Performative Social Industry

I have an issue with social media. It has this compelling grip and it can dominate so much time; you sit there waiting for the next update or interaction, or like, or heart, or star. It's ultimately unfulfilling though — within a couple of weeks my interest is gone and it becomes hard work.

My attention span is short. Really short. I should probably thank it, in a way, because it has allowed me to detach from the feedback loop and more critically approach my social media use; especially in the last few weeks (but those who know me will have spotted this pattern in my behaviour play out with regularity over the last few years). Social media is an industry, but because we use it for social engagement we don't tend to view it that way. We see it as a leisure activity, but it is a business in which we participate, and a business that thrives on the gamification of basic, human, emotional needs.

Your participation in social media is an essential labour for an industry in which you are a worker but are not employed. Even before you consider such notions as intellectual property, or who gets what rights to the photos you upload, you have to consider the interaction of your investment and the business needs of the service itself. I don't think we do this, at least not critically. Your performance in social media is essential not just because it drives the great cogwheel of ad revenue, or because the greater your participation the greater your contribution to the valuable database behind the platform (and both of those are obviously vital to the financial needs of the service). Your performance is essential because it encourages the performance of others. It is a force multiplier.

Social media platforms therefore are designed to encourage a performance that outweighs the value of the service that is being offered (the value of that service being debatable — and often conditional). Your performance does have a value though, and is reflected in share prices, valuations, and financial reports. If you're not receiving roughly equivalent value to your own contribution (and value can take many forms) then you're performing free labour. Someone is literally getting rich off the back of your work. In my case it's work that I rapidly come to dislike — hence my habit of promptly deleting social media accounts shortly after creating them.

Your follower and friend counts are a performance. Your photos and selfies are a performance. Your witty joke is a performance. Your #nowplaying is a performance. This is not something I highlight with disdain; this is natural human social behaviour. We present ourselves in a manner that is palatable or enjoyable to the people we find palatable or enjoyable to associate with. We share those parts of ourselves we most like, and make them larger and louder because we like them. Our performances are edited but they are not, on the whole, fabrications. Our external identities are simply managed versions of ourselves and performance is not misdirection or dishonesty.

Social media has tricks for magnifying this behaviour; it encourages this performance beyond any real social benefit, and then cashes the cheque and pays it's shareholders. However, my problem isn't really with the capitalist exploitation of social labour, either.

My issue is the personal cost this has. I am an introvert, and performing that version of me that I most enjoy is tiring. Where some people recharge by spending their time with friends and laughing and celebrating I recharge by hiding away and minimising my exposure to the world for a while. When social media encourages an exaggerated, performative social labour it has a similarly exaggerated cognitive cost.

This is a long-winded way of trying to explain that its up to me to address the imbalance between my labour and my reward. Praxis is cutting away all the sources of frustration, any extraneous performance, and any exposure where the cost is greater than the benefit. I am once again reduced to only Twitter as my preferred platform, and I am limiting my sphere of interaction even there. I'm not performing for Twitter in any greater capacity than I deem to be acceptable and I am not performing for the sense of entitlement of any individuals who are going to deposit themselves into my DMs with an aggrieved ego regarding my follower status. Follow me because you're interested, not because you want something.

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