|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.
The New Sleepwalker
Tony D Sampson
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.
Tony Sampson’s new book is published by Polity
Thanks to everyone who has helped make ASM4.5 @sensorium4.5 so vital here’s a bonus from The Nonentity #affect #contagion #extemporised
Closing Conference Party
What an interesting couple of days it has been. Thanks to everyone who contributed to the panels. What a great anarchive we have produced in a very short amount of time. A round of virtual applause. Please keep on posting and sharing.
All the best,
The A&SM organising team.
Before Covid-19, for we had planned a closing party event to celebrate the closing of A&SM#5 conference.
Please keep in touch with this blog. We will be back with this programme: https://viralcontagion.blog/asm5-summer-2020/
David Devant & His Spirit Wife
As part of this event we were to have a musical performance by Mikey B Georgeson. While we wait for A&SM#5, here’s a video of the song Mikey’s was going to perform.
Music video for David Devant & His Spirit Wife. Produced and edited by Cameron Poole. Lip synch, and drawings Mikey Georgeson. Footage and photos contributed by John Marshall, James Foster and Richard Grimsdale Yates. Taken from a new album here
Mikey’s debut album with David Devant & His Spirit Wife in 1998 was a huge influence on Cameron Poole’s own music, which was put on hold for twenty years when he moved to Asia in 2002. Whilst living in Thailand and China, music production was replaced with a knack for video editing and graphic design. After rediscovering Devant on Facebook in 2017, a year after repatriating to the UK, he saw them live for the first time a year later and gradually became acquainted with Mikey and his other creative projects. A mutual appreciation of each others talents developed and lead to Cameron being invited to create a backdrop video for a Devant gig last December. This resulted in the opportunity to make a video for ‘Data Streams’ – a new track on the 2019 Devant album, Cut Out & Keep Me. A planned video shoot for another track, ‘Rake’, was thwarted by the Covid 19 pandemic, however, the subsequent lockdown has cultivated creativity and inspiration on both sides and sometimes they overlap.
A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media
We also had some funding from Polity Press to launch Tony D Sampson’s new book, A Sleepwalker’s Guide to Social Media, published in June 2020. Here’s a short video introduction to the book.
Video by Devil John and dystopic music by John Leo Dutton
Panel Performances Six
Viral Realities in the Pandemic
Mikey B Georgeson (Artist): Kindness is a Virus
We are pleased to present a special mix of this song originally played live at A&SM#4 Sensorium.
Shortly after reading Darwin’s The Origin of Species, Marx wrote to Engels:
‘It is remarkable how Darwin recognises amongst beasts and plants his English society, with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, inventions and so forth.’
This clearly demonstrates how analogous thinking, prevalent in the zone Massumi calls “the Empire of Like” has repeatedly allowed hierarchies to be refreshed and an essentially negative idea of human nature within a competitive dynamic, to prevail. Another analogy is that of the brain as IP machine established as the default mode for reasoning as understanding. Inspired by an alternative model shaped by William Blake’s radical empiricism and the non-bifurcated theory of “feeling” put forward by A N Whitehead, I think this piece is the closest I can get to becoming a slime-mould artist, feeling their way through sounds and images until I have formed a sense of having returned home. Massumi talks about “thought-in-becoming” as an alternative to the model of analogy and I would like to propose that using rhyme and melody is a way of pausing the habit of analysing and categorising long enough for difference to emerge. I believe I once heard Richard Dawkins on a radio 4 programme describe kindness as a virus. This was long before I had any idea of non-representational theory but it still struck me as an overly functional view of how I felt as a creative organism. I agree with Dawkins that nature is neutral but that must mean I am as well. So rather than being another critically detached human command module I am a feeling organism within an entangled cosmos. Within the tune, kindness is alive as a virus but separated from this living host it is no longer alive because it is dead.
Sophie Barr (London College of Fashion): Miasma
From the middle-ages to the nineteenth century it was commonly believed that diseases such as bubonic plague and cholera were caused and spread by a poisonous, stinking night vapour known as miasma. The source of this miasma was thought to be rotting organic matter, the discarded and fetid waste from densely populated urban environments. We might relate miasma theory to contemporary conspiracies about 5G and Coronavirus –a new invisible and imagined bio-technological threat. Meanwhile, “deforestationand other forms of land conversion are driving exotic species out of their evolutionary niches and into manmade environments, where they interact and breed new strains of disease” (Watts, 2020). These biological (and ecological, technological, geo-political, social and economic) threats are becoming more visibly connected. This video was shot under lockdown conditions from a house and garden in suburban Tottenham. It is eerily quiet; a strange vapour emanates from lampposts and defunct TV relay transmitters as night falls. Data travels through a tangle of cables into the ‘cloud’ whilst slime slips down screens and crystals are found in a primordial garden. A twenty-first century plague doctor dressed in Amazon sourced PPE stuffs her mask with a nosegay of Hydroxychloroquine to ward against poisonous data clouds to a soundtrack of ASMR squelches, whispers and clicks. This video assemblage suggests that miasma theory might be useful to help frame media more materially, bust cloud myths and connect trashy memes with mineral extraction and species extinction. It also implies that however advanced we think we might be, the ‘new magic’ of today’s tech means ‘we have never been modern’.
Stephen Connolly (UCA Farnham, UK): Chek Lap Kok, 21.00, 01.12.19
Please note you’ll need password for this one: ChekLapKok
In spring 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely impacted air travel around the globe. In April 2020, passenger numbers are less than a tenth of the same month in 2019. Nation states have identified the mobility of people as a means of contagion, some have responded with travel bans and the grounding of airlines. How will the pandemic impact on the future of air travel? Two previously overlooked aspects of air travel are emerging from the pandemic; the clear socio-economic inequalities of this mode of transport; and its latent materiality. Flying is a privileged mode of movement: from the global perspective, only a small number of people globally have ever set foot in an aircraft. Fair travel is framed as a release from gravity and a freedom to roam the globe, yet as its material entanglements with the Covid contagion have brought it to earth. The infrastructure of aviation is deeply invested in material practices; airports are amongst the largest built environment installations, yet now grid-locked by nose to tail, parked aircraft. Chek Lap Kok, 21.00, 01.12.19,documents a walk to Hong Kong Airport from the Expo centre on the airport island, by means of slow travel, under makeshift conditions, and without carbon expenditure. It’s a harbinger of lean and informal travel arrangements which may be a feature of time to come.
Anna Fairchild (Artist): The Cognitive Revolution; Looking for Obsidian, 2020
Looking for Obsidian was inspired by long Covid-19 Lockdown walks and the joy of finding flints and fossils, revealed by the changing seasons in the recently ploughed fields of Hertfordshire. Obsidian (a black volcanic glass) was prized by primitive Sapiens cultures because it was extremely hard and could be made into very sharp tools. There is evidence that it was traded across the South pacific over distances of 400km. The concept of trading was made possible by the development of a ‘collective imagination’, which went beyond the essential elements for survival of species.1 It is the dual actual reality of trees, rivers and objects and the imagined reality of gods, laws and nations, which was the catalyst for the development of humankind (Sapiens) out of the kingdom of animals. This ever more powerful imagined reality, allowed for the accelerated development of Sapiens culture. What I found interesting on discovering these glistening black stones in the fields is the connection between the actual obsidian object and its newfound use in a collectively imagined reality. I prefer to think of observing the obsidian forms as actual objects and whilst holding it and listening to the sounds of two obsidian pieces rubbed against one another, to marvel in the actual spaces of the environment around me. This marveling and contemplation brought to mind the concerts of Ryuichi Sakamoto and his Improvisation for Sonic Cure, 2020.
Andrew Calcutt and Simon Miles (University of East London) aka the National News Service: From Plague Year to Public Sphere: News Poems of the London Lockdown
A sequence of five multimedia compositions derived from poems responding to breaking news of the coronavirus crisis. The news poem registers fellow human beings as such, and records their recent actions in a form of heightened speech which recognises the contradictions we have in common.
Subsection: Emotional Contagion/Emotional Overload
Johanna Margarethe Talbot (University of East London): Together, apart with emojis? Thoughts about the role of emojis in a digital environment (particularly relevant in times of social distancing)
Since the beginning of lockdown, face-to-face human interactions have become rare and we feel their absence, often painfully. Interactions happen increasingly on instant messaging applications, which don’t allow us to express ourselves in the same way. At first glance, emojis are a great way to connect with each other and replace, to a certain extent, the deep interaction we would have in a face-to-face conversation. However, due to a lack of consensus and therefore a high chance of misunderstanding, emojis have the potential to divide us further. There is also a sinister aspect to emoji use, as they can be used as code for all sorts of deviant or criminal activities. Emojis are also used as symbols for socio-political movements. A recent and prominent example is that of ✊🏿 which is used as a statement for ‘Black Lives Matter’. It is therefore essential to ensure equal representation to avoid emojis turning into another field of oppression. The field of emojis needs a lot more investigation in order to understand them as a phenomenon, as well as to make recommendations and inform policies regarding their governance. It is paramount to develop a model of what emojis are – a new language, an expression of emotion, or both, in order to prevent misunderstandings and inform policy around emojis’ creation and maintenance. Furthermore, emoji use can be applied to a number of therapeutic settings, such as teaching or online therapy or helping people with difficulty expressing their emotions face-to-face in their interactions. Overall, emojis should be promoted for positive use to allow creative expression in our online communications.
Poppy Wilde (Birmingham City University, UK) and Jacob Johanssen (St Mary’s University, UK): Who Cares? Thoughts on Facebook’s Care Reaction
In May 2020 Facebook introduced a new ‘reaction’ emoticon in addition to the already existing six (like, love, laughter, surprise, sad, and angry): Care. The Care emoticon has been rolled out seemingly specifically as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic that is shaking the world. At a time when people must be apart, Facebook’s caring figure – a cute smiley that lovingly hugs a red heart – is a symbolic expression of affective feeling. In the following opinion piece, we consider the underlying mechanisms beneath this seemingly simple expression of affect. Rather than offering an adequate exploration of the affective labour in a time of crisis, we suggest that Facebook’s care reaction instead becomes an exploitation of care. This occurs in multiple ways, namely through the user data acquired through tracking what we “care” about, quantifying our emotional experiences and selling them. This links further to the phenomenon of the affect economy and chaos capitalism. In come ways the care reaction is reminiscent of the embodied within the clapping for carers – a performative expression of care that does little to address the economic necessities of care, thereby suggesting a comradery that is not realized in compensation. From this perspective, a “care” reaction is not adequate on a political level, but neither is it adequate in capturing the individual labour of being apart or of experiencing a world in crisis. We therefore argue that the cost of “care” is real, and the quantification of contagious clicking-to-care fails to open this dialogue up.
James Hutchinson (Artist) – Instagram images (using emoji as material vitality more than)
James is inspired by the world around in all it’s minutiae and sees beauty in the anonymity of daily detritus. An engaging stream of pictures grows like a virus, gathering pace in an expression of waste and the underestimated potential of discarded things. The gathering of these images is comic-strip-like, flitting at a pace, past your eyes like a subconscious stream of pricking guilt. Plastic bags hang, gallows like from trees, twisting and spinning, deathly windsocks or hollow corpses hanging there for all to see as a reminder of time past, time wasted and a warning for the future. There are many readings to be taken but ultimately it comes down to the iconification of rubbish (Trash) into a meaningful representation of life and times as Hutchinson sees it.
Anne Robinson (Artist): Fellowship
My thinking behind revisiting Fellowship was partly because it was on my mind, a screening having been cancelled by the pandemic and then the time travel aspect, the space of 1984 when it was filmed, because of lockdown, but more importantly for this context – the contagion of violence and especially the narrativisation of war – and resistance to that in the form of questioning statues – thus a foreshadowing in some ways, of the ‘why these dead men’? questioning of recent days and the toppling of the statues. War has entered uninvited into our homes and taken up residence…’ We are contaminated by war. The stories of war are a contagion, spreading from page to screen to screen to screen.. viral. In lockdown’s weird temporality, I time-travelled to 1984 and making this work: in fear of nuclear contagion, at Greenham, taking on the biggest military-industrial complex in the world, weathering abuse and dancing on the silos whilst haunted by the rash of dead men in our cityscape and questioning them. A war memorial inscription: ‘Here lies a royal fellowship of death’ the body of a fallen soldier – his hand gnarled, skeletal, turning war to narrative to keep the hero myths rolling on. As a film loop now, these reflections seep through into the contemporary world of instant news… the women’s voices shaking the fence and the military presence… toppling monuments. (Bourke, J. 2014, Wounding the World, London: Virago, p12)
Panel Performances Five
Viral Media 2
Tina Kendall (Anglia Ruskin University, UK): Bored Media, Virality and #Lockdownlife
This paper will explore the ‘logics of virality’ as these have accrued around—and as they increasingly mediate and control—lived experiences of boredom in the context of the global Covid-19 lockdowns. If metaphors of contagion and virality have long been marshalled by social media corporations as part of their ongoing ‘war on boredom’ (Kendall 2017), in the context of the current Coronavirus pandemic, this virality is—as Tony Sampson and Jussi Parikka (2020) have suggested—now ‘resolutely non-metaphorical’. Indeed, as I will argue in this paper, what the lockdown has exposed and intensified is the pivotal role that boredom plays in the wider policing, management and control of bodies in an age of ‘digital psychopolitics’ (Han 2017). One concrete example of this can be seen in the massive outpouring of advice that was issued in the days and weeks following the imposition of lockdown measures, concerning how people could “beat” the boredom that might inevitably occur in this context. The emerging effort to contain the very real Covid-19 virus was thus underwritten by a ramping up of the metaphorical war on boredom, as governments, cultural organisations, and media outlets everywhere began to issue policy documents, tool kits, watch lists, and recommendations—many of which strangely echo both the structure and tone of bingeable media sites such as Boredom Therapy or Bored Panda. Drawing on work by Byung-Chul Han (2017) and others, my paper attempts to trace some of the ‘strange feedback loops’ (Sampson & Parikka 2020) that cut across the biological, cultural, technological, and affective layers of these experiences of boredom under lockdown. It will focus on a range of bored media that has emerged in this context, including government policy papers, newsletters and marketing material from various cultural and arts organisations, as well as user-generated content (#boredinthehouse; #boredvibes; #lockdownlife) that has flourished on the popular social media site TikTok as a means of documenting, expressing, or avoiding experiences of boredom during lockdown.
Ludmila Lupinacci (London School of Economics): Going with the (social media) flow: Notes on doomscrolling and stream flow-breakers in viral times
This short paper dedicates attention to a mechanism through which much of the online content is circulated, shared, and consumed nowadays: social media’s infinite streams, or ‘feeds’. These informational flows are central socio-technical conditions to the present-day logics of virality and memetics – phenomena that are always contingent on the existence of appropriate structures and vectors. The discussion focusses on what I am referring to as ‘flow-breakers’. These are posts shared by users of stream-based social media platforms targeting other (imagined) users who are scrolling uninterruptedly through a flood of gloomy content – a practice that is now generally called ‘doomscrolling’. Stream flow-breakers not only demonstrate the current normalisation of so-called mindless, endless scrolling as part of regular social media engagements but also serve to evidence users’ reflexive acknowledgement of both the readers’ likely repetitive (often labelled ‘addictive’) behaviour, and of the stickiness of these technologies. In a context of lockdown, the ‘mobility’ in mobile social media is less about portability or physical movement and more about affective motility and tentative practices of dwelling in platforms that are purposefully framed as agitated and restless. Keywords Scrolling; social media; platform; mobile media; flow; infinite stream; lockdown, phenomenology.
Donatella Della Ratta (John Cabot University, Italy): ‘Give it a shot. VVV: on Violence, Visibility and Viruses‘
The ‘shot’ is the figurative device around which we (re)think what happened in the last decade in terms of the relationship between violence, visibility and the body. Ten years ago, the myth of the participatory culture incubated within the ‘social’ web (O’Reilly 2005) had nurtured the absolute faith in virality being the new ‘message’ of a medium that, by virtue of its speed and ‘spreadability’ (Jenkins 2013), had irremediably dissolved content into mere contributions (Dean 2005). The Arab Spring embodied the celebration of this belief. The hashtag ‘domino effect’, in which so many countries, from Libya to Egypt to Yemen, were trapped – dictatorship after dictatorship falling in weeks or months, in a row, first on Twitter, then on the ground –, seemed to be evidence of this virality and spreadability successfully at work. Contagion had finally materialized as a techno-social (and political) condition. This period was marked by the utmost visibility and violence: the more you shoot, the more you are shot at (and viceversa). To the reflection I’ve elaborated in my previous work on the metaphor of ‘shooting’ as in performing violence and producing evidence of that violence performed (Della Ratta 2018), I want to offer, ten years and a pandemic after the ‘Spring’, a further element to the intertwinement between visual media and the military, i.e. the pharmaceutical or, better, ‘pharmapornographic’ (Preciado 2013) aspect of the shot. The ways in which big pharma converges, with the media and the military, in redefining the body and the production of subjects and subjectivities as the ultimate battlefield for contemporary capitalism. From micro cameras to wearable and bio weapons, the ‘shooting’ has become more and more connected to technologies of the body becoming ‘microprostethic’ and ‘incorporated’ (Preciado, 2013) and, at the same time, globally networked. No longer extensions of the body, it is the latter that rather incorporates these pervasive spaces of surveillance and inherent violence. The pharmaceutical, pharmapornographic shot has taken over: endocrinology and the genetic (and semiotic) engineering of the healthy and the sick, from period (and virus) tracking-apps to networked sex toys.