The idea of “leaving” social media might be a category mistake. A response to Justin E. H. Smith

I guess you all know at least variants of this situation: You go to a talk; you really enjoy it and look forward to the discussion. But then there is that facepuller again, lining up to be the first to ask a question. And not only is he (yes, it’s invariably a “he”) going on forever, dulling the mood and offending the speaker, he also makes his question sound so decisively threatening that everyone after him will come back to his destructive point. That’s that. There were great ideas in the talk, but this bully managed to make it all about himself again. This is just annoying, but imagine this guy is around you for a whole conference or you even work with him. Or he is your teacher or supervisor. Whatever the situation, that guy is a pain, and he manages to make everything about himself, spoiling most of the fun for everyone else involved. But sure enough, the greatest disappointment is yet to come: when it’s promotion time, that guy won’t be sanctioned. No, he gets the top job. – Social media are a bit like that. We all could have a nice time, but then that guy joined and everything turned nasty. And then it turns out that Facebook (or some such company) are not banning him; they even pay this bully. – In what follows I want to suggest that it doesn’t make sense to leave social media, especially if you are interested in ameliorating the situation or countering such behaviour.

Let me begin with a plea: Don’t leave me alone with that guy! But sadly the number of people who are leaving social media, especially Facebook, seems to be increasing. I think they all have good reasons, just like they all have good reasons to find the world a nasty place: social media are full of bullshitting bullies, the people who run Facebook or Twitter are no saints either, while users are turned into hapless addicts withering away in their echo chambers. In other words, ordinary people are involved. And that guy is around all the time. My point is: the reasons for leaving social media apply to the world outside social media as well. But this is not because we would be dealing with two realms (inside and outside), but because the technological patterns that pervade social media pervade our lives anyway.

So what are social media? I guess a cynically inclined person might say that they are a by-product of accumulating data. In an intriguing blog post, Justin Smith spells out the dystopian idea of the “tech companies’ transformation of individuals into data sets”. One conclusion he draws strikes me as particularly important: that this transformation destroys “human subjecthood”. The point he makes is that you’re not treated as an individual, but as an item fitting certain patterns of predictions along the lines of: “customers who liked philosophical blog posts were also interested in Martin …”. The result is that, as a social media participant, you might be incentivised to present yourself in line with certain predictions. So should you sell yourself as the wholesome lefty package or is it better to add on some grumpy edges?

Thinking about Justin Smith’s post back and forth, it hit me like a hammer. If his observations about the transformation into data sets are apt, then the very idea of “leaving” social media might rest on a category mistake. In Gilbert Ryle’s illustration, a guest at Oxford University walks around all the colleges and the library, and then asks “But where is the university?” The visitor mistakenly assumes that the university is one of the university buldings. People wanting to leave social media might be doing something similar. They stop using Facebook or Twitter and perhaps also switch on their computers or smartphones less frequently. Thus, they assume that social media are one of the various media or technological items on offer. Leaving Facebook, then, would mean to stop using that and choose a different medium, such that you might return to writing postcards, letters or just go for a walk and talk at the people who come your way. But this is not possible. The technology at work in Facebook is not something you can choose to abandon; that technology organises a great part of our lives. It’s spread across every transaction that involves data accumulation. The technology at work is not like one of the colleges; it’s the university!

The technology of data accumulation is pervasive, ingrained not only in our way of shopping with Amazon, but the result of a long-standing practice of economising our interactions. Of course you can stop using Facebook or the internet altogether. But if I understand the people who want to leave correctly, they have moral or more personal reasons for doing so. This means they don’t just dislike Facebook; they reject the way of interaction incentivised by the pertinent technology. On the whole, they want to avoid the ills going along with it. But now compare cars: Of course you can stop using a car, but you cannot “leave” or “stop using” the car industry.

You all know that there is an obvious objection. Someone’s got to take the first step. And if we all stop using Facebook, then … Then what? I tell you what: then we’ll all start using Bumbook or something else instead. (But Bumbook will be driven by the same technological patterns, not by our good intentions.) Or we just give up on the benefits of using media altogether. I’m not convinced by either option. – The technology of data accumulation is systemic; like public transport or education it runs through and affects society as a whole. If it is not working properly or subject to constant (political) abuse, it requires a collective effort to ameliorate the situation. Echoing an idea from Leopold Hess, social media are too important to be privatised.

So if we want to minimise the influence of that guy, we shouldn’t tolerate his behaviour. Leaving the room and thus leaving the floor to the bullies won’t help. All the more because you cannot leave social media in the same way that you can leave a room. Of course, sometimes leaving the room is all you want, and it might cure your headache. But it won’t do much else. Countering the ills of social media is a collective political task. Not leaving but getting involved even more might help. What are the most important skills in this? Listening and reading carefully.

2 thoughts on “The idea of “leaving” social media might be a category mistake. A response to Justin E. H. Smith

  1. Insightful! This also applies to politics in general, of course; it’s also why I feel a twinge of discomfort every time someone advocates using the “block” button more often on Twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

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