This may be an overly cynical view of social media but this is what my use of these platforms has led me to. It's not intended as any sort of final word on today's Internet and social media but will hopefully be the start of a conversation.
All we have in common is the illusion of being together. And beyond the illusion of permitted anodynes there is only the collective desire to destroy isolation.
Capitalism is insidious. Not satisfied with simply commodifying our leisure time, capitalism wants to actively involve us in that commodification, and to drum into us the discipline of the workplace even in the times we're supposed to be able to forget about it. With the rise in portable gadgets and high-speed Internet connections, we've been provided with the tools and the encouragement to take our work, and the discipline of the workplace, home with us.
And it has found its perfect partner in the spectacle of social media. Now our rest and our interaction aren't simply rest and interaction but a competition with ourselves as well as others. We're competing for each-other's gaze. Our leisure time isn't simply leisure anymore. It's not even the spectacular idea of commodified leisure, where our leisure is sold to us by a capitalist piecemeal and leisure has become something to be consumed rather than lived. It's become the next stage of the liberal idea of self-betterment through work. We're selling our leisure time to each other, curating it. We're selling ourselves not just to the capitalist at work, but at leisure too. We're involved in a constant transactional relationship with capital and with each other with our leisure. We invent and post content and our followers reciprocate with views, likes, shares, creating a work-and-reward feedback loop for users. This in turn creates an endless flow of this content which viewers are forever scrolling through, creating the potential for parts of this continually watched space to be sold for money.
Our leisure time and our interactions with each-other aren't just a one-way transaction, capital to us. They're ever more frequently used by capital to sell things to others in third-party transactions. And, alongside television and Hollywood movies, our interactions with each other are selling us the idea of a lifestyle. And with the prevalence of ever more fantastical movie scenarios, capital is turning to the "everyday" and the "relatable" in order to sell us an ever-more-vast array of commodities. What the superhero can't sell us, the Instagram influencer just might be able to.
We experience life on-screen. From our earliest days we've been sitting in front of screens, seeing what interaction with others is like, seeing what nature is like. Television and movies have become ever more sophisticated in the ways in which they shine the world into our eyes. It was inevitable that the oeuvre of "reality" television would show us a "reality" centred on competition not between like abilities but between individuals' ability merely to be nominally themselves.
It shouldn't be any surprise that now we choose to turn the screens on ourselves to see if we match up, or that against the sophistication of the televisual and filmic media most of us fall short. We carry these screens with us and filter our life's experiences through them, from holidays to concerts.
There seem to be a number of economies at work in our social media leisure time: a money economy which primarily benefits social media companies but also benefits a tiny amount of users; an economy of influence, and the game economy of likes, views and follower counts. The latter two economies feed into the first and provide the general user with the incentive to continue producing the bitesize commodities which the social media company automatically grants itself a license to use in any way it sees fit, in perpetuity. The subeconomies and antecedent habits and socialization provide the conditions in which these commodities can be realized - millions of eyes trained on screens, seeing.
Unlike television, this captive audience for advertising space isn't a passive participant. It actively volunteers its free time and ideas to create subcommodities which collectively make up the supercommodity of the overall social media "timeline". As at work, the capitalist provides the tools and the (virtual) factory, we provide the labour. The capitalist receives the monetary benefit of the commodity we create. The social media environment is a factory, an assembly line.
We now live in an age where the job title "Social Media Content Curator" is not a new one. We shouldn't see this as a formalization of what was formerly a leisure activity but more as a reflection of the nature of the social media environment, which lends itself more fittingly to the world of work than many of us would like to imagine.
There is a discipline to "curating" a social media presence which finds echoes and parallels in the world of work. We become our own gangmaster and our own sales director, forcing ourselves to turn out commodity after commodity, making sure it's something we can "sell" to our "clients". Our performance reviews consist of likes, views, shares and followers. Our paycheck, continued engagement and interaction with our peers. Our interaction becomes a tedious office job.
This set of behaviours and transactions has crystallized out of the way social media sites have been designed. We're not bumping up against the limits of our imagination. The view, like, share, follow, subscribe model of interaction on social media has become the de facto standard for online interaction over the course of a decade or so. These have become the language of online social interaction as a sort of shorthand for true engagement with each other, as comments sections on news articles have become for our engagement with world events. They have become a quick and easy way to quantify interactions, a substitute for actual engagement.
It isn't really all that surprising that we interact with advertising on the same platforms in exactly the same way. It's symptomatic of the narrow horizons capitalism wishes to impose on social interactions, demanding it be able to quantify our interactions, to commodify and sell them to us. Capital is increasingly imposing itself as a middleman in our everyday interactions with each other. Increasingly the line between how commodities are advertised to us and how we display ourselves to each other is blurring. Increasingly we advertise ourselves to each other, on social media, on dating sites. More and more these advertisements of ourselves resemble job applications. Our horizons for interaction with each other are increasingly narrowing, becoming more and more similar to the world of work or the world of commerce.
A future in which this is much less exclusively the nature of online interaction and increasingly how we interact on the street, at work or at school isn't that hard to imagine, given the continuing intrusion of electronics, cameras and microphones into our everyday lives. Social media is increasingly being used as a tool of surveillance over our private lives by our employers. We're now more often asked to provide our social media accounts to potential employers before taking a job, and our nominally private activities on these platforms are frequently used against us in the workplace. We're expected to continue to represent and "reflect the values" of our employers (whatever the fuck that means) even when we're at home and not on the clock. And woe betide anyone who criticizes their employer online, however obliquely.
There is also a troubling tendency on the left to encourage the commodification of our interactions. This seems to be a confused outgrowing of the not-very-recent realization that the world of consumer capitalism relies on uncompensated labour at home. And rather than imagine a radical way out of this world, many on the left are instead demanding a "fair wage" for this work, extending the world of waged labour into the home. This is not an endorsement of past, or even present, familial relations (in the nuclear family essentially still feudal in nature) but a call for a radical reimagining of our currently limited horizons.
In parallel to this, and growing from similar roots, even educational and collaborative work on the left is not immune to this essentially liberal idea. The "fuck you, pay me" attitude of some on the left to spreading ideas and educating each other has become increasingly prevalent in the social media age.
The (liberal) left media is increasingly the domain of the "activist celebrity" (as opposed to the celebrity activist, usually a liberal personality who has first become famous for something other than activism). This activist celebrity is a strange chimera where Instagram influencer meets social conscience. And, bizarrely, for some this has become aspirational. A carefully curated social media presence, a few cameras and microphones and you too could hold a successful fundraiser to expand your "growing media company". Maybe you'll even get a column in The Guardian. But the capital you've advanced must pay off. It helps to be photogenic. And from the south. The small left-wing media company will soon become a cottage industry unto itself. And when the working-class struggle to free itself from its condition can be commodified and sold back to us, capitalism has no more worlds to conquer.
The Internet has provided us with another layer of illusion and an insidious vehicle for surveillance, exploitation and the rehabilitation of radical ideas, along with the quickest and most efficient route for their incorporation into capitalism's field of influence. What was heralded as a revolution in human interaction has become a realm for the extension of impersonality and the ever-increasing intrusion of the workplace into our free time. Social media has given us the added and dangerous illusion of engagement and involvement where there is none. We've never been more together in our isolation.