why does the web need to be "social"?

When I was starting out in grad school, I saw Timothy Leary speak about the Internet as “electronic LSD.” It was the early nineties, pre-Netscape if memory serves. The ideas he was offering up were not that different from the argument he made in his essay “The Cyberpunk: The Individual as Reality Pilot,” which was anthologized in Bruce Sterling’s Storming the Reality Studio, that well-known anthology capturing the zeitgeist of 80s cyberpunk. I am not here today to advocate or express nostalgia for this moment. In fact this essay would be familiar to you probably for its romantic, libertarian/anarchist, masculinist, Eurocentric, techno-optimistic sentiments, which seem to strike a familiar but ironic tone in the context of the dystopian worlds cyberpunk literature portrays. For example, Leary writes:

The CYBERPUNKS arc the inventors, innovative writers, techno-frontier artists, risk-taking film directors, icon-shifting composers, expressionist artists, free-agent scientists, innovative show-biz entrepreneurs, techno-creatives, computer visionaries, elegant hackers, bit-blitting Prolog adepts, special-effectives, video wizards, neurological test pilots, media-explorers-all of those who boldly package and steer ideas out there where no thoughts have gone before.

CYBERPUNKS are sometimes authorized by the governors. They can, with sweet cynicism and patient humor, interface their singularity with institutions. They often work within “the governing systems” on a temporary basis.

As often as not, they are unauthorized.

Perhaps, in the age of cultural studies (even though Leary does cite Foucault), we might attempt to recoup such views through Haraway’s cyborg manifesto or Deleuze and Guattari’s nomads and rhizomes or maybe even Hakim Bey’s temporary autonomous zones. It’s easy enough to say that these fantasies built the web we have today, or more generously maybe that the contemporary web is what happens after state capture and reterritorialization. So let’s not go there. When I think of the social web (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) I know what I think of: family events, witty remarks, linking something funny or heartwarming, academic politics, current events. The social web manages somehow to demonstrate that the self-aggrandizing “greed is good” ethos of the 80s and the “sharing is caring” mantra of 90s children’s programming are compatible. It’s about as far from the vertiginous romanticism of cyberpunk as one could get. It’s more like a toned-down, less-interesting, pathetic version of Snow Crash or maybe one of Sterling’s novels.

So while I’m not interested in advocating the seemingly individualistic “anti-social” cyberpunk, I am unhappy with the word social.

Maybe it’s the Latour in me that has trained me to raise a skeptical eyebrow to the word “social.” Latour rails against the common view that there is some kind of social stuff. As he makes clear at the start of Reassembling the Social

The argument of this book can be stated very simply: when social scientists add the adjective ‘social’ to some phenomenon, they designate a stabilized state of affairs, a bundle of ties that, later, may be mobilized to account for some other phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this use of the word as long as it designates what is already assembled together, without making any superfluous assumption about the nature of what is assembled. Problems arise, however, when ‘social’ begins to mean a type of material, as if the adjective was roughly comparable to other terms like ‘wooden’, ‘steely’, ‘biological’, ‘economical’, ‘mental’, ‘organizational’, or ‘linguistic’. At that point, the meaning of the word breaks down since it now designates two entirely different things: first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other materials.

Not surprisingly, people battle for the claim to have invented the term “social media,” though it’s mostly corporate and web entrepreneur types.  But what does the adjective social mean here? I’m thinking it’s supposed to mean media technologies that promote socializing, as in many-to-many rather than one-to-many. Perhaps in a technical sense it does. But the web always did that. If we think of Latour’s view of the social in his conception of a sociology of associations, then I suppose we’d begin by thinking of social media applications as actors that produce new associations: new communities and new genres/discourses. I guess that’s a fairly basic starting point that tells us almost nothing; we are, as always, instructed to follow the actors and their trails. In the end though, through social media we are “made to do” things. Not compelled exactly. It’s just that Facebook or Twitter or whatever activates particular capacities within us over others. Those are not “social” capacities. They are not made of social stuff, nor do they do social things as opposed to other capacities that would be non-social.

Leary’s cyberpunks built much of the underlying technology of the social web, perhaps with “sweet cynicism and patient humor.” And then I suppose they persist in the niches of hacker culture, while the typical user becomes immersed in a new “social.” Of course a platform like Facebook or Twitter with its millions of users is diverse in the experiences it might provide on an individual basis. At the same time, an investigation like Manovich’s Selfiecity offers some insight into how technologies generate commonalities. It’s not really my point to say that we are or aren’t being brainwashed by social media. It’s hard to get outside of the binary of the romantic narrative that Leary tells or even gets read into something like Deleuze and Guattari’s articulation of nomads and the state.

My point in the end is more pragmatic and less interesting on some romantic, visionary scale. Can we stop calling this media “social”? What else could we call it? And if we called it something different would we gain a better understanding of it? One that wouldn’t lead us nostalgically toward Leary or running in fear of a technopoly, like Benjamin’s angel of history, or mind-numbingly toward a corporate mall culture or whatever other cheesy narrative you can construct when we imagine that technologies are social.

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  1. I’ve felt a comparable lurch/hitch the “social” appended to “social media.” And I’ve mostly attributed it to Latour’s thoughtful qualification. After Reassembling, social cannot circulate as freely or durably as an unchecked adjectival good. Do you have any thoughts about alternative phrases? I was thinking something like dopple/double might capture the tightly packed, back-to-back motivations wrapped into so-called social media, partly oriented toward interpersonal connection and partly driven by consumerism/advertising saturation. But taking such rephrasing seriously fades quickly in the shadow of “social media” as the reference that has perhaps too commanding a terministic dominance.


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