As we see that cultural capital build, we strive to document as much as we can within social media, thus mimicking at the personal, micro-level the macro-level aspirations of Facebook to assimilate all of sociality on its “social graph.” From this totalizing system, we can then derive the comfort that everything will be recorded and be factored in — we don’t need to decide in advance what is significant, what to consume or not consume. With social media as a personal content-management system, we get to consume more than ever, free of the supposed guilt that comes from consuming the wrong stuff or showing off.
How we use and relate to social media is a big theme in my writing and ever since I found the Marginal Utility blog, much of it has been sparked by Rob Horning’s work. I’ve come to hate it when people describe something as ‘must read’ but Horning seems pretty essential to me – at least for anyone who regularly uses social media, which is obviously almost anyone reading this. This latest piece shares some provocative and profound thoughts on the nature of identity and the ‘authentic self’, positing that we increasingly find and believe in who we are by what we share (and interact with) on social media. As Horning puts it, ‘self-discovery’ is now ‘reputation management’.
Social media becomes an ever more dominant part of our lives and yet so few people seem to seriously contemplate it and how they use it. We see this not only in rampant and rewarded narcissism (as Horning says in the quote above, on social media we can show off and it’s okay) but in instances like the Paris Brown affair. The “totalizing system” is such that I found myself asking a friend last week “if it’s not on Facebook, did it actually happen?” It goes beyond merely sharing photos of our nights out, checking in at a gig or posting our thoughts on the latest episode of ‘Mad Men’ into experiences actually becoming subservient to their expression on social media. They become means by which we can further express our personalities online (and so find them both reflected back at us and affirmed). Not only does it seem that the offline space to develop becomes ever smaller but the desire to do this recedes. It’s Warren Beatty’s infamous quote about Madonna stolen from the realm of the super-celebrity and applied to every mundane moment of life:
She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing?
For ‘camera’ read (obviously) ‘social media’ – what is the point of doing anything if it can’t be shared online, can’t be used to further our perception of ourselves? More than that, if others don’t see it, don’t comment on it, don’t ‘like’ or RT it, what was its purpose? This was rammed home to me yesterday as we visited a friend at a gallery and I was astounded at the ubiquity of people taking photos of the artwork with their phones – it was happening everywhere, constantly. Contemplation of the art was replaced by broadcasting the fact that you are contemplating art.
Horning posits this tension as being between the consumerist sense of authenticity and a post-social media ‘data’ sense, ending by envisaging a time of “postauthenticity, in which the momentum of sharing itself is all that needs to be shared, and identity becomes noninterpretable.” I’m not so sure – to me it seems that social media is a continuation of the consumerist idea of identity (albeit one which is subsuming the latter) and people will remain wedded to the idea of the ‘self’. Indeed, you need only look at the amount of pictures which people share of the latest things they have bought or how frequently we post about what we ‘consume’ as if it says something about us to see that the two ideas of identity are finding a happy co-existence online. Perhaps the fundamental difference is that the former did allow for ‘privacy’, something which is becoming an irrelevance (and an impossibility). The implications which this has for us are enormous and troubling, to say the least.