Find your niche, they tell us, all those contemporary exhortations to success.
Do the thing you love and the money will follow!
I’ve been reading Bourdieu, thinking about his concept of distinction. Distinction is at the heart of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, or how we divide ourselves by class in contemporary culture. In his work, class distinctions go far beyond economics to other forms of capital. Symbolic capital and cultural capital – the ineffables of class captured in phrases like “high class” and “classy” - manifest in aesthetic preferences that are actually marks of taste, or belonging. They refer less to money than to status and aesthetic status markers.
They aren’t only the purview of the ruling classes, though. Every group within society has its markers, its distinctions. We think of them as our tastes, but they are – says Bourdieu – markers of our class identities, internalized and usually invisible to us. (Or they were until the hipsters started drinking Pabst, at least.)
Distinction says “I am not that. I am this.”
In Bourdieu’s work, “all cultural symbols and practices, from artistic tastes, style in dress, and eating habits to religion, science and philosophy – even language itself – embody interests and function to enhance social distinctions” (D. Schwartz, Culture & Power, 1997, p. 6).
Bourdieu is helping me understand why I shudder when I hear “find your niche.”
I am in the middle of designing the study around which I will build my dissertation.
Any act of writing, really, shapes what comes after. And while you’re not married to your dissertation, it IS a significant relationship. It’s years of your life. And a carving out of intellectual territory, particularly if your research is your own.
And so each of the small choices by which I’m gingerly shaping the direction of my Research Ethics Board proposal feel amplified, like echoes that bounce ahead into unseen territory. Most aren’t likely to cause rockslides, really, but the fact that I cannot tell the difference is ever intimidating.
I am relearning, again, the story of the blind men and the elephant.
The field of education is a strange animal. It straddles the disciplines of the academy, but it is not – at least so far as I understand it – a discipline unto itself. It is, rather, an elephant.
In the nearly twenty years since I started my Bachelors of Education program in 1993, I’ve run the full gamut of wise blind men – and women – clutching at tails and feet and ears. Some swear the entire animal corresponds to the piece they hold. Some work hard to see and appreciate the whole, except for that cancerous hunk over there, with its discourses irreconcilable to the piece they have spent their careers grooming.
It’s rather like distinction. The “I am not that” is as important as “I am this.” And all of it is tied to practices and discourses and identity.
And I, of course, am no different. All the more full of hubris, because I keep believing I’ve discovered the outline of the whole beast only to slip again in elephant shit.
But now, I must choose a part of the elephant to tie myself to, upon which to build the rest of my career.
The last time I planted my own stake firmly in the poor old elephant it was for only a Master’s thesis and really, it was neither a professional nor a public enterprise then. There was no social media and nobody much outside my committee ever read it except Dave, bless him. That it got published a few years later was a great joy to me, because publication wasn’t what grad school seemed to be about, then and there. I thought then that education was a societal enterprise best geared toward social justice and analyzed via poststructuralism and if I didn’t fully understand what all that was, well, the rest of the class were still stuck debating whether kids should wear hats in class or no.
But I am now in a faculty far more strongly aligned with the social sciences and that has opened up new doors for me into my research. And so I am a neophyte all over again, self-consciously grappling with a part of the elephant I’ve never held or named.
And all the while, the elephant itself keeps changing.
Higher ed in general is far more self-conscious and self-aware and strategic than it was fifteen years ago. The world of knowledge and cultural production has had its gatekeeping industries exposed and deconstructed; its institutions questioned.
That’s the narrative around which my dissertation and my research study are designed: I’m interested in our practices as social media subjects because I think social media and its ever-encroaching neoliberalism has changed the cultural and knowledge production industries most - or at least first – and academia, according to Bourdieu, is one of these industries. The find your niche prescription for success that permeates contemporary culture echoes strongest out here in social media, where we make ourselves in words and pictures everyday, and are taken up by others as we portray ourselves. But it is part of the academic process too: hence the meta-dilemma of this act of picking which part of the elephant to stand in. Or on. The cultural pressure shaping both is largely the same.
As I saw in my tweetstream just yesterday morning, via @resnikoff: “Ubiquity/structure of social media mean you’re now an eccentric if you *don’t* treat your public presence like a corporate brand.”
In finalizing my research direction, I’m in effect branding myself, tattooing myself all over with identifications, with labels and signifiers.
I am making my niche as a scholar, just as surely as I am making my niche publicly by writing and tweeting about social media media identity.
And in making my niche, I end up not just getting stuck with one part of the elephant, but in all the conversation about the damn elephant, too: all the baggage of generations of scholarly debate.
That’s the problem with “finding your niche,” people. It mires you in everybody else’s distinction processes. Wonder why everybody’s slagging everybody else so hard these days for seemingly mundane choices? We’re not actually arguing with each other, anymore. We’re just enacting distinction. We’re shouting about our part of the elephant.
Niches, of course, are boxes. Rather like the academic disciplines, niches first coalesce areas of interest and then harden lines of communication and their underlying ideologies. If you have a niche, your interactions with the world tend to take on something of a “stay on message” party line. And especially in the social media sphere – which is generally where one is magically supposed to find one’s niche, or at least the market for it -even a purely professional niche becomes a central component of the identity around which relational interactions with others are built.
The “find your niche” mantra is a discourse that reduces a world of complexity to false simplicity. The neoliberal market assumption that there actually IS a niche for everyone makes inherent value judgements about the kinds of people and practices that matter, and it tends to elide the issue of all those who do not fit its precepts. Don’t have something of market value? Don’t want or know how to shill it? You don’t count as a “you,” then, apparently.
But then I think, hush, Bonnie. Because my reaction to that kind of extreme neoliberalism is just MY distinction processes at work.
As an educator, yes, it’s part of my role to consider the literacies and privileges and means of production that tend to be necessary for people to actually engage – successfully or no – in the cultural production processes of social media and contemporary commerce. It’s part of my role to value, recognize, and foreground things that the market is not designed to reward. And that role is part of my identity.
But the tastes in discourse and values that led me to choose that role? The ones that are largely invisible to me as anything other than the way the world *should* be?
Those are products of distinction. Just as is my preference for complexity over simplicity.
You are not that, distinction tells us. You are this. And this is good. Our tastes go unrecognized for what they are: the ways in which we construct and are constructed by the hierarchies of society in our turn. Distinction makes aesthetic and taste and identification preferences appear simply natural.
So. Here’s my hypothesis:
In my research study on social media identities and practices, I want to explore whether and how distinction, as part of Bourdieu’s theory of cultural consumption, can be applied to cultural production, too.
One of the tenets of social media identity is that we are prosumers, involved in processes of produsage. We put our own work out there, and consume and comment on that of others. Thanks to the weakening of those traditional gatekeeping industries that protected the role and status of cultural knowledge producers in academia and journalism and the arts over recent years, we have become part of the cultural production conversation. Production, in other words, is no longer so separate from consumption.
I suspect this is how the so-called culture wars have gotten so nasty over the last few years. As cultural production’s come uncoupled from the traditional gatekeeping institutions – which themselves all had roles in the hierarchies of cultural and symbolic capital – it has become increasingly overtly aligned: the once-naturalized taste distinctions between opera and bluegrass music, for instance, have been gradually blurred and broken down. Cultural products that once carried high class status became visibly commodified, and the ease of technological reproduction and sharing has made awareness of products that were once marginalized appear more exclusive and “authentic.” This lent them a particular sheen of symbolic capital, because their ties to any sort of economic interest were less visible.
In other words, things have gotten messy. Add in a panoptical site of identity performance and prosumption like social media, and you’ve got people’s distinction reactions bouncing up against each other All The Time.
I think our webs of alignment and values have gotten all tangled up. We can see and feel the alignments at an identity level – and react accordingly, with our “I am not that!” defenses of whatever it is we feel is threatened – but because of the way distinction operates, we can’t name them or unpack them particularly well.
We find our niches – even those of us who resent the idea for its reductionism and its misrepresentation of overt economic interests as natural and good – and we cling to our pieces of the metaphorical elephant like blind men, insisting we see the whole, and we wonder what the hell happened.
Does this make sense?
In my research, I want to explore our social media practices, our identity performances, and our alignments of distinction within this newly fragmented field of cultural production, or prosumption. And I want to consider the ways in which dominant neoliberal social media discourses like “find your niche” – which encourage strategic thinking but also naturalize and assume universal market reward without need for other systems – affect our identities and our sociality. All while I unpack my own distinction processes and biases as I go.
Now, I just need to frame this in a way that makes sense to the various keepers of the elephant.
Confession: I’m not entirely sure what week it is in #change11.
Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are tricky creatures, their possibilities and to-do lists inclined to slip away from you and multiply like rabbits the minute you look in another direction. Especially this “mother of all MOOCs,” with its 36 consecutive facilitators and topics.
For a lot of us in education, staying afloat in such a sea of participatory learning opportunities is difficult, overwhelming, contrary to a life’s practice of taking what Liz Renshaw so aptly called “the helicopter view” of any learning experience and trying to overview it. MOOCs are big and distributed and decentralized: conversations are happening all over, there are ostensibly over 2000 participants (even if a lot mostly lurk), and basically, there’s almost no way to keep a finger on the pulse of it all.
It’s rhizomatic, meaning that just like weeding your damn garden, what you see and pull up is only a fraction of what’s there.
This is apt, since while I may not know whether it’s week 7 or 8 of 36 in #change11, I do know it’s Dave’s week, and that the theme is rhizomatic learning.
I may as well dive in.
(Caveat here: I am Dave’s partner and while I have thoughts and opinions on rhizomatic learning I do not actually pay nearly such close attention to his work as I, uh, could? Ought to? So this post does not reflect a particularly privileged or informed perspective on Dave’s ideas, but more where they – and the conversation taking place this week in #Change11 – send me.)
”…a way of thinking about learning based on ideas described by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus. A rhizome, sometimes called a creeping rootstalk, is a stem of a plant that sends out roots and shoots as it spreads. It is an image used by D&G to describe the way that ideas are multiple, interconnected and self-replicating. A rhizome has no beginning or end… like the learning process.”
Sometimes Dave’s work gets taken up either as educational theory or as educational technique. For my part, I don’t think it’s either.
I see rhizomatics as a potent metaphor for conceptualizing the process of learning, and for approaching how we go about learning and working with learning. The value in the idea of the rhizome, for me, is the way in which it foregrounds the unpredictability, the messiness, the connectedness, and the multi-directionality of learning, knowledge, and educational research. I see rhizomatic learning almost as a lens, a pair of glasses one learns to put on in order to view the educational landscape.
These rhizomatic learning lenses are not intended to make you see more clearly, per se, though you may or may not come to that conclusion about their effects. Rather they are intended to make you see differently.
We live in a culture and time where our minds are colonized by education. Most particularly, by education as a system. We go to school, almost all of us, and are taught from an extraordinarily young age that school equates with learning. Our cultural concepts of education and learning are intrinsically interwoven with notions of schooling.
And when we try to grapple with the ways in which the discourses of learning and schooling have changed – drastically – in the past generation or so, as we are trying to do with the #change11 MOOC, that colonization often takes over.
Colonization is a harsh word. Education, after all, is a good. Most of us who tend to succeed in it have been taught that from our mothers’ knees. Even those of us who haven’t succeeded – or had the opportunity to succeed – within systematized education have traditionally been made acutely aware of our lack.
I do genuinely believe there can be great value in an education. To paraphrase Churchill on democracy, I see education as the worst system…except for all the other ones that have been tried. I place particular import on systems of public education, to the extent to which they help mitigate inequities and create opportunities. Alas, that extent is often profoundly underwhelming.
It is also where technologies and networks and the possibilities of open education really begin to excite me. Because we get the opportunity to rethink or think outside the systemic constraints of traditional education and learning, and to consider what learning and “an education” could mean.
Except then we don’t, all too often. Because we’re colonized.
We conflate learning and schooling. We are subjects of the idea of education as a system, an institution, and so we rely on and replicate this idea in our conceptions of learning: we assume factors like goals and grading and – increasingly – market viability as real parts of what learning involves. They can be, of course. But they do not need to be unless that learning is taking place within the contingencies of mass-delivery and crowd control and normativizing of classed behaviours and literacies that we absorbed with our school milk programs. These practical components of systemic schooling processes are the base map or lens on learning which we, culturally, have inherited.
This idea of systemic education as we in the West know it is not a particularly ancient one. As Dave pointed out in the first post of the week, one of the purposes of mass public education was to train workers. It was also to inculcate what were deemed to be productive civic values in citizens, including a healthy respect for institutional, hierarchical power.
For the last fifty years or so, the idea of that institutional, hierarchical power as natural and good has been broadly challenged- see 1968, deconstruction, Free to Be You & Me, constructivism, and, uh, MOOCs, among other things – but also buoyed up by the rise of neoliberalism and the increasing public acceptance of discourses of corporatism and managerialism in public enterprises such as government and education. It’s a site of fascinating societal struggle. It’s also profoundly self-replicating: we become subjects of the system in school, and then subject others to the operations of the system we’ve come to see as natural and right.
So long as our lenses on learning are actually focused on schooling, we replicate the same colonizing systems. Even where we try not to. Even online, where we don’t have to.
Which is where rhizomatic learning and the new pair of glasses come in.
The rhizome is non-binary, non-hierarchical, and non-linear: it’s also aggressive and chaotic and resists the tree-like arboreal model of knowledge. For Deleuze & Guattari, it is a cultural process that emphasizes “ceaselessly established connections between semiotic chains, organizations of power, and circumstances relative to the arts, sciences, and social struggles.” Yeh. That.
I don’t think rhizomatic learning can be used particularly effectively to address grading, or curriculum, or most of the structures of systemic education. The rhizome is not a way of tweaking the systems we have.
The idea of rhizomatic learning emphasizes how ideas spread, popping out roots and shoots. Some of these take on whole lives of their own. Others abort at the bud stage. As a visual image for how learning operates, it enables us to – maybe – break down or see beyond some of the colonized perceptions we’ve been trained to, like the one that makes me feel slightly anxious when I realize I’ve missed an entire week of what’s gone on in the MOOC, say. That’s a perspective trained to assume that a) what’s on offer is what I should learn, b) that a view of the “whole” is possible and desirable and that partiality is less, and c) that missing things in a learning experience is abnormal.
Yet when I think back to my high school or undergraduate “learning experiences,” I begin to wonder if the process of popping out little roots and shoots in relatively unpredictable response to whatever I happened to tune into isn’t what I’ve been doing all along, however much the curriculum and my nice, tidy grades from those days might like to tell another story.
I try to wear my rhizomatic learning glasses when I think about this MOOC. I focus on the connections that occur, the relations between ideas and people and platforms, and the ones that seem to abort. I always think of whatever I might happen to think about the MOOC as if it were a picture of a tiny part of our very-rhizome-infested garden, partial and limited and chaotic and heading off in a tangle of directions.
Slowly, very slowly, this perspective on my own learning and participation and subject position begins to help me alter the way I conceive of education.
And that, my friends, is what rhizomes are good for.
Twitter is my personal canary in the coal mine of world events.
A coup? An outrage? A celebrity death? I miss nothing. Why, I have mourned the loss of leading figures before they themselves even heard they were dead (sorry ’bout that, Gordon Lightfoot.)
Yesterday, I heard the wailing and gnashing of teeth as soon as I opened my laptop after lunch.
Sometime around noon, Klout’s algorithm shifted. And revealed a great deal about itself – and us – in the process.
Klout defines influence as “the ability to drive action.” Klout claims to measure influence across social media platforms. It collects data on users’ engagement on Twitter, FB, G+, Flickr, etc., and collates those multiple analytics into a single, shifting number. You go up if you’re doing well, down if you’re losing influence. Or, say, if you spent a whole day offline. Merciful heavens.
Klout has been embraced as an objective third-party tool for business to tell which self-promoting social media gurus actually have real capacity and reach. It has also been embraced a pet hobby for bloggers intent on giving each other mischevious +K points on topics like “belching,” “Kansas City airports,” and “hairy backs.” It promotes that use less loudly in its press releases.
Klout claims to measure both reach – how many people you influence – and scale – how much you influence them. It also takes into account the influence of those you influence. Meaning, on the surface, if you engage with leaders in your community or corner of teh internets, you yourself are more likely to exert leadership influence.
If you’ve been in the habit of checking your Klout, you may have seen a change in your score yesterday. And if you had Klout anywhere above, oh, 55 or so, you may have seen a drop. Klout posted a graphic (scroll down here) to support their claim that the majority of users would see their score stay the same or go down, but a straw poll of the canaries tweeting out sturm und drang on my Twitter feed yesterday afternoon suggests that the people clipped hardest by the new algorithm were the ones best positioned to actually give a shit about Klout.
(Disclosure: I went from an all-time high of 64 to a 57. Pass the hankies.)
Last week I ended an academic presentation of social media with a screen capture of my Klout score at the time, tongue-in-cheek. Thank god. I’ll never see that number again.
But, as I noted on Twitter, showing it off to a non-social-media-using audience isn’t a whole lot different than bragging to them about that high score I got in Super Mario Brothers back in 1993. It, too, was still a lot lower than some friends’ scores. It was higher than others. What it gave me was a sense I was improving at a game I was trying to learn…which is pretty much what I think Klout is good for.
(Admittedly, the old algorithm could be gamed, and was skewed by random RTs by celebrities, for instance. It rewarded cliqueishness, and highly sociable people with access to established networks. However, while the new Klout claims to be more transparent, I don’t actually see the explanations of how my acts translate into data anywhere in my new Klout interface. I’d like to: for my thesis research, it’d be fascinating.)
But. The lack of transparency, however touted, is not the problem with Klout’s new algorithm.
Maybe Klout needs to become my new canary in the coal mine of social media. Because the problem is bigger than Klout, and it is threefold.
1. We are beginning to buy into what we think our Klout tells us about ourselves.
Social media practices are identity practices, particularly on networking platforms like Twitter and Facebook (the prime sources of Klout data). Many of us put a lot of time into social media, and are aware that our expertise has growing cultural capital. People have learned to care about their Klout. For some, it’s a very real calling card for very real money. For others, it’s one of the few reflections available of whether we’re succeeding in a varied game in which there are no maps. Even if we watch it tongue-in-cheek, clearly a lot of us watch it.
This accords power and veracity to the metric.
Now, social media has always involved metrics: comments, Technorati, numbers of Twitter followers. But, for the most part, if one desired to increase those numbers, the path was relatively straightforward: one engaged more. Klout, with its complex algorithm drawn from big data that judges our most mundane interactions, is different. It’s not only measuring us, it’s assessing us. It’s designed on behaviourist principles, with rewards and virtual pats on the head when we – ratlike, often not entirely sure what we did to warrant the praise – succeed on the terms its algorithm values, and framing losses in score with banners that proclaim “Oh no! Your life is over Klout has fallen -1 in the past 2 days!”
We are highly conditionable beings. Klout is conditioning us to care about Klout, and to value ourselves – in this identity economy of social media – in terms of it. Which one could argue we’ve been doing ever since 2001, when Joe next door got more blog comments than we did and we cried in our beer and felt small and alone, but. It’s not the same. Because not all engagement is created equal, in Klout.
2. We’re being influenced by our own “influence.”
Used to be, if you happened to be someone who valued the metric of comments, a comment was more or less a comment. Yes, a comment from a blogger of known scale could feel somewhat a visitation from the archangels, but at the end of the day, the comments added up and like votes, each counted (if you were counting).
Relationally, the comment from a famous blogger might be an avenue to connection and networks that might ultimately serve some strategic purpose, but use value can’t really drive relationships in a one person-one vote economy.
Klout, though, works to devalue the nature of many social media communities, particularly those whose networks and relationships aren’t based entirely in use value. Some animals are more equal than others. In new Klout, I now get notices along the bottom of my screen about which contacts have gone down in score recently: in case I want to dump them, I assume, like dead weight. Bye, Mom! It’s all business.
Social media wasn’t supposed to be all business, especially business as usual. Social media is, uh, social. And relational: it’s a form of augmented reality, a network for all sorts of purposes, well beyond use-value networking.
But because Klout rewards use-value networking over other forms of engagement, it fosters an increasingly use-value environment. In Klout, it matters a lot more if you get a famous person to click your link or RT your content, especially if that person doesn’t regularly engage in clicking or RTing or sharing or whatnot. This makes some sense, in terms of assessing influence. But IT ALSO AFFECTS BEHAVIOURS.
The peer-to-peer relationality of social media – already grappling with a relatively new breed of user whose sole goal is building platform as a path to old guard institutional or corporate success – is undermined by the kind of behaviour that cultivates status over relationships. Status is part of the game. But when it becomes the whole game, the broad, rhizomatic networks get boxed in and wither, and then we’re back to something a lot less interesting than social media. And like the new Google Reader, a lot less social.
Yes, there is a pattern here. We are gradually being directed away from sociality and towards business-like behaviours by the business interests that design and profit from the platforms we use.
Social media, which was once a bit of a rogue blowing smoke at the establishment, is being taken in hand and given a tie and a briefcase. We’re like the rebel who’s been told s/he got the highest mark on a class test: we suddenly don’t know what to do with ourselves.
The problem: the test was rigged. And will always be rigged.
3. We’re allowing a metric to do a human’s job.
I’m not saying Klout isn’t trying, in terms of assessing influence and engagement fairly. The problem is, it can’t.
My influence and reach and social media fame and probably my throw to third base are all somewhat more modest than those three. My Klout score ultimately reflects that I’m frittering away more time on Twitter than they are, as they’re too busy with jobs or book tours or speaking engagements.
Because their actual influence – their name recognition within their respective fields, their public profile, their contacts, their capacity to leverage social media influence into dollars – is, in each case, greater than mine. That doesn’t negate mine, or anything. But just because Klout says I have equal influence doesn’t make it so.
Klout attempts to create an objective representation of something that is complex and subjective beyond the capacity of any algorithm to capture.
It appears that a lot of business interests have bought into the idea of Klout as a marvellous, miraculous objective third party observer, collating all the variables and doing the dirty work of sorting out for them who matters. But just because scoring is helpful in a competitive neoliberal economy – “crucial,” even, according to the author linked above – doesn’t mean it’s actually valid. Or even possible.
All algorithms and metrics are products of their design. They are rigid, no matter how flexible and complex, and they cannot make exceptions or comprehend the subtleties of human relational interaction based solely on numbers, no matter how many numbers they use.
Influence is a relational measurement. It is a human measurement. Like intelligence and learning all the other things we stupidly insist we can measure, simple because we NEED effective comparisons, influence exceeds our grasp.
We may need to understand how to compare apples and oranges. It doesn’t mean we can, especially with mere numbers. This is true in education, and this is true in human relations and influence.
And while the game of seeing how we measure up may be entertaining, it’s only valuable if one is embedded enough in the relational networks it claims to assess to know when to take it with a grain of salt. Liz Gumbinner at Mom 101 wrote an exceptional post about this last month, giving thanks for savvy PR people and corporations who recognize good writing when they see it, who understand that this game is more than numbers.
I’d like to see more of them. I don’t wish my Klout canary in the coal mine of social media dead, but I’d like it seen for what it is: a decorative little bird, useful for entertaining and reflecting back the notes one is, uh, tweeting. NOT the measure of value in social media.
We need to stop handing over so much power to metrics. They have a place. But it’s THEIR use-value we need to assess, not the other way around.
Slavoj Zizek’s recent article in Inside Higher Ed made me wonder whether my research should focus more on how corporate platforms affect social media users’ sense of their own capacities, and – by extension – identities. It also made me wonder if I’m not really a digital ungulate: a docile hoofed animal waiting to be herded.
That isn’t what the article’s about, exactly.
It’s about the cloud, or the preponderance of web-based tools and applications that make resources available to us via the internet and computing networks. The scope of power and access that the cloud makes available is enormous, far greater than most individuals would ever be able to afford, manage, or comprehend if we needed to coordinate or store stuff individually on our own machines. The cloud is a distributed delivery system on a grand scale.
And as many before Zizek have pointed out, it’s also a veil of abstraction that falls between the user and the technology; both cause and symptom of the increasing privatization of cyberspace. Because the gadgets we use are ever-more powerful and ever-more personalized, but they are also ever-more monopolized by a few corporations with particular commercial and ideological interests.
Now, I am a happy citizen of the cloud, most of the time. I don’t want to jail-break my iPhone; hell, I don’t even HAVE an iPhone. Even if I did, and someone was kind enough to jailbreak it for me, I wouldn’t know what to do with it. I don’t have the literacies. Sure, I spend perhaps eighty hours a week on my computer, and I possess a decent amount of meta-knowledge about social media and digital technologies and their implications for society. But I’m one of those people who came to the study of technologies through the door of cultural curiosity and theory. I started researching social technologies in 1997. It was only with the rise of social media and the cloud that I began to develop a practice – a deep practice, certainly, and deeply valuable to me – with social technologies.
That practice and its infiltration of my daily life and identity has made me profoundly dependent on platforms I don’t claim to understand. I am a social media animal, grazing in the cloud.
What I am not, no matter how extensive my interest in and usage of social technologies, is a geek. I use the term with props: my instinct is that I’d probably be better off a geek. Because geeks have a skillset and an agency with technologies that I do not. And part of what separates me and my ilk from the generation of digital enthusiasts before me – the generation who had to be, to some extent, geeks in order to invest as much of their lives and identities in digital technologies in a time when platforms did not make it all transparent for them – is captured in the distinction between geek and user.
I am a user and a thinker of digital technologies: I call myself a cyborg. But I do not have the agency a geek might have to control her own experience of the augmented reality of cyberspace. Twitter and Apple and Facebook and Google and Flickr pre-decide a great deal of that experience for me. And mostly I am happy with that, because I do not have the knowledge to make other decisions with, anyway.
Admittedly, I also don’t know how my car works, at any intimate level. But my social identity is not constructed in the interaction between my spark plugs and my engine. And so I wonder, as a social media animal, how corporate decisions about efficiency and profit and ease-of-use impact these seemingly endless capacities the cloud brings me? It appears to bring me new kinds of agency, and those are in, in effect, the subject of my doctoral research. But how is that agency constructed? What forms of control come with it?
Control, says Zizek, is one of the key hallmarks of this cloud culture. Vertical integration means that a single corporation is increasingly invested across multiple levels of the very huge business that is the cloud. As Zizek puts it, “Apple doesn’t only sell iPhones and iPads, it also owns iTunes. It also recently made a deal with Rupert Murdoch allowing the news on the Apple cloud to be supplied by Murdoch’s media empire.” (2011).
The cloud makes almost infinite access and choice available on one hand, while limiting other choices within the very narrow lines of corporate alliances. Most of us can’t and don’t want to make anything approaching an infinite number of choices. But when corporate alignments preclude even the rather reasonable and familiar choice of news providers, which most of us are more than capable of making, and then makes that choice appear natural to a digital citizenry conditioned to accepting what our platforms dictate…that seems like a problem.
It’s not a problem Slavoj Zizek has a solution for, unfortunately.
You can usually count on Zizek for a nice incisive polemic on contemporary culture, and for tearing sacred cows a new one as he goes. Sometimes he rises to the level of actually framing new perspectives on society’s comfortable habits. I studied with him for a summer back in 2004, and he was a magnetic, bear-like force who occasionally spat out tidbits that still churn in the pool of my thought-processes. At other times, I just got a lot of spit on me.
This piece on the cloud, though, left me almost spit-free. Sure, there’s a comparison between the cloud’s operations and those of the Chinese state, but otherwise, the article is almost…utterly rational. And observational in tone. It raises very few spectres, Chinese communism aside, and doesn’t mention Lacan once.
In the comments, there are tongue-in-cheek cries of “what have you done with Zizek?”
Shortly after a flurry of us tweeted the article out yesterday morning, Jim Groom noted similar concerns, asking, isn’t this rather tame for a cultural critic of his stature? Where, said Jim, are the alternatives to the problems Zizek identifies with cloud computing? And when, he said, will the poets of our moment emerge?
I wrote back a line from Ginsberg’s America: When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
It’s true, Zizek’s article largely failed to offer any sort of critical, mythical re-framing of possibility. And it’s true we could use a poet, or seven.
But maybe we’d do better with seven thousand. Maybe the problem isn’t solely the cloud, but the fact that our critical thinking skills are still set to a pre-cloud scale. Wrapping our minds around how the cloud changes things, and coming to any understanding of what the insidious corporatization of platforms means for identities and agency may take the kind of distributed, networked, crowdsourced effort the cloud makes possible. Maybe we need all the knowledges we can find.
Whether I look at social media from the perspective of individual subjectivities or the grand scale of the cloud, the issue of corporate symbiosis always crops up. How we understand who we are and what we do in contemporary culture – digital and otherwise – needs to account for the ways in which our social and learning environments and our ensuing identities are shaped by corporate decisions and practices and discourse. The scope and scale of this accounting is nearly as vast as that of the cloud itself.
Slavoj Zizek is a cultural critic of some stature, yes. But on cloud computing, he can only draw on what he knows, just as Jim Groom draws on what he knows, and I draw on what I know. If Zizek had an answer, the chorus of blog posts that amplified his answer would each change it just a little, add something, create a composite narrative that might be better for the input of geeks, of poets, even of us ungulates.
How does the cloud impact you and what you can and can’t do? What control do you give over to the corporate wizards behind the curtain? What agency do you gain and/or lose? If you identify as a geek rather than an ungulate, would you recommend I stop merely grazing in the cloud, and start learning? What should I learn?
Tell me, all you poets and users and geeks. As Ginsberg said, queer shoulder to the wheel.
Theorizing the Web 2011 was a wicked conference. It was also a bit of a meta-experience in augmented reality.
Maybe not textbook augmented reality, admittedly, since – as happens at geek conferences – the sheer multitude of smart phones and laptops present overpowered the wireless system and the majority of us couldn’t get online much. I was disappointed that I couldn’t tweet a few of the presentations: one of the joys of digital participation is in turning a monologue into a forum, a conversation of sorts.
But there was plenty going on, even without much digital augmentation. Put together by PJ Rey & Nathan Jurgenson, grad students who set out to run the conference they wanted to go to, TtW2011 appeared to succeed beyond their wildest dreams. The day was jam-packed with sessions on new economies and cyber-racism and cyber-support and structure/agency and the question of social media revolutions, among others. The panels hung together, mostly, and people put work & energy into their presentations. Even the final sessions, which ran through what my parent-of-preschoolers brain has come to consider “suppertime,” played to engaged audiences.
That wasn’t the augmented reality part, though. Rather, the whole trip was. I marked my five-year blogging anniversary on Monday. And the trip to DC and College Park offered what for me – as the sole practicioner of social media in an Education cohort of three on an island half-way off the side of Canada – was a heady face-to-face tour through almost all corners of the connections I’ve made and learning I’ve done over that five years. I roomed with digiwonk, and sat in as she presented the results of a mommyblogging survey I participated in almost three years ago. I got to spend the day with Neilochka, who – as promised – didn’t call bullshit on me once. (At least not so I could hear him.) I listened to danah boyd’s keynote and complimented her on her boots, after citing her extensively in one of my term papers last fall. After all these years, I spent a glorious splashy rainy afternoon with Susan before the conference formally began. Through my panel I met fellowexplorers into this messy, chewy business of cyborgs and mediated lives. I even met the real-life friend & colleague of someone I spent last week debating on Twitter. Tiny world. My apparently tiny digital world, all its interconnections brought to life in one short weekend.
The conference was the augmentation, for me, the extra. Back now in my pastoral cloister on the edge of the planet, this digital sphere is the one in which I seek the majority of my daily engagement with people over the age of five. Having them come to life in front of me reminded me of nothing so much as my first foray into Second Life, except without the difficulty walking and flying. TtW2011, for me, was proof not only that augmented reality really does exist, Virginia, but that there is no hierarchy of modes within it. All is interconnected, rhizomatically interwoven, ever-shifting and ever-surprising and ever-rich.
As for my presentation, I am still working on the art of clarity. I managed to pack a theoretically complex, 20 page paper into 15 minutes. Sorta. Here, in the slideshare below, I manage it in 10ish. I wish it were 5.
I’ve always been a literary storyteller…if I can teach myself through practice to become an effective didactic one, then I’ll be able to become the presenter I want to be. But there will be a lot of practice – a lot of reining in my natural tendency to go on and on, musingly – between now and then. Feedback welcome, and share at will.
If “online” is just another place to manage identity, why does digital identity deserve special treatment?
Thanks – big thanks – to all of you who gave me input on digital identity and how you think of it and name it. The paraphrased quotes from the last post’s comments all helped me dig deeper into the specifics of what I’m aiming to explore with this dissertation-in-the-making. I both agree and disagree with each: the conversation hones my thinking and my writing, and I am grateful.
Here’s what I think: the specific kind of cyborg identity that interests me is new. People have, arguably, depended on technologies to construct and perform identity for thousands of years: the wheel created social structures that shaped who people were and how they saw themselves, and writing – to Socrates’ chagrin – enabled a persistence of self over time that has deeply shaped our notion of what it is to be human.
But what I call – for now, at least – the branded cyborg is a particular hybrid of human and social media platform that creates a circulation of identity different from previous incarnations or understandings of self. It is a reputational identity with tangible, visible, measurable attributes, and the economy in which it operates makes demands on the entity who generates it.
In this sense, I think the branded cyborg – for those of us who are one – is us and reaches beyond us, at the same time. It is identity in the public domain. And I think how it operates matters.
That’s why I think digital identity deserves special focus, even if it is perceived by social media users as a simple extension of themselves. Operations of power and interaction are not actually the same online as they are in so-called “real life,” no matter whether we try to conduct ourselves the same or no. The speed of connections, the flattening (to an extent) of hierarchical relations, the reputational and corporate economic aspects of social media, and the ways in which power circulates and allows for different performances and different recognition of performances all change the subject positions that the environment creates and privileges.
Donna Haraway first wrote her particular version of the cyborg into being in 1985: a creature without origin and without innocence, resolutely committed to “partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity.” A couple of years ago, in response to the irritatingly popular mythology of the digital native, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek cyborg momifesto, on the cyborg nature of mommybloggers. We perform aspects of self for each other, intimately, but accept that the whole is seldom represented. We often parody notions of what motherhood should be in an effort to resist the discourses that frame our identities. We are hybrids of human and technology just as surely as our children are touted to be.
My ‘we’ has expanded since then, but I still find the figure of the cyborg valuable as a representation of the particular kind of digital identity I want to explore. In my dissertation, I’ll revision Haraway’s late 20th century version of the cyborg as a 21st century digital subject; an entity of social media.
Now, I don’t think everyone online is a cyborg, or at least not a branded cyborg, not really. It depends on what we DO online. Those of us who live “in the open,” to an extent, who engage in the creation/consumption sharing cycle of the produsage economy and who put our own work out there to our networks and actively try to grow audience for those networks under a particular name (or names) that represent us? WE’RE branding. If you have a Facebook account and the rest of your online activity is mostly surfing, maybe you’re not branding. It’s about level of engagement in that reputational, rhizomatic economy. It’s about sharing, putting aspects of self out there, seeking recognition and being open to new connections in the network. It’s about reciprocity, as well: sharing the work of others, leaving comments, participating in the circulation.
So the digital identities of cyborgs are multi-faceted representations, contributed to and amplified by others as part of the etiquette of social media. Cyborg subjects involved in social media produsage networks ‘create content’ such blog posts, tweets, video work, slideshows, or comments attached to a particular digital identity that circulates in the open, building social – and potential financial – capital for its creators in the process. Traditional media appearances or in the online work of others will sometimes factor into a person’s digital identity: the traces that register with Google as a part of our digital identity are not always fully under our control. However, as Google’s page rank works on scale of views, longterm commitment to a particular digital profile or identity means that sites or accounts managed by the user will usually end up outranking random facets of identity originating with other subjects. The identity can encompass many platforms: depth and frequency of use lend gravitas, as do statistical data like blog pageviews and public rankings like Klout.
For Judith Butler, we are called into being as subjects by the operations of power and discourse, and our agency is concommitant with our subjectivity. What does this mean for digital identity? Cyborg digital identities are the product of already-formed subjects: the traces of us that circulate online are deployed in that environment by subjects always already navigating discourse and power. The digital identity may be constructed the same, psychically and discursively, but operates in a different environment. It is the agency of the digital subject – and whether the digital environment offers alternative opportunities for agency not previously available to the subject in embodied form – that interests me.
As an educator, I’m also interested in whether these potentially new digital subjectivities and their agency then impact the embodied subject and his or her expectations. In other words, what does it mean to teach a branded cyborg in an educational system premised on very different subject roles and agentive constructions than are available here online?
This is why I don’t believe that your online identity is simply ‘you.’ When a subject chooses to engage in the produsage economy, creating and sharing content and contributing to the consumption of others’ content as a means of connecting and building visibility and reputation, a cyborg digital identity comes into being. This digital identity, I will argue, cannot be identical to the subjectivity of the embodied person creating the content, even if the person intends it to be. The digital identity will almost invariably end up being recognized and interacted with differently than the embodied person, because the medium allows for and privileges different types of engagement. Few people, even if they write for a living, walk into an office in the morning and are told outright what a wonderful writer they are. Few students can walk into schools, even with the most well-intentioned teachers, and say Hey! This really amazing/terrible/striking thing came across my radar last night and I’d like to take this morning to respond to and share it creatively. Not everyday. And I’m not sure school should be about that every day, though I’m not sure it shouldn’t. But most students learn from their earliest years that schooling means a set of power relations that tend to preclude and sanction statements like that. They learn a different subject position, one with a very different sort of agency than they will encounter online, as cyborgs.
In this context, then, new forms of agency and specifically digital subjectivity are indeed jointly called into being. The discourses and power relations that create the specific subjugation that calls each individual into cyborg identity would, I assume, be individual: I will want to explore Butler’s work on desire and on giving account of oneself in order to consider the myriad of ways this may operate. Certainly, in my own experience, it was subjugation to and representation by a discourse of motherhood that I felt excluded my experience of loss and attachment that led me to try to narrate my own story online, visibly: in creating cribchronicles, I created my own agency to speak a counter-discourse.
This all sounds delightfully, misleadingly emancipatory. I don’t mean it to. I see change as carrying good and bad, cultural gain and cultural loss: I want to explore both. Social media is neither saviour nor sin, in my mind. And lots of people, I’m sure, go online mostly for the porn.
My read of both Haraway’s original cyborg and Butler’s notions of subjectivity and performativity is that the messiness is okay; that clean trajectories are to be mistrusted, interrogated, that porn – and all the aspects of humanity that it stands for – are part of the package I’ve taken on here, in looking to study identity in this public domain of the digital.
My hope, really, is that in exploring what it means to be a branded cyborg I will stumble and grope my way to a more complex understanding of what it means to be human, here and now.