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2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

This article was sent to me by @wotyougot and feeds into some things I’d been mulling over re: social media and television/films for a while. It shouldn’t seem like a particular insight to say that social media is having a big effect on the way we watch things but, in this age of cultural poptimism, it’s a statement which many will take instant umbrage with. For these people social media can only be a force for good and the kids (ie us, vicariously) are alright. It’s surely difficult to argue, however, that the live-tweeting of a show like Question Time is about much more than affirming your self-image and chasing the buzz of a retweet. I speak as someone who used to do it and understands the pleasure of having a pithy comment about that week’s reactionary panel member shared far and wide. It’s a long way from actually being about politics.

This piece speaks about the ‘social media buzz’ behind many of the most popular current shows and I think a large part of what it’s getting at is that the impulses which drive #BBCQT live-tweeting are now to be fond across television. In short, we reward shows which affirm our self-image. If this doesn’t require much effort on our part and lends itself to pithy social media updates, all the better. Question Time’s facile presentation of politics clearly fits this criteria, as we already know what we think and what the ‘right’ things to say are in order to receive validation. ‘Reality tv’ in general fits the bill, whether that be The Voice, Celebrity Big Brother or Ru Paul’s Drag Race. These shows make no real demands on our attention or even our thinking: they offer quick reward for minimal engagement. It’s arguable that the next step beyond this is the recent trend for verisimilitude, the appearance of reality, in shows like Girls and Looking. These shows offer idyllic reflections of their target audiences – that’s you on screen but you’re funnier, more profound and more attractive. Even the conflict, breakdowns and drama in these shows is an Instagram-filtered gentle masochism which never threatens to disrupt our projections.

Looking is a step beyond even Girls in these regards – its sole creative impulse appears to be this reflection, whether that be gay men of a certain class or a liberal audience who implicitly feel that they deserve cookies for watching a show about gays. I thought that the latter was very evident in responses to Weekend, the previous film from Andrew Haigh (director of Looking), though viewing figures for Looking suggest that its efforts to replicate this on television are falling flat. It’s not surprising, really – having your liberal self-image confirmed in a 90 minute film is one thing but an eight-hour tv show has to offer you something more. Looking fails spectacularly in this regard, being almost entirely free of both straight characters and female characters. It’s notable, however, that its main character is a video game-playing geek, as perhaps the most obvious examples of the trends I’m speaking of are the shows aimed at self-identified ‘geeks’ (Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who). Looking is actually being rather clever in drawing upon the increasing dominance of the ‘geek’ in gay culture but the portrayal is too particular to flatter a general audience.

We can similarly speculate as to whether a wide current audience would care to watch a long television series about slavery featuring a predominantly black cast. Would this offer the same convenient affirmations which people have been finding in 12 Years A Slave? Over the past few weeks I’ve noted that people feel compelled to take to social media and inform everyone of how affected they were by this film, more than any other I can previously recall. It doesn’t require much thought to see how this fits into the trends I’m discussing here. The Brad Pitt character is a personification of the film’s appeal for many ‘liberal’ viewers and the emotional affectation which has so often been following viewings is a performance of self-image. The film is instrumentalised to show how humane and liberal we are. Then it’s onto the next thing.

As the Flavorwire piece notes, if a show acquires a ‘buzz’ it can get away with being a bit slower and more interesting. There’s a clear lineage of shows like The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad which are too sprawling to be easily compartmentalised but which became totemic of being a certain kind of person (it’s no coincidence that The Guardian has been a vocal supporter of them). It’s easy, then, to congratulate ourselves for watching ‘difficult’ shows but it’s certainly more difficult for ones which don’t offer facile affirmation to garner wider attention. This occurred to me while watching Rectify over Christmas. While garnering massive critical acclaim, it’s a show which is still largely-unheard of and it’s easy to see why: it’s slow and virtually impenetrable for a ‘social media viewer’, offering almost zero hooks in that regard. All it can hope for in terms of achieving wider attention, then, is to reach a certain critical mass (pun intended) where viewing it becomes a potent signifier.

It’s worth briefly noting here that this trend doesn’t only work in terms of liking something. The ‘Twitter hateathon’ which accompanies Sherlock these days is emblematic of the process working in a different way, where despising a show confirms your self-image. This is not to say that Sherlock isn’t worthy of critique but that is something far-removed from deliberately tuning in to live-tweet 90 minutes of snark.

Social media hasn’t invented the impulses which lie behind all of this, of course. It has merely, as this piece notes, accelerated and cemented them, drawing them out of more and more of us. I noted at the end of my piece on Question Time that the “series of experiences and moments of rethinking and reflection” written about by Antony Lerman offered an inspiring riposte to the social media-isation of critical engagement. Clearly there is no small irony in writing about that on Tumblr, yet it remains something to heed. Television and film have a massive amount of value to offer us and, on the whole, that value is not GIF-able.

2013: The Year the Social Media Dam Broke

The Circle

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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.

The above quote, taken from here, is one of many efforts I’ve made to reflect on social media and its impact on our lives. I was perhaps too hesitant when I wrote that “few people seem to seriously contemplate it”…in actual fact it seems that such serious contemplation is actively (but almost unconsciously) seen as a bad thing. Katherine St Asaph began her response to this piece by declaring “I shouldn’t even be responding to something that uses the “social media increases narcissism!” study as its kicker”. Such instant dismissal of any notion that social media could have negative impacts is typical of the discussion around it and it’s fitting that it came in a dialogue around One Direction. Like 1D, social media is identified with youth and as such is attributed the qualities of being youthful and exciting; to parse either in a critical manner is to be condescending, snobbish and, worst of all, old. Any person, organisation or brand attempting to reach a ‘younger’ audience will invariably find themselves quickly drowning in hashtags, Vines and Tumblrs. Yet this focus on marketing obscures the fundamental reality that the main product of social media is ourselves – its value relies on monetising relationships which were previously mediated off-line and, further, in inventing new relationships (between ourselves and other people, ourselves and brands, ourselves and pop stars etc). Capitalism’s survival depends on its vampiric ability to encroach onto and transform more and more aspects of our daily lives. Our ‘inner self’ does not escape this – we’ve seen that work has become more and more a question of ‘emotional labour‘ and, conversely, our personalities have been turned into business and profit.

It’s staggering how quickly Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and the like have transformed much of our reality and the flood shows no sign of abating. Google Glass seeks to augment reality and make us cyborg-like beings, permanently wired in and switched on. From our televisions to our online shopping we are more and more willing to share our habits in order to receive personalised services which seek to tell us about media and products which we otherwise wouldn’t have known existed. We all walk around with devices which identify our location at every second of every day. We don’t mind this. We don’t mind this to the degree that when it’s revealed that our ‘national security’ agencies routinely monitor this data along with our calls, e-mails etc it inspires little more than a mass shrug. And certainly we can identify a lot of ‘good’ in this technology – I’m writing this on Tumblr and will post it to my Twitter which I’ll read on my phone, I’m in no position to be superior – but the point is that we’re surrounded by messages telling us about that good. Thinking about the bad is, as noted, kinda beyond the pale.

Which brings us neatly to The Circle, the new novel from Dave Eggers. Eggers is the kind of guy it’s easy to hate: talented, prolific, accomplished, involved in charity work and an archetypal upper middle-class liberal. Fortunately for him, his books are a joy to read, as effortless to get through as gently warm water. In recent months I stormed through the incredible What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng and last year’s A Hologram for the King, a book which manages to make gripping reading from a lot of sitting around in a tent pitched in a Saudi Arabian desert. It was a fortuitous coincidence that Eggers’ latest novel, The Circle, turned out to be due for publication only a few weeks after I finished the latter.

The Circle will widely be described as a satire aimed at Google and the titular tech company does indeed share many similarities with everyone’s favourite ‘Don’t Be Evil’ conglomerate. It also draws on aspects of Facebook, Twitter and Amazon yet the satire of the novel goes far beyond the behaviour of any of these companies or our own relationship with them; instead it concerns the very nature of humanity. That the book is a dystopian vision of the near future (a blend of 1984, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Brave New World) is writ large, so much so that the strokes can seem laughably broad: it seems certain that many readers will be put off by what initially seems like caricature. I myself wasn’t initially sure…yet there is one particular scene, quite early in the novel, which so pitch-perfectly captures the weird, hysterical neediness fostered by social media event invites and their ‘wandering around a minefield in a blindfold’ politics that I found myself grinning widely at its brilliance. From there on in I submitted to the book and found myself hooked, staying up far later than I should to read it and looking forward to my commute just so that I could snatch some more pages.

The audacious capturing of many of the hilarious but equally sinister aspects of social media, and our relationship with modern technology, continues apace. Clicktivism and e-petitions are ruthlessly skewered, as is the embarrassing desire of our politicians to associate themselves with these exciting tech companies. One of the main sparks for the march towards a totalitarian ‘openness’ turns out to be an anti-internet troll campaign and the eagerness to trade-off privacy for ‘safety’ is a recurring theme. The inherent insincerity of relationships conducted almost entirely on social media looms large, as does the diminishing effects of being able (and expected) to pass comment on every person who crosses our screens. The fascistic strand of the unthinking cult of ‘positivity’ leaps from every page. Overarching all of this is the question of human experience and personality – what does it mean to be ‘you’? Are we more or less ourselves when we construct an online identity, share our experiences there and encounter people and things which we never could in ‘real life’? Is there any value in secrecy, in lies, in retreating from the world – and is social media itself this retreat?

The book is far from perfect and its sledgehammer subtlety does initially jar; yet at every point where I found myself beginning to roll my eyes I realised that I knew people who would eagerly pursue the course of action described. Obvious, then, but only in the sense that it describes what already exists and pushes it further to make its point. In fact, it could be said that this forceful signposting reflects the decline of critical thinking which has in part been fostered by social media and ‘positivity’. Spend 10 seconds on the page of any online marketing/media company and try not to feel nauseous at the insipid horror on display – you don’t have a personality but rather a ‘personal brand’ and how this is perceived is what matters. As such, the appearance of being caring, being intelligent, being funny, being human is key. Sign those petitions, post those videos, tear down those X Factor contestants and rack up the likes and retweets. Then you’ll know people care. You’ll know you made a difference. The Circle seems overblown because it has to be – the signifier is replacing the signified and the hellish results of that are laid bare in an all-too-appropriate manner. If you’ve ever found yourself checking your Facebook to see if something you posted five minutes ago has been liked, looked forward to a tv show because of the witty comments you hope to tweet about it or taken photos of an experience because you thought it would play great on your profiles – read this book.

Teenage Kicks

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I didn’t watch Channel 4’s ‘Crazy About One Direction’ last week. I didn’t watch it because I’m 33 years old and, ya know, One Direction. We’re apparently not supposed to say that these days. Instead we’re meant to encourage the notion that we’re really down with what pop kids like, that people enjoying something is reason enough for its existence, that the fandom you experience when you’re an adolescent is this pure, undiluted, beautiful fandom that becomes corrupted by the horrors of adulthood. It’s typical of that ‘cloying positivity’ which I’ve previously written about and is also tackled well here:

We all know the types; they’ve just discovered memes, they earnestly listen to shit pop music designed for children, they watch TV talents shows with a genuine excitement – they are people whose cultural interests are almost exclusively based in novelty. Everything is ‘amazing’ not because it’s exceptional or out of the ordinary, but because amazing is now the go-to word to describe most anything, ironically or otherwise. 

It should be emphasised (because some will deliberately try and avoid it) that this is aimed at the overwhelmingly 25 year old and over ‘critics’ who write reams defending 1D fans and their ilk, not the 1D fans themselves. No-one is surprised when teenagers get hugely excited by pop music. Indeed, the 1D documentary was nothing new – in my time I’ve seen similar shows on obsessive fans of Britney Spears, Take That, Madonna. Interestingly enough, several of these previous shows featured many male fans, something which I gather was missing from the 1D documentary. This is important because the response to the 1D documentary has overwhelmingly rested on two things: a sentimental, banal appeal to feminism and Poptimism. Two things which, of course, are catnip for much of our modern media and certainly current music journalism.

Let’s look at the Poptimism first. Of course we’ve had the ‘oh people are making fun of these fans because it’s pop music’ response and corresponding attack on people who obsess over guitars, ‘authenticity’ blah blah blah oh God not this again. We won’t dwell on the fact that this ‘Rockist’ attitude is so ridiculed and unfashionable that anyone sincerely making it (and more often than not you don’t actually find many people making it, it’s just this floating spectre) may as well be standing up and saying ‘I’M A PAEDOPHILE’. Instead we’ll take it at face value and agree – of course loving pop is no less valid than loving rock or indie or whatever. Great. What this argument always does however is to conflate all pop music and all pop fans. You may love Taylor Swift and Rihanna but as soon as you say that you think One Direction are pretty terrible, you become this snobbish archetype. Indeed, even on the fans’ ‘side’ there’s no recognition that pop fans love a myriad of different acts (pop and otherwise) and that loads of 1D fans think The Wanted are shit, and vice-versa, and wider still. No, rock music is not inherently superior to pop music. Running with this to the point where we refuse to acknowledge that some rock is better than some pop (and of course the reverse is true) or more importantly, that there is a lot of dreadful pop music out there is absurd and doesn’t suggest that anyone making the argument takes pop music all that seriously themselves. Current pop music journalism does seem built on this extremely shaky bedrock, a cheapness which elevates dreck and kitsch as celebratory and refuses to sincerely consider pop in any social/political/cultural terms as an important art form. We can see this right now in the response to Lady Gaga’s ‘ArtPop’ project where she is very loudly and ostentatiously banging on about bringing ‘art’ and ‘pop’ together. I’ve yet to see a single pop writer say, ‘hold on – pop already is art and we don’t need these very obvious signifiers taken from the ‘art world’ to tell us otherwise’. If you constantly treat pop music as some big cheap joke where no-one can make any critical judgements without being ‘the enemy’, you cannot turn around and complain that other people then think of it as cheap.

Of course, the ‘pop’ we’re discussing here is very much of a type. Spend any length of time on a British pop music site and you’ll find sneering references to artists like Jake Bugg, Mumford & Sons, Coldplay. Matt Cardle was torn apart on these sites when he won X Factor, seemingly because he played guitar and didn’t want to make dance-pop. It doesn’t matter that these acts may have legions of teenage (female) fans – they’re acceptable targets and no-one is going to devote any time to writing columns defending them. If the documentary last week had been called ‘Crazy About Coldplay’ the Twittersphere would have been united in its derision. This may seem a rather trite point but it’s an important one. The photo at the top of this depicts some ‘crazy’ fans of The Beatles. The impulse now is to slot One Direction and their fans alongside this yet there is a clear demarcation in how obsessive fans of The Beatles, Elvis, the Rolling Stones, Madonna, Michael Jackson are viewed as compared to obsessive fans of pop acts which pretty much no-one expects to be around in 3 years’ time. The former could all easily be labelled ‘pop acts’ but that instantly makes the Poptimist defence of 1D look very silly indeed.

The feminist arguments being wheeled out are also fascinating, suggesting that there is a nasty strain of misogyny infecting the ridicule which these extreme examples of 1D fans are subjected to. They’re particularly fascinating coming so soon after the ‘internet troll’ hysteria which gripped the media during the fallow Summer months. When (it seems overwhelmingly) young men have been seen to send abuse and threats on Twitter, there has been a mass outcry. There have been hand-wringing debates about ‘the crisis of masculinity’. There have even been arrests. When One Direction fans sent abuse and death threats, however, many leapt to their defence. I previously wrote about a similar response re: Paris Brown’s tweets. In short, young men sending abuse online are pathologised and even criminalised. When young women do it, however, there is a significant movement to at least understand their actions, at most actually excuse them and present them as the victims. Why the double-standards?! Especially when the vast majority of One Direction fans are clearly not going to be people who send death threats and virulently defending those that do makes no such distinction. It’s also notable that, as mentioned, previous comparable documentaries have featured obsessive male fans. It’s curious that when some of the largely young, male fanbase of Lady Gaga took to attacking Adele’s weight no-one was making any effort to excuse them. Yet the peculiar blend of Poptimism and an uncritical strand of feminism meant that when Lady Gaga turned her own weight into a cause célèbre, this behaviour was erased and Gaga became the victim of horrid men online.

It’s no big shakes that teenagers in the throes of adolescence may act rather…strangely over things. Most of us have been there. What’s different now is that we have social media and so behaviour which previously might have been confined to our bedrooms is easily transmitted around the world for all to see. There are also studies tentatively suggesting that social media is making people more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. This is toxic when added to a stage of life where you already have an entire universe exploding inside your head. What shouldn’t have changed, though, is the realisation (and expectation) that it’s a period of life which you grow out of. I’ve seen so much written in the past week presenting obsessive teenage fandom as some idealised state of being that I’ve wondered if I’m going a bit ‘crazy’ myself. At 14 you’re not living through some magical period of ‘real’ emotion. You’re growing up. It’s a formative time, certainly, and a lot of great stuff happens but it’s not being horrific for the older people writing about this to acknowledge that yeah, your personality, intellect and emotional state mature and you look back at when you wanted nothing more than to touch a pop star with a mixture of fondness, confusion and embarrassment. Suggesting that it’s somehow a good thing to hold onto that state is idiotic and even harmful. It’s another thing we’re apparently not supposed to say. We’re not supposed to acknowledge that adolescence play a huge part in phenomenon like One Direction – we’re being ‘patronising’ if we do. I rather think that if you’re not a teenage fan yourself, you’re being patronising in pretending that things don’t change, that your relationship with music and its creators develops and that fandom can endure and develop alongside that.

Gay Art: An Appreciation

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“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into sun”  – Picasso

‘Gay art’ is at a dead end; perhaps it’s just dead. Killed by overbearing narcissism, preening vanity, lazy repetition and low expectations. We keep being presented with utter shit and on the whole we seem to keep wolfing it down while congratulating ourselves on our appetite. Whether it be photography, film, illustration or painting, modern ‘gay art’ is almost entirely concerned with variations of the following:

Masculinity. Vulnerability. Sex. Sexuality. Grindr. Attractive naked men. Attractive naked men having sex. Attractive naked men masturbating. Men in their underwear. Cruising. Hook-ups. Sex. Naked men. Voyeurism. Body hair. Nudity. Sex. Making connections through sex. Expressing oneself through sex. Gay sexual subcultures. Fetishes. Sex. Men naked. Photos of naked gay friends. Vulnerability. Masculinity. No women.

This stretches all the way from countless Tumblr blogs and websites like Butt to an infinite array of short films and even James Franco’s ohGodthismustbeparodybutit’snot Interior.Leather.Bar. A polished take on it took critics by storm in Weekend – it at least had a narrative of sorts. What does all of this mean? What does it say, what does it illuminate and provoke and challenge? Being generous, it overwhelmingly relies on verisimilitude – gay men watch and recognise themselves as someone who enjoys sex but wants to meet that special someone, as someone who is attracted to ginger men, as someone who uses Grindr – but what’s so great about presenting things as they are, over and over and over again? Being less generous, it relies overwhelmingly on self-love. You’ll search the films, the naked boy club nights, the photos, in vain for unattractive/overweight/underconfident men. They are populated rather by guys whom gay viewers might want to fuck. That’s the hook to all of this and if the guys were replaced by less sexually appealing people the ‘art’ would undoubtedly meet with a less warm response.  It is, of course, an unspoken hook: everything is covered in the fairy dust of ‘creativity’ in order to convince everyone involved, from the participants to the consumers, that a higher purpose is present. This delusion is the real creativity on display. There is certainly nothing to make us question our world or, God forbid, ourselves. There is no sense that there is a soul present, no attempt at Joyce’s “mode of life or of art whereby my spirit could express itself in unfettered freedom”. No transcendent beauty, no unbearable despair, no didactic provocation or reflective urge. It’s all so much ego-stroking shit.

‘Gay art’ (and clearly I’m talking overwhelmingly about gay men here) is of course not alone in this. Narcissism and circle-jerk relationships are widespread in modern Western society. Our popular culture is largely predicated on flattering our sense of self and encouraging triviality in both our interests and our emotions. Social media is neoliberalism-become-chimera, encouraging us at every turn to think of me me me. Forums like Instagram present photography which says absolutely nothing about anything as art. Gay art, however, suffers from that infantile disease of self-ghettoisation and ‘gay is good’. It’s spread at gay film festivals, in gay media, at gay-themed galleries and at gay nights. Indeed, the undoubtedly many artists who are gay and make art which doesn’t fit with the above themes are never labelled (or claimed) as ‘gay art’. As such, their work is subject to far more rigorous criticism as opposed to the free pass which most of this dreck, barely a step up from topless self-pics, receives when it’s presented and shared. To return to my most recent blog, a documentary about Chelsea Manning is unlikely to be playing at Dalston Rio any time soon.

I started by saying that gay art was at a dead end. It’s certainly difficult to know where it can possibly go from here. Progressing beyond this would entail not only stepping beyond narcissism but also leaving behind the ‘one-dimensional man’ who is little more than ‘Gay’. It would involve feeling uncomfortable and finding ways to feel special beyond being a ‘minority’ (which, incidentally, I’m sure isn’t confined to gay identity politics and its art). Difficult challenges, certainly. You can play your small part, however. Next time a ‘photographer’ shows you their photos of their mate in his sports socks or a ‘director’ uploads his film about guys meeting online and shagging – tell them it’s fucking shit. You’ll be doing us all a favour.

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.

Google Alert for the Soul

A few thoughts on Paris Brown

Last year I wrote about the increasing authoritarianism which surrounds social media and has seen people arrested and even convicted for their words online. We’re seeing it again with  the current ‘storm’ around Paris Brown, which has gone viral on Twitter and has led to the great and the good of Twitter leaping to her defence. This intrigues me –  last year’s case of Azhar Ahmed, convicted for posting an ‘offensive’ message about British soldiers on Facebook, springs to mind as both are young and both landed in trouble due to ostensibly ‘private’ (ie they weren’t addressed to anyone in particular and weren’t ‘harassment’) messages they posted on social media.  Despite initially being charged over a year ago, a search on Ahmed’s name returns less than 1/9th of the Google results which a search on Brown’s does. Indeed, it’s safe to assume that most people will never even have heard of Ahmed and issues of race and the idiotic sanctification of the armed forces no doubt play a large part in that – many will be absolutely fine with him being arrested and convicted. Yet he was a private citizen making an ‘idiotic’ comment whereas Paris Brown came to our attention due to being the inaugural ‘Youth Crime Commissioner’, an odd job which apparently is intended “to reduce the gap between younger people and the authorities” and commands a salary of £15,000 a year. As someone who has actively applied for and obtained a public role (and the first such role in the country), it’s a no-brainer that she would attract scrutiny. So much so that it’s staggering that no-one seemed to consider that social media could have become an issue as some simple precautions (such as checking her tweets before appointment, making her account private or deleting it altogether) could probably have avoided this whole mess.

Does she deserve to be persecuted? Of course not. Nothing she wrote is anything more than idiotic. Yet I’d be very curious to see who leapt to her defence if her words were less banal brainfarts and more ‘offensive communications’ such as Ahmed’s. Cases such as the latter seem to arouse little ire when, to me, they are far more sinister than that of a newly-appointed public figure being found to have said some dumb things which relate to her new job.

Paris Brown seems an interesting choice for people like Owen Jones to be defending and it largely seems to be down to the fact that she has been ‘exposed’ by the Daily Mail – a point which most have fixated on. It’s a truism on Twitter that if you ‘offend’ a prominent left-leaning figure you are quickly deemed to be a ‘troll’ and you deserve everything you get; if it’s the Daily Mail (or The Telegraph and so on) who get up in arms, it’s absolutely fine. The eagerness to kick the Daily Mail seems to have led some to rather odd positions. Jones asserts that her future may be ruined due to her “behaving like a teenager” while Dorian Lynksey sums up her behaviour as “in short, she is a teenager”. Joanna Moorhead in The Guardian writes that she “did what every teenager in Britain does”. This is an absolutely bizarre argument, seeming to suggest that the Daily Mail took it upon themselves to comb Twitter for the ramblings of some random person rather than investigated someone who was suddenly (and voluntarily) very high-profile. Furthermore, the ‘they’re a teenager’ argument strikes me as ridiculously patronising. It’s been quite a while since I was a teenager but I’m fairly certain that most don’t refer to gay people as ‘faggots’ or assert that they become racist when they’re drunk. In fact most teens aren’t even on Twitter. Contrary to this ‘oh we’re all awful dickheads when we’re teenagers’ narrative, it would have been relatively easy for Kent to find a teenager without Brown’s baggage and while we can certainly understand the follies of youth, it’s absurd to imply that being a teenager necessarily means being homophobic or lacking self-awareness. Lynskey makes a comment, as I have before, that he’s glad Twitter wasn’t around when he was younger. Yet if I think back to when I was a teenager do I think I would have been tweeting heavily-loaded offensive terms? Would Lynskey have been? Do we think any of the journalists defending her would have been?

Funnily enough, last year one of those sympathetic to Brown had a very different take on a 17-year old tweeter. Graham Linehan noted in the case of “@Rileyy_69”, who was arrested for tweeting abuse (and a lame death threat) to Tom Daley:

As a symbol of free speech, Riley69 is not Lenny Bruce. He’s not even the EDL. He’s a teenager going through that thing a lot of teenagers go through where they seem unable to feel empathy. This kind of temporary sociopath can be very dangerous and using these new tools they can wreak havoc more efficiently than ever before.

He was all for Riley’s arrest – there was no ‘oh teenagers!’ on display here. Yet Riley69 wasn’t a public figure, just someone who had tweeted idiotic comments to a celebrity. If Tom Daley had quickly blocked him, almost no-one would have ever heard of him. Instead Daley alerted his followers and we ended up with people like Linehan defending Riley69’s arrest. The logic, then, that it’s simply awful to bring to light the casual homophobia/racism etc of a newly-pointed police figure but fine and dandy to arrest someone of the same age for their idiotic tweets seems rather…pained. It’s for this reason that I have zero doubt that, had Brown’s tweets not came to light via the Daily Mail but rather (say) through some left-wing blogger who presented them as highlighting her use of ‘faggots’, the response from many would be very different.

As I’ve made clear previously, I think the offence taken on Twitter tends to be overblown and nothing that blocking or a breather can’t fix. I think it should very rarely be an issue for the authorities. Sadly, the logic of people like Linehan and others who fixate on ‘trolls’ and use their profile to draw attention to people who offend them feeds directly into an atmosphere where everyone is ready to pounce on anyone who says the wrong thing. It’s really not that big of a leap from asserting that some rubbish insult is unacceptable and something must be done to the cases of Azhar Ahmed and Paris Brown. Everyone feels entitled to their outrage and this seems unlikely to change, requiring some self-awareness and caution when online. Unfortunately research is suggesting that we’re becoming less compassionate and empathetic and this is most pronounced in teenagers. We do, after all, live in an age of narcissism; of self-obsession; of reality tv and stars who are big on sassy put-downs and low on social engagement; of individual and ostentatious ‘creativity’ being seen as the highest goal to which we can aspire. Hell, perhaps a lot of this has to do with over 30 years of atomising neoliberalism and Paris Brown is neatly illustrating Thatcher’s Britain. Whatever the case, we should stop presenting it as inevitable that teens are going to embarrass themselves online and realise that it’s a tool which we all need the skills to use. We need to think about how and why we use social media. It’s certainly not only teenagers who use it to find, express and validate their identities and it can only be a good thing if we think more about who we are in a fundamental sense offline. In the meantime, things like this are only going to keep happening and things will never change unless we start wondering why.

I LOVE ME

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When did narcissism actually become a thing? Obviously self-love has always been with us but in polite circles it was considered crass, arrogant and embarrassing. Now it seems widely encouraged and rewarded. If you’re an attractive person, posting endless photos of yourself on your social media account seems certain to garner a large following; writing pithy statements about how ‘amazing’ you are is greeted with glee. People find endless ways to let everyone else know that they’re doing something REALLY GREAT. Even setting up your own ‘fan’ page for your blog or filtered photography is seen as a-ok.

Social media is an area which inspires much comment but is still relatively new in the field of academia. The smattering of research out there, however, suggests that people are indeed becoming more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. The use of social media not only as validation for the self but as an actual driver for it is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and it only seems to be getting worse. It now seems beyond the pale for anyone to be critical of people’s sickly conceitedness – as the poster child for this sings, “there’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”. ‘Born This Way’ is not  an urge towards self-reflection, a recognition that you have worth and responsibility. Instead it suggests that who you are right now is who you are meant to be and that is ‘perfect’. It both encourages and perfectly reflects the view that any criticism of yourself or your endeavours is both hateful and not worth paying attention to. But in reality, we’re not perfect – not at all. We all have massive and unattractive flaws; many of the most narcissistic people seem aware of that deep down and use social media to obscure the aspects they don’t like, remaking themselves through the digital eyes of others.

The first article on research linked to above notes that:

Narcissists had an inflated sense of self, lacked empathy, were vain and materialistic and had an overblown sense of entitlement. 

Sound familiar? A cursory glance at your social media will probably inspire recognition of those words. More than that, it seems to be spreading ever more widely in our society and is at the root of so much. The entire, awful genre of reality television relies on it. Our modern obsession with VERY LOUDLY BEING ATHEIST is a perfect illustration of it, as is the fetishisation of ‘creativity’. This latter trend does not dwell on the transformative power of art, its ability to offer new perspectives on not only the wider world but also ourselves. No, it instead fixates on a facile, ostentatious ‘creativity’ which demands praise and validation, usually for minimal effort. We have to be seen to be photographers, writers, actors, whatever. A large part of this is the sense of entitlement mentioned above – no-one wants to think that they are ‘average’. Combine this with the lack of any sense of wider responsibility and you end up with the pervasive notion that work seen as ordinary and mundane is not worth bothering with – certainly not worth vesting any sense of your identity in. I may work in an office but I am a big deal on Instagram! To question and/or criticise this is to be negative, bitter, cynical – we must not challenge the ‘dreams of a life’ which we have constructed for ourselves. Entire social circles are founded upon this simple truth and the willingness of everyone concerned to act as a blank mirror for each other. Indeed, the song currently at number one presents this vision of a deep and pure love:

It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me

An anthem for our times! Love is not to be found in someone radically different from yourself, someone who may cause you to question aspects of your personality and even inspire an urge to change! No, love is validation and validation is love.

Listening to Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry yesterday the following lyrics jumped out at me:

Why did you stick me in 
Self-deprecating bones and skin
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me?

I think it’s a sentiment which anyone who has felt held back by a lack of confidence can identify with, particularly when it seems that arrogant certitude is the way to get ahead. Yet elsewhere on the album we find Morrissey singing “even I, sick and depraved, a traveller to the grave, I would never be you” to a figure of authority and of certainty. This surely is a nod to the ultimately redeeming power of a humility and modesty which can seem crippling? In this recognition of our worse aspects, this sense that we are so imperfect in so many ways, we are almost forced into an empathy and awareness which prevents us from an arrogant, preening self-love. We can always be and do better. Indeed, we must. It is in this state that we find the urge towards the transformative, engaged creativity which is not about validating our sense of self but actively seeking discomfort: as the great Paul Robeson famously noted:

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.

Does that sound too narcissistic, too much like a sense of superiority over others? To borrow another quote, humility is ‘thinking of yourself less’ – we fundamentally know if we are doing things for the approval of others if we take a moment to think about it. We ‘begin by being’ rather than appearing to be.

Free to be Human – the “descent into infantile triviality”

Today, possession by devils is indicated by our failure to adequately worship the God of consumption; by a weird tendency to ‘deep conversations’ and serious thought…the death of our own culture can currently be experienced as a descent into infantile triviality. – David Edwards

All that matters is that nothing is too serious, that one exchanges views and that one is ready to accept any opinion or conviction (if there is such a thing) as being as good as the other. On the market of opinions everybody is supposed to have a commodity of the same value, and it is indecent and not fair to doubt it. – Erich Fromm

These two quotes are taken from David Edwards’ book Free to be Human, a curious but provocative blend of Chomsky and Herman’s ‘propaganda model’, Fromm’s political psychology and Buddhism. It’s an odd read, encompassing (amongst much else) a political theory of the media, an attack on ‘New Atheism’ and a didactic bent which at times feels like self-help. If it sometimes feels like it’s stretching, however, there is much of value to be found within its arguments. As the quotes above indicate, one aspect which I found particularly interesting was the linking of the urge towards ‘triviality’ in our personal lives to the propaganda model. Something which seems absurdly self-evident now but an angle I hadn’t really previously considered. I have previously noticed, and written about, the “common fear of being serious and/or sincere” so the placing of this within a theoretical framework as serving capitalism grabbed me. Triviality is seen to allow us to rationalise our positions in the absurd society we live in by refusing to consider it too much – and certainly by refusing to challenge its dominant ideas and narratives. It serves to isolate those who do challenge it, heretics who are quickly painted as self-important cranks. Further, in its particular manifestation as a facetious fixation on popular culture it flows neatly into consumerism – rather than thinking about what it means to be ‘ourselves’, what it means to live, we instead express both our personalities and our relationships via popular culture and consumption. I was reminded of only a few weeks ago when I  found myself complaining that so many ‘friendships’ seemed to consist of an endless exchange of references to culture and things – catchphrases from reality tv shows, shared semi-ironic ‘love’ for retro pop music, links to internet memes and so on. I had found myself considering what many of us would talk about if we were dumped on a distant island, completely removed from popular culture; wondering who we would be. It ties in neatly with the Situationist idea that “in mass-production economies all that was directly experienced has been replaced with images of itself”  and that “all social relationships are conducted through the spectacle” – our very identities, never mind our lives, seem unfathomable outside the context of modern capitalism (a fundamental aspect of Capitalist Realism).

This idea clicked with recent readings and thoughts on social media and our expression of self through it. It takes the mediating role of the spectacle to some kind of logical extreme (perhaps not as extreme as we’d like to think), removing all but the most perfunctory illusion of human interaction and instead offering the “pure, dehumanizing objectification” where “the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual”. Those links we post on Facebook? That’s ‘us’. The likes, comments, RTs etc are what passes for relating to other people and in themselves are a kind of instant panopticon where we both seek instant approval and seek to avoid instant scorn. It’s the urge to and descent into triviality gone supernova.

While consideration of ‘serious’ issues is subservient to our own ego and, as a result, subject to an unconscious (sometimes not to unconscious) self-censorship – we don’t want to be that person – an ostentatious, facile display of concern can nonetheless be deployed to our own purpose. Something like the petitions regarding gay people in Nigeria offered this in spades – it was seen to be the opposite of ‘trivial’ and evidence of a more ‘serious’ personality but the engagement was so slight that it posed no danger of alienating anyone; furthermore, it both served and fed dominant narratives and so was a seriousness which only cemented a sense of belonging to a society which was fundamentally right. In the same way, being seen to care about issues like poverty, hunger and social justice serves us well but consideration of the systemic causes (and a surely reasonable assertion that we cannot even begin to tackle these issues through social media) is jarring – it brings bad feeling and detracts from the idea that more (if different) consumption is the answer. 

That bad feeling, that desire to protect our ego, is the fundamental reason why we are so terrified of being critical (in the analytical sense). As Fromm notes above, the ‘market of ideas’ prevents this being a problem. We just project, safe in the knowledge that no-one will think about what we say too seriously and that, if they do, the fault lies with them. We can dip our proverbial toes into ‘seriousness’ and not stir the murky waters beneath, wherein lies the unknown which might demand an exchange of ideas, could lead to our questioning of previously unassailable truths about society or even ourselves. Better to nod, to ‘like’ and in the process protect not only the ego of those around us but, fundamentally, our own.

These are truly fascinating and potentially profound considerations. They take something as ubiquitous and impulsive as the sharing of a cute cat video or the dominant tone of discussion with our friends and ask us to critically examine what they mean, where they come from and what they serve. I think any such examination is an inordinately useful one. Indeed, while it is wide-ranging, for those of us who spend a lot of time on social media it is an absolutely essential one.

‘Dreams of a Life’

Yesterday I finally got around to watching ‘Dreams of a Life’ (still on 4OD as of writing), a docu-drama about a 38-year old woman who was found dead in her London bedsit in 2006. It grimly transpired that the woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, had died almost three years previously and that her body had lain undisturbed since. Remarkably little information on Joyce seems to remain and so the film relies almost entirely on interviews with people who once knew her. Perhaps inevitably, then, the Joyce portrayed ultimately seems less a fully-rounded human being than a romanticised cipher – for the interviewee’s nostalgia, their lost hopes and dreams and their guilt. This in itself is fascinating but, of course, it’s impossible to watch the tragic tale without Joyce becoming a representation of something larger and more general – our own lives, specifically our relationships, and how we conduct them.

This has been on my mind quite a bit in the past year or so. This post in particular summarises some of my thoughts (and concerns) about the current nature and meaning of ‘friendship’, particularly in a post-social media age. An age which was only really just taking off when Joyce died. I suppose the instant assumption would be that Facebook etc would have made it more difficult for her to fall through the cracks but, when you consider how we use it  and how many people we don’t even necessarily like whom we ‘keep in touch with’ via it, this notion quickly dissipates. Indeed, as I’ve written previously, the unexamined use of social media could be said to actively decrease our engagement with others and our understanding of what ‘friendship’ is. It seems to exacerbate the worst impulses within us – the narcissism, the insecurity, the desire to be seen as ‘better’ – and encourages a deadening self-absorption wherein other people become instruments subservient to our own ego. Thus friendships “…are not borne out of any compelling relationship between two people, any curiosity concerning another person’s inner life. Instead, they are extensions of the self – shallow, convenient arrangements wherein we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us.” The more embedded social media becomes in all of our lives the truer this seems to me – it requires real, maintained effort to forge a friendship of any depth and it’s not always comfortable. It’s always rewarding but in the widest sense of the word rather than the ‘this provides quick, pleasant gratification’ one, because in any valuable relationship with someone else you will find yourself challenged and your negative traits will sometimes be forcefully brought to your attention. More than ever, however, there is the urge to recoil from this and instead focus on that idea of ‘friendship’ as one which serves our egos. This all takes place in the lightning fast world of clicks and ‘likes’ and, as such, the ease with which we can get rid of (‘hide’ or delete) those people who challenge our ‘good feeling’ is brutal. People like Joyce, who by several accounts seemed damaged and lived a disjointed life, would surely have been ill-served by this, proving too frustrating and demanding and offering little back in terms of rewarding our narcissism?

Related to this, the film brought to mind a blog I read only last week. The Marginal Utility blog describes itself as “a blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology” and it frequently addresses the meaning and use of social media. It’s provocative and often brilliant. This particular entry, called ‘Domination’, looks at the debilitating effect of Facebook not just on our relationships but on our very being:

What Facebook makes inescapable, Losse notes, is the transformation of all captured information into cultural capital, into currency in a status game. “Instead of making a technology of understanding,” Losse writes, “we seemed to sometimes to be making a technology of the opposite: pure, dehumanizing objectification. We were optimizing ways to judge and use and dispose of people, without having to consider their feelings, or that they had feelings at all.” Feelings are for the social hackers; for Facebook’s user base, feelings don’t count — they’ve been recast as likes and been dispensed with.

Basically, Losse restates the idea that social media mainly prompts not “openness” but  judgment, poseurdom, defensiveness, and resentment. It serves to guarantee that information is used to articulate hierarchies rather than dismantle them. The best we can hope for is the coexistence online of multiple hierarchies, some of which we might be able to dominate.

It reflects many of my thoughts of the past year (much more articulately) but goes even further, positing that social media is not only encouraging narcissism and self-absorption but replacing authentic personality:

Losse points out how Facebook’s News Feed and like buttons led to a company culture in which personality traits and experiences needed a “proof of concept” through appropriate metrics before being embraced as cool. As social media has become more omnipresent, trying out identity without “proof of concept” has become more risky. It begins to make sense to commit to no particular identity in advance and live from within a sort of beta-testing self to see what sort of self the network tells you that you should embrace. Since News Feed relies on algorithms to narrativize our life experiences in terms of what has proved popular with our “friends,” why not let it tell our life story rather than trying to devise one in advance, before the fact?

What Facebook use may be doing is acclimating users to this post hoc self. Users seize as their identity only what they are told is acceptable after the fact — an algorithmically recommended personality. In other words, social media redefines spontaneity as orthodoxy much like it redefines serendipity as automatically generated recommendations. Spontaneity becomes surprise at what algorithms and tracking tell us we should own as the basis of our identity. Oh! That’s who I am!

Here the idea that people want to have their self-identity reflected back at them becomes more circular and complex as they are actually basing their idea of ‘themselves’ on this feedback loop. As a separate New Inquiry blog argued last week, this lack of space (of urge, of desire?) to actually develop yourself as a person in private leads to the instrumentalisation of that which is viewed as acceptable – popular culture:

Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value{…}There is a problem, though. The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The internet writ large is desperately invested in the idea that liking, say, The Wire, says something of depth and importance about the liker, and certainly that the preference for this show to CSI tells everything.

This is clearly an incredibly bleak view of our relationship with social media and, ultimately, with each other. It’s certainly not without its problems (and the blogs are worth reading at length as they touch on some of them) but it has a pull of recognition. The endless sharing of Youtube videos and adoption of the idioms of certain television shows become inextricably linked with a facile sense of self which is refracted through social media, culture and, yes, through other people. Just as it is impossible to watch ‘Dreams of a Life’ without reflecting on your own life and relationships, then, there is the concomitant urge (duty?) to consider social media, the area where so much of these relationships play out. It’s all too easy to watch the film and shake our heads at the sad denouement of Joyce as a void to be filled in by others (and used in blogs such as this); it’s far more difficult to examine ourselves and consider the ways in which we use people around us in the same way.