Performative Social Media

Performative Social Media

I posted the majority of this piece previously, and in reviewing some of my old posts thought this would be a good one to update a little in light of having recently actually abandoned mainstream social media completely.


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 to maintain a meaningful level of engagement. There's an element of investment needed to really get the greatest benefit out of these platforms. They have a cost in time and attention.

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 year (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. All businesses provide a product or a service and sometimes it's more difficult to see which facet of a business is it's cash cow.

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 often 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 this case it's work that I rapidly come to dislike — hence my habit of rapidly deleting social media accounts shortly after creating them.

In order to remain competitive with each other these social media platforms must continually become more efficient at leveraging their assets. This is reflected as the interfaces and modes of interaction are skewed towards those activities that most benefit the business instead of providing value to it's users. The prominence of content that doesn't benefit the business model is algorithmically decreased, new features designed to engage users around a paying sponsors or advertisers are given valuable screen space in mobile apps. Efficiency in the social media business means skewing the balance of utility for users versus advertisers ever more in the direction of the money flow. The addictive nature of short, immediately gratifying interaction is increasingly relied upon to maintain burgeoning user statistics to justify that advertising. For each dollar spent, the platform must maximise the time you spend thinking about that buyer.

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. We are individually improved by learning and promoting those aspects of ourselves that are good for everyone around us. Our performances are edited but they are not, on the whole, fabrications and where those edits are good we align to them in the rest of our lives. Our external identities are simply managed versions of ourselves. 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.

But 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 continual interaction with a group of other people 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. That cost can be paid in anxiety, fatigue, and other behaviours that I wouldn't normally choose to inflict upon the people around me. I can be a hardcore grump!

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 now choosing not to partake in mainstream social media. My interaction with friends and family is more direct, via a minimised set of means. Mean's that do not have a time-sensitive context in most circumstances. Means that are more often on agreeable terms for all participants.

The MacBook

The MacBook

Behaviour Driven Development

Behaviour Driven Development