How connection becomes division


There is a strong tendency to sentimentalize the idea of a team: the personal dedication and sacrifice, the coming together as one to achieve the seemingly impossible, the whole being more than the sum of its parts, the humility of leaving ego behind for true camaraderie, the limitless loyalty toward teammates. These sort of locker-room clichés have also filtered into the business world, which champions teamwork as a noble expression of a good office culture, where workers commit to one another and to the leadership, collaborating effectively and efficiently in a harmonious division of labor.

This sentimentality about teamwork should not distract us from the fundamental organizing principle of teams: winning. Forming a team implies choosing an enemy. Beating that enemy redeems the personal sacrifices. The idea of the team under capitalism rationalizes the otherwise suspect and potentially destabilizing notion of cooperation by situating it within a larger framework of competition. A team is a collective subject that corresponds to capitalist organization, pre-empting the kinds of collectivity that might go against its grain.

In the process of “connecting the world,” social media platforms tend to use rhetoric of community, openness, and inclusion, as if all kinds of connection were ultimately the same, and everyone might benefit equally from the privilege of being networked. But the tangled mass of social connections traced in networks don’t necessarily resolve into communities, let alone global villages. Instead, platforms have provided new arenas for competition, galvanizing the organization of more and more of society into explicit sides, foregrounding our various affiliations. Communication seems more competitive than ever, and having some sort of coordinated group behind you to echo or amplify what you say, and defend you from its fallout, seems more and more expedient.

Social media are often discussed as means of self-branding or individual identity construction, but they also allow for, if not encourage, the formation of teams, positioned to seize upon the way being online can gamify everyday life. Attention is often driven by antagonism; attacking enemies and praising friends is a quick way to boost your mentions, as is preaching to the choir. Algorithmic filtering of feeds can enhance our sense of belonging to a particular side, filtering what we see through a matrix of social approval.

Metrics on social media provide a scoreboard, and a clear incentive for certain kinds of teamwork: whether it’s mobbing the mentions of perceived enemies, or pushing up subscriber counts for one’s preferred celebrities, or podding on Instagram to game the platform’s algorithms and boost an influencer’s profile. These gamified modes of communication multiply the means by which friend-enemy distinctions can be emphasized, traced, and enforced. They make it so that any time we express ourselves, it can be construed as a demand for or a demonstration of loyalty. They embroil us in the illiberal vision of the world articulated by Nazi political theorist Carl Schmitt, who argued that there is no politics without the friend–enemy distinction, no pursuit of a common good, only the triumph of our side and the humiliation of theirs. From this point of view, tolerance is weakness and pluralism is a kind of dilution, a weakening of resolve.

This week, Vicky Osterweil addresses how YouTube and its specific star system creates proto-political fan communities as teams. The distant intimacy of the vlogging format and its constant churn of content raises the stakes of viewership, turning the ways viewers vicariously hang out with someone famous into a darker form of affiliation.

Robert Minto examines how political polarization leads to viewing the enemy side as robotic, a faceless mass of automatons mindlessly reacting and repeating received ideas. This contrasts, though, with the lived experience of protest, where participation rituals don’t eliminate agency so much as transfer it to a collective subject capable of a different kind of politics.

And Tom Buchanan looks at fitness boot camps as convening a sense of team spirit in the war against ourselves. They rationalize the idea of military esprit du corps to seem to be able to sell it on demand, but the disciplinary regimes have more to do with self-optimization than any shared notion of what is worth fighting for.

It is tempting to see illiberalism as inherent to technological development itself, as in theories of modernity that highlight its irrational rationality. Tech companies set out to rationally connect the world but spread division and enmity through that same process. It may be that rationalized and programmatically executed friendship is just a way to systematize hatred and exclusion. But there are alternative ways to imagine communities outside the search for unifying enemies. And there are different ways to view the world then as an endless war of allegiance.


“Like and Subscribe,” by Vicky Osterweil

“Clone Wars,” by Robert Minto

“Enemy Bodies,” by Tom Thor Buchanan

Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s next installment, POSITIVITY, featuring solarpunk, joy in collectivity, gamifying sociality, and a theory of round-boys.