What sort of ideological context would make the emergence of social media, as we know it today, both possible and likely? What background ideals and institutions would motivate the development of what we now know as social media? In other words, what theory of society would help us understand why today looks like it does, why media technology and culture developed in the ways that they have, why, out of all the uncountable possibilities the internet offers, we have Facebook, Twitter, tumblr, and Instagram, and not something else?
There are two ways to approach these questions: the first way would be to trace the history of the development of technologies–see what sorts of material/scientific advances happened when they did, and why (e.g., economic and regulatory reasons, etc.). That’s not what I’m interested in doing. My approach is not historical, but philosophical (duh): I want to know what kind of society would want something like “social media” as we know it. I want to see what set of background assumptions and ideas need to be present for what we now know as “social media” to make sense.
So, just to be clear: I’m not presenting a historical or factual argument as to how and why this happened. I’m trying to give a theory of the kind of society that would support such a development.
I think Jacques Ranciere’s account of neoliberalism (chapter 5 here)–which he calls “consensus” or “postdemocracy”–is a plausible account of the kind of society that would want both the technological infrastructure and the cultural habits that encourage us to broadcast our thoughts, our images, our “likes” and “favorites.”
For Ranciere, what is distinctive about neoliberalism is that it eliminates the need for (and thus ideal of) representation. The idea of representation is, if you think about it, pretty central to classical democratic liberalism: I do not directly participate in the day-to-day government of my society, but I vote for someone to represent my interests in governmental bodies. So, there’s a difference between “the people” and the people’s representation, between how things really are and how we say they are, between reality and appearance. The de facto/de jure distinction is another example of this gap between fact and its representation.
Traditionally, we’ve been able to make evident a gap between what the law says–e.g., “all men are created equal”–and how society actually works, how that law is executed. The law may say “all men are created equal,” but if we can provide evidence that both (a) a particular group of people are actually, in fact, included in the category “all men,” and (b) they are not, on the ground and in practice, treated with the equality that the law nominally entitles them, then we can show that there is an inconsistency between the law and its application, and make a case that this inconsistency must be remedied. Basically, it’s a claim that the de jure and de facto state of affairs don’t match up, and must be brought in line. This is how, for Ranciere, women’s suffrage, civil rights, most of the social justice movements of the past have worked. These appeals for justice rely on a dualist metaphysics, one that posits an inconsistency between “how things really are,” on one hand, and “how things appear” on the other.
Neoliberalism, according to Ranciere, collapses the de facto into the de jure–it eliminates the dualist metaphysics (the appearance/reality dualism) and replaces it with a monist metaphysics: how things appear is how they actually are. There is no gap between appearance and reality, no “interval between law and fact” (112), because what appears is a direct and comprehensive representation, or better, visualization, of the facts of the world.
This shift from representation to visualization (this way of putting it is mine, not Ranciere’s) follows from a shift in the technologies or methods of governance. Words, the conventional medium of law and of political debate, don’t directly correspond to what they mean: they’re signifiers that refer to and condense/misrepresent an infinitely more complex signified. Data, on the other hand, can present itself as identical to and coextensive with whatever phenomenon it expresses. Data is “the conjunction of science and the media” which understands itself as “exhaustively presenting the people and its parts and bringing the count of those parts in line with the image of the whole” (103). Data isn’t treated as a symbol or signifier of the facts, but as a measurement of the facts themselves.
What Ranciere means by data is public opinion polling (writing in 1995, he might be thinking about Bill Clinton’s reliance on public opinion polls). Such polls are a method of “scientific modeling and forecasting operating on an empirical population carved up exactly into its parts…the total distribution of the people into its parts and subparts” (103). Public opinion polls assign everyone to a demographic, and then measure the distribution of opinions across demographics. 18-24, 25-39, 40-65, 65+ — a this seems like a comprehensive, all-inclusive metric: it includes everyone of voting age, which in the US is 18. And even if this isn’t comprehensive and all-inclusive, all that needs to be done is to make more finely-grained categories: we can break age demographics down by gender, sexual orientation, geographic location, religion, education level, and on and on. Ever-advancing technology “is supposed to liberate the new community as a multiplicity of local rationalities and ethnic, sexual, religious, cultural, or aesthetic minorities” (104). Twitter, for example, supposedly gives voice and access to people who are otherwise closed out of corporate media. The law might be limited in its capacity and its application, but opinion is unlimited. 
Ranciere argues that this conjunction of science & the media that I’m calling “data” co-opts and neutralizes the ability of minorities to challenge their exclusion from and marginalization in the law. He calls this “state mimesis of the political practice of litigation. Such a mimesis transforms the traditional argument that gives place to the show of democracy, the internal gap in equality, into a problem that is a matter for expert knowledge” (109). What the law considers a problem of justice (unequal treatment before the rule of law), data considers a problem of knowledge–we just have to tweak the algorithm so that it works better. That’s how I interpret Ranciere’s claim that “identifying and dealing with the lack must then be substituted for the manifestation of wrong” (107)–it’s not that society is unequal, but that our algorithm isn’t functioning as well as it should.
The (supposed) advantage of “data” is that it allows us to think that we’ve solved all problems of justice, that we live in a post-racial, post-feminist, classless society, in a flat and perfectly meritocratic world. It looks like everyone is included, that everyone has a voice and that their voices count. From this perspective, the only injustices are making false claims about exclusion, marginalization, and oppression (e.g., calling out sexism gets interpreted as itself sexist).
As Jason Rines (@badhumanist) pointed out in class this week, while Ranciere’s talking about opinion polling, the “science + media” complex has changed a lot in the 20 years since Ranciere wrote this. Instead of opinion polls, we have social media and communicative capitalism. What is social media but the exhaustive, increasingly fine-grained presentation of everyone’s opinions, and opinions of others’ opinions (“likes,” “favorites,” “shares”)? On something like Twitter, it’s not just that, a Ranciere describes, “the count of their speech [is] identical to their linguistic performance” (102), but that linguistic performance is itself what is quantified. Social media is a tool for counting, quantifying, and tracking linguistic performance as such. It “reflect[s] the community’s identity with itself as the law of their acting” (112). This “law of their acting” would be like the algorithm that describes the pattern of behavior characteristic of all the subjects in X group. This law is identical with the performance because it (supposedly) describes and codifies performance. It’s not a representation of their speech, but the very empirical, factual patterns their speech exhibits.
Whereas classical contract theory says societies are legitimate because their members agree/consent to the rules of that society, “consensus” society argues that it is legitimate because its rules are merely formalizations of what people actually do already. Its rules are just the facts of everyday life expressed in data.
So, a social order that stakes its claim for legitimacy on data, and in which quantifiable behavior counts, more or less, as political participation and enfranchisement, such a social order will be deeply invested in developing more ways for people to quantify their behavior, their ‘opinion.’
I’m not trying to make any causal claims here–I’m not going so far as to say Ranciere tells us the causes for the development of social media. Rather, his theory of consensus or postdemocracy help us understand the kind of society that would support the developments in media technology that have given rise to what we now know as social media.
 The limited nature of the law, in contrast to the unlimited nature of opinion, is fundamental to JS Mill’s “On Liberty.” This text is one of the key philosophical accounts of liberalism. Its distinction between law and opinion, as well as its emphasis on civil rather than individual liberty, may make it more neo-liberal than traditionally liberal.
I want to thank my Theories of Neoliberalism class, especially Jason Rines (@badhumanist), Ashley Williams (@ash_bash23), Ryan Shullaw, and Lloyd Wymore, for the conversation and questions that resulted in this post. The class tumblr is available here.
Robin is on Twitter as @doctaj.