If I had known Baudrillard’s Symbolic Exchange and Death was basically an extended investigation of the ramifications of McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” claim, I probably would have dumped a bunch of it in to my paper on virality.
Virality isn’t a medium, exactly, but a media effect, so it takes us one step further: “the medium’s effectiveness is the message.” Or “circulation is the message.” Arguably, using the medium, as opposed to the medium’s static formal qualities, is eventually what all content boils down to in a quantified network.
What started me thinking about this is what Baudrillard has to say about public opinion, which he says “is par excellence both the medium and the message.” Public opinion refers not to some pre-existing opinion that it successfully measures. It refers to itself, already set in motion as a supposedly real and objective thing, and polls merely measure how much the people polled already know about it.
Opinion polls are situated beyond all social production of opinion. They now refer only to a simulacrum of public opinion. This mirror of opinion is analogous in its way to that of the Gross National Product: the imaginary mirror of productive forces without regard for their social finality or counter-finality, the essential thing being merely that ‘it’ [ça] is reproduced. The same goes for public opinion, where what matters most is that it grows incessantly in its own image: this is the secret of mass representation.
Nobody need produce an opinion any more, but everyone must reproduce public opinion, in the sense that all opinions are swallowed up in this kind of general equivalent and proceed from it thereafter (reproduce it, or what they take it to be, at the level of individual choice).
I argue that virality is basically an extension of that process. It posits reproduction of a meme as the centrally important fact about a meme, swallowing its putative content. Its massiveness speaks to its importance, and all reiterations of it refer to that, not to “what it’s about.”
Baudrillard suggests the function of polling is to simply perpetuate polling, the imposition of questions with already prepared answers on top of reality to delimit it. Polls “belong to the same order as TV and the electronic media, which … are also a perpetual question/answer game, an instrument of perpetual polling.”
Virality too is an “instrument of perpetual polling,” inviting us to engage with reality only through an ongoing referendum on how certain things are being circulated. In a world where representations are governed by virality, perpetual polling — assessing the momentum of a thing’s spread —is the only way to process, interact with the real.
When Baudrillard describes what happens as polling supplants more open-ended forms of expression, he could be describing our quantified communications on social media.
There is a jubilation proper to this spectacular nullity, and the final form that it takes is that of statistical contemplation. Such contemplation, moreover, is always coupled, as we know, with a profound disappointment — the species of disillusion that the polls provoke by absorbing all public speaking, by short-circuiting every means of expression. They exert fascination in proportion to this neutralization through emptiness, to the vertigo they create by anticipating every possible reality in the image.
Social media use turns out to be not a liberation from the top-down tyranny of old media, with its techniques of manipulating and corralling public opinion, but instead extends the hegemony of such techniques. Social media turn everything we say or do within it into a moment of polling, kicking off “statistical contemplation” as the only means of thinking about it all. Once statistical contemplation starts, how can we make it stop?