From Sianne Ngai, Our Aesthetic Categories. Another similarity between conceptual art and social media: the audiences are also performers, and are “serious” about the medium and concerned about strategies for using it. Social media consumption thus has a meta component built in to it in ways nonsocial media don’t — most people don’t watch TV shows with the intent of making their own (though arguably I suppose some of the same techniques could be appropriated for self-presentation in Facebook, etc.). But consuming social media is often about absorbing how to create social media better — that, and not the specific things mentioned, can be the primary content for consumers.

Our consumption of social media, then, is always inflected by potential jealousy for rivals in the medium or by the alertness for techniques or ideas to borrow. This can complicate the hope we have in using social media of creating an appreciated self, an archived identity that has followers who validate it for its particular content. 

The reciprocity of our being audience for one another, however, has the effect not of emphasizing the “interestingness” of the content but of making the content more like an indifferent placeholder in the game of exchanging gestures of attention and recognition within the network. Circulation of ideas becomes the idea, the content of the ideas being circulated a matter of happenstance. This is why conceptual art could be Ruscha compiling images of gas stations, and why Instagram feeds can be a bunch of pictures of breakfast. What is "interesting" with respect to such media unfolds over time and is not revealed as a flash of captivation, as we are prone to think of it. 

Ngai notes how “the photographic series” was the main mode of conceptual art in its heyday; it is also a chief mode of casual social media use — sharing a stream of photos whose content can be of minimal interest as long as it is part of an ongoing project of sharing and documenting the self. 

Taken to its logical extreme, social media as self-documentation becomes self-quantification as democratized conceptual art. The formulaic obsessions of self-quantifiers resembles Ruscha’s formula for “interesting” art — quantifiers consume themselves as interesting art by purifying and delimiting their experience into what can be captured numerically by rigid formal, form-giving procedures. The quantitative self is a conceptual artwork driven by quantitative logic, just like Ruscha’s. (Alternatively, it is a mode of “living the truth” — truth as beauty, as art, as objectivity — as Foucault outlines in his late lectures.) It’s intentionally boring and inane in any isolated moment, since its purpose is to nullify the moment of interest and stretch the self’s potential interestingness to infinity as the data compiles to make up charts and graphs and so on. 

Ngai quotes Moretti on detective fiction to describe Ruscha’s mode of linking “continuous novelty of content to a perennial fixity of the syntax.” I think that’s a good description of social-media platforms, as well as the epistemological approach of self-quantifiers, who are thrilled to derive aesthetic pleasure in themselves by using a systematic approach to render their life experience “interesting.” Objectively interesting, too — remaking life as data makes it seem universally significant (“quantities are always informative,” Ruscha claims), not a contingent form of purely personal nostalgia. Self-quantification, then, may be an attempt to make personal nostalgia somehow more “legitimate” and less a vertiginous private hole one’s mind can fall into. 

In Ngai’s scheme, conceptual art is part of establishing the definition of the “interesting,” helping establish it as an aesthetic category in its own right rather than the purported opposite of an aesthetic (i.e. “it’s not good, but it’s interesting”). The “interesting,” she suggests, is a response to consumer capitalism’s overwhelming us with novelty; it describes and valorizes the sort of pattern recognition that is never complete, and it is always in danger of collapsing into boredom, of seeing insignificant variations in commodities, say, not as novelty but as more of the same. Something is interesting when we can’t immediately resolve why it has piqued our curiosity or held our attention. It calls attention to the process of being attentive, frames “paying attention” as a kind of important work in and of itself, regardless of what is attended to. Hence “interesting” is the aesthetic category Ngai associates with circulation, with the affective force that yearns for seriality and keeps information moving. 

This seems relevant to the frequent complaint that the stuff many people share on social media is “boring” — as though the specific, discrete updates or images are even the point. Each isolated update is almost structurally doomed to being boring because its chief function is to gratify our wish to long for the next one, to provoke our curiosity for what’s coming. To make our “interest” palpable in the trace of its evaporation, as we consume any given image and yawn. (This is another way of conceiving the “combination of experiment and inertia” I was talking about a few posts ago.)

If any given update or image is too fascinating, it upstages the accumulating archive of self as the center of interest — it halts it. For instance, if any one of Ruscha’s gas-station images is too interesting, it voids the integrity of the project as a whole. The book would become subordinate to the outstanding image it contains. You wouldn’t need to take on the book as a whole any longer to appreciate its genius.

Likewise for social media use. The user’s self in social media is akin to those conceptual artworks (or novels — thinking of Clarissa) that work chiefly in time rather than space. The sum of things shared are more compelling in their flow, in the way they tame diverse experience into an underlying homogeneity required by the social media platforms. The point of this is to secure social recognition and validation of the self, as a dynamic but socially real thing, a coherent concept that takes its stable form as an open-ended progression over time. The self is legitimate as a format.

But an overly interesting image diverts the audience’s attention from the flow, reorients their attention to the singular update. This means that the force of the social recognition audiences supply is diverted away from appreciating the ongoing life one chronicles through social media use; instead recognition suddenly becomes contingent on whether a user can deliver spontaneous moments of true fascination. You get upstaged by the brilliance of what you’ve shared.  


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