Tuesday, August 16, 2011

dividuals and social media; premediated identity

From Digital Suicide and the Biopolitics of Leaving Facebook, by Tero Karppi in Transformations 20:

Karppi discusses social media in terms of "premediation," which is not clearly defined. But one can get a sense of what it might mean in this example: Maybe the most evident example that shows the premediation in actions happens when one tries to deactivate one’s Facebook account.... Not only the present situation of choosing to confirm the disconnection is mediated but also the future is premediated by showing a set of pictures of friends “who will miss you” after deactivating the account. Here premediation relies heavily on the affects created by profile pictures and names of the user’s Facebook friends. Notably these images are not limited to profile pictures but also posted pictures where the user appears tagged with a friend or a sibling may be shown.

One cannot stress enough the importance of the posted image next to the profile pictures among friends who are said to miss one after disconnection since it leads towards the logics of how Facebook works and also what many of the users who are afraid of losing their privacy dread: it is the content the users themselves create that is used for different purposes which escape their original intentions. Entering to the time of premediation means also entering to a time of databases and data mining, where any piece of data may be accessed and used at any given point of time (Savat 52-53). It is here where the subjectivity of the user starts to unfold. When entering social networks we move from being individuals towards the being of what Deleuze calls “dividuals.” In social networks we become codes, images, posts that cannot be reduced to our offline presence.That is, the divide bewteen a "real" offline self and an online self that merely represents it is untenable -- online and offline behavior blend seamlessly in elaborating an identity that persists across online and offline spaces. Another way of putting that is that the self is augmented by online behaviors, not merely represented. The significance, according to Karppi and his sources, is that the self, far from preceding the online representation of itself, is actually constructed according to the infrastructure established by digital networks. (I've been arguing something similar for a while, that social media invite ongoing self-fashioning, worsening the sense of ontological crisis brought on by modernity.) Subjectivity is "premediated," preformatted to suit information-processing needs. How we are processed then feeds back into the self's ongoing construction, determining what information it sees, who sees it, what sort of recognition it receives, and so on. The term dividual is a kind of shorthand for a constructed self that is not entirely within one's own control -- a quantified self that comes alive in how the data is parsed in technological systems, not a self that can exist autonomously.

We begin to exist simultaneously in different databases, information banks and other technomaterial assemblages. This, in fact, is what many of the Facebook users fear and loathe: their data being used, distributed and exploited by third parties such as marketing ventures or central intelligence agencies. As Genosko writes, “offline individual” is merely one actualisation of the dividual because “nobody totally corresponds to their data double or silhouette” (101). The catch is that after logging in to a social network service there really is no return to the offline individuality. Even if we deactivate our account we remain in the databases of Facebook as a potential resource for exploitation.

Lost in the somewhat obvious point that Facebook exploits our "sharing" via partnerships with data miners and advertisers and so on is the more interesting claim that a particular identity is realized for ourselves through that process, one that threatens to become more significant from whatever one we might be more actively constructed for ourselves in the moment, or in other sorts of networks. This is different that the "digital divide" fallacy; the problem is not that the online self is "inauthentic" and the offline self is real; it's that the self derived from the data processing of our digital traces doesn't correspond with our active efforts to shape an offline/online hybrid identity for our genuine social ties. That identity gets usurped by the "dividual" one generated for commercial and social-control purposes, and reintrojected into our lives by virtue of the ways institutions can distribute that dividual self in social networks.

That is a terrible explanation of what I mean. Let me try again: we are actively using social media to create and share a self, one we think is consistent and autonomous, not dependent on the medium itself for its genuineness. But this data we generate online is combined with other digital traces we generate unknowingly, and then reprocessed by institutions and companies to create our demographic "dividual" self -- the self relevant to marketeers and the state. This construct then guides what we see online (through recommendation engines and tailored pages and filtering and so forth), reinforcing that dividual construct -- our active identity begins to merge with the one that emerges from how our data is processed in the media we use. It also shapes what about us presented to others in our networks. Others are as overwhelmed as we are and just as subject to be manipulated by selective filtering. All this is possible because we don't own the networks or the filters; the companies that do own social media (an unprecedentedly powerful means of public identity construction, mediation, and sustenance) want to create us as subjects that suit their ends. (Is that at all clearer?)

Social media are mirrors and projectors, but we don't control the images that result in either case, though we are led to believe that we do. So not only do we chase some illusion of a final, authentic, autonomous self through broadcasting with these media, the very process of broadcasting steers us toward elaborating a self that has less to do with our intentions and more to do to formatting ourselves ("premediating") for more efficient processing. We turn ourselvs into useful data, but it's not necessarily useful for us, even if we are aggressive about using social media for self-branding purposes -- itself a dubious practice with regard to escaping reflexivity and engaging with some sort of "natural" self. But if there is no natural self to discover, then the reflexivity just reflects the always present alienation that derives from being constructed by our social environment; the subjective experience of how our subjectivity is constructed is to desperately try to direct the construction process ourselves after the fact. Self-consciousness is a residual aftereffect of being constituted as a self by outside forces that presents itself to consciousness as preceding the fact. In other words, the things we seize upon to construct our identity have already constructed us; that's why they are ready at hand.

Lazzarato makes this point in "The Machine," an essay Karppi cites. Lazzarato is talking about TV and voting, but his (somewhat overstated) points hold for all social media, I think:
On television, you are always in danger of being trapped in the dominant meanings and subjectivations, no matter what you say or do. You speak, but you run the risk of saying nothing of what really matters to you. All the enunciative devices in our democratic societies -- surveys, marketing, elections, political and union representation, etc. -- represent more or less sophisticated variations on this division of the subject whereby the subject of enunciation must be reflected in the subject of the statement. As a voter, you are called upon to give your views as a subject of enunciation, but you are simultaneously spoken as the subject of the statement since your freedom of expression amounts to nothing more than a choice from among possible options which have already been codified and standardized. The election, like surveys, marketing, and political and union representation, presupposes a consensus on issues on which you haven’t actually been consulted. The more you express yourself and speak and the more you interact with the machine of communication, the more you abandon what you actually wanted to say, because the communicational devices disconnect you from your own collective arrangements of enunciation and draw you into other collective arrangements (television, in this instance).

Karppi then asks a good question: "If our every action in Facebook is premediated and controlled by pre-emptive strategies, for which we ourselves provide the means by sharing content and information, how are we ever able to disconnect from these services?" Implicit in the question is the notion that we become dependent on the preformatted selves these services give to us and distribute in our name (or as our name). The rest of the essay deals with services that allow for "digital suicide" -- these seem like peripheral phenomena to me, stunts, even if they do "introduce different potential ways to exist in social networks." These amount to being present as a nonpresence, static and thus generating no usuable data.

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