For all the difficulty and pretentiousness surrounding David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, the point – if such a book can be said to have a point – is that what you believe is good for you, what you believe you want and even what you believe is right may not, after a while, turn out to be all that great.
Whenever I talk to people about social media, I get this feeling. It did not take last month’s data hacking scandal to convince the world that Facebook was in an overly powerful and compromising position; nor was it the impetus for misgivings about social media. If I were to speculate, part of the problem with the innate ill feeling that I do believe is prevalent in the face of social media is it’s hard to explain what these feelings necessarily are. I think Wallace sums up my view of social media in its current form best with this line:
“Was amateurish the right word? More like the work of a brilliant optician and technician who was an amateur at any kind of real communication. Technically gorgeous… but oddly hollow.”
- Infinite Jest pp. 740, David Foster Wallace
To an extent it’s impossible to argue that social media is good or bad, partly, I think, because it’s spectacularly new compared to the contemporaneous mediums of news media and, well, human interaction. But also, crucially, because used theoretically it should simply reflect the user; in absence of a user, or taken as an entity in und itself, Facebook, for example, is a tabula rasa. Perhaps, I concede, it is that very thing; that the oddly hollow nature of social media reflects the fact that it is not a community or institution in the classic sense, but a system that may only mimic, and not create.
I understand such musings are not the day-to-day considerations of either the movers and shakers of these social media companies nor the users of said companies; yet, I believe, if we are to rectify the doubts that are present about social media in our society, and indeed to establish the place and purpose of social media in our society, it is crucial to understand quite what social media is intended to be.
The misappropriation of data, for example, seems to me less so an intrinsic breach of trust – for did we all truly believe such nefarious manipulations would not occur given how much data Facebook holds? – and more so a dramatic collision, or perhaps we might call it a reminder, of the reality within which the online presence is held; that all the silly little things we do on Facebook have consequences. Thus, I argue, social media is not just some innocuous means of disposing of time.
The rules and means by which we communicate and interact in the real-world are governed fundamentally not by laws, but by the social contract. The threat of the law is meaningless if we do not first have faith in the law (which is to say, in each other), and thus the social contract prevails. Likewise, such a contract governs the media, yet with an extension that demands the objective reality of the world, insofar as it can be perceived, to dominate the subjective interpretation of the world which we find in common social interactions.
These camps, when considered as a conversation on the street, or the browsing of a newspaper, are distinct and understood. The innovation of social media, when detached from its online domain, is that it seeks to combine these two camps into one, and, in the process, promises tremendous benefits. Yet, such benefits can only be understood as pertaining to either the social camp or the media camp, so long as the new notion of social media remains unembedded in the social contract. Social media may bring us closer together; however, it also highlights the discrepancies in our objective understanding of the world. It may inform our objective understanding of the world; but in doing so, it places us in silos.
The algorithms of social media are technically brilliant. But in practice the result feels absent of any real communication. This, I posit, is the source of any doubts – we, nor the social media giants, know what the purpose of social media is. Any failures of Facebook is also – party – a failure of society in which Facebook is contained; it is not a question of why does Facebook need our data, instead, it’s a question of why do we need Facebook?
And, drawing on that question, the response we’ve seen in recent weeks of those leaving Facebook seems natural. However, I feel, unhelpful. Insofar as this brief analysis has posited, it seems more coherent to attempt to answer the question posed, as opposed to invalidate the question in the first instance. And the logical answer, again insofar as is posited here, is to break the hegemony of social media back into its constituent parts: social and media.
The benefits of online socialising have at no point demanded the intrusion of advertisers, companies and special interests. Such intrusions, if ever made prior to social media, were done so via the purposeful intention of those whom we were socialising with, and interpreted based on the social credibility with which we attributed to that person. Social media, insofar as notifications and likes are concerned, makes credibility unitary and eliminates purposeful intention. For social media to be social, it must seek to restore these virtues.
And yet, from a business perspective, social media must act as a platform for those aforementioned groups. This requirement being accepted, social media should present news and advertising in a way that absolutely distinguishes itself from the aspects with which the site is deemed social. Such distinctions would return the agency that exists in our current social contract to the user, as it would be their elective to browse the news and consider the advertiser’s propositions. Again, the business voice might say, such a system would result in users electing to avoid such media content and the site becoming unprofitable. To such an argument for the status quo, I reply as such: that is the nature of business, and if the product does not appeal, one cannot blame the customers.
To summarise, we should not reject social media, though we should demand changes. Yet part of those demands must be a holistic consideration by the users as to why, not how, we use social media. For social media, I suggest a distinct disentanglement of the social and media aspects of social media, less doubts be allowed to linger, and the foundations of our patronage be jeopardised. To return to DFW: we have the tools and the technical know-how to leverage them, yet our attempts thus far have been amateurish.