The Fallacy of Social Media

July 25, 2011 § 5 Comments

I. Intro

The age of mass media ended when its most avid users converted to producing representations of the social world themselves. Whatever your semantic preference is in association with “mass” and the media, an individual seems somewhat preferable to an atom in a mass. But the emphasis in the beginning on “most avid users” shall be my starting point to argue for a fallacy in the term “social media,” in spite of the many accepted benefits of this development, which include the basis and readership of this post and this blog. The underlying thesis here is that those avid users of mass media were and are the first to jump at the even more enhanced possibilities of the new social media – multiplying their options of further connections endlessly.

The point does not need emphasis that social media are a new social formation on the basis of the widespread integration of electronic media in everyday life. As the communications scholar Mark Deuze puts it, a “life lived in, rather than with, media” marks a turning point in our perception of subject and object, in our concepts of communication and its role in social life (“Media life” Media, Culture & Society. January 2011: 137). But what are the implications of this turn in the use of media for those social relations (with people) if such relations are literally managed in similar ways that large corporations use to “address” or “target” their customers, contacts and partners? Are we only socializing with strangers, rubbing shoulders with giants, and crowdsourcing the wisdom of the world?

The electronic media revolution has certainly transformed information from hard copy to carbon copy to endless copy of a copy of a copy … at your fingertip. Welcome to the network, stage 2.0. Or we have reached phase 4 of hyperreal accumulation, the circulation of value in its pure form as the option for further value creation. Well a decade into this transformation of information into a purely circulating value, it’s time to ask the nasty question. What is social about “social media”? Where does the value of information intersect with social relations? And finally the nasty critical question: Does that transformation really change a thing?

II. What’s Social about “Social Media”?

The notion that media are now somehow social is interesting for the fact that it thrives on the obvious distinction from an age of “asocial media” – the dark ages of mass media. In hindsight, the last efforts of the mass media moguls to capture the attention of millions with ever more scrupulous methods of investigation to provide titillating daily fare (News of the World), will look like the final showdown between two very different media ecologies. “Thank you & Goodbye.”

But what is asocial about this waning age of mass media? Aren’t there also people working day by day in newsrooms, editorial boards, in front and behind cameras, microphones and anchor desks? Aren’t journalists digging into the fabric of social relations in order to find out what makes the world tick? Isn’t the benefit of having no personal interest in some other person’s matters yet reporting about them a great service to a public of viewers, readers, and listeners?

Mass media in their form of organization are heirs to the form of industrial production popularized in the nineteenth century when muscle power was replaced with steam engines, bureaucracy and accountancy became management, and centrally managed paths of distribution optimized the principle of scale to maximize profit. The mass in mass media remained a managerial abstraction for the purpose of reached an undifferentiated number of people with at a minimal cost for the greatest possible profit. Even by statistical analysis of audiences, popularized at the beginning of the twentieth century, the analysis of audience behavior and preferences remained rough and fairly undifferentiated.Through Gallup polls and similar measures, public opinion became a chart, a graph, a sum total of heterogeneous expressions. In his study News for All, Thomas Leonard succinctly remarks that “reducing the public to a chart may be the most arresting change made by the press of the twentieth century” (1995: 221). Markers like age, gender, place and income are only four out of thousands of possible variables, in socio-psychologic profiling of human behavior. But just because audiences fell into more or less finely marked socio-psychological clusters, there is little reason to believe that they were anything less differentiated than people are today. The fallacy of mass media then, entailed the conception of an audience that was addressed as a mass, because the channels of distribution followed the rule of scale.

III. The Value of Information in Social Relations

This economic principle of scale, in turn, yielded higher profits to investors (or moguls) than to their employees. Yet there are just as many social relations in mass media organizations and their environs as in any other bee hive of more than ten individuals. And on the other side of the screen, audiences are a lot more diverse and interactive with media content, then manager may be willing to admit. Against the abstraction of a mass, “social media” thrive on a positive connotation of media exposure, because now these media are no longer perceived as agents of a “false consciousness” – consumerist ideology, capitalism, patriarchy – but retreat behind the creative potential given to anyone willing to expose him or herself. But this euphemism of “social media” as a positive outlet of creative (self-)production hinges on the fallacy to mistake a form of production in the sense of value maximization (4th phase of simulation) with a form of interaction, which was already part of the mass media age.

While production remains within a value maximizing idiom, couched in neo-liberal jargon of flexibilization, interaction through media messages is and has been part of public communication ever since the first printed newsletters. We are not discovering that media are now suddenly social, but we are beginning to realize that media were always used to structure interaction among people. Only on the basis of a statistical abstraction like an audience, which emerged simultaneously with a particular regime of production, does this mechanism of media in interaction retreat behind the managerial logic of maximizing profits.

“Social media” platforms and similar reloaded enterprises are not opposed to this logic, but have modified it for the endless options of the network age: Consume at “no cost.” Yes, it’s free, it’s really free. Now, even from an amateur’s perspective on economics that sounds pretty revolutionary. In light of the development of network media this logic, however, loses much of its magic. Driven by enterprising investors and smart programmers within a quite short time, free simply means to acquire the right in return to buy more of each consumers time for exposure to advertising. It a trade-off between offering a free resource in exchange for your time. Likewise, the principle of scale (number of users, number of links, page views, etc.) continues to drive the development of these media (or provoke a sudden 404 error).

The hypothetical question today is: What if Google started charging a dollar for every search you perform, ten for its mail service, fifty for access to its online book collections? What if (excuse the Zizekian syntax), facebook started to charge a 100 dollar monthly subscription fee? 500 billion times $100 should yield more venture capital than an uncertain IPO. The consolation is of course, that such rates are far from realistic but that does not mean that they are not possible. Ironically, the age of social media has been accompanied by even fiercer concentrations and conglomeration than the old age of mass media. There used to be hundreds of newspaper companies (!) in the United States, putting out well over 1,300 different papers. Canceling subscriptions for daily papers is just one result of the ubiquity of information circulating “for free” online. Yet in this logic of free production, free circulation and free access, there is as yet no equivalent of exchange for those engaged in the actual production – except shorter attention spans. If there is something social about these new media, it’s their “socialized cost” to everyone, which in turn drives the necessity to become a producer of oneself in certain respects (Castells: “mass self-communication“).

The remodeling of the entire information ecosystem (aka the digital divide) creates an adverse network effect. Those engaged in networks – per se a social affair – profit from online networks a lot more than those, formerly not acquainted with such forms of technology-dependent private communication (ie. letter writing). Such indirect costs of media change – you could speak of social externalities of media change – are rarely measured in account sheets of individual enterprises since they can only figure in the productivity and creativity balance sheet of a given society/community/people-who-hang-out-together-and-do-something-cool. Whole areas of the world disappear from perception once connectivity becomes the gold standard of communication.

Map of communcative ties on Facebook (TM)

In a perceptive article, Harald Mahrer points out that “online social networks” change little about the power of social networks. If power is understood as the product of resources and social relations, so called social networks exemplify only that relations as such can only become a resource once they are applied to some concrete task. But the value of the “social network” is of first of all created as an option for further connections. The value creation of the network is not its extensiveness but its eventual application to an enterprise, a task of venture. The strong ties of networks (family, company, organization) and the weak ties of “social networks”  also differ in their dependence on technical network, tools of contact management and the statistical abstraction of converging spheres of interest.

While the technical network is still comparable to the grid of telephone lines (although enhanced, decentralized, accelerated), a network of statistical coincidences is a mathematical chimera. “You bought shoes, you might be interested in shoe laces.” What a surprise. However, I might not be interested in hiking shoes for a trip  to Absurdistan, savoring shoe-de poo puffs on a strawberry parfait or commit my savings to Shoemaker Financial (whatever their merits are).

These random examples just illustrate that semantic competence is a minimum requirement to understand the power and limits of network coincidence. But adversely, this competence creates what I call “search term inequality.” The  dominance of search as a tool to gather knowledge (aggregate form of socialized information) puts power in those hands, which tamper with outmoded forms of storage, of confidential data and eventually those who distinguish between a “social” and a “symbolic” relation.

Information is neither raw nor free. If the age of mass media has taught us a lesson on the benefits of free information, then it is the embeddedness of such raw data in social interaction. The chat about the latest news draws people together, strengthens and maintains ties. The confidential transmission of non-public material creates symbolic ties that last. The dream of the crowd as a corrective to clientelism is charming but underestimates the benefits of such ties for anyone involved in fostering symbolic relations through the exchange of links, recommendations and resources. Tapping into the acknowledged trust of close ties as a marketing instrument through free access creates “the consumer” as a volatile object of exchange between data brokers. While feeding the private exchange of information (in public), the symbolic relation starts serving the logic of scale. For whom?

IV. Redrawing the Boundaries in the Convergence Age

The age of convergence culture melts the cultural, technological, and social divisions of information and interaction into a global information ecosystem, to which some still refer as the Internet. In this ecosystem, many forms of information such as text, music, images, and video are no longer separated by different technologies, as in the age of print, radio or television but are now represented and enabled by the same digital technology. However, although we can access these forms of information by a click on a link, does not mean that the cultural conventions used to create or communicate about these forms have molded into a homogeneous bubble of identical information. Rather the opposite occurs. Now, that so many forms of public communication online have become equally accessible, the boundaries between these forms are redrawn in interaction. The network society today is marked by a struggle about the definitions of these boundaries.

In this transitory phase between the age of mass media and the new age of network media, some forms of public communication are only accessible as a form of practice: blogging, twittering, “social networking” are all modeled after existing cultural forms of expression, but are digitally remixed and altered for the demands of the network age. The benefit of such practices is that they create continuity in times of change. They work through repetition and gradual adaptation. The repeated transfer of existing cultural forms to new contexts enables us to cope with rapid change and development. Practices create a new certainty through simple repetition; they create continuity even if they are illogical, irrational or haphazard.

If social media mean anything, than it’s the realization, that practices of media use and production were never an “asocial” affair. The crucial difference between symbolic social relations and “social relations” as an outcome of statistical coincidence is that you can forget your best friend’s birthday but you can’t avoid the “Happy Birthday”-button on your control screen for social management. Insisting on the redrawing of boundaries in the convergence age is an urge against the unquestioned inclusive logic of networks. Just because there are cables between your home and my desk, I never thought of calling you. But, who knows, maybe one day we run into each other in … and realize, we were living next door. Pure chance. Years ago, the German super-sociologist and systems theorist  Niklas Luhmann coined the iconic phrase: “You may be dealing with systems all day in your office, but once you go out into the street, there are only people.” And these people may be enjoying a chance acquaintance. Just for this very moment.

Too many options and not enough focus?

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