I think I’m com­ing at this viral­i­ty theme from a very dif­fer­ent angle. There’s not a lot of meme war­ring going on in what I’m talk­ing about. There’s a lot more self-promotion, I guess. The war­rior fight is to get your­self into the pub­lic sphere as a self [inaudi­ble]. I’m sort of start­ing instead from the stand­point that’s prob­a­bly much more cyn­i­cal, that the pol­i­tics involved in spread­ing memes is always a pre­tense to spread your­self in net­works. So I’m sort of at a cyn­i­cal far end of this thing.

With social media, the com­pelling oppor­tu­ni­ties for self-expression out­strip the sup­ply of things we have to con­fi­dent­ly say about our­selves. The demand for self-expression over­whelms what we might dredge up from the inside, from our true selves. So the self that we’re express­ing in social media has to be posit­ed else­where. We start to bor­row from the net­work. We start to bor­row from imag­ined future selves that we can project. We start to bor­row from the media them­selves and from oth­er kinds of con­tent cir­cu­lat­ing there that we can now con­sti­tute our­selves with.

This kind of thing does­n’t guar­an­tee that we’re per­son­al­ly grow­ing by assim­i­lat­ing these things, how­ev­er. The more we express our­selves for self-definition, the more we lim­it the self to what we have the means to cir­cu­late. The sort of self we can imag­ine our­selves to be becomes con­tin­gent on the avail­able media, not on any kind of inner being. Social media offer a wealth of new resources, images, links, the sort of viral stuff we’ve already been talk­ing about, to con­tin­ue to bait us into becom­ing our­selves on social media. These things seem to let us express the self with­out the lim­its of lan­guage or the thick cen­tral­i­ty of the speak­ing sub­ject, the sorts of things that peo­ple held to be lim­it­ing, and con­strict­ing and so on and so forth. The self in social media seems to be very flu­id. You get to express your­self through a suite of social media accounts, and you sort of pour net­work space from all over the place. You spill over the edge of a uni­tary pro­file, and you have the free­dom to renege on any kind of pre-composed iden­ti­ty in favor of ongo­ing glimpses at your process of self-composition.

The push towards a self-concept of per­pet­u­al becom­ing would seem to thwart sub­jec­ti­va­tion as a kind of social con­trol. But the more we con­struct iden­ti­ty through these means of social media, the more we self-assimilate into the incen­tives built into them, which is to turn all expe­ri­ence into more and more strate­gic expression. 

So the ques­tion is how dam­ag­ing is this real­ly? Users gen­er­al­ly behave as though social media are safe spaces to reveal the self as imper­fect work in progress. But the media them­selves typ­i­cal­ly com­pile a per­ma­nent archive of our becom­ing, which negates that pro­vi­sion­al nature of the self that we’re con­struct­ing. As much as the self feels uncon­tain­able, it’s still con­tained by the archive. So we have a sort of con­flict, there’s a con­tra­dic­tion and ten­sion between the feed that we expe­ri­ence when we con­sume social media and the pro­file, which is sort of the residue or the remain­der that comes from that engagement.

So it becomes the user’s prob­lem to man­age the ten­sion between the sta­t­ic pro­file and the real-time expe­ri­ence of being a self in a dynam­ic social media feed envi­ron­ment. So how do users bal­ance the free-wheeling pur­suit of imme­di­a­cy, atten­tion, and salience with­in the net­work with the threat that it will all go on their per­ma­nent record? I think what hap­pens is that you have authen­tic­i­ty frac­tur­ing. The ten­sion between the archive and the feed puts pres­sure on this con­cept of authen­tic­i­ty, which is always in the process of being debunked and has a lot of obvi­ous prob­lems with it, but it lingers on as a kind of com­pass to the self and it seems to be a com­mon thing to judge your­self in terms of how authen­tic you are being to some con­cept of your­self. I think that social media puts pres­sure on that con­cept of an authen­tic self, and I think what hap­pens is we’re being split into two con­cur­rent things work­ing together. 

Active social media use urges a de fac­to rejec­tion of the true self that users may not be ready to accept ide­o­log­i­cal­ly, but it still hap­pens. It calls for a self that’s recon­sti­tut­ed, for your­self and for oth­er peo­ple, the same way that our news­feeds are recon­sti­tut­ed in real time, or rec­om­men­da­tion pages are recon­sti­tut­ed. The self is very dynam­ic in the social media envi­ron­ment in that it’s pro­cess­ing the things you’ve done and pro­ject­ing a ver­sion of your­self to you. And yet you still have this inter­nal sense that we’re already coher­ent, we’re already extend­ing from with­in a coher­ent being. 

I think that pres­sure frac­tures authen­tic­i­ty into these dif­fer­ent poles, the post-authentic viral self” (or maybe I should call it the spread­able self in hon­or of Henry Jenkins) and what I’m call­ing a neg­a­tive the­ol­o­gy of self,” which I’m going to talk about next.

[slide 37.39]The pos­si­bil­i­ty that every­thing we do on net­works is sur­veilled has gen­er­at­ed an urge to remove the true self from the chart­ed ter­ri­to­ry of social media. In an essay recent­ly about Google Glass the artist Molly Crabapple argued that the things we once called souls are not leg­i­ble to algo­rithms. […] The net­work alters you in ways that make you more leg­i­ble to the net­work. But maybe there are some things it still can’t get.” That seems almost like a faith-based state­ment, but I think that’s a feel­ing that emerges from using social media as a sense that there must be some­thing that is not going to become strate­gic expres­sion in social media.

As we make our­selves or are made more leg­i­ble to the net­work, we may become more aware of what isn’t trans­lat­able to its for­mats. That means that deep­er engage­ment with social net­works, with social media, could pro­vide a more thor­ough aware­ness of what our soul could be. In an essay called Returning the Dream, the psy­chol­o­gist Adam Phillips quotes anoth­er psy­chol­o­gist D.W. Winnicott, At the cen­ter of each per­son is an incom­mu­ni­ca­do ele­ment, and this is sacred and most wor­thy of preser­va­tion.” Phillips inter­prets this as a neg­a­tive the­ol­o­gy of the self” and argues that in Winnicott, the aim of inti­ma­cy is to spon­sor the soli­tary unknowa­bil­i­ty of the true self.” Now if that’s so, then social media would seem to destroy inti­ma­cy alto­geth­er, replac­ing it with shar­ing and copi­ous self-expression, not soli­tary unknowability.

But there’s no rea­son to equate what is shared in social media with what is authen­tic about the self. Social media can sup­port Winnicott’s neg­a­tive the­ol­o­gy of self by allow­ing us to express pre­cise­ly what is inessen­tial about our­selves, estab­lish­ing through that copi­ous con­fes­sion of inessen­tial triv­i­al­i­ties the neg­a­tive space where the inef­fa­ble self can reside. Sharing then becomes a process of shed­ding, a way to purge what we think we know about our­selves but which is inher­ent­ly wrong because it’s expressible. 

Our true self is then con­sti­tut­ed in the silences. The net­work in this sense actu­al­ly alters us to have a soul, prepar­ing the ground for it. And inti­ma­cy then is going over some­one’s social media offer­ings and reas­sur­ing them that none of that actu­al­ly seems like them at all. The death of inti­ma­cy then, is when some­one looks at your Facebook and thinks, Oh, that’s you. You’ve real­ly got your­self pegged.” 

So if our deep­est self is inex­press­ible by def­i­n­i­tion how­ev­er, it seems non-sensical to make express­ing the true self” into any kind of life goal. Personal or artis­tic expres­sion can­not be about sin­cer­i­ty or authen­tic­i­ty but few peo­ple I think would accept that as what they’re doing when they’re using social media, that they’re being pur­pose­ly inau­then­tic and false. So what is going on on social media if there’s this neg­a­tive the­ol­o­gy of self in operation?

I think what we have is the viral self, what I called the post-authentic self” in the pre­sen­ta­tion I gave last year. I think the use­less­ly inex­press­ible true self dooms us to an unbridge­able iso­la­tion despite the way that social media con­nects every­body all togeth­er all the time. I think that this brings about this com­pli­men­ta­ry self of viral post-authentic self as a com­pan­ion. The post-authentic self is premised on the pos­si­bil­i­ty that one’s traces, the ephemera of every­day life that’s being eject­ed from the neg­a­tive the­ol­o­gy self, can all be processed into a makeshift pro­vi­sion­al iden­ti­ty on social media plat­forms through the feed­back of oth­ers and through algo­rith­mic pro­cess­ing. This iden­ti­ty can be shared and con­sumed not only by oth­ers but by one­self. You can enjoy your­self as a nov­el­ty item rather than con­front one­self as a prob­lem to solve, or as a self of inborn con­straints on true self that lim­its you. 

I think the What Would I Say on Facebook” thing that hap­pened a few years ago is a good exam­ple of this. It goes through your Facebook feed, it pro­duces con­tent that you might have pro­duced based on all the things you pro­duced before, and then you get to read over and think Oh, haha look that’s so much like me.” Or, That’s so fun­ny. I would nev­er say that.” But you get to expe­ri­ence your­self as a prod­uct thanks to the way you’re being processed in the networks. 

So post-authenticity, and I think it has a lot to do with this thing, the idea of norm­core which is anoth­er way of express­ing the same sort of ideas, I think. It ratio­nal­izes the ter­ror of ubiq­ui­tous sur­veil­lance and makes the accel­er­at­ed con­sump­tion online benev­o­lent. It becomes what you’re doing to feed these algo­rithms to pro­duce a prod­uct of your­self that you can then enjoy. It helps you ease the bur­den of being a unique and true self. The bur­den of unique­ness becomes placed on the algo­rithms, not on us.

Being on social media deep­ens the aware­ness of what can’t be shared, at the same time pro­tect­ing that exclu­sion­ary puri­ty of the inex­press­ible self with­in us that’s now beyond pub­lic appro­pri­a­tion. In the mean­time the met­rics and the algo­rithms stand in as a quasi-populist proxy for the post-authentic self­’s approv­ing oth­er in the cir­cuit of self-production. The algo­rithms get to con­firm— give us social recog­ni­tion in the broad­est sense rather than being depen­dent on oth­er individuals.

I think post-authenticity, it moves us from brand to meme. It rejects spe­cif­ic con­sumer sig­ni­fiers of the self—their increased cir­cu­la­tion in social media makes their mean­ing a bit unre­li­able anyway—in favor of engage­ment met­rics that track con­tent which form the new­ly reli­able basis for the self. With a self ground­ed in met­rics rather than in spe­cif­ic con­tent, one posi­tions one­self in the social media envi­ron­ment less as a per­son­al brand than as a meme. One adopts a viral self” anchored in con­tin­u­al demon­stra­tions of its reach based on inge­nious appro­pri­a­tion and aggre­ga­tion of exist­ing con­tent, not in per­son­al expres­sion or fideli­ty to some inner truth or some per­son­al taste that’s inter­nal. It’s defined by what it can cir­cu­late not by what it circulates.

To make the self-as-meme reg­is­ter it’s imper­a­tive one­self with dynam­ic, emo­tion­al­ly res­o­nant, viral con­tent. This is a dif­fer­ent kind of con­tent than brands or those tra­di­tion­al sig­ni­fiers that con­sumerism stud­ies have talked about for a long time that seems sort of sta­t­ic as you adopt and then they sort of die when you adopt them. There’s a the­o­ry that you con­sume the object and then your fan­ta­sy is over because now you have the thing and that sort of kills what it sig­ni­fied for you. I think that viral con­tent is a sort of evo­lu­tion of that. It keeps the feel­ing alive in the way it cir­cu­lates rather than the fact that you pos­sess it. By shar­ing viral con­tent, the self is in play. We don’t cir­cu­late the memes so much as the memes cir­cu­late us. And that’s why Yakov Smirnoff is up there.

Virality serves an an equal­ly tau­to­log­i­cal token of authen­tic­i­ty, but unlike the old ver­sion of authen­tic­i­ty it’s a replace­ment for the old sense that being spon­ta­neous makes you authen­tic. Now instead, being viral makes you authen­tic with­in this con­struct, with­in this par­tic­u­lar kind of self­hood. Content recedes to mere ali­bi for engag­ing emo­tion­al­ly with the cir­cu­la­tion data, vic­ar­i­ous­ly iden­ti­fied not with the con­tent but with how infor­ma­tion trav­els. The par­tic­i­pa­tion is in the cir­cu­la­tion, not in what the thing being cir­cu­lat­ed seems to signify.

So we shift from con­sumerist plea­sures of fan­ta­siz­ing about how own­ing cer­tain brand­ed goods would make us into a cer­tain kind of per­son and secure us a cer­tain kind of affir­ma­tion to fan­ta­siz­ing about tri­umphant moments of social quan­tifi­ca­tion, about get­ting likes and retweets, and hav­ing lots of Tumblr activ­i­ty and so on. So viral­i­ty becomes the hori­zon beneath which occur­rences no longer fig­ure social­ly. If it does­n’t go viral to some extent, it no longer counts as being about your­self, it’s no longer real, it’s no longer authen­tic. And so if you have no activ­i­ty, you’re in a bit of a post-authentic dilem­ma. That’s from my own Tumblr; it’s very depressing.

So I think a look at the most noto­ri­ous sup­pli­er of viral con­tent, Upworthy, may shed some fur­ther light on how we can adopt viral­i­ty as a tech­nique of the self and engi­neer viral­i­ty as an end in itself.

One of the things that Upworthy shows is that no con­tent, or no self, is inher­ent­ly viral. And like­wise, no con­tent is inher­ent­ly nonviral. Optimization tech­niques can always be applied. Upworthy’s puta­tive goal is to get its pre­ferred con­tent past what­ev­er fil­ters peo­ple have set up and into mas­sive cir­cu­la­tion. But their tricks end up trump­ing the con­tent, so the tech­niques to cir­cu­late the mate­r­i­al are much more reveal­ing than the things that mat­ter” that Upworthy says it’s all about. The cir­cu­la­tion again is the content.

The most noto­ri­ous of Upworthy’s tech­niques is the much-parodied curios­i­ty gap head­line. And I have a few exam­ples here I pulled off the page yes­ter­day. But that for­mat is much-parodied, it’s becom­ing stale as they said when they were pro­filed in New York mag­a­zine. They said these head­lines are start­ing to no longer be as viral­ly potent and they were try­ing to shift strate­gies. And the point of that is that the spe­cif­ic for­mu­la is not the key. That’s not what’s viral. What mat­ters is the for­mu­la itself, that their for­mu­las are being applied. And then they reveal through A/B test­ing of dif­fer­ent head­lines which one is the real ver­sion.” The one that gets the most hits is the real ver­sion.” And I think Upworthy’s suc­cess at that shows a sense of how you could con­ceive iden­ti­ty the same way, that the real ver­sion” of iden­ti­ty is not nec­es­sar­i­ly every­thing you post, but it’s what gets traf­fic, what ris­es above the hori­zon of viral­i­ty. Nothing else real­ly mat­ters, no one else will see that stuff.

Just as gen­uine­ness has proved irrel­e­vant to the content’s poten­tial viral­i­ty (sto­ries that go viral are often debunked), it’s also irrel­e­vant to the viral self whose authen­tic­i­ty is an after-effect of hav­ing mar­shaled an audi­ence. Realness is a mat­ter of atten­tion met­rics rather than the fideli­ty of the con­tent to some core truth. Typical Upworthy mate­r­i­al does­n’t priv­i­lege unique­ness or com­plex emo­tion­al respons­es, of course. Such sub­tleties belong to the negative-theology-of-self world of being so unique that you can’t express your­self com­pre­hen­si­bly. I think Upworthy empha­sizes the for­mu­las because they’re com­fort­ing and they uncool, they repel cyn­ics who are more invest­ed in exclu­sion than inclu­sion. Upworthy says they’re try­ing to reach peo­ple where they’re at. They say, You don’t want to be that guy in your Facebook feed say­ing, These ReTHUGlicans out there…’ ” You don’t want to be the per­son who’s being overt­ly political.

That might be good advice to go viral on Facebook, but I think more sig­nif­i­cant is the assump­tion built into that about who you are. You are a guy in the Facebook feed. Upworthy con­tent strives to let you become that guy in the Facebook feed and not get fil­tered out from that site of viral self­hood. Upworthy’s inten­sive use of for­mu­las illus­trates how viral­i­ty becomes a for­mal genre rec­og­niz­able inde­pen­dent of its cir­cu­la­tion data. This helps per­mit one to expe­ri­ence viral­i­ty as a feel­ing and iden­ti­fy with it in the face of inevitably dis­ap­point­ing actu­al met­rics. At a cer­tain point, viral­i­ty is no longer a hori­zon but just a feel­ing. It’s an impulse, it’s an instinct. Like Gawker’s for­mer viral con­tent guru Neetzan Zimmerman sort of oper­at­ed pure­ly by impulse, by instinct, because viral­i­ty had become a feel­ing about con­tent as opposed to an actu­al proven out by data, ahead of time…anyway.

By encod­ing audi­ence enthu­si­asm at the lev­el of form, viral con­tent per­mits vic­ar­i­ous par­tic­i­pa­tion not only in the viral sto­ry, whose appar­ent pop­u­lar­i­ty helps encour­age an indul­gent sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief, but in the social itself, con­ceived as a flow of infor­ma­tion in social net­works. The func­tion of a sto­ry in social rela­tions is shift­ed. It’s not retold in time and depen­dent on co-presence, but is instead link­ing peo­ple in space and told, by being har­vest­ed in net­works and by being circulated.

If viral­i­ty is the mod­el, then social media par­tic­i­pa­tion ulti­mate­ly has no con­tent.” It is just a mat­ter of exchang­ing and tal­ly­ing ges­tures of shar­ing. As viral­i­ty sup­plants authen­tic­i­ty, the emo­tion that viral con­tent pro­vokes, a feel­ing of spread­ing con­nec­tion, threat­ens to become the root of all authen­tic feel­ing. Having oth­er sorts of feel­ings becomes point­less if you can’t be seen hav­ing them. What we want to feel is only what will spread. For instance, because I know my reac­tions read­ing things can be per­formed on Twitter, I’m sure to have a reac­tion, and then to method-act my response and see how it goes over, see if it becomes a real response by peo­ple retweet­ing it, so on and so forth. And that’s a sort of added incen­tive we get to be read­ing and doing things in social media rather than out­side of social media where you don’t have any confirmation.

The ubiq­ui­ty of viral­i­ty makes it seem as though one can fit in only by spread­ing one­self indis­crim­i­nate­ly. Social media sus­tain a mea­sure­ment sys­tem that makes more atten­tion seem always appro­pri­ate and any­thing less insuf­fi­cient. If your appro­pri­at­ed con­tent is not cir­cu­lat­ing then you are dis­ap­pear­ing, and this can feel like total exclu­sion. You’re adding noth­ing to the social bot­tom line, and unlike Upworthy you’re not inspir­ing any­body. But I also think it’s worth remem­ber­ing that it’s also a con­fir­ma­tion that this oth­er sort of authen­tic self that must dis­ap­pear to exist is prop­er­ly dis­ap­pear­ing, in a com­fort­ing way.

Further Reference

Rob post­ed a short­er, final(?) ver­sion of this at The New Inquiry as Me Meme.

And Social Media Is Not Self-Expression, also at The New Inquiry.