Foucault and social media: the call of the crowd

This is the final instalment in a three-part series on social media and ‘subjectivation’ (Michel Foucault’s term for the self-construction of identity). Part one discusses how the open commons ideal of social media creates a ‘virtual Panopticon’ effect that impacts on the psychology of users. I argue that the awareness of being watched and implicitly judged by the material we post online (including likes, shares, and comments) leads us to unconsciously aspire to please and/or impress a certain crowd, and to select content accordingly.

Part two deepens the analysis by reflecting on author Peggy Orenstein’s experience of Twitter. Orenstein’s awareness of the crowd spurred her to work even harder to craft a positive identity. This reflects a common response on the part of social media prosumers. Users who are able to channel and utilize the anxiety produced by the virtual Panopticon seize on the positive aspects of their identity and amplify them to the nth degree. This is what I call ‘creative self-affirmation’.

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Forget Farmville and World of Warcraft. Creative self-affirmation is the most popular game online. We play this game whenever we select material to share with friends or craft messages to frame our posts. The name of the game is to present oneself, via one’s tweets, posts, likes, comments, and shares, in the light in which one aspires to be viewed. This essentially amounts to affirming the things that one loves in such a way that the love one brings to the world is reflected in one’s online activity. The rules of the game are simple: [1] share only what you love or what resonates with you; [2] pay attention to the feedback you receive from the crowd and modify your posts accordingly; [3] don’t stray too far from the truth. Be creative but don’t be phoney.

This last point is crucial. It is easy to fabricate an identity online. We do this when we create avatars on SecondLife or player characters in World of Warcraft. We create fictional personas drawn from our dreams and imaginings – personas that may have little or no connection with our real world self. Creative self-affirmation is different. Instead of fabricating an identity, it involves creatively affirming key aspects of your person – those aspects that you consider valuable, virtuous and beautiful – while editing out your weaknesses and deficiencies.

Creative self-affirmation is an artistic activity, it is true. But like all great art, it has as much to do with truth as with fiction. It starts with your sense of who you really are. If your posts, tweets, comments, shares, and likes do not reflect who you really are (or who you believe yourself to be, at least), you are playing the game incorrectly. The point is to affirm your singular potential. You need to seize on your inner awesome and put it before the crowd.

Psychologist Sherry Turkle explores the threats and challenges of creative self-affirmation in her book, Alone Together (2011). Here we meet ‘Audrey’, a sixteen year old American student with a sizeable social media footprint. Audrey is aware that what she puts online is a performance of a kind. She describes her Facebook identity as ‘a little twin on the internet’ that she constantly tinkers with and reshapes in response to feedback. Turkle’s account of Audrey’s behaviour captures the back and forth dynamic of self-creation online. ‘Audrey tries our a “flirty” style. She gets a good response from Facebook friends, and so she ramps up the flirtatious tone. She tries out an “ironic, witty” tone in her wall posts. The response is not so good, so she retreats’ (AT 192).

The level of engagement that Audrey enjoys with her peers online is relatively shallow. But for a young person preparing to dive into life’s possibilities, the shallow end of the social pool is a good place to start. Thanks to the internet, Audrey is able to affirm and develop facets of her person that she might not feel comfortable unleashing in face to face environments. The virtual realm provides a swathe of contexts in which she can explore her predilections without getting into trouble. Turkle, for instance, describes how Audrey used her Italian MySpace account to explore a flirtatious side to her personality that she wouldn’t readily reveal in public. Audrey was introduced to Italian MySpace by a group of exchange students, who helped her set up the account and encouraged her to use it, despite her minimal Italian. Soon Italian men were sending her messages, complementing her on her flattering picture and profile (which Audrey admits bore only ‘a glancing relationship to the truth’). This might seem risky or creepy were it not for the fact that the gentlemen in question were on the far side of the world. Audrey treated it like a game and used the experience to explore a part of herself that, at the time, she kept happily compartmentalized from her everyday person. Turkle comments: ‘Real life provides little space for consequence-free identity play, but Italian MySpace provides a great deal’. Audrey’s take: ‘[S]ince I figure that my real information isn’t on there, and they’re in Italy and I’m in America, why not? It’s fun to step outside yourself. You can’t really do this with your friends in real life’ (AT 193).

‘Never stop sculpting your own statue’, the philosopher Plotinus said. On social media, we are constantly sculpting our statue before a live crowd, changing our methods and approaches depending on how the crowd responds to the work in progress.

What about engaging with multiple crowds? The simultaneous engagement with multiple crowds (which is more or less impossible in the offline world) is a genuine challenge in the age of social media. We engage with multiple crowds all the time by logging into different services and jumping back and forth between them. Right now, I have WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn open as tabs in my browser. Before I post on any of these sites, I take a moment to reflect on the nature of the crowd that I am reaching out to engage, and whether or not the content that I plan to deliver is appropriate for them. Audrey faces a greater challenge on account of number and diversity of services she uses. Turkle explains:

‘Each day Audrey expresses herself through a group of virtual personae. There are Facebook and Italian MySpace profiles; there are avatars in virtual worlds, some chat rooms, and a handful of online games. Identity involves negotiating between all of these and the physical Audrey’ (AT 194).

The real challenge presented by social media is not privacy, it is psychological integrity. Social media leads us to cultivate a prismatic self, where different segments of identity are cultivated separately from one another. Each social media service facilitates a different kind of subjectivation. As Turkle observes, ‘the site supports the self’, so we are able to develop multiple personas that we can put aside and return to at the push of a button (AT 194). But how many facets of the self can you sustain before your identity starts to fragment? Different people have a different capacity for creative self-affirmation. Some people can sustain tensions and contradictions within their sense of identity. Others require a clear sense of psychological integrity. For a fragile personality, the pressures of maintaining a prismatic self can be overwhelming. Such users would be best to stick to Facebook, which enables us to cultivate a single identity and disseminate it across a range of systems using Facebook Connect.

Where there are opportunities, there are risks and dangers too. Social media is no exception. The plurality of social services enables us to engage with diverse crowds, and this gives us the opportunity to creatively affirm diverse aspects of our person. But too much creative self-affirmation promotes a prismatic and potentially fragmented self, which some people find distressful. Affirming the richness and diversity of one’s potential is a good thing. But we need to maintain a sense of psychological integrity.

Foucault’s idea of the art of life is useful here. We should think of the self as a work of art in progress. Aristotle argued that works of art involve multiple elements. There is the substance, or stuff, the artwork is made out of; the form, style, or genre, that defines the nature of the work; the method the artist applies to create the work; and the context, or social situation, for which the artwork is intended, which impacts on the nature of the work as well. To create a work of art, an artist must bring these elements together and combine them in a coherent whole.

Most works of art involve contradictions. This need not be a bad thing; indeed, in the case of great works of art, it is a good thing. Consider Duchamp’s urinal, which confounded artistic form by insisting that the situation in which the artwork is displayed (the gallery) is what defines it as an artwork. A work of art can have an integrity despite its contradictions. Indeed, thanks to innovators like Duchamp, we have come to accept that art should involve contradictions. For artists like Ai Wei Wei and Damien Hirst, contradictions are part of the integrity of the artwork itself.

Foucault would recommend an artistic approach to managing the contradictions in our online and offline lives. We should imagine ourselves as works of art in progress. Works of art are not simple things; they pull together substances, practices, and social worlds. So do you. If you use social media creatively, you can use it to explore different aspects of your person, your potentials and singularities. If you feel fragmented, follow Walt Whitman’s lead:

‘Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes’ Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass (1855)

Comments

  1. Justin Tauber says:

    Another interesting piece, Tim.

    I found this particularly intriguing: ” The rules of the game are simple: [1] share only what you love or what resonates with you; [2] pay attention to the feedback you receive from the crowd and modify your posts accordingly; [3] don’t stray too far from the truth. Be creative but don’t be phoney.”

    I’d like to hear more about the way rules normalise and sanitise personalities and desires. Isnt Audrey’s strategy of fragmentation a form of resistance, rather than just a symptom?

  2. I agree to a degree. But at the same time it feels like the internet allows people to emulate a completely socially constructed lifestyle. They get to mirror the unrealistic imagery of magazines and television. They can perpetuate those qualities in others on the same social network. Creating another telecommunications format that can homogenize the people. People are meta-gaming identity in such a way that puts so much emphasis on superficial qualities. What about identity being shaped by real world things like discipline, practice and experience?

    What you are, what you do and what you believe makes you who you are. I’d rather be an accurate reflection of what my ACTUAL experiences are. To be what I am rather than say what I kind of am. We are vastly complex beings who are so much more than we can ever quantify, twitter or even be conscious of. People who embody a unique experience on this planet are more enriching to life than a person who is maximizing internet popularity in order to develop a sense of self.

    We can give enough credit to an aware adult, who may have had enough life experiences to develop a strong personal identity, who then wants to practice the art of public personas. I can see that as a way of maximizing one’s already established interests and qualities. However, there are many young people who’s values and focus are shifting towards a more popular approach to behaviors. They are still in the period of their life in which they are doing some major self construction. Facebook and the like function as strong social reinforcement.

    People can retreat to their e-personas at practically anytime and practically anywhere. When a situation is uncomfortable a girl can pull out her iphone and choose not to be present to where her body actually is. People can be selective with their realities. Constantly tapped into the social network. Never truly alone with the kind of privacy that shapes individuals and not herds. Our country needs individuals who can construct their own realities from personal experiences and reflection. Not those who will choose to support a presidential candidate because it is status quo. Those who choose not to ruffle the feathers of society create a static growth.

    • Great set of insights here! I appreciate the concerns you raise – I really do. The generation who have grown up digital do tend to over rely on social media for identity formation, and conversely assume that identity offline is as malleable as subjectivation online. I wonder, though, how much of this is simply youthful naivety that will be corrected (as ever it is) through the shocks and blows of life. As for the ease with which people can retreat into the online world: is this any more problematic than gaming? I know I did a hell of lot of gaming a a teenager, and in retrospect, it was a very important period for me. Certainly, there are dangers there, as Turkle’s research suggests, but then it is the job of psychologists to identify dangers: it ought not surprise us that there are a few.

      Ultimately, what interests me are the practices and attendant psychological dynamics that underlie the process of identity formation online. With respect to your points, I’d suggest that it is only once we properly understand what people do when they create themselves online that we can intervene effectively in the less desirable outcomes and effects associated with the process.

      As Spinoza didn’t say (but is often quoted as having said): ‘Do not weep, do not wax indignant. Understand’.

  3. What else is there after Whitman? Of course, after reading all three pieces on the on-line self, I am still in the midst of considering. Thank you.

  4. Thank you for 3 accessible thought provoking articles. I am attracted greatly by social media and so am interested in what it is saying about me but how it can be used effectively.

    • Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed them.

      If you’d like to dive deeper into the question of how social media is changing us, I recommend the series on social media as gift culture :-)

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