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The Oxford dictionary (2016) defines intimacy as, “close familiarity or friendship”. There was a time when being in an intimate relationship with one was considered a very big deal. Truth be told it’s considered a big deal today as well. Yet without realising we are all in a long-term highly intimate relationship with the digital world. Facebook’s “What’s on your mind?’ and Twitter’s “What’s happening?’ give us a sense of engagement with the world when in reality we’re not really engaging with anyone in particular. As Leigh 2015) predicts the future will be “a singularity of smarm, where performative – maybe even excessive – intimacy is the order of the day”.

With the constant pseudo-human appeal to our emotions by the digital world there’s a possibility we lose the value of actual sentiment. As Burkeman (2015) says “If I’m congratulated for changing my password, does it mean anything when I congratulate you on your new baby?” Rather than having a proper conversation with another human being, we choose to tweet our views to our followers. The falsified emotion from an intangible digital conglomerate takes precedence over a human being.

What we fail to realise is how little Facebook, Twitter etc actually care about us. By simply being a member of such platforms we allow ourselves to be treated as political objects. Our emotions are considered political. As Dean (2005: 56) defines it “communicative exchanges, rather than being fundamental to democratic politics” – such as exchanges among people – “are the basic elements of capitalist production” In order words, communicative exchanges have no actual value or use. The message is irrelevant; rather they just have an empty exchange value like any other commodity.

Social media platforms embody Dean’s definition of communicative capitalism because they tend to eliminate the message in favour of just circulation. At the end of the day circulation is what generates value for advertisers and analysts. Our thoughts and emotions don’t matter; rather what matters is that we establish a paradigm of relationships, behaviour and circulation. “A contribution need not be understood; it need only be repeated, reproduced, forwarded. Circulation is the content, the condition for the acceptance or rejection of a contribution” (Dean 2005: 59).

Our constant need to like, tweet and share is the currency of promotion. The growth of promotional material through the internet and social media has created consumers who feel the need to perpetually seek out their personal information. (Powell 2013). As a consequence to this, industries try and attract different kind of audiences and evolve the relationship between new consumers, producers and promotional industries. We’ve also become the unpaid labour of social media platforms and continue to willingly generate content on a daily basis. Ironically, my writing of this blog post is also basically just that – content, data. We’ve reached a stage where we produce content, we consume content, and of course we are the content.

Moreover, by expressing opinions and feelings individuals feel more empowered in this emerging online economy, “feelings and opinions expressed in the form of ranking and rating for example, build personal reputation, which functions, in turn, as a new form of currency and value” (Hearn 2010: 422). But does this lead to an ethical economy? We may feel more empowered but in reality our production and our creation is no longer our own. By sharing our opinions or creations on social media platforms we are no longer able to control the distribution. And it doesn’t end at that. Social media platforms sell our data to advertisers and analysts across the world so they appeal to us more. In fact in the past two months both Facebook and Twitter have launched new algorithms that will apparently help advertisers target us better on the basis of what we like and dislike.

Our non-existent ownership of our data and our lack of control over distribution are just two simple examples of how our digital identity has no freedom. Not only social media platforms but other much larger conglomerates exercise their apparent right over our data as well. With the launch of the iPhone 6 Apple popularised its Touch ID. Which meant that users were now able to unlock their smartphones with the help of their fingerprint. Apple fanatics thought, “Wow! No one can unlock my phone except for me!” But what people failed to realise is that Apple now has an archive of Apple users’ fingerprints across the world. So how ‘cool’ is it really?

Foucault (1990: 153) states that procedures of self presentation have always reflected dominant and cultural interests of the time. Our forms of self production are invariably linked to economic and social context, “the ways we come to internalise or embody these versions of selfhood are always contested and in flux”. It can also be argued that increased production of immaterial commodities, such as knowledge and communication necessitate new kinds of labour that involve creativity and innovation. So at the end of the day, the labour ends up putting his/her own life experience, communicative competence and sense of self to the respective job.

Arguably though we’ve developed along with the internet. Even though we’re subconsciously aware that our data is no longer our own we continue to generate content – share photographs on Instagram, thoughts on Twitter, news articles on Facebook – content. By being active on multiple platforms we feel engaged and wanted. We aim to increase our social capital through this constant and continuous nurturing of our digital identity; to the extent where we try and develop ourselves to the liking of our friends and followers online. Consequently we compare the number of our friends, our likes and retweets to popularity.

Without our production, consumption and constant generation of content, social media platforms would cease to exist. Of course with their help we do earn a sense of social capital and digital identity; but can it compared to the actual revenue they earn? That too at the expense of our personal data?

References:

  • Dean, J. (2005) ‘Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics’. Cultural Politics 1 (1), 51-74
  • Foucault, M. (1990) Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Ed. Donald Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. as cited in Hearn, A. (2010) ‘Structuring Feeling: Web 2.0, Online Ranking and Rating, and the Digital Reputation Economy’ Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation, Special Issue: Digital Labour Workers, Authors, Citizens 10 (3/4), 421-438
  • Hearn, A. (2010) ‘Structuring Feeling: Web 2.0, Online Ranking and Rating, and the Digital Reputation Economy’. Ephemera: Theory and Politics in Organisation, Special Issue: Digital Labour Workers, Authors, Citizens 10 (3/4), 421-438

 

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