Social media and its technologies (e.g. the “smartphone”) have given corporations the power to transform what used to be anonymous contact and geographic location into marketable data.
I read somewhere that the genius of Facebook, and one of the reasons why it is profitable, comes from the fact that it inverted the process by which social relationships develop. With email, written communications, and telephone communications, the aim of a friendship was to transform it offline relationship. A real friendship was one that involved plenty of face-to-face contact in the real world. Facebook has done the most to make this anachronistic. With Facebook, the real space is online – this virtual arena is where all of the social action takes place.
Facebook successfully resolved a problem with the accumulation of cultural capital. By infiltrating the world of private communication, and by making it desirable for people to give up their privacy to participate in their social environment, Facebook managed to gain ownership over our social interactions. The parasitic model of capitalist accumulation that gives them their profits impoverishes the commons that we dreamed the internet would become.
Facebook’s profitability is based in part on speculative financial capital: one of the current aims of technology is to blur our capacity to distinguish the real world from the virtual one. The “internet of things” is premised on the idea that individuals should never have to depart from an infantile state of narcissistic attachment to the mother. The world, as they see it, will never disappoint the child – it will always adapt to a future person’s needs.
The smartphone is a prototype for this future. The replacement of the QWERTY keyboard with a responsive touchscreen has replaced clunky symbolic input with a more dynamic touchscreen. Although it still has a keyboard function, one can function without a knowledge of language. We know less about what we are giving away when we interact with our smartphones.
Two examples of how modern technology is aiming to blur reality and the virtual illustrate this phenomenon.
I was traipsing through Kings Cross with my friend, looking for the station. I was familiar with the area and knew exactly where I was. Kings Cross station was even visible in the distance. In spite of this, my friend still insisted on looking up directions on his smartphone, which would guide him to his destination. What my friend was demonstrating was his conditioning, which had sold him the idea that a digital replica of a city was a requirement. Reality was incomplete without its verification. The question this begged was this: “was he physically in Kings Cross or was he in that virtual replica?” The answer? Somewhere in-between.
Second, the Heygate Estate, a huge abandonned council estate in Elephant and Castle scheduled for demolition for decades, was erased on Google Maps years before the buildings themselves were. Given the sheer size of these buildings, the erasure on Google Maps was unnerving. It reminded me of something I’d read about North Korea.
The Ryugyong hotel is a hotel in Pyongyang that remained incomplete for decades. A crane was perched on top of it, and it was generally seen as an embarrassment and an eyesore in what was supposed to be a model city. It was not only illegal to mention the building – it was illegal to even acknowledge its existence.
Does the Heygate Estate’s premature erasure from Google Maps illustrate a similar sentiment?
Things disappear and reappear on the internet. Things are ignored while other things are prioritised. It is not, by any means, a neutral space. Social media also does this to people, and the danger posed by the blurring of the real and the virtual is the danger that those individuals who are erased on social media will be erased in reality. Perhaps this is already happening. Increasingly, I have noticed that the luddites of London – vagrants and so on – do not irritate the digital subject like they used to. Rather, they are completely invisible instead – it is almost like they exist beyond the range of what they can see.
London, like other major cities, straddles this space, somewhere between the physical and the digital. Stadia demonstrate this. Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, for example, looks like a shrine designed by aliens and plonked on a city to commemorate a dynasty. The stadium is a tacky valorisation of football’s yob-Gods. They give their supporters a simulated, enfeebled sense of tribal power through association. Again, this resembles the shrines erected in Pyongyang venerating their dear leaders. From the outside, it is cultish, and pathetic.
In both cases, the aim of this monumental style is to superimpose an authoritarian utopia onto a reality that is altogether more bleak. In both cases, you are asked to make a leap of faith. In Pyongyang, the reality is that most of the population live in a state of starvation and subsistence, eking out a grim existence under the ever-watchful eye of the Kim dynasty. In London, well… you have the impending horrors of rentier capitalism to deal with – a parasitic capitalist class capable of charging exorbitant rents to digital serfs whose lives are subject to the chaotic ebbs and flows of global capital.
In both cases, the bargain offered is on of slavish compliance – either the worship of Kim Il Sung, represented here in bronze, or the iconography of the Arsenal. Both evoke similar emotions, and both require similar delusions that mindless support for a regime is a lesser evil than its alternative – the imagining of a neutral public space.
A common misunderstanding about social media is that works like a public sphere, and not a public space. Noam Chomsky is right when he says that corporations loathe democracy. Yet, in spite of evidence to the contrary, we continue to underestimate the intelligence and power of these corporations, who spend hundreds of billions of dollars every year trying to undermine these democratic processes and institutions.
We underestimate corporations because we overestimate our freedom. Corporations and the free market ideologies that they support are experts in flattering their subjects into the false belief that they are free individuals. In spite of stagnating and falling incomes, zero social mobility, the collapse of public service funding, welfare state provision, and increasing precariousness in the jobs market, we believe more than ever before that we are in charge of our own destiny. This is because we continue to believe that we are exceptions. Advertisements tell us that we are special and that our opinions matter. Advertisements work.
These “free” individuals, free to say whatever they wish on social media, loathe politicians and journalists. They believe that politicians are “all the same”, are “corrupt” and do not represent their interests. Could this be because politicians are representatives of democracy? Could it be that journalists have the power to report corporate crime and hold powerful bodies to account? Could corporate fascists have something to do with generating this opinion among the masses?
Democracy threatens corporations and impedes the seamless flow of surplus value from the poorest to the richest. People like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn prove that democracy can still pose a threat to the established order, and threaten the hegemony of corporate free market fascism. What both of these examples demonstrate is the true nature of the ideological state apparatus, as well as the “centre-left” institutions that use hard left candidates as a token for hoovering up the energies of an authentic, radical, popular left.
In particular, Jeremy Corbyn has been subjected to an assault across all of the mainstream media, including those in the “liberal left”, and including members of the Labour party ideologically opposed to any authentic progressive policy. The question is whether social media provides any alternative to this narrative, or whether it inherently supports the anti-establishment candidates that mask an underlying commitment to right-wing populism.
The impoverishment of democratic politics is intimately tied to the role that social media has played in reducing the level of debate. Donald Trump, satsuma-faced grifter and reality TV star, provides ample evidence to point to the corrosive effect that social media has had on the democratic process. But perhaps this is too simplistic.
Donald Trump is a masterful self-publicist. His campaign was centred on getting an emotional response from the masses. That is also how social media works. In order to be popular on the web, it is necessary to provoke rather than provide balanced argument. Emoticons are measured by quantity – balanced, nuanced articles do not achieve this. On the internet, such articles are left to die. Moderation is dead.
The nature of the reaction, negative or positive, is irrelevant. What was important with Trump is that he managed to affect us all emotionally. Like Brexit, people have no clue what it really means. But they know, on some instinctive level, what they feel about it. This feeling is where ideology operates today. The fact that people are blissfully unaware of how their feelings are controlled by powerful institutions demonstrates how controlled we are.
When, say, a discussion about art or music disintegrates into vapid statements like the following ones, that is when ideology operates at its purest level. Nothing qualitative is allowed – all that matters is the view count, the “likes” received, the perpetuation of “normal”:
“I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.”
“That’s your opinion innit?”
The mainstream media, the BBC in particular, have tried to articulate these explosions in a way that forms a general consensus. This is impossible because social media is a public space, not a public sphere. The BBC are biased from both sides of the political spectrum. They manage to be purveyors of both left-wing and right-wing propaganda at exactly the same moment.
This is because social media, as an increasingly dominant form of media, does not operate like the bourgeois public sphere valorised by Habermas used to. Instead, it works more like a Hobbesian public space, where outspoken comments and “fake news” generate the likes (and hates) required to infiltrate people’s echo chambers. To be a big player in the world of social media, you have to resort to trolling.
The Trump and Brexit campaigns were successful because they successfully exploited this Hobbesian public space. Their campaigns were designed to generate offence. This offence dictated the agenda. Donald Trump in particular, with his ludicrous hair and his cartoonish comments about immigrant rapists and building big walls, was precisely the kind of larger-than-life character that every internet troll wishes he was in real life. Trump was an internet troll made flesh. The sorry state of the left in Britain is partially down to their inability to recognise the importance of trolling as a means of dominating the Hobbesian public space of social media. Every instance of this, for Corbyn, is “disgusting.”
Social media impoverishes our democratic institutions by drawing attention away from policies and toward personalities. They also impoverish our institutions by popularising the news feeds that elicit cheap emotional responses. Such responses can be measured more succinctly than complex and nuanced ideas. So, obviously, the side-effect of this is the collapse of the “centre” in politics. As well as providing opportunities for socialism, it also opens the door for fascism.
Since the democratic process is the only means by which a population can control economic policy, and journalism is the only effective means through which power can be held to account, it is little surprise that both institutions are under siege. Although currently unproven, it seems extremely likely that institutions controlling the ideological state apparatus have a “50 cent army” at their disposal – a term popularised in China to describe those armies of individuals employed to troll social forums critical of the Communist regime.
Anti-establishment “loose cannons” like Trump and Farage use their charismatic personality to create an emoticon excitement that masks a much darker agenda – the reimposition of a Victorian model of class exploitation where the poor are deprived of essential public services. The right-wing populists also want to solidify the idea of rentier capitalism – where unproductive, parasitic capitalists with inherited wealth extract enormous surplus value from landless labourers by charging exorbitant rents for a limited amount of housing supply. It is possible to use social media in such a way that gives Corbyn a chance to circumvent the mainstream conservative and liberal media establishment. However, his unwillingness to troll the public on this level is a major impediment to this. And, on a deeper level still, socialism is threatened by the pseudo-currency that operates on social media.
The intellectual labour that creates social content is gleaned from the labour time we spend producing the commodity of social interaction. That commodity is then sold back to us with added value – the added value is a sense of belonging. When we conform and produce content that is “liked”, we are offered incentives to do the following:
- we digitise everyday life and increase levels of surveillance (through pictures and videos),
- we express emotional responses (which bypass our rational brains and turn us into mindless consumers of profitable products),
- we promote entertainment products designed to promote particular ideologies and create a culture of enforced enjoyment.
The “like” button has become the main form of social currency for a generation born with the internet and social media. Certain types of people get more likes than others, and it has nothing to do with likeability in general. Indeed, social media distributes likes to people who are willing to stoop to deeper depths than others. Likes are distributed and circulated depending on the extent to which they are willing to prostitute their labour and their personalities to the dissemination of marketing propaganda.
Obviously, the “like” is a symbol of pure ideology, and it is the main currency of social media. It is obvious to see why it has the power of an addictive drug – a drug that transforms people into the subjects of the prevailing ideological order. The like is a symbol of popularity more generally. In the Hobbesian public space, not being liked has potentially devastating consequences. Exile from the online space is profoundly isolating, and exacerbates bullying. Indeed, “cyberbullying” is considerably worse than the more traditional kind because it infiltrates every sphere of a person’s life. Teenagers are driven to suicide. This is the grotesque underside of a world driven by happiness.
Likes are tied to commodities, and to association with commodities. The successful, liked posts are often the ones that reference commodities. Obviously, this has significance because it gives advertisers something to reflect back at their consumers.
Of course, one of the problems with social media is that it has led to the collapse of bigoted conservatism. Instead, the liberal left, who insist on being progressive when they are not, extol the virtues of “alternative” culture by supporting individual expression. It is difficult at first to reconcile anti-capitalism with identity politics, when Smirnoff vodka and Oreo cookies sponsor gay pride and promote anti-racist causes. The aim, however, is to associate the gutless sentiments of the liberal left (one that I have pointed out relates to many of the unrepentant supporters of Remain), with the currency of likes. Such sponsorship does nothing to eradicate prejudice at all. The aim is merely to alter the dynamics of oppression – from gay and straight, white and black, male and female – to liked and unliked. This simplification of the human subject is what social media aims to achieve.
Social media and the currency of likes provides us with an illusion of human contact. But because it does not seek to address or resolve any real problem or deal with any moral issue, or engage with any suffering, or express any love whatsoever, it is also a desperate, lonely and enfeebled pursuit. Indeed, the perfect modern subject is the hakakomori – a Japanese teenage recluse, who never leaves his bedroom because the world has become too alienating. The popular agents of the like are strangely sexless – indeed, their sexual fulfilment comes from the products that they evaluate. One recent phenomenon is YouTube videos of people joyously ripping open the packaging for a product. This is consumerist BDSM pornography.
Addicts do not love – rather, they retreat from the messy and potentially devastating effects that real love can cause. Instead, they fetishise objects and substances that will never betray their expectations. The flipside, of course, is that a subject without the courage to fall in love with another human being is also a subject whose love for the fetishised object is never reciprocated. Hence, addiction is capitalism’s perfect tool, and love is its only antidote.
The added value from the targeted advertisement that is fed back from our input into social media is the ever-dangling promise of true love for the object being sold. Targeted advertising offers us the possibility of a reciprocated love coming from the object. The irrational impulses that advertising targets constantly tells us that this impossibility is possible. By transforming our experience, by offering us an illusion of love via participation in likes, breaking our addiction, and challenging our role as lonely bedroom masturbator becomes more difficult.
One has to sympathise with those who have fallen into the trap of Facebook likes. They have retreated into a cocoon where the imaginary love they demonstrate for objects of fascination will never translate into anything Real. Such a transgression would devastate their realities. An admission of real love for these people would destroy their popularity on social media.