November 3, 2019

A Profile and a Location

When Facebook first began gaining traction — when it was not many years from its original policy of being limited to students at elite universities — danah boyd characterized its popularity as white flight, a kind of digital suburbanization. “Those who deserted MySpace did so by ‘choice,’” she noted, “but their decision to do so was wrapped up in their connections to others, in their belief that a more peaceful, quiet, less-public space would be more idyllic.”

I grew up in a more or less all-white suburb, and as I got older I came to wonder how I ended up there and how things might have been different. It’s not that I blamed my parents for it or felt hard done by — I had the luxury of being bored most of the time and felt I could test out risky behavior on my own terms with little chance of facing real consequences. But eventually I began to notice how my horizons had been narrowed by that environment’s particular sense of freedom.

I wonder whether younger people today feel that way about the social-media “suburbs” their parents appeared to have chosen, the seemingly safe and ordered sense of “connection” that led inexorably to exhaustive commercial surveillance and bottomless epistemological vulnerability. Why did we move our lives and selves onto these platforms, even when their purveyors were in obvious bad faith? Why did we help create a society in which people would feel like they had no choice but to use them to format themselves, become specific kinds of quantifiable and trackable subjects? What did we think we were fleeing from to become complicit in that project?

To answer that, the concept of “negative solidarity,” outlined by philosopher Jason Read in this paper, is useful. He starts with Spinoza’s main political question — “why do the masses fight for their servitude as if it was salvation” — and then draws from a blog called Splintering Bone Ashes an answer in the form of “negative solidarity”:

an aggressively enraged sense of injustice, committed to the idea that, because I must endure increasingly austere working conditions (wage freezes, loss of benefits, declining pension pot, erasure of job security and increasing precarity) then everyone else must too.

I would describe the “connection” on most forms of social media as motivated by similar feelings. Because I must endure the Twitter “hellscape” and the “racist uncles” on Facebook, so must everyone else. Social media are often a more direct conduit to negative solidarity because we can drag each other on to these platforms, make each other complicit in posts, dictate to a degree what our closest friends see and think through them. They have become sites optimized for ressentiment and grievance and impulsive cruelty and pettiness.

When I explain my own social media profiles to myself, I’ll usually choose whatever excuse cuts off further questioning. Maybe I was bored at work. Maybe I felt like I was “missing out.” Maybe it once seemed like a way to play with identity, the way I played with being a “bad kid” in high school — tentatively and with low stakes. Learning ways to exploit the new tools for experimenting with self-mediatization online seemed optional until suddenly they seemed like coping strategies, pre-emptive protective measures, pleas for social legibility.

“It ranks among the most irritating features of the current relation between subject formation and digital media technology,” German media scholar Andreas Bernard writes in The Triumph of the Profile, “that the promises of freedom declaimed during the pioneering years of the internet continue to provide the ideological basis of all new devices and services (every Apple presentation and every expansion of the sharing culture is an echo of the ‘virtual community’), while the methods of individualization — as shown by the development of the profile concept — are no longer intended to scatter subjects but rather to arrest them.”

His book traces what he describes as “the recent transformation of police and criminological methods of identification into technologies of self-empowerment.” The idea of a data-driven psychological profile, he argues, began with the same purpose as other forms of biometric phrenology — to identify deviants and ascribe motives for criminality. “Just 50 years ago, all of these methods could have been said to generate individuality only in the sense that they made it possible to recognize deviance,” Bernard writes. “Today they are supposed to guarantee, for each of their users, a fulfilling sense of authentic subjectivity.”

That sense of an “authentic” life used to be given by virtue of the lack of social mobility — many were born into a particular place in society and it made no sense to authenticate something that was essentially unalterable. As Bernard suggests, to be singled out as in some way individual was to be marked for punishment. Over the 20th century, that changed. “The social imperative to be ‘unique’ and ‘authentic’ has become so powerful,” Bernard claims, “that even certain formats of registration, which had long been reserved for stigmatizing deviant subjects, are now being used to produce this uniqueness — the ‘profile’ as well as the tattoo, location technology as well as devices for measuring bodily functions.” He draws on sociologist Andreas Reckwitz, who theorized the “society of singularities” and noted how, in the past 25 years, “the technological complex of computers, digitality, and the internet has led to the ongoing fabrication of subjects, objects, and collectives as unique.” Yay! Let’s put everything on the blockchain!

This corresponds with a shift in consumerism away from mass consumption and toward mass personalization, and a shift in media away from the masses to niche audiences and interactivity. This culminates in structuring the self as a profile, as a performance of singularity. According to Reckwitz, the profile is how “the digital subject attempts to demonstrate his or her particular and nonexchangeable personality” — paradoxically by making it commensurate with every other personality, as formatted data. The “society of singularities” seemed to endow people with individuality to nullify the sense of personal freedom.

Before Gmail launched, I had, like most people I knew, a variety of email addresses that were based on puns or inside jokes, anything but my actual name for the most part. But when I secured an invite to create a Gmail account (you needed to know someone who had spare invites in the early days), I decided not to waste it on something transient and opaque. Email addresses (and Google itself) had by then become significant enough a part of everyday life’s business that it seemed tactically wise to claim my own name. If this was how it was going to be, I wanted to be out in front of it. In the process, I would help normalize it, negative-solidarity-style. I didn’t bother to regret that decision, even when it became clear that the Gmail business model entailed scanning every email you sent and received for information about your life to target advertising, to build up a portable profile of not just you but every user that could be used to sculpt their search results in general. It still felt good to be robhorning@gmail and not robhorning24.

As the “online” merged with the “real” in the early 2000s, it seemed prudent to have some solid purchase on it, some way to work it to our personal benefit in the “Web 2.0” pyramid scheme. This seemed easier than preventing the collapse of one space into the other, and it seemed to offer opportunities for first movers and early adopters without their having to understand much about what they were adopting. What is Twitter? Who knows, but best to sign up now in case it becomes something! (What is Ello? What is Peach? Who knows, but maybe we knew better by then.)

Bernard describes Facebook’s investment in “real identities” as an early competitive advantage. “According to [Zuckerberg’s] credo, ‘You can’t be on Facebook without being your authentic self!’ Of course,” Bernard argues, “the reasons for this insistence on authenticity were more commercial than philosophical, given that, from the outset, the business has been able to provide advertisers with a lucrative supply of real names and addresses.” Social mobility itself becomes lucrative and permissible only when the movements can be centrally tracked and become sites of speculation.

Facebook’s success marked a definitive break with early fantasies about the internet as a placeless place apart from ordinarily reality and its categories and exclusions. It emerged as fundamentally conservative, a way of containing the new possibilities of social mobility that the internet threatened to unleash as well as the possibilities for a more multifaceted or fluid personal identity. “Regarding the conception of humanity in digital culture and the disappearance of the early discourse about the multiple subject, however, this mantra of the ‘authentic self’ represents a threshold: the anonymous or disguised ego has given way to an ego that is readily identifiable.” The authentic self is the displayed self, the registered self, the performed self, the mediated self — anything but the private or ineffable self that we experience alone in our heads.

“A precondition for these imagined utopias of freedom” of the late 1990s, when the internet seemed to promise fluid identities on equal terms, “was of course the ‘placelessness’ of online communication,” Bernard argues. “It is precisely this emancipation from ascribed identities and positions that came to an abrupt end with the arrival of social media and smartphones.” Henceforth “all users now had to have fixed identities and positions: a ‘profile’ and a ‘location.’”

These can be comforting things to have. They occasionally make me feel like a “person of interest” to myself. They figure me as someone who has a discrete place in this world. But in some ways they make projects of discovery feel redundant. When I was younger, I was always looking to learn the back roads. I would drive around looking for shortcuts and frequently I would end up somewhat lost, turning 30-minute trips into hours-long excursions. This was often frustrating at the time, but in general there was something comforting in it, the idea that there were unknown places out there, even just miles from where I had lived my whole life, in a suburb where everything felt stagnant, predigested. Now I am constantly reminded of myself as a dot at the center of a map that is already complete, already self-sufficient.

It seems like some people still get that exploratory feeling from Wikipedia wormholes and proliferating tabs, from being lost in information as if it were a dimension. But it’s hard to escape the sense that all this information is being compiled elsewhere as information about us, regardless of how we synthesize it for our own purposes. My synthesis of information feels belated, beside the point of what data analytics is determining. My interiority is not the location of the profile.

Bernard notes that the German courts once argued against “forcefully registering people in their entire personality … and thus treating them like an object,” and that a constitutional directive ordered that “an ‘inner space’ must be preserved for the sake of the free and self-determined development of an individual’s personality.” But “in digital culture, this connection between ‘free development’ and a protected ‘inner space’ no longer exists; the development of the self is rather dependent on permanent media representations. One’s own person is understood as a publicly circulating simulacrum whose attractiveness and value have to be confirmed and reinforced in a continuous process.”

But the invocation of “digital culture” is misleading; the point is that there is no such thing, that culture in general has changed and all culture is effectively digital culture. In this culture the idea of uniqueness and individuality is turned against us, our seemingly private existential dilemmas come to us preformatted. “The promise of developing our own identities is now a more powerful weapon than the unification of our thoughts,” Bernard argues. “Commands … which were once issued by authorities are now desires that people satisfy without a second thought.” Bernard labels this as “preventative power, or the power of internalization. It ensures that data registries and conceptions of normal life no longer have to be established by external authorities but are, rather, collectively internalized.” That is, we have learned how to intuit social “commands” and automatically translate them into “desires.” Anything I think I know about my place in society I already experience as longing. Consumer society wants me to the extent I want things. Neoliberalism insists I be flexible and entrepreneurial, ever aspirational.

In his paper on negative solidarity, Read cites Jennifer Silva on why people don’t become politicized in response to hardship or evident injustice: “Rather than turn to politics to address the obstacles standing in the way of a secure adult life, the majority of the men and women I interview crafted deeply personal coming of age stories, grounding their adult identities in recovering from their painful pasts — whether addiction childhood abuse, family trauma, or abandonment — and forging an emancipated, transformed and adult self.” In Read’s view, this turn to resilience marks a third stage beyond the compensations of consumption and production/participation. “Personal worth is found not through what one can buy, or even what one can sell of oneself,” he argues, “but in the sense of self-transformation or responsibility for one’s own condition.”

Given how inescapably networked and connected most people are, stories of “self-transformation” are inherently mythic distortions. It makes sense that stories of overcoming would become comforting fantasies to share, and that widespread private pain would become a basis for a kind of class identity. Social media express the structural determinations that condition our lives, the networks of connections that dictate our reality, while offering a means of consolation, a ready-made format for expressing a kind of defiant transcendence of the condition that social media’s very existence speaks to.

Maybe there was never an alternative to embracing our profiles. They are always being constructed anyway behind our backs, whether we wanted them or not, based on browser footprints and phone numbers and other unique identifiers built into mobile phones. Attaching our name to it voluntarily may at least supply the illusion of control. We would have had to have learned to distrust what we wanted well before we generally had the capacity to understand why. Being raised in the suburbs prepared me for the exact opposite.