This e-flux essay on social media ideology makes a few expansive arguments about what we consider when we think about the social web:
Social networking is much more than just a dominant discourse. We need to go beyond text and images and include its software, interfaces, and networks that depend on a technical infrastructure consisting of offices and their consultants and cleaners, cables and data centers, working in close concert with the movements and habits of the connected billions. (...)
We often overlook the internet's physical presence. The ethereal "cloud" is a massive network of data centers in server arrays as formidable & imposing as ancient terra cotta armies. Software designers and product strategists obsess over ways to encourage or discourage user behavior through design.
In general, we should think more holistically about the systems we use, especially foundational ones we typically take for granted.
… Before we enter the social media sphere, everyone first fills out a profile and choses a username and password in order to create an account. Minutes later, you’re part of the game and you start sharing, creating, playing, as if it has always been like that [...] The platforms present themselves as self-evident. They just are—facilitating our feature-rich lives.
It's easy to overlook the role that trial and happenstance have played in the processes we take for granted today. Before movies matured into a standard media format, every movie was an "experimental" movie. Today, mainstream audiences can expect a main character(s), conflict, plot, rising action, and climax. But things didn't have to turn out this way, and they don't have to remain this way.1
When I bring that mindset to social media, I think about its valuation of things like engagement metrics and “personalization.” Like everything else, social media has evolved a set of standards and familiar design practices optimized for capitalism (profit over wellbeing), hyper-individuality, and “optics” over lived reality:
Treating social media as ideology means observing how it binds together media, culture, and identity into an ever-growing cultural performance (and related “cultural studies”) of gender, lifestyle, fashion, brands, celebrity, and news from radio, television, magazines, and the web—all of this imbricated with the entrepreneurial values of venture capital and start-up culture, with their underside of declining livelihoods and growing inequality.
Extending that holistic view to all software helps the argument that software is a form of ideology:
Software “fulfills almost every formal definition of ideology we have, from ideology as false consciousness to Louis Althusser’s definition of ideology as a ‘representation’ of the imaginary relation of individuals to their real conditions of existence.’”
Software, or perhaps more precisely operating systems, offer us an imaginary relationship to our hardware: they do not represent transistors but rather desktops and recycling bins. Software produces users. Without operating system (OS) there would be no access to hardware; without OS no actions, no practices, and thus no user. Each OS, through its advertisements, interpellates a “user”: calls it and offers it a name or image with which to identify.
The current social media product trends…
- Assign value to actions/engagement in a way that's optimized more for advertisers & companies than for people
- Establish templates for us to express ourselves
- Turn "visibility" into something that's less about existing and more about self-branding
Social media ideology depends on metaphors and values we take for granted in software design. Instagram & Facebook in their current states (unfocused, forcing engagement patterns on users for metrics over product quality) seem like extreme signs that we need to change course.
Today's arthouse films could have been another universe's overcommercialized Marvel movies. I wonder how today's standards could be seen as rudimentary / experimental / quaint in the future. At the time of its release in 1929, Critics dismissed Man with a Movie Camera, an avant-garde documentary with no actors or "plot," even when it popularized now-common film techniques fast & slow motion, jump cuts, split screens, and match cuts. Now, elements like its quick cuts and self-referentiality common in contemporary films/series. ↩︎