#review features links to, summaries of, and discussions around academic journal articles and books.

Today, guest contributor Rob Horning reviews: Life on automatic: Facebook’s archival subject by Liam Mitchell. First Monday, Volume 19, Number 2 – 3 February 2014 http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4825/3823 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v19i2.4825

If, like me, you are skeptical of research on social media and subjectivity that takes the form of polling some users about their feelings, as if self-reporting didn’t raise any epistemological issues, this paper, steeped in Baudrillard, Derrida, and Heidegger, will come as a welcome change. It’s far closer to taking the opposite position, that whatever people say about their feelings should probably be discounted out of hand, given that what is more significant is the forces that condition the consciousness of such feelings. That approach is sometimes dismissed as failing to take into account individual agency; it’s implicitly treated as an affront to human dignity to presume that people’s use of technology might not be governed by full autonomy and voluntarism, that it’s tinfoil-hat silly to believe that something as consumer-friendly and popular as Facebook could be coercive, that the company could be working behind users’ backs to warp their experience of the world for the sake of Facebook’s bottom line.

Mitchell is not so overtly conspiratorial in this paper; he does not explicitly describe Facebook’s remaking of its users’ subjectivity as a kind of capitalist propaganda conducted at the level of the interface, though in an aside he notes that Mark Zuckerberg’s ideology of openness and connection “is helping to create a transnational, colonial, capitalist subject who is alienated from the product of their production/consumption, disillusioned with their mode of self–representation, and ironically disconnected from their friends.” Mitchell is more concerned with explaining how Facebook use changes the terms of what users regard as real.

Just as playing a lot of chess can prompt one to start seeing the world in terms of reciprocal moves, or long sessions of Photoshop can make one see reality as so many adjustable layers, cumulative Facebook use habituates users to view social reality as a “browseable archive” organized in terms of discrete yet infinitely connectable individual profiles. The “ontological assumptions about the informational character of the world” built into Facebook — the assumption that experience can be readily translated into sortable data with no meaningful loss of integrity — gradually become, Mitchell argues, the ontological assumptions of its users, producing what he calls “archival subjectivity.”

Part of this subjectivity is a preference for “convenience and automaticity” rather than “use or control”: that is, for Facebook users, what can easily be added to the archive seems more real than that which resists it. Having an automatically archived self promises ontological security, Mitchell suggests, to compensate for the “disposability of the digital world” and the erosion of traditional supports for stable identity. Also, since your identity is being built in Facebook as data without your active participation, it can be processed in various ways (laid out in a Timeline, say, or in a short clip about your year’s Facebook activity), allowing you to consume your own identity as a fascinating, perfectly targeted cultural good.

One consequence of this is that one begins look to the archive for confirmation that something real has occurred. “Internet users can certainly return to the archive more quickly, sometimes immediately after an event has taken place, thanks to the instantaneity, in principle and increasingly in practice, of services like Timeline,” Mitchell argues. “And the nostalgia for events that have only just occurred becomes just as instantaneous.” This not only subtracts effort from sociality (which Mitchell, following Sherry Turkle, finds inherently problematic, adopting the work-ethic canard that value requires effort) but it affords users a more passive orientation toward experience, which seems real only when consumed as media, not when it happens as raw sensation. “The temporal and spatial mapping of the sort in which Facebook is involved in particular, replaces reality with a real–that–has–been–mapped,” Mitchell claims, drawing on Baudrillard’s ideas about simulacra. The screen becomes our phenomenological base: Consuming media becomes the only form of sensory experiences that register as real, and time spent looking away from it is Increasingly unreal, experientially empty.

It naturally follows that users would let foreknowledge of what could be captured on Facebook determine and circumscribe their behavior, condition what could be considered as possible. This doesn’t mean that people can only think of doing what can be captured on Facebook; rather it means the intention of “not putting something on Facebook” is built into an experience as it happens and shapes the way it unfolds, just as the intention of mediatizing an experience would. To make it real for ourselves, we have to imagine it as sharable, browseable, even if we don’t then actually share it online. Hence the danger, in Mitchell’s view is “not the degradation of privacy norms or the spread of liberal individualism or the rise in immaterial labor, but the alteration of what is taken as given and the subsequent establishment of a subject who will browse and do no more.” So much for changing the world; it’s sufficient to make it searchable.

Mitchell argues that this reinforces an atomized subject content to retrace familiar channels of predigested experience. “Facebook’s archival subject browses the world by way of representations that lie in front of reality and thereby constitute it, minimizing the chances of inconvenience and chance encounters, moving toward a preconceived connection.” Experiencing life as a conveniently browseable archive precludes some of the tolerance for discomfort and friction that is necessary to participate in collective action: “when the convenient path … becomes the only path that a user ever takes, this user loses some of the experiences that characterize communal living.”

To the extent that Facebook imposes “automaticity” on users and inculcates certain expectations of convenience in the realm of the social, it makes reciprocity seem a matter of asynchronous gestures rather than actual mutual attention. Other people can be “browsed” as a way of dealing with them. One can easily imagine Facebook extending automaticity to the point where it will automatically comment on and like friends’ post for you and compose status updates most likely to appeal to others in the network, much in the same way it already tries to shape one’s news feed to appeal to you and maximize your time on site. Like the suggested tags Facebook floats as trial balloons, recommended comments and likes, whether accepted or rejected, could extend Facebook’s database with useful information about how accurate its algorithms are while further inculcating the kind of passive engagement with the site that keeps users isolated and more open and vulnerable to advertisements. It would allow Facebook to still collect user data while diminishing users’ active engagement, which threatens to lead them into actual sustained social interaction — a very unfavorable situation for the salience and persuasiveness of ads.

But it’s just as likely that users invert the “browsing” subjectivity rather than inhabit it unreflexively. The idea that we want sociality to be convenient and efficient is built into Facebook as a platform, but that doesn’t mean we necessarily have to inhabit that value system in using it. The idea that convenience is so irresistible that people’s yearnings are immediately and automatically reshaped in its image is itself part of capitalism’s ideology of individualism and “rational” maximization. Consumerism is anchored in the idea that people can be atomized and controlled by their desire for hyperpersonalized pleasures that other people only interfere with. But often pleasure is a matter of inconvenience, particularly when it involves social interaction. The inconvenience of other people, the circuitous routes we must take to communicate and establish shared bases for experience — these are inefficient but also so pleasurable that we often claim this pursuit of intimacy is the only “real” pleasure. Habituation to Facebook’s ontological assumptions, which reject such a view of intimacy, may have the effect of foregrounding the tension between the platforms value system and our own, rather than allowing Facebook to function hegemonically as a kind of “pre-understanding.” We can end up embracing simultaneously the browseable reality Facebook provides and the unbrowseable reality that it frames and valorizes despite itself. Mitchell’s framework doesn’t account for the possibility that Facebook use can make us more aware of what it can’t capture rather than just blinding us to it.

The automation and social deskilling that engineers try to build into social media may inspire and enable resistance as much as compliance —they make some against-the-grain uses of the service as easy as conformist behavior. The degree to which Facebook wants to automate your social life is the degree to which one can readily toy with the automaticity, make it yield anomalies and generate a kind of “weird Facebook” that emphasizes the friction and unpredictability in information dissemination. It can permit users to easily create a kind of engagement in which inconvenience registers not as a dutiful sacrifice to the social (“I’m working hard to be so attentive to you, so you know my attention is genuine and our intimacy is real”) but as perplexed joy. If archival subjectivity represents a threat, complicity with capital, it also offers users readily accessible ways to disrupt the browsing experience, to introduce entropy into the database and make searches yield less rational results. Anything to slow your scroll.

Rob Horning (@marginalutility) is an editor of The New Inquiry.