Do Social Media Not Mediate Enough?
It is common for media critics and digital reactionaries to charge social media platforms like Facebook with preempting interpersonal encounters that would otherwise take place in the analog world. Stephen Marche, writing for The Atlantic recently, raises the paradoxical possibility “that social networking might be spreading the very isolation it seemed designed to conquer.” In response, one might point to the digital provocation of interpersonal encounters that might not have otherwise taken place in the analog world: e.g., the very real, messy, fleshy couplings shepherded along by OkCupid, Match.com, Grinder, Facebook, etc. This point/counterpoint, however, would be moot (or at least incomplete) if it failed to account for the opposite of the original argument’s lament: that social media, far from mediating human interactions to an up-until-now-inconceivable extent, don’t mediate them enough.
This has something to do with an ancillary—but related—development, the rise of mobile technology, which has made of posting to Facebook another extemporaneous transmission of the body. (“Word vomit” is digitized as much as it is spoken). But impulsive social exchange is inscribed within Facebook as well. The site cajoles its users to “like” or comment on “stories” (or post their own) that go stale almost immediately after appearing on the “news feed.” And Facebook’s integration of other sites like Yahoo and Spotify allows Facebook to broadcast updates about the articles users are reading (via Yahoo) and the songs they’re listening to (via Spotify) as they are reading and listening. What Nicholas Carr has said about the Internet, that it “subsum[es] most of our other technologies” (“becoming our map and our clock…our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and TV”) can be said about Facebook: it aggregates all of our online activity, presenting up-to-the minute, desperately drawn portraits of who we are.
There’s an element of honesty involved here, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Social media can be put to earnest use as a way of organizing political activism, or as a less invasive means of scheduling late-night hookups. But Facebook, for example, primarily encourages self-definition in order to allow its advertisers to more effectively calibrate their marketing strategies. In this sense, it is less a company driving radical innovation than one responding to the dictates of this moment of late capitalism.
Transparency is demanded of political bodies and multinational corporations, and also of individuals. We shouldn’t forget that lying, every once in a while, is an option, and a crucial form of protest: according to the legal scholar Tracy McNulty, “Lying is a use of language whose function is to limit the intrusion of the Other,” the symbolic order predicated on the ceaseless circulation of commodities and of people as commodified sets of digital data.