social graph vs. social class

I’ve hated the term social graph since Facebook first seized upon it to try to legitimate and intellectualize their project of subsuming people’s social lives. But it turns out the term may be useful in drawing a distinction between the concepts of social organization that social media serve to reinforce and the class-based analyses they work to prevent.

Social media support, obviously, a view of society as a network of individual nodes that define themselves by their difference from other nodes; each individual’s value lies in establishing and expressing that difference, finding comparative advantage relative to other nodes. Connections to other people serve to spread that message of difference, the existence of that differential value, meaning that relations charted in that network (aka the social graph) are lines of competition of well as mere affiliation. It means also that individuals in the network are faced with an ongoing tactical situation, under pressure to constant innovate the nature of their identity in the network to find new advantages, invent new differences, propagate new bases for judgment and new implied hierarchies to dominate (e.g. “I’m the person with the coolest Deep Purple bootleg blog”; “I’m the quickest to retweet that Teju Cole post”; “I invented a meme that combines Deleuze passages with pictures of Rihanna”; etc.).

This interpretation of how society is organized precludes an interpretation that sees the possibility of class, of concrete groups with shared interests that they work to construct and then use as the basis for forcing concessions from capital. The social graph traces intricate constellations that are always becoming ever more complex and require massive computer power and elaborate algorithms to interpret and trace out underlying patterns of significance. Generally, only capital has the resources to summon such power, so the commonalities called into being through such analysis of network data are commercial ones. But to forge a social class, a different sort of work is required, called forth by a different conception of society, based on antagonisms between blocs (and ongoing fights that require long-term strategies) not antagonisms between individuals (whose spontaneous skirmishes require more or less ad hoc tactics).

The social graph purports to passively record social arrangements that emerge organically and thus reflect some sort of true and undistorted account of how society works. That conception discourages the possibility of those plotted on the graph from making a social class. Social media users don’t take advantage of their connectedness to undertake the work of finding the bases by which they can see their concerns as being shared, being in some way equivalent. Instead, their connectedness drives them to preen for attention and personal brand enhancement. One must work against social media’s grain to use it to develop lasting, convincing political groupings.

I’m deriving this network vs. class scheme from chapter 5 of Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, “Undermining the Defenses of the World of Work,” which mainly traces how neoliberalism’s ideological propositions about flexibility and autonomy brought on deunionization and crippled the force of critique. Boltanski and Chiapello argue that in the crises capitalism faced from 1968 to the early 1980s the “artistic critique” (emphasizing worker autonomy and on-job creativity) won out over the “social critique” (emphasizing justice and mitigating inequality), leading to the acceptance of neoliberalist reforms as potentially liberating, as defensible progress (and not dismantling of norms of economic security). The once legitimate artistic critique was rehabilitated by the new spirit of capitalism, and those who persisted in pursuing the tenets of the artistic critique (Boltanski and Chiapello list autonomy, authenticity, creativity, liberation) became hipsters rather than social critics. That mode of resistance became instead an entrepreneurial mode of personal branding. The space it opened for conflict was reclaimed.

That is how neoliberalism has generally proceeded. It tries to disguise antagonism, the existence of conflictual classes. We are freed to think or everybody as basically being middle class by default, obviating the work that went into building solidarity, “establishing equivalence” among disparate people so they could participate in common struggles. Instead, we got to be unique idiosyncratic selves with special unique talents, and the main political problem was getting that specialness properly recognized. And accordingly, we all need to negotiate our wages on an individual basis; no reason to be unionized.

The result of all that?

The opportunities offered for the flourishing of the self went together with the exclusion of those individuals or groups that did not possess the requisite resources to seize those opportunities and, consequently, with an increase in poverty and inequality.

I think that’s what Freddie deBoer is trying to get at from a far more personal angle in this post.

Like neoliberalist ideology and post-Fordist management techniques, social media work to “restore the salience of particularities” and “construct a world sensitive to differences,” to use Boltanski and Chiapello’s phrases. This yields a “confused, fragmented universe, composed solely of a juxtaposition of individual destinies.” We all flounder to get ahead personally but never unite in a meaningfully political way. The 99% dissolves and all that’s shared is statuses, photos, and tweets. And everything remains fucked up and bullshit.

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