The New Imposition

by Rob Horning

4 October 2009


Hey Buddy, Can I Bum a Brand?

Image (partial) found on

Image (partial) found on

Hey Buddy, Can I Bum a Brand?

If someone’s buying it, it must be worth something; our brand must exist and be “real”.

Obviously not everyone is troubled by the new sharing. Otherwise “real-time search”—searching Twitter for up-to-the-minute information on “trending topics”—wouldn’t work at all. I had my first experience with real-time search recently, when the Netflix Watch Instantly service wasn’t working and I wanted to know whether the whole system was down or if just my account was messed up. It occurred to me to search Twitter, which quickly revealed that it was the system.

For a moment, I was delighted by the ingenuity of this and was grateful that other people bothered to “share” this mundane stuff. But then, abruptly, I felt guilty about not doing likewise. Actually, I couldn’t imagine a scenario in which I would ever make it my responsibility to update the world as though everything going on around me warranted a traffic report. “Just pulled into the Staples parking lot on Northern Blvd.—not a lot of spaces.” “Couldn’t find the pens section at first—it’s aisle 4.” “Cashier nearest the door more efficient than the guy near the computers. Be advised.”

Now that technology has made it possible to divulge everything, is it ethically mandatory that I follow through, making the leap to believing that everything I experience is relevant to the world? Do I have an infinite responsibility to the other with regard to offering information, rather than judge in advance whether I think it will be useful to them? What would Levinas say?

In another essay from the Big Money site “Can Twitter Be Saved? It’s in danger of collapsing under its own weight. (19 August 09), Mark Gimein argues that compulsive information dumping means that Twitter is doomed.

The irony of Twitter is that even as it becomes more pervasive, it is in danger of very quickly becoming markedly less useful…. The volume of material that Twitter unleashes now puts impossible demands on its users’ time and attention. The problem, in a nutshell, is information overload. The more Twitter grows and the more feeds Twitterers follow, the harder it gets to mine it for what is truly useful and engaging.

In Gimein’s view, users are too profligate in who they follow, making the concept of following meaningless—the number of followers one has is no indication of the amount of people who are actually reading what you have to say, even when it comes in telegraphic blasts.

But Gimein is making the quaintly anachronistic assumption that we care about one other’s actual content more than we crave the raw reassurance of being followed. (Creepy, incidentally, how the language and methods of stalking are rehabilitated by self-branding.) Twitter quantizes communication, making the numbers in the audience more important than what’s said. Of course, that has always been true of ratings-driven media, but it hasn’t been true for our conversations.

The genius of Twitter is precisely that it turns ordinary people into media companies. It lets us subject our conversations to Nielsen-like ratings, to regard our communications as a product conveying our personal brand. Then we can crunch the numerical data Twitter supplies to tweak our brand, and see what works to improve the numbers, which serve as proxy for our relevance and reach and, by extension, our right to feel important. Then these numbers can be used to sell ads as well—we can indicate to advertisers what sort of demographic we have in our followers, making it a new way to monetize our friendships, following the inroads Facebook has made in that department. In the process, we become a product, a package of manipulatable content.

At, Sean Gregory reports in his article, “How to Make Money on Twitter: Do Commercials!”, on a service called Sponsored Tweets, which takes the self-as-media-company evolution to its logical conclusion (2 September 2009). The Sponsored Tweets service acts as a broker between companies looking to places ads inside Tweets and Twitters willing to prostitute themselves. Using Sponsored Tweets, Twitter users can take the notion that they are one-person broadcasting networks to its conclusion and offer up themselves to media buys: Marketers “can select whom they want to pay and how much they’re willing to dish out. Compensation is based on a user’s expertise or passion, how many followers that person has and other metrics, like how often the tweeter’s followers click to links posted on his or her Twitter page.”

It’s obvious why marketers like this idea—they get to violate once sacrosanct social space and infect it with advertising discourse. It further blurs the line between social interaction and salesmanship, promoting the idea that ultimately there is no difference. Twitter thus serves as another vector for implanting mercenary rationalism at the very heart of our subjectivity as it develops.

But what is in it for users? Such a service completes the transformation of personal identity into media company, providing concrete means for us to monetize what appeal we have to others on the level of human friendship and derive our self-worth from the extent of our prostitution.

Gimein’s critique has nothing to do with decrying that process of reification. He’s more concerned with effective filtering, to optimize our information consumption, as if we were not already irrevocably oversaturated. Real-time search has practical information gathering uses but it’s a red herring, a by-product of Twitter’s core purpose, which is not communication in the conventional sense but providing a means to track our status and ersatz influence. Twitter is less about disseminating information than it is about subjects trying to make themselves feel more real, ontologically speaking, in a increasingly mediated world.

Thus, after the public sphere has collapsed into the tyranny of intimacy, as Sennett argued, with atomized individuals/Twitterers trying ceaselessly to impose their authenticity (or their usefulness or relevance) on everyone else, what follows is the transformation of authenticity into brand—with no disinterested parties left in the public sphere to assess authenticity, we revert to the only adjudicator that remains, the market, and fulfill our quest for identity by seeing how far we can sell it out. If someone’s buying it, it must be worth something; our brand must exist and be “real”.

Almost incidentally Gimein indicates how fragile the illusion of self-branding is—we can fixate all we want on the numbers and the illusion of control that gives us over how popular and influential we can become, but that number is ultimately misleading. He relates the experience of having one of his posts pushed on Google’s corporate Twitter feed, which has a million followers—it brought his own post a few hundred hits. His point is that the click-through percentage doesn’t scale up with exposure, but more telling is the way he subjects himself with no apparent hesitation to analysis usually reserved for online advertising. 

Twitter foments the fantasy of our vast influence, our endless relevance to everyone, and enlists more or less meaningless numbers to sustain it. Following people and being followed doesn’t signify any kind of commitment, any reciprocal responsibility—it’s just an effortless way to give and receive empty recognition. Because it allows us to imagine ourselves as media corporations, it promotes that idea we are responsible only to our own bottom line. And though it’s numbers are devalued and hyperinflated, we can use that number nonetheless as a focal point, a kind of mandala for our self-worship.

The quantification disguises the emptiness of the social relations it is supposedly counting, an operation that reiterates the kind of instrumental rationality that characterizes the neoliberalism colonizing more and more of everyday life. Despite its early promise as a social-planning tool (coordinating revolutions and whatnot), Twittering is increasingly self-referential; we project things that make us feel important and pretend that it is for the benefit of unseen (and, in fact, often indifferent) others. We get a simulacrum of civic participation minus the trouble of other people and reciprocity and responsibility. We can buy followers for our Twitter feed and then forget in the midst of our fantasy how self-defeating that is.

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