Data Self Redux

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.

My dialectics certainly need sharpening, but I definitely agree with Jurgenson that social media shape identity rather than merely expressing it. If I underplay the degree to which this is true, it may be because I take it for granted too much in my thinking: of course it’s true that having media at one’s disposal to share things renders those things subordinate to the process of sharing. Once we have a channel, we live so as to fill it with content, and that content is more self-consciously molded to suit desired audiences and enhance one’s watchability — it’s “curated” with an eye to make oneself more followable. more relevant. Once you have Spotify, you have to groom what you listen to and what others see you listening to, and that reflexive grooming cancels out any preceding “innocent” or “authentic” listening behavior. Basically, the ongoing fretting about “authenticity” is a reflection of an ideologically induced blindness to our own agentic bias with regards to ourselves.

Identity has long worked in our particular ideological climate by masking its constructed origins, making it seem as though the profile (our self-directed identity, in Jurgenson’s terms) is always making the Profile (the online representation). The stake is our status as a unique individual; other people may be products of the system but not us; we are self-created. So when the Profile begins to change my way of perceiving the world — when I begin to shape my behavior in terms of what social media captures or what I can share — I strive also to disavow that change. I think some of the disavowal is built into the services and the rhetoric of personal sharing they are bathed in. (Apparently, if Jurgenson is right, it has colored my own rhetoric as well.) We don’t want to admit that we are being determined to a degree by our media use, so we instead struggle to do the impossible and deliberately communicate authenticity, try to communicate in such a way — communicate something so genuine and real and uncompromising perhaps — that can make ourselves believe that it’s not totally obvious that we are posing for the cameras we’ve pointed at ourselves. Because if we admit to and foreground our “inauthentic” curatorial impulses — doing things just to tweet them — then we surrender the old ideal of our having a self-actualized identity, a unique internal self that we discover inside ourselves and then share with the world.

Social media has laid siege to that concept of identity, and the assumptions of privacy it relies on. It is trying to obviate that private self’s pleasures and make pleasure derive instead from sharing, from comparing our data with others’, from seeing what sort of quantifiable influence we can have as we build out networks. This is what I was calling the “data self,” which may not make a whole lot of sense as a term, but there it is. With this self-concept in place, we don’t worry about that disavowal of our constructedness so much; perhaps we think we can outrun it with further sharing, reaping further rewards. If we keep screaming out our attempts to self-brand, it still seems like we are controlling the process. I think this helps explain that particular desperate urgency of social-media use; we have to monitor and control the spin about ourselves before any of the many facets of our network come to own the narrative about us. That pleasant Pavolovian buzz of seeing that someone has responded to something I have posted somewhere is not merely pleasure at having gained some attention; it is also a moment that feels like control over an identity that has slipped away into the permanently public realm.

Anyway, that shift is what I was trying to get at in those posts about the “data self” — that changes were happening at the level of the institutions that determine our concept of who we are, teach us what sort of things go into that. Capitalist subjectivity was once anchored in consumerist “authenticity” — consumerism allows us to discover the unique individual we really are and express it. But social media and smart-phone conduits are changing what anchors capitalist subjectivity to something outlined by data profiling and “sharing.” That is, the pleasures of identity are less about discovering, owning, and operating a particular unique self (as they were, mainly, under consumerism pre-social media); they are becoming more about mircoaffirmations available through social-media use: we are matched with the people who can affirm us, we see a reflection of ourselves in the data that makes us feel recognized, we are told what to want in a way that assures us we will be doing what is right and normal if we follow automated yet socially derived recommendations, etc. The data self knows itself only to the degree that it shares data and exists within media that can guide it toward various satisfying experiences and allow it to display its satisfactions dependably in formatted and readily circulatable ways. The data self doesn’t really exist until social media use has gotten well under way. What may start as a yearning to express the authentic interior self in some new way ends up, as Jurgenson is arguing, obliterating the plausibility and satisfaction of having in interior self. Of course, for people who have had no sense of self that precedes social media, this analysis may make no sense. They can’t conceive of authenticity as anything but a rumor.

The threat to this new “data self” sort of subjectivity is not inauthenticity — the threat that tends to afflict people my age (phoniness as a moral category) — but lack of access. The threat is being disconnected, having the information flow disrupted. And that threat stems from an underlying terror at the possibility that there’s something crucial about our lives that can’t actually be expressed — integral things about which we can say nothing, as Wittgenstein says. The danger to our identity is not that it will be exposed as a fake, but that endless sharing of it will make it feel increasingly inexpressible, that the key thing is escaping our attempts to tell all.

But I also think that Interaction with Facebook, etc., reshapes subjectivity to make reject the possibility of that inexpressibility. We are only what we express and share; the possibility that something could be meaningful and unshared becomes unthinkable, unfeelable. What measures the “real” about ourselves is not some internal ability to think or feel something but the ability to externalize it as processable data. Social media becomes the media of identity — not recording it but constituting it. The data self is not just a matter of the data we supply (actively or passively), but also the data and metadata the social-media companies return to us. We increasingly stabilize our self-concept in terms of what social media makes possible, what sorts of rewards it can supply, and what garners those rewards.

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. Our self-recording vision of ourselves, as shaped by social media, may not alienate us from some “genuine” experience we would have otherwise had, but it is also not autonomous either, not freed of the ideological dispositions companies have built into their platforms. As much as we may come to see our lives as documentaries that we are always in the process of making, we still are typically reliant on someone else’s storyboard.

(Note to self: Remember that the work of identity construction for any given individual is always collective. One’s identity is not the product of the identity-bearer’s labor only, but is also the product of those whose work sustains institutions and expressive codes and everything else that contributes to substantiating and expressing identity.)