[2 July 2010]
PopMatters General Features Editor
For many years, I was a cell-phone holdout. It wasn’t until 2008 that I got my first cell phone, and even then it was because I was moving and it didn’t make sense to sign up for another landline. I knew I had been more than a little bit stubborn in my long refusal, and after I unboxed my first phone I expected to transition easily into a new era of connectedness and spontaneity from having mobile communications in my life.
It didn’t turn out like that. I had a hard time remembering to carry the phone with me and to check it to see if anyone had tried to reach me when the ringer was turned off (which is always, since the sound of my phone ringing in public makes me incredibly embarrassed, as if my pants had just fallen down or something). Suddenly, because I had a phone, I was responsible for fielding and sending out all sorts of reassuring and what seemed to me unnecessary messages, confirming my departures and arrivals, for example, and I had to send out or respond to messages celebrating or lamenting events in real-time, many of them sports related. Basically, carrying around a communication device meant I had to be doing a lot more communicating with people, and not really on my own terms.
So at first, this was all incredibly inconvenient—a surprise after having been lectured for years about how much easier my life would be with a cell phone. It turns out that my not having a phone was less inconvenient for me than it was for everyone else who had already adapted to the brave new world of perpetual accessibility. I had been blissfully backward, perfectly secure in my plans—no need to change the reservation/rendezvous I already agreed to—and happy without having a play-by-play account of random events vibrating in my shirt pocket. To everyone else I knew, without a cell phone number attached to my identity, I was an outlier, an annoying exception who had to be planned around, taken into account. In an ignorant, almost Mr. Magoo-ish fashion, I made everyone else I knew subtly change their way of going about things to accommodate me and my technological deficit while I blundered along happily.
In a small but significant way, my lack of a phone upset what everyone else had long since agreed was the normal way the social world should work. Furthermore, I was increasingly being cut out of that world by friends, not out malice or spite, but because it had become inconvenient to deal with me on my archaic terms. I had marginalized myself.
Eventually, cell phone in hand, I got up to speed on texting and all that, and suddenly I was in that world along with everyone else, checking to see if I had messages as the subway train emerged from the tunnel and caught a signal, sending inane texts and/or redundant texts (“another slovenia goal? WTF”), and TK. Awareness of the device as a thing that had to be carried around receded in my mind; the cell phone became assimilated invisibly into my praxis and became a part of the familiar, reassuring fabric of everyday life. Indeed, it become a tool for keeping anxiety at bay in a myriad of simple, nearly thoughtless ways. Sometimes, just opening it up and looking at the wallpaper I have on it is calming to me, for reasons I no longer bother to interrogate.
So gradually, having a cell phone ceased to be something I thought of as something one has a choice about. One can’t comfortably opt out of a social medium that has become part of everyone’s standard reality, if you want to stay in their social sphere. However, at the same time, in the new standard reality, social life in general is no longer anchored in the same way; the cell phone, as a new medium for social behavior, has brought plans for socializing closer to the fluidity of real time, for better or worse. It seems altogether understandable, natural even, that plans mutate at the last minute, that meeting places get scuttled, that calls get screened, that the casual chatting in and around practical conversation gets dropped in favor of terse, no-nonsense texts.
Something similar seems to be happening with social networking; it’s becoming naturalized. Attempting to opt out of Facebook is beginning to have broader consequences than merely making a protest. For example, in an April post at O’Reilly Radar called Promiscuous Online Culture, Alistair Croll mentions how companies are evaluating social-networking pages of potential employees, noting that not having one is likely to make a person seem inherently suspicious. If you present an identity, but have no Facebook page to substantiate it, employers and other verifiers (i.e., the contractors/skip tracers/private-investigation firms that get hired to do background checks) might presume you have something that you are trying to hide. Croll calls this “peer-reviewed identity”:
Peer-reviewed identity in the era of open social graphs is a game changer. Consider, for example, the work involved in creating a false identity today: Photoshopping childhood pictures, friending complete strangers, maintaining multiple distinct Twitter feeds, and checking in from several cities. It’s enough to make Bond retire.
The implicit idea is that everyone should have a Facebook presence that is internally consistent with one’s current self. The absence of such a presence—now that it is considered “normal” to have a Facebook page—could signal to employers a potential risk. Croll notes that “if employers rely on social networks, they may be creating processes that disadvantage the part of the population that isn’t using social media.”
Apparently social networking is in the process of transforming from a helpful way to keep in touch and “share” amongst friends into an institutionalized means of identity verification—you need to act out an active online social life of detailed sharing in order convince others to believe that you are what you claim to be. So, failing to confess everything in advance to Facebook may cause potential employers to wonder what you are hiding. Protecting one’s privacy becomes a reason for suspicion.
In a recorded, shared world, the absence of records may be enough to sway a jury reared on Facebook or to throw suspicion on someone. In the court of public opinion, we’re increasingly expected to live our lives in public, and being too private is a slippery slope toward an admission of guilt.
Wow. How is this not like East Germany? I feel as though I’d better start working on my Potemkin profile. Yes, of course I love the flag! Apple pie! The local sports team! Please enjoy these photos of my college-educated, middle-class friends and my healthy, happy family. I love to share!
Peer-reviewed identity is nothing new, of course. Our sense of self has always been reflected back to us via the impression we make upon others in the course of our ordinary interactions. It requires a certain sort of society to prompt us to discover our individuality, to make self-absorption a seemingly more valuable activity than losing oneself in engagement with the world.
In some ways, as philosopher Louis Althusser argued, identity can be regarded as an effect of power singling us out for some particular form of scrutiny or flattering attention in the hopes of controlling us, telling us who we are and having us believe it. That is, he argued that institutions constitute our subjectivity; Facebook could be understood as one of his “ideological state apparatuses”. ( “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)”, Louis Althusser, Monthly Review Press, 1971.)
For an identity of that sort to develop, we have to be recognized by a force outside of ourselves (marketers, the police, doctors, teachers, bosses, peers) in order to see our own uniqueness, otherwise we would simply be lost in the sensations of our own experience. The outside forces become the organizing principle for our inchoate sensations, structuring our ideas about which of those sensations and responses are “us” and which are incidental, contingent, irrelevant. The attention we get teaches us which responses and feelings we should regard as authentic, integral to the self, and which we should regard as roles, pretenses, strategies.
A related view is that our reflexive self-identity, as sociologist Anthony Giddens likes to call it, is an effect of the conditions of modern society. Modern society has unmoored us from the traditional sources of identity, which were rooted in local folkways, many of which were inflexible. You were born into an identity based on where you were born, who your parents are, what sort of local practices prevailed in your society. However modernity, in Giddens’s analysis, is in part the result of having the familiar no longer be the local but merely the local manifestation of something global, removed, abstract, transcendental.
The sense of the familiar is one often mediated by time-space distanciation. It does not derive from the particularities of localized place. And this experience, so far as it seeps into general awareness, is simultaneously disturbing and rewarding. The reassurance of the familiar, so important to a sense of ontological security, is coupled with the realization that what is comfortable and nearby is actually an expression of distant events and was “placed into” the local environment rather than forming an organic development within it. The local shopping mall is a milieu in which a sense of ease and security is cultivated by the layout of the buildings and the careful planning of public places. Yet everyone who shops there is aware that most of the shops are chain stores, which one might find in any city, and indeed that innumerable shopping malls of similar design exist elsewhere. (The Consequences of Modernity, Anthony Giddens, Stanford University Press, 1991)
These days, we are integrated into a globalized community even as we are estranged from the local ones that our ancestors knew.
With the traditional sources of identity uprooted, identity has become more fragile as it has become more open-ended. We crave “ontological security”—as Giddens defines it, “the confidence most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.” (ibid) Once upon a time, that confidence came automatically for most people, who would live their entire lives in the same town and have little exposure to ways of life beyond it.
In the modern world, the integrity of local experience has been shredded, and that confidence must instead be sustained by our own effort, and by those virtual communities linked by shared knowledge of how modern life works —knowing about chain stores and brands, having a cell phone, being internet savvy, or more basically, knowing how to navigate the increasingly homogenous urban spaces of capitalism—as well as by shared tastes and affinities developed through personal choice rather than assigned by fate of locality.
As a result, we are required to develop our sense of identity through constant self-monitoring and constant invocation of these communities. Modern identity is thus born of acute self-consciousness; the alienation of watching ourselves be ourselves makes the self seem an actual, discrete, precious and malleable thing. It becomes a manufactured product to be publicized and validated rather than simply lived in, as in premodern experience. Modernity thus promotes an inward turn, assessing one’s tastes and values, while at the same time it requires exhibitionism—publicly displaying the fruits of the inner quest in hope for recognition from others. We need trusted accomplices to verify our identity for us, to confirm the worth of what we’ve made.
Widespread adoption of Facebook both reflects and exacerbates the rise of the manufactured self. Social-network usage is an expression of the greater reflexivity of self in modern life: it’s not something we choose to do solely for entertainment or out of narcissism. It’s become a valve for the bottled-up, pressurized self-awareness forced upon us by modern life. If we opt out of it, we run the risk of unintentionally issuing a challenge to the ontological security of everyone on our friend list, a threat that ripples across the so-called social graph.
Whereas if we opt in, we grant ourselves access to a new wellspring of social interaction and arena for establishing mutual trust, which as Giddens argues, is the essential basis for our own ontological security, beyond the comfort of the familiar systems of consumerism . “Trust in abstract systems is not psychologically rewarding in the way in which trust in persons is,” he notes in The Consequences of Modernity.
Identity requires interpersonal trust, not just faith in impersonal systems and infrasructure. An intimacy deficit opens up, and we demand more of personal relationships than was expected in premodern times to close the gap. Friendship becomes less pro forma, less a matter of tribal loyalty and proximity, and more intimate. Relationships, Giddens claims, become an ongoing project of manufacturing security-giving personal trust: “Trust on a personal level becomes a project, to be ‘worked at’ by the parties involved, and demands the opening out of the individual to the other” through “demonstrable warmth and openness… The work involved means a mutual process of self-disclosure.”
In Cold Intimacies, sociologist Eva Illouz labels this work “emotional competency”—a set of quasi-therapeutic skills for self-revelation and articulation coupled with listening skills geared toward recognizing and clarifying the claims about the self others are trying to make. These skills are more important than ever as the trends that brought on modernity continue to accelerate and the self secured by traditions is supplanted by the isolated individual making free choices in a marketplace of lifestyles. One can never stop exercising them—the self is never complete but always in process, always requiring rearticulation.
In other words, now that the sense of community has been displaced from a our real location and made virtual, we have rendered identity a perpetual work in progress, a striving to reach a home that may have no fixed reality as a particular place but is instead a state of mind, a realization of some ideal self and ideal community that nurtures that self. It may be an unrealizable fiction. Social networks seem like a logical extension of the opportunities for such rearticulation of self in such conditions and have been seized upon as such. However, the networked society has not evolved merely to serve the needs of self-fashioning subjects; it also serves to extend a consumer capitalism that’s already genetically predisposed to colonize all aspects of life and turn them into commercial opportunities.
By relocating our search for trust and ontological security to social networks, we begin to develop our self-identity in the heart of one of the business world’s most treasured commercial frontiers, an archived, indexed, and cross-referenced matrix of connections that reveal a multiplicity of marketing opportunities as well as revealing who among us who have the most emotional competency, the most connections, the most influence. Then those skilled people can be persuaded to turn that emotional competency into emotional capital, an exploitable resource. Social networks thus mobilize our identity-making process as a production process—in making ourselves, we make meanings that can circulate, we make affect that can be detached from its origin and embedded in new contexts. Social networks prompt is to develop our self as a profitable, personal brand.
In general, the new forms of mediated communication tend to undermine the trust that communication is otherwise supposed to build, compromising it with commercial interests. Despite “connecting” us more securely with others online, social networking has made our real-life, non-online identities more insecure than ever. With a new tool to investigate what we don’t immediately disclose up front, there is less reason for anyone to take us at face value, to practice emotional competency in a face-to-face encounter. People may just nod along at what we tell them and just Google us to discover the “truth”. This, after all, is how we are used to getting our information these days—as indexable, searchable data. The online identity supplants the real-life presence. We find ourselves more comfortable dealing with one another’s profiles than with one another, as it is certainly more convenient and requires less of our precious attention, the scarce resource of the digital age.
Social networks increase our sense of isolation while seeming to remedy it, much as consumerism exacerbates our yearnings while seeming to cater to them. With social networking on the rise, the trusting friendships that ideally compensate for our having to draw our ontological security from modern life’s abstract systems are themselves being assimilated into a system. They undermine the trust we turn to them to help sustain, meanwhile sizing us up in terms of our productive potential and harvesting it from us, as we make ever more “selfhood” online to be harvested. Even as we fashion our identity out of globalized brands and practices determined by institutions out of our control, the one thing that had seemed within our total control was the intimacy and intensity of our relationships. Facebook, however, wants to co-opt that reciprocity and make it into another publicly oriented, self-aggrandizing commercial project that we volunteer for, lured by the promises of convenience, notoriety, influence, and eventually money.
This has long seemed the thrust of social networking as a business. The social-networking companies want to be the intermediaries of friendship and ultimately stand in the middle of as many interactions between people as they can. In other words, they intend to make friendship more convenient, to automate it and make it so that we seem to conduct it on our own terms rather than on reciprocal ones—undermining its capacity to build trust. Meanwhile, those who want to put the data about our social relations to various commercial or juridical uses have huge new data sets to potentially mine.
At that point, we have also withdrawn ourselves as a resource for building our ontological security. We are losing the sources of personal “authentic” (i.e., noncommercial) trust that have made modern life tolerable. One of the most serious consequences of commercialized emotional competence, Illouz suggests, is that “actors seem to be stuck, often against their will, in the strategic” approach to emotionality. The Internet exacerbates this, making rationalized interpersonal relations possible on a much larger scale and to a much greater degree, but wiping out the face-to-face aspects that mitigate the commercial impulses that have been grafted onto them.
Illouz cites Jorge Arditi, who suggests that people may now have things in common that are too common, i.e., too many people citing the same interests in social networking profiles, which makes relations somewhat generic, formulaic. As Illouz argues, “closeness results from the specificity and exclusivity shared between two entities. In this sense, nearness implies the sharing of ‘existentially generated meanings’”—inside jokes, lived reciprocity, common experiences that wouldn’t be elicited by surveys or self-help questionnaires or relationship counselors, not the stuff that would be shared in advance as interests on a social-networking profile. Closeness, trust, ontological security rests precisely the stuff that moves us that we don’t predict in advance. Internet sociality, however, tends to expect us to be adapt self-analysts and enforces the supposition that we can know what will move us predictably in advance.
Despite the efforts of the Facebook defectors, social networking continues to grow, feeding on its own momentum, even as it hollows out the ideals of friendship it pretends to serve. If social networks succeed on their current path, we will end up completely isolated from one another, cocooned in data, altogether indifferent to any forms of reciprocity that can’t be measured and adjudicated and put to work in networks. Instead we will only know attention-oriented quid pro quos. We may not even mind all that much—the incoming stream of data will make us feel more “connected” than ever.
Perhaps “connection” can replace “warmth” and “trust” in the future of intimacy.In the near term, though, we are endangering the relationships that we need to substantiate our sense of who we are, to save ourselves from a kind of socialized schizophrenia in which who we are fluctuates from moment to moment in a contemporary world that respects no traditions, a capitalism bent on creative destruction. To try to stabilize the self, we are thrown back on institutions, the abstract, globalized systems: An N+1 essay from its The Intellectual Situation section made the claim that “today we Google ourselves to see what the world knows about us; tomorrow we’ll just watch the ads.” (28 April 2010> To take the idea to its logical conclusion: we may have to eventually Google ourselves to find out who we are.
Robert Horning has developed a substantial body of work in PopMatters' music reviews, concerts, film, and TV sections. His writing has also appeared in Time Out New York and Skyscraper. In his PopMatters column, "Marginal Utility", Rob bridges the abstract and concrete aspects of consumerism. His writing is as grounded and approachable as an everyday trip to the grocery store. Rob has a BA and MA in English Literature; his interests in social theory, economics, and sociology generates his solid background knowledge for "Marginal Utility" and informs his music reviews. For more Rob Horning, be sure to read the Marginal Utility blog.