemination is subordinate, inessential to media business.

Without the attention income promised by publication, not even the publishing trade would have developed in any significant way. If only material certain of commercial success had been published in books and periodicals, today’s literary scene would look different from the way it does. Solely the fact that authors calculate in the currency of attention can explain their willingness to toil for the best expression of an idea in return for starvation wages. The ingeniousness of the publishing trade’s business idea lies in splitting up the returns in terms of financial and attention currency. The production conditions of our literary culture are such that the publisher gets the money and the author gets the attention.

Franck claims (albeit with little substantiation) that a medium “diverts feelings of objection or reservation away from persons on to itself, the medium. Somehow it happens that we extend interest, liking and fascination to the persons who appear, but that we direct our rejection, objection, or indignation at the medium. Instead of being annoyed about the disproportion between the prominence of persons and the substance of their presentation we call television stupid.” In social media this phenomenon (if it is real) would extend protection to those sharing on them, knowing that people will claim Facebook or Twitter are stupid or trivial or lame or whatever rather than remove bricks from their network to improve the general level of information.

Attention as currency reinforces atomization: attention is always a matter of exchange rather than integration; attention can be aggregated but not synthesized in being measured. We realize the value of attention in exchanging it, not merging it with others in collective focus or practice. We are maximizing its value in exchange rather than directing it as an inexhaustible flow. Attention economy metrics require alienation, self-commodification, as a prerequisite; it compensates by giving us discrete hierarchies to climb, fleeting reassurances about our progress up a status ladder.

Another important function of the attention economy is to provide a rationalization for ongoing unequal distribution of social opportunities. The distribution of attention-worthiness is unequal, and the media exacerbates this original unevenness. But social media extends the tools of attention seeking equally, making it one’s own fault if one can’t avail oneself of the opportunities, find hierarchies to dominate, and so on. The responsibility for risk of being at a social disadvantage is shifted to the individual (a la neoliberal ideology), absolving society and state of responsibility for addressing inequality. As Franck notes, “natural differences in talent have always been intermingled with social privileges or deprivations;” a mediated society allows those natural differences to justify and excuse the other deprivations. It rationalizes exclusion, even dignifies it. Attention economy arbitrates distinction in a seemingly fair manner, as it takes place in an apparent market, which reads in capitalist ideology as just. At same time, it requires self-commodification as a prerequisite to experiencing ontological security within society — to know your place, know you are appreciated, you must be a commodity traded on attention market. Social media are rapidly becoming the generalized infrastructure for this. Franck:

The objectivity of the medium has such overwhelming power over human comparisons that it would seem ridiculous to react with feelings of envy or jealousy to the unjustified distribution of attention. In the media the supra-personal rules of distribution practically become a completely anonymous mechanism of which all of us are part and whose method of accounting inadvertently assumes the effectiveness of an automated payment system.

Obviously social media make this seem outdated. Attention is not distributed on them anonymously. But the larger point about the seemingly spontaneous appearance of an attention accounting system that seems inarguable is apt. Social media seem to promise us all some attention in exchange for our participation in their vast unequal system, for allowing the media to sell us according to the rank they assign us and to appropriate anything we contribute that can be repurposed. The existence of quasi-democratic social networks masks the inequalities between different configurations of the networks. We all can belong, but belonging to Facebook, say, confers uneven benefits to users. Some are net gainers, some are net losers (with respect to time invested, attention received, value and social capital extracted); Facebook, of course, always gains.

(Zygmunt Bauman stresses a similar point in Consuming Life, which I’ll go through in an upcoming post.)

Within the attention economy of social media, attention signifies assent over and above whatever else we communicate in the process of paying attention. Franck argues that growth of media leads to an expansion of “reality produced to attract attention” and the epistemological corollary, that “only that which retains our attention is real.” Attention becomes a truth procedure, conferring truth where we notice we have assigned it. The stakes of the attention economy are the ability to define the real; commanding greater sums of attention means that within this world you can dictate more of what will be regarded as real, as social fact.