During a week when the UK Online Harms bill starts to see the light of day, here’s a welcome critique of social media censorship by Pilipets and Paasonen.
In A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media I write more generally about the onset of experience capitalism. Here’s a link to a short piece by Cynthia B. Meyers (published by open access journal Flow) based on a visit to The World of Coca-Cola. It provides some useful insights into a significant component part of experiential capitalism.
The World of Coca-Cola, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a museum/indoor theme park that includes a gift shop and a tasting room, and is a prime example of effective experiential advertising. In exchange for their ticket purchase and their attention, visitors are educated in all things Coca-Cola: its history, icons, philosophy, and products. In March 2016, I joined other visitors, paying $16 for the privilege of standing in a series of lines: first to watch an introductory film showing happy people of all kinds consuming Coke everywhere; then to have a photo taken with an actor costumed as the advertising icon polar bear; then to enter “The Vault,” where the secret formula is supposed to be safely stored, away from competitors; and finally to taste Coca-Cola products from all over the world. Following the paths and the lines, visitors are ultimately funneled through a store where they can buy more Coca-Cola advertising to take home with them: toys, games, clothing, dishes, and mementoes.
“Advertising” usually differs from “content” in that content is what the audience wants to see, while advertising is what the advertiser wants the audience to see, so much so that advertisers pay media companies to expose audiences to it. Magazine ads appear next to magazine articles, television commercials interrupt narrative programs, and it is easy to tell which is content and which advertising. The media companies finance and create the content to attract audience segments advertisers target; the advertisers (“brands”) and their agencies create the interstitial advertising and pay for its placement. This distinction between is harder to parse in the World of Coca-Cola. Most people claim they strive to avoid advertising, but visitors to the World of Coca-Cola pay money for it. Perhaps not many brands can get away with this. In light of the decline of linear television, however, which developed as the single most powerful brand-image building medium ever by forcibly exposing mass audiences to interstitial commercials, such experiential advertising strategies may be a sign of things to come.
Al igual que muchas disciplinas académicas en el siglo XXI, las humanidades sehan visto profundamente afectadas por los avances en las ciencias del cerebro.Conceptualmente esto ha significado que algunas de las principales inquietudesdel pasado siglo, como las que se adhieren a una división cartesiana entre mente ycuerpo, o la dualidad psicoanalítica del consciente/inconsciente, han sido suplan-tadas por un nuevo tipo de relación neurológica; esto es, la relación establecidaentre una facultad mental disminuida y el imperceptible poder gobernante de lono-consciente. Lo que se presenta aquí se centra en una noción teóricamente im-pugnada del no-consciente neurológico que ha producido dos posicionamientosorientados de manera diferente en las posthumanidades. La discusión se centra enlos intentos de asimilar una comprensión impugnada del no-consciente en unmarco teórico cognitivo remodelado, por un lado, y una nueva interpretación ma-terialista de la teoría del afecto, por el otro.
It’s an interview with the very talented Jernej Markelj based at Cardiff University. Our discussion addresses viruses and modes of contagion but also the ‘dark refrain’ of far-right populism and social media. Much more than the current state of emergency due to COVID-19, the conversation addresses the political and relational conditions of contagion in general.
A new special issue of Parallax is out. It includes a piece I wrote following a guest talk at the Winchester School of Art on The Assemblage Brain and preparing material for A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media. It’s called “A sleepwalker’s guide to the collective nonconscious.” The issue is edited by Yigit Soncul and Grant Bollmer and promises to be very special indeed. There are articles by Sean Cubitt, Ingrid Hoelzl, Tero Karppi, James J. Hodge, Katherine Guinness and more…
During the height of Covid-19 lockdown in April 2020 nearly four billion people across the world habitually accessed social media. These platforms enabled people to stay in touch with each other, share amusing memes and news stories about political failures and heroic keyworkers. Although exacerbated by the extraordinary circumstances, most of these interactions would appear to be fairly ordinary. It was ostensibly business as usual for social media. Yet, during this period, there was an intensification of highly anomalous social media contagions. These contagions included Instagram-fuelled panic buying of toilet roll and paracetamol, crazy conspiracy theorists implausibly linking the roll out of 5G networks with Covid-19, and a new wave of anti-vaxers.
It would perhaps seem that our own friendship networks are immune to such contagions. However, they are far more entrenched than we might think. So, why do seemingly rational social media users become implicated in the spreading of irrational network contagions? Before the very real viral threat of Covid-19 arrived, social contagions of this kind were often compared to biological viruses. Popular books like The Tipping Point reasoned that social contagions spread through promiscuous social hubs, building up and spilling over into epidemiological thresholds. Early computer simulations pointed to a far more accidental pass-on-power in which just about anyone can start a contagion if the collective mood is right.
Putting these analogies and simulations aside, there is an older, yet compelling sociological account of contagion. To fully grasp its persuasive explanatory force, we need to revisit the early roots of European social theory. By doing so, we revive a forgotten conceptual figure which came to prominence in nineteenth century crowd theories and figured writ large in early sociological debates: the sleepwalker. Such a revival cannot evidently occur without taking into account over two hundred years of developments in sociology, brain science and the humanities. Nonetheless, a reconfigured sleepwalker helps us to understand some of the dynamics of social media contagion that biological analogies and computer simulations simply cannot explain.
Interest in sleepwalkers can be traced back to the study of ‘irrational’ crowds in France in the late 1800s. Gustave Le Bon’s book, The Crowd, argued that when reasoned individuals become subsumed by the irrational crowd, they take the position of hypnotized sleepers prone to the contagions of others since they lose their capacity to self-reflect. At the similar time, the sociologist, Gabriel Tarde, presented a more sophisticated sleepwalker or somnambulist. Unlike Le Bon, Tarde’s distinction between individuals and collectives is considerably blurred. He instead drew on social, biological and psychological explanations to present a complex, somnambulists microsociology. For Tarde, somnambulists may well feel like individuals, but this feeling is part of an illusion that obscures their place in a society of imitation. This is not an illusion simply triggered by Le Bon’s crowd. Instead, sleepwalkers possess innate propensities, as well as a social tendency, toward imitation. Indeed, Tarde was interested in the budding sciences of the brain and his work has been linked to fairly recent discoveries of so-called mirror neurons. However, a revived sleepwalker is not biologically determined. To be clear, what is often imitated is primarily outside in the social before it enters through the skin or the skull.
Another way to consider the sleepwalker is via psychoanalysis. Indeed, it is through Freud’s development of Le Bon’s crowd that a different sleepwalker emerges as an expression of a sexually repressed individual. It is the interiority of the dreamlike theatrical unconscious that becomes externalized in the act of sleepwalking. Nevertheless, in their homage to Tarde, the philosopher’s Deleuze and Guattari accused Freud of being myopic. He mistook the unconscious voice for mother. On the contrary, they contended, the voice of the unconscious is a crowd. Along these lines, it is important to note that other authors have replaced the term unconscious with the neurologically nuanced term, nonconscious. In the brain sciences this new term simply means the multitude of processes that function outside of consciousness.
“Freud tried to approach crowd phenomena from the point of view of the unconscious, but he did not see clearly, he did not see that the unconscious itself was fundamentally a crowd. He was myopic and hard of hearing; he mistook crowds for a single person.”
Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 29-30
These neurological explanations are of obvious interest to contemporary sociology, but it is actually an old spat Tarde had with the more famous forefather of sociology, Durkheim, that helps us to understand social media contagion. This argument can be simplified by considering two opposing terms. On one hand, Durkheim’s concept of society emerged from the dynamic densities of the collective. Society was in effect the emergence of a collective consciousness. This idea is reflected in more recent emergence theories of collective intelligence and the wisdom of crowds. These are societies of cognitive excess that are supposed to distinguish between social norms and anomalies. The idea that the media could emerge as a global brain was very popular in the 1960s as were similar notions of smart mobs and other variants on collective intelligence during the early days of the Internet.
On the other hand, for Tarde society does not emerge since the society of imitation is already made up of unconscious (or nonconscious) associations. Individuals do not become sleepwalkers. On the contrary, these imitating subjects are socially positioned between illusory conscious states and nonconscious relations. Their seemingly separate sense of individuality is always etched with the contagions of others and primed for suggestibility.
It is perhaps not surprising that Tarde’s revival coincided with the social media age. Back in the mid-2000s, the French sociologist, Bruno Latour, declared that the Internet was well and truly Tardean! Indeed, the role of social media is to stir up the imitative associations of the sleepwalkers and make them go viral. These platforms are designed to bring together artificial crowds, nurture and steer them toward social contagion. The social media business model prefigures the big data model. Certainly, without the spreading of likes, posts and shares, there will be no data traces to monetize. The real value of social media is in the pass-on-power that produces data. Even at our most reasoned and rational, once we are part of these viral networks, we might imitate this or that act and eventually pass on something that is suggested to us.