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Friday, Feb 3, 2012

I’m reading through the summary of findings of this Pew survey of Facebook users. (It is based on phone polling, so caveat emptor.) The point they are foregrounding in their report is that Facebook has “power users,” which means that the division of labor on Facebook’s social factory is uneven—some active users work harder at building the network and feeding its flows, which makes using the site more engaging for passive users. Thanks to the Facebook freaks (and it seems that everyone is linked to a few of these), the less involved users have something new to see or do when they log in.


Niemann Journalism Lab interprets this as good news for the old media business:


If Facebook activity disproportionately relies on a subset of power users with busy hands, that’s an opening for news outlets or individual journalists to fill that need. The conversation is far more distributed than it was pre-Internet, but it’s still not evenly distributed.


In other words, big media can figure out a way to hire and control the power users, and make them into A&R curatorial types for social media. Or they can try to supplant those people who are already in your networks—make them seem more like kooks with TMI disease while their paid mavens hustle to dispense objective and relevant cultural information.


Other notable findings: women update more than men, your Facebook friends are less likely to be Facebook friends with one another than is the case with friendship outside the network (One’s Facebook network is larger but shallow and made more of weak ties, which is partly why people tend to underestimate how many friends they have), and people don’t stop using it once they’ve gotten in the habit of it. “The more Facebook friends someone has, the more frequently they contribute all forms of Facebook content and the more friend requests they tend to send and accept.” That’s how networks tend to work; you get enmeshed in them. And that’s how media work too—it’s not like people get bored with the concept of reading books or watching TV. The more you use a medium, the more you accommodate it in everyday life. That is how Zuckerberg intends to “rewire” the way sociality works in the world, as he announced in his grandiose IPO letter (annotated here by Tim Carmody) to potential investors.


People sharing more — even if just with their close friends or families — creates a more open culture and leads to a better understanding of the lives and perspectives of others. We believe that this creates a greater number of stronger relationships between people, and that it helps people get exposed to a greater number of diverse perspectives. By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date.



Zuckerberg’s dogma is pretty explicit, as Gigaom’s Matthew Ingram notes: “He doesn’t just want to enable these changes in society — on a fairly fundamental level, he wants to control them.” The message is: We will reprogram you to see privacy as some sort of despicable antisociality and corral you all into a kind of mandated intersbjectivity. It’s being singular plural! As another revolutionary leader once said, “However much the reactionaries try to hold back the wheel of history, eventually revolution will take place and will inevitably triumph.”


But Facebook’s revolution is obviously less Maoist than feudal. The “social graph” is the inheritor of the great chain of being, the new master metaphor to make everybody’s place in the world fixed and quantifiable. Everything that occurs must have its distinct plotted point in the society that has been reduced to a grid. If it can’t be plotted as data, it probably never happened. If you aren’t on the graph, you don’t exist. Those thoughts you have that don’t get shared? They aren’t real and aren’t a part of who you are in the rewired world.


Zuckerberg also channels his inner Tom Peters and lectures investors on the “Hacker Way,” which is his appropriated term for a horizontalist management scheme in which everything is always beta. “Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic”—of course it is, just like neoliberalism, or capitalism itself. Markets always let the deserving “win.” I’m sure the employees really love the “hackathons” he describes, where they are forced to create products on spec and participate in a corporate tournament to see who among the employees will need to be humiliated for failure to innovate. The hacker way is the precariat way: employees bear all the risk but the company will take all the value they create in the process. As Chairman Zuck proclaims, there are five tenets of the Hacker Way: Focus on Impact, Be Fast, Be Bold, Be Open, Create Social Value.” If you aren’t moving fast enough to “break things” (like your spirit) and not taking enough risks, and you will not create “real value.”


I don’t know; I’d prefer that hacking still mean anarchic subversion, just to remind ourselves that subverting things is even still possible. In Facebook’s world, it isn’t.


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Wednesday, Feb 1, 2012
Google, then, is the reification of the general intellect. It manages to take human curiosity and turn it into capital.

On Twitter, PJ Rey resurrected this August 2010 op-ed by William Gibson that has new currency given the hullaballoo about Google’s privacy-policy changes. Gibson argues that Google is an unanticipated form of artificial intelligence, “a sort of coral reef of human minds and their products.” But this description sounds less like artificial intelligence and more like Marx’s notion of the general intellect. Anticipating the intensification of technology, Marx claimed that machines would eventually subsume “the process of social life” and integrate it as a form of productivity.


The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it. To what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.



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Tuesday, Jan 31, 2012
The social-media companies have largely succeeded in persuading users of their platforms' neutrality. What we fail to see is that these new identities are no less contingent and dictated to us then the ones circumscribed by tradition; only now the constraints are imposed by for-profit companies in explicit service of gain.

Tom Slee recently began posting about MIT sociologist Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together. Turkle, in some ways, is the chief theorist of digital dualism; her books The Second Self (1984) and Life on the Screen (1995) helped set the terms for talking about virtual selves in cyberspace as projections of some real self that exists outside it and is deleteriously affected by these interactions. Those books are more than a little dated, but in a way that makes their arguments more striking. Just substitute Facebook for MUD in Life on the Screen; after all, what is Facebook if not a MUD in which you create and play the character of yourself.


Turkle’s basic point was that computers change the people who use them (they are not neutral tools). Users begin to transfer programming metaphors to their interactions with people and psychological metaphors to the behavior of machines, and so on. This leakage between our conceptions of humans and nonhuman objects for Turkle threatens the integrity of the category of the human; reading her books sometimes feels like reading the anti-Donna Haraway. (I won’t even try to relate Turkle to OOO.) Here’s a typical declaration, from the introduction to the 20th anniversary edition off The Second Self:


we stand on the boundary between the physical and virtual. And increasingly, we stand on the boundary between worlds we understand through transparent algorithm and worlds we understand by manipulating opaque simulation.



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Monday, Jan 30, 2012
I think the logical extension of the data self -- the self that is secure with itself only to the extent that it is constituted in social media as manipulatable data -- will be for Twitter to come preloaded with plausible friends, Facebook preloaded with life experiences, or at least preordained slots of experiences a user is supposed to have.

Nathan Jurgenson has some good constructive criticism of my data self posts from last week. He points out that it is not enough to talk about how social media captures some preexisting self but also “how the individual, in all of their offline experience, behavior and existence, is simultaneously being created by this very online data.”


Since I often tend to depict identity as a residual experiential illusion left over after capitalism subjectivizes us, I was admittedly surprised to see Jurgenson cite me as an example of what he calls “agentic bias”—“the tendency to conceptually grant too much power to individuals to create their online Profiles by neglecting the ways in which individuals are simultaneously being created by their digital presence.” Social media doesn’t simply capture what we do online, it shapes what we do and also what we do offline—as Jurgenson has argued elsewhere, once social media makes you aware of the ability to document your life as it is happening, it changes what you experience; you begin directing your life as if it were a documentary, choosing what to do in part on the basis of how it can be represented later.


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Friday, Jan 27, 2012

This, from “Reflections on the Call” by Leon de Mattis, in Communization and Its Discontents (pdf), is a good point:


It is certain that the division of society into classes would be infinitely more visible if inter-individual relations were the brute and unreserved translation of relations of production. The proletarian would doff his cap in passing to the capitalist with his top hat and cigar, and there would be nothing more to say. But unfortunately things are a little more complicated, and ‘existential liberalism’ is not the unique translation of the effect of relations of production in everyday life…



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