Social media, postmodernity, Foucault and Marxism

This is going to be a bit of a long one, as it’s an essay I wrote for university which I just got back. Apologies for the more academic and analytical tone. I should add I would have liked to expand on some of the more inflammatory points, and these are too generalising and need a bit more nuance. However, this is pretty difficult to do with a 1,500 word limit and I can’t be bothered to rewrite this essay again.

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Since the launching of Facebook in 2004, social media has played an increasingly important role in society and many of our lives. More than ever before, we wilfully put ourselves under the scrutiny of our contemporaries and even strangers as a means of forming and promoting ourselves. Some have heralded this as a great step forward in the “democratisation” of news and narratives and of allowing individuals to flourish. However, whilst I acknowledge there are indeed positives in social media, I intend to argue that it has in fact created a more atomised, self-absorbed and panoptic society which, far from encouraging other viewpoints, often leads to a highly-rigid, intolerant social world dominated by status groups and societal norms.

To start with, arguably one of the greatest phenomena of social media, and in my view its greatest achievement, is its power to “democratise” news. As David Harvey argues in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, western media is dominated by (predominately white and male) wealthy elites who use their power to push their own agendas; i.e. ‘All 247 of the supposedly independent editors of [Murdoch’s] newspapers worldwide supported the US invasion of Iraq.’ To say the majority of western media have pushed a view of the world which is both culturally and militarily nationalist while excluding other viewpoints and obfuscating the truth is an understatement. The contrasting effect social media can have was illustrated perfectly this year with two major events, both domestic and international: the Ferguson riots and the Gaza conflict.

In both instances, Twitter users used hashtags to report events on the ground that were not shown by national news broadcasters. The rioting in Ferguson and heavy police response catapulted the discussion about civil rights back to the forefront of US home affairs while the shocking images and tweets showing the fear and despair of Gaza residents showed the world a new side to the conflict often not-covered by Western media.

This “democratisation” idea has been taken further by some. Turner states that media has experienced a ‘Demotic turn [due] to the increasing visibility of the “ordinary person” as they have turned themselves into media content through celebrity culture, reality TV shows etc.’ Taking this further, he argues ‘the media has perhaps [shifted] from a ‘broadcaster of cultural identities’ to ‘a translator or even author of identities’. We can read this as illustrating the postmodern idea of our world now being shaped by a ‘multiplicity of narratives’, which was particularly built on by Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition.

Social media forms yet another facet of postmodernism being, ‘an incredulity towards metanarratives’. It is often claimed that social media has breathed new life into social movements such as feminism. The highly successful ‘Everyday Sexism’ campaign and hashtags like #yesallwomen are held up as evidence of this. However, while in some ways liberating it, the fact anyone can now voice their own opinions and declare them to be representative of feminism is beginning to do massive harm to the movement. Sadie Smith laments how what she calls the ‘online wimmin mob’ ‘don’t seem to like feminism … there’s not much evidence they like women very much either’. Going on to say, ‘‘Check your privilege!’ has become the rallying cry of the Mob when faced with a woman with whom they disagree.’ In her words, you cannot join ‘a club that they seem to believe they have seized control of’.

In my experience, this is the case of all social movements on Twitter. One of the main features of postmodernity is the rise of identity politics. Every community from feminists to trans-rights activists, to far-right racists scream, ‘White male privilege!’, ‘cis privilege!’, ‘Liberal metropolitan elite!’ in what is often little more than a naked attempt to shut down debate. In doing so, these groups frequently tarnish the movements they claim to represent, and have formed themselves into highly-rigid Weberian status groups.

Weber defined the status group as ‘a plurality of persons, who, within a larger group, successfully claim … a special social esteem’. They form based on characteristics common to their members (gender, race etc.). Social media has facilitated the formation of these groups around identities. According to Weber, ‘status groups must possess a common and distinctive style of life. This entails a shared language …’ Amongst social media status groups, language is monopolised and offence claimed by people either not using the terms they define or other status groups using them. For example, take this tweet after the suicide of transgender teenager, Leelah Alcorn, regarding the subsequent #TransLivesMatter campaign: ‘Can’t help but feel the #TransLivesMatter hashtag appropriates from Black activism in some kind of way … Given that Leela was white.’ Social media has changed the way deviant social movements operate by increasingly removing the idea of solidarity and instead placing the utmost importance on how people identify themselves against the ‘other’, as if  being in this group itself is an achievement.  Furthermore, integral enlightenment ideals of freedom of speech and expression are being eroded by online status groups who gain instrumental power by monopolising the means of debate.

This brings me onto my major point. Social media is so powerful as a means of regulation and conformity because it functions as a perfect example of Foucault’s ‘panopticism’. Foucault based this idea on Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’, where the inmates in a circular prison are constantly under surveillance from a central tower whilst being shut off from other felons. Foucault applied this to society itself, stating, ‘He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power’. By using social media, ‘people are incited constantly to work on themselves under a public gaze’. Sauter views this as a positive, linking it to ‘age-old practices of self-writing’ and saying ‘online self-writing can be framed as a means for people to navigate a path for right and wrong conduct in the context of increasingly complex social realities’. I disagree. The self-writings of old thinkers were a means to discover the self; in contrast when we use social media we conform to societal pressures and norms and modify how we portray ourselves accordingly. This bolsters a shallow, consumerist society where we are judged on our interests, pursuits and, most importantly, our looks. Concepts of gender and beauty standards are reinforced through putting ourselves under the constant gaze of others.

Gutman claims ‘Rousseau wrote “to create a self … in the face of a hostile social order”’ Some may argue that social media facilitates this through online communities, but as I have already argued, these communities become highly restrictive and panoptic themselves, leading even deviants from the norm simply to conform to a new orthodoxy. Often this orthodoxy is even less forgiving than mainstream norms, as deviant groups perceive themselves as being under threat and consequently form very strong social bonds and rules. Crucially, the space–time compression inherent in postmodernity finalises the panopticon; not only our present actions are under surveillance, but what we published in the past can also be viewed, and even just one retweet of a tweet reaches a ‘mean audience of 1000’. Effectively, anything public we do can be seen at anytime, anywhere by anyone. This exerts enormous pressure to self-regulate, and we have seen careers destroyed and resignations of senior public officials as a result of them not conforming.

All this creates a climate where the self is not enriched, but marketed. Marx argued that ‘the bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production … and with them the relations of society … [there is] a need of a constantly expanding market’. This is what has happened. We are living in ‘an age of advertisement’ … where we are advertising … ourselves (and our self-commodification).’ There are paid ‘personal branding’ gurus, LinkedIn encourages us to list our ‘skills’ to better sell ourselves on the labour market, we accumulate friends and followers as we would accumulate wealth and advertise this as a means of showing status. Businesses pay to advertise their products between updates from friends and family. As Harvey argued, neo-liberalism encourages ‘the commodification of everything’. This chimes with the idea that post-modernism is not a phenomenon in itself, but rather capitalism moving on from the commodification of products to the commodification of culture.

In my view, social media has not so much changed society, as amplified characteristics of postmodernity. While it has a power to do good by democratising news, postmodern traits of identity politics, the subsequent breaking of social solidarities and rampant individualism are intensified. A panoptic society where deviation is severely punished and the very foundations of the enlightenment thought are shaken is created. This is not liberation, but the movement of capitalism – which feeds off individualisation, increased competition and solidarity being destroyed – into our social world and culture. Finally, not only has our culture been commoditized, but we are increasingly moving towards the commodification of our very selves in this new, consumerist world. Perhaps we really are, in Marx’s words, ‘resolving personal worth into exchange value’.

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The Condition of the Left in England

'A grotesque mixture of Enlightenment Liberalism, One-Nation Conservatism and Socialism.' Skeptic and linguaphile.

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