In 2004, I analyzed the experience of posting short messages online. I used my mobile phone to post ‘anything that grabbed my attention’ directly to a web site built using a customized version of blogger.com’s platform.
And so, I started posting little snapshots of my life, made of short sentences, in real time. Today, the world has a dedicated platform for this type of messaging, Twitter.com, and such messages are referred to as Tweets. Back then, I called it verbography – verbal photography. Roland Barthes once wrote that a photograph is unique since it is not only a representation of an object, but also a testament that the depicted object really existed. In this way, the photograph confirms the existence of the object but also destabilizes it by taking it out of the present and into an unknown future, when the photo will be watched (in Camera Lucida).
Once we know we are being photographed we alter our stance; we want the camera to capture our real self, which Barthes calls our “air”. This reflexive posturing means what we see in the photograph is ‘neither subject nor object, but a subject who feels he is becoming an object’ – a person who pretends to be himself, as he would like others to see him. When we take a photo of ourselves, we try to capture an image of the present that would appeal to future observers. With the rising popularity of social media, verbography is no longer an exercise in media theory but a popular activity. Sharing trivial personal events in real time, using visual or verbal snap shots, is the zeitgeist of contemporary capitalist culture.
The development of humanity’s preferred mode of online expression is also interesting – in the beginning there were communities made of personal web sites (Geocities, Angelfire), then came MySapce and Facebook profile pages, and now we have Twitter – a one-man broadcasting platform. The amount of time needed to update one’s online persona is becoming shorter and shorter, and the quality of information individuals decide to share is becoming more and more trivial. If it’s current, it’s interesting.
Over the last 250 years, humans in industrial society have been gradually slipping from being into having – human fulfillment is no longer judged by what one is, but by what one has. The rise of participatory mass media – technology that allows individuals to broadcast messages to a large audience – brings about a new shift — the transition from having into appearing.
Needless to say, these phenomena are not new. Human history is full of greedy and conspicuous individuals. Modern technology intensifies these inclinations and turns them into key social characteristics of capitalist society as a whole. With technology, the need to confirm one’s existence by appearing, by being watched, becomes acute. In capitalist society, individuals relate to themselves as objects, and evaluate every social interaction as a commercial exchange. Individuals compete in the “personality market” and need to constantly reaffirm their social status in the face of perceived threats. Technology facilitates communication, and by doing so it makes us feel more and more threatened. The more ‘connected’ we are, the bigger our awareness of (and dependence on) others and their opinions.
In a recent article by The Economist, a member of Pew Research Center notes that ‘people who are members of online social networks are not so much “networking” as they are “broadcasting their lives to an outer tier of acquaintances….”‘. And in doing so, they ‘may be advertising themselves more efficiently. But they still have the same small circle of intimacy.’ And so, our sense of self depends on feedback from a growing number of people. Naturally, this increases conformity. This conformity may hide itself behind a “long tail” of interests and opinions, but it does not undermine the basic tenet of late capitalism – consumerism. The web gives us the freedom to choose which market segment we would like to be part of, and build our ‘identity’ accordingly.
The flip side is that by doing so, we are becoming easier targets to marketers who can sell us exactly what we need and make sure we always have something to spend our money on. Every interest we have, no matter how revolutionary or non-commercial, becomes the foundation of a new market segment, automatically and efficiently. Of course, technology is merely a tool, and it is possible to use it to transcend the expectations of society and become ‘free’… but that’s something we’ll have to discuss some other time.