Sharing: The New Imposition

[4 October 2009]

By Rob Horning

Once upon a time, sharing was a simple, straightforward thing. It meant you were willing to give over something you have to someone else who wanted it. If I have cigarettes, I’ll let you smoke them. I miss the old sharing, spontaneous gifts to specific people, a willingness to show up somewhere and spend time in their company.

But the way tech and social media companies have co-opted the word has made it increasingly suspicious. On his blog, Rob Walker, the New York Times Magazine‘s Consumed columnist, dubbed sharing “the most annoying euphemism of the moment,” as it has become an internet-media synonym for “tell, announce, blurt, broadcast, impose up on you, etc.” Sharing is no longer a matter of giving over a portion of something desirable; it’s imposing what you want to say on others while largely dispensing with the pretense of engaging in conversation. Hence I “share” on a blog an entirely unwanted and uncalled for photo-essay about my trip to Wildwood, a shore town in New Jersey. The new sharing seems only to force me into a narcissistic posture; the new sharing is always on the verge of boasting.

But the sharing euphemism seems to mask more than the aggressive narcissism of the would-be “sharer”. In the new usage, sharing, with its intimations of the gift economy and voluntary collaboration, has become a devious code word for what is in fact a mode of online production. It denotes the labor we perform ostensibly for the benefit of our online “friends” with whom we explicitly connect ourselves within social networks, but the value of which ultimately accrues to the companies who hold the fruits of our effort on their servers. When we share via upload, we are primarily working to move information and data into digital space where it can be manipulated and harvested for profit.

Facebook’s recent acquisition of FriendFeed, a service that turns everything you upload to various sites into a single RSS stream, threatens to make the cant about sharing even worse. In “Now Facebook Really Owns You” for The Big Money, Slate’s Business site, Chadwick Matlin argues that the acquisition is Facebook’s effort to corner the market in “social aggregation”—to become a sort of Google Reader in which we can subscribe to people rather than blogs, and have our online media consumption directed by our chosen friends. Matlin likens this to what the Huffington Post does, only with FriendFeed and Facebook, your friends will filter what you read, not strangers.

Imagine a social aggregator with the size and sway of Facebook. Users would love it because it would make their lives simpler and more streamlined. The other social media sites stand to gain as well, since Facebook would be pointing more users to content offsite. News sites will get more traffic because people will be clicking through on more links. Facebook, of course, would be the biggest victor: It would be able to get people to check in more often and stay longer. Ad rates can then go up, which helps the company’s bottom line.

That seems logical enough, as long as we assume that professional editors are nothing more than people who are paid to pretend to be our friends and turn us on to cool stuff and generally do an inferior job. Arguably, the opposite is true; editors are well-connected within the opinion-shaping milieu and are typically held accountable for what they tout in a way friends rarely are. Unlike editing, FriendFeed-augmented aggregation would merely become another performative medium for us and our friends, like status updates, only with links and photos and other Tumblr-like flotsam and jetsam. One-upsmanship would compete with any altruistic motives of carrying out a useful service. This doesn’t promise to make online life any more streamlined; more likely we will be inundated with more information to process about what our friends are trying to signal with their choices about who they want to be rather than anything about the quality of the “shared” material. And we would be so preoccupied with our own performances to bother clicking through to very much.

If only our reciprocal ignoring of one another online would inhibit our urge to broadcast ourselves. Instead, it makes us take self-revelation much more lightly, to the point at which we authorize automatic self-surveillance (to go along with the surveillance we enable inadvertently, as with our cell phones and browsing histories). When we begin to passively reveal what music is playing on our computers, or when we update what book we are reading, or update Twitter of a Facebook status update, we send the message to the world that it is okay to assume that we are always, always performing. For those of us who reject the notion that “all the world’s a stage” (sorry, Shakespeare—and Rush, for that matter),  that is an oppressive, sick feeling. Such claustrophobic suffocation precludes the possibility of true public space, flooded as it is with the minutia of our private lives turned inside out for inspection.

As sociologist Richard Sennett predicted in his 1974 book The Fall of Public Man, we have let the public sphere erode to the point where the public and private can hardly be distinguished. Consequently, we now suffer “the tyrannies of intimacy” as we expect every public gesture to embody one’s inner personality; everything we do becomes primarily indicative of who we think we are, not what we would like to see our community or society accomplish. We can’t fulfill public roles because the self we show the world is entirely consumed with establishing an authentic identity and having that identity validated. You shouldn’t have to be “real” to join a bowling league (to use Robert Putnam’s quintessential example) or petition a zoning committee with your neighbors; yet our concern with our own realness might lead us not to bother. Better to retreat to the online world, where we broadcast our preferred self and hope the onslaught of information masks our imperfections, our inner phoniness.

With the loss of these public roles, we cease to be capable of the sort of impersonal yet polite social relations with strangers once thought to be the core of a civil democracy. Instead, with a FriendFeed filter and a Facebook account, we can be sure that no point of view from a stranger ever penetrates our consciousness.

Image (partial) from an old Tipalet ad.

Image (partial) from an old Tipalet ad.

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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