Understanding & Resisting Digital Cultures of Control-- Surveillance Capitalism Part II
How social media platforms coerce us into transforming our lives and identities into virtual commodities
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1975) Michel Foucault theorizes about the structure of power within modern surveillance cultures, arguing that an actual external threat (a prison guard) is not necessarily required to influence the behaviors of an individual (a prisoner, in this example; a schoolboy in other instances). Foucault suggests that a prisoner within a Panopticon–a structure in which all prisoners’ cells could theoretically be seen at all times by a single guard in a watch tower at the center of the prison–does not actually need to be watched at all times in order to be controlled. Instead, the prisoner need only believe that they are being watched; if they believe that they are being watched, they will internalize the imagined external gaze and police themselves proactively out of fear of punishment.
The Panopticon is a helpful conceptual tool for understanding the cultural structure of power/domination in late-stage capitalist society. While it is easy to identify overt forces of domination such as the prison guard (also known as a repressive power), the Panopticon does not actually require the guard to use force, or even necessarily to exist. Instead, the Panopticon relies mainly upon a combination of implied threat and psychological manipulation to regulate the behavior of the prisoner. Thus, it falls into the category of being a productive power: a form of discipline and control that utilizes psychological, social, and cultural conditioning to coerce victims into self-policing their actions in a way that aligns with the goal of the institution. As Foucault writes, “In fact, power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth” (194). In other words, the greatest adaptation of power is its ability to profoundly shape both individual and collective perceptions of reality, of truth, and even our own sense of selfhood.
It might be said that systems of power/domination shape the limits of what we consider to be valuable, believable, and even thinkable within the dominant culture. This dynamic is captured by the Marxist theory of the base and superstructure–a theory of a historic relationship in which the material conditions and organization of wealth/labor must continuously produce cultures which are amenable to those demands in order to control the flow of capital. Capitalism trains us to view being a “hard worker” as being a positive character trait because it makes us more exploitable in the workplace, just like it trains us to view designer clothes as superior because it makes our pockets more exploitable.
Within the context of digital culture and surveillance capitalism, this process of manufacturing consumer demand and exploiting labor through cultural propaganda is accelerated as your data is mined in order to make your feed more and more efficient at controlling your attention. Brands, influencers, and the social media company itself coordinate with one another in order to transform you into the consumer and producer that they want you to be: you buy what they want you to buy after consuming the content they want you to consume, and then you reproduce similar content (for free) that makes other people want to buy the same stuff. It’s a vicious cycle to say the least.
How Digital Platforms Facilitate Commodification and Coercion
The co-construction of culture and identity is a social process that occurs through the interface of media. Life itself is mediated by media, as media produces the conditions of possibility for our social ecologies. So, when trying to understand how power influences and shapes our digital cultures, we should begin with an analysis of the infrastructure and design of the platforms themselves. Because they have been designed as gamified social feedback loops, social media platforms effectively function as Panopticon-style surveillance machines in which the individual user comes to self-police their own behavior in anticipation of being policed/perceived by other users. Social media is therefore a control apparatus that falls into the category of productive power–specifically the power to exert influence over the production of identities, perspectives, and even an imagined sense of “community” among abstract masses of strangers who happen to be configured as a network.
While there are digital networks that reflect real-life social networks (such as mutual relationships among co-workers, classmates, family members, etc.) many digital “communities” have been produced entirely online. The second use of the word “community” is generally an approximation of the dynamic, at best. For example, a network of users is often considered a “community” if that network is oriented around a shared central node (popular account or forum) with its own niche micro-culture. This kind of cultural clumping is frequently seen among popular instagram meme pages who trade in recognizable themes, phrases, images, and other communicative markers that create an impression of shared interests, values, and language among their followers. In this case, the word “community” is just our best approximation for talking about the totality of particular attitudes, references, perspectives, affects, lore, etc. shared by a group of users who consume similar media. Thus, we have the cultural conditions of possibility for the emergence of online phenomena such as “niche internet micro-celebrities” or other well-known “main characters” who loom large in digital lore despite occupying relatively small corners of the internet.
As Benedict Anderson wrote in Imagined Communities: “Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (6). We imagine that we “know” each other through this shared culture, despite the fact that the vast majority of users within that “community” will never even interact with one another directly. While there are “real” social opportunities to be found, such as making new friends in group chats or private DMs, the vast majority of social interactions within the “community” never lead to direct or symmetrical relationships. Thus, the structure of feeling that binds these “community” members together is largely an imaginary media invention–not a reflection of direct relationships. Is it any wonder that we often feel so isolated online amid all the media pollution?
Just as social media breaks away from more traditional forms of community, it also breaks away from more traditional practices of punishment and enforcement of social norms. Although social media does have many forms of digital punishment, ranging from moderators suspending your account to other users mobbing your comments with hate, the motivation behind most online behaviors is more like a fear of rejection than a fear of discipline. This is the fear of not being valued or accepted into the “community”. It’s the fear of experiencing a social death through abandonment or exclusion. Powerful incentives indeed, especially when we are told that there’s no way to fully participate in “modern” life without participating in social media. Humans are a fundamentally social species whose survival depends upon our ability to communicate in affirmational and mutually beneficial ways with others–and that’s exactly why it’s so insidious that social media platforms can hijack our cultures and connections in order to render us more exploitable. Through our pursuit of the very real human need for affirmation, we are coerced into assimilation and internalization of cultural attitudes and behaviors that oppress us.
While this process of hijacking our social lives in order to advance exploitative practices occurs offline as well, it is accelerated in a virtual environment where social approval is staged like an addictive game–as if it were a game of CandyCrush where the reward is clout. This is part of why social media provides so many instantaneous tools for gauging exactly how “well” you are doing within the “community” or culture you imagine yourself belonging to. Anyone who regularly rewatches their own stories to see who has viewed them can attest to the addictive and anxiety-producing nature of this gamified social dynamic. Likes, comments, DMs, views, etc. provide you with constant feedback on how you’re doing, and if you’re really invested, you can even access insight tools that track almost every metric imaginable about how people interact with your content.
The result is that the formation of your identity itself is constantly modulated in relation to others on the platform through mutual surveillance gestures that appear, at first glance, to be merely friendly. As you constantly monitor how “well” your “content” and the “content” of others is “performing”, you progressively develop an understanding of how to behave if you want validation from whoever happens to be in your social network–a network that is constantly being manipulated in order to better exploit you. The widely hated reel recommendation algorithms on Instagram that constantly push material you didn’t ask for into your feed are one clear example of how our media networks are being engineered to our disadvantage without our consent. Despite how much we hate reels, we see other people making them and we see that the platform is constantly pushing them over other content, and so we feel cornered into making them too.
In summary, the “game” of social media is simply to effectively mimic and perform the cultural values of your “community” outwardly so that your membership will be recognized and your identity validated by the collective. This has a deeply homogenizing effect for whichever cultural echo chamber one finds themselves within; after all, if everyone is constantly imitating each other, we will ultimately become more and more alike. Thanks to platform engineering, this has the result of making us more alike in our purchasing practices–pretty convenient for brands who want to sell to a wide market without having to do much diversification in their variety of products. Cultural homogenization is therefore wildly profitable, and platforms make the most money when they achieve the capacity to produce desirable markets of consumers. Companies buying targeted ads and hiring influencers are effectively purchasing a future customer base tailored to their own corporate interests.
The efficacy of this process is evident in the mega-success of media enterprises like Doing Things Media, the unsavory corporatized group responsible for massive, monetized meme pages like @MiddleClassFancy and @ShitHeadSteve which are infamous for making memes for brands and for stealing content from smaller creators without crediting or paying. The group was hired during the 2016 election to run a meme campaign for Bloomberg in which they clowned on the idea that even boomer politicians view memes as an important political tool. Bloomberg’s campaign clearly saw the viral meme success of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as tied to actual political outcomes, perhaps recognizing that the memes encouraged people to view those politicians as a part of their own identities, and communities. It’s not just that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were getting free exposure through memes; it’s that the memes produced the feeling of an organic cultural relevance on the grassroots level–a feeling that is difficult for politicians and institutions to fabricate using traditional methods. The eagerness with which people have incorporated memefied politicians into their own personalities reveals just how potent this form of productive cultural power can be when weaponized. Moreover, the increasing popularity of wearing memefied politicians on t-shirts, hats, and other merchandise speaks to the direct connection between digital culture, personal identity, political practices, and consumerist purchases.
Identity as (Media) Consumption?
In the sometimes-inscrutable and often controversial “Preliminary Materials for a Theory of the Young-Girl”, the Tiqqun collective lays out a theoretical framework for understanding how productive power functions to control individuals even at the level of our personalities. Echoing Foucualt, they write: “Rather than open offensives, Empire prefers more intricate methods, chronic preventative measures, the molecular diffusion of constraint into everyday life. Here, internal police conveniently takes over for general policing, individual self control for social control. Ultimately, it's the omnipresence of the new police that has made the war undetectable” (11-12). In other words, the new police are everywhere because we are all trained into being our own police–an idea which brings new urgency to the phrase “kill the cop inside your head”.
Tiqqun argues that today’s consumer society seeks to mold all of us into different versions of the “Young-Girl” figure–who could just as easily be substituted for Hipsters, Disney/Marvel Adults, Influencers, or any other trendy consumerist identity category. In explaining Tiqqun’s use of the term, they write: “The Young-Girl is simply the model citizen as redefined by consumer society since World War I, in explicit response to the revolutionary menace” (15). So, the “Young-Girl” term is just a placeholder given to a process of capitalist socialization and anti-revolutionary control: the process by which we each internalize the values of Empire and then become self-producing citizens who express our conformity by consuming in a way that aligns with the values of Empire. In other words, we internalize the values of globally dominant capitalist, cisheteropatriarchal, white supremacist settler-colonial societies, and then we buy and produce stuff that further affirms and spreads those values.
Empire thus seduces us each into seeking to find reflections of ourselves within corporatism: we identify our trendy personalities by purchasing Apple phones and then making fun of the green text bubble peasants; we pursue health or moral cleanliness by purchasing organic or free-trade goods; we seek relevancy by purchasing the FashionNova or SHEIN outfits we saw our favorite influencers promoting on Instagram. As Tiqqun comments on page 35, “The Young-Girl exists only in proportion to the desire that THEY have for her, and knows herself only by what THEY say she is.” We discover what makes us desirable by discovering what makes us marketable; we come to “know” ourselves by coming to know what others want from us. What’s worse, we enjoy this process of being consumed by others: “When the Young-Girl gives in to her own insignificance, she still manages to find glory in it, because she is ‘having fun’” (36). So, not only are we Young-Girls seduced into self-producing through imitation of the images of Empire constantly presented to us, but also we are seduced into self-pacification (i.e. eager cooperation in our own oppression) because we want to be judged as “worthy” in the gaze of the Empire. Even if it comes at the cost of self-objectification, we want to be judged as “worthy” because it grants capital and status.
Influencer culture epitomizes the seductive coerciveness of the gaze of Empire, and the Influencer is the ultimate Young-Girl because she makes the values of Empire endlessly trendy: “The Young-Girl is the entire reality of the Spectacle's abstract codes. The Young-Girl occupies the central node of the present system of desire” (42). The abstract codes of white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and class-based elitism become trends for the Young-Girl to desire to emulate: she must look thinner, paler, more expensive, more appealing to the heterosexual male gaze. Being the “central node of the present system of desire” is every influencer’s dream, no matter the personal cost. Hyper-niche genres of Young-Girls who reject feminism such as “NeoTradCath” girls or “irony-poisoned” nihilists are exemplifications of the willingness of the Young-Girl to experience her own destruction as a pleasure: “The Young-Girl knows everything as devoid of consequences, even her own suffering. Everything is funny, nothing's a big deal. Everything is cool, nothing is serious” (38). Experiencing suffering as an aesthetic pleasure is hardly limited to reactionary tradwives. Popular digital culture, especially meme culture, is rife with the aesthetic of suffering transformed into a pleasurable experience of consumption. Among leftist meme cultures, there’s a predictable cycle: something terrible happens in the world; we make funny memes about it as a way to transform suffering into pleasure; Mark Zuckerberg makes a million dollars and the politics of the world do not change. The expression of political outrage primarily through our consumption and production of media often serves capitalism much better than it serves our movements.
Neoliberal capitalism, with its great emphasis on individualistic narratives of outstanding success, produces prey for itself by encouraging and gamifying the pursuit of views, affirmation, and attention–all for the economic benefit of platforms, but not people themselves. Although creators and users of a platform are co-creators of the platform, and although the value of the platform is dependent upon the participation of users, the users and creators rarely share in the spoils of monetization. The monetization that does exist tends to be limited to a very narrow class of only the most popular influencers who are most willing to capitalize off their lives and their followers. If the average user doesn’t actually expect to be compensated for their content (as much as they might wish to be) then we must conclude that people are making themselves into brands because they want to be popular, and brands are the most popular commodities within a capitalist context. If making yourself into a popular product happens to make you money too, then that’s just proof of your success in self-commodification. As Tiqqun explains, we become our own brands: “The Young-Girl wears the mask of her face” (36). In making ourselves into free content, we also provide endless free labor to the platform, which monetizes our self-objectification without sharing the profits. Through our media practices, we make ourselves into both the products and the producers.
What is to be done?
None of this is to say that social media has no positive social effects or capacity for meaningful anticapitalist politics; but it is to say that our current social media platforms are designed around extraction, coercion, and exploitation; not freedom, autonomy, or resistance. Social media often deprives us of opportunities to form real communities and identities that have not been manufactured and sold to us by capitalists. The reality of our lives in the digital spectacle is that we are constantly being seduced and coerced further into obedience to capitalism by having our identities constantly packaged and resold to us as a way to–you guessed it, show off our identities. Corporations now regularly hire meme creators each June to produce Pride memes as a form of advertising, effectively capturing the cultures of LGBTQIA+ internet users and packaging it into a product to sell back to them. If American Express made a commercial with the slogan “Slayyy Your Personal Finances with American Express” and introduced a holographic rainbow credit card, undoubtedly mobs of Young-Girl queers would eagerly sign up just to show off their gay identity through their gay purchasing choices.
Richard Grusin suggests in “Radical Mediation” that media actually produces conditions of possibility for our identities, networks, and even shared structures of feeling. He writes: “mediation… [is] the process, action, or event that generates or provides the conditions of the emergence of subjects and objects” (137-138). In other words, the media that we consume and produce is quite literally producing our selves. Perhaps, then, we should carefully heed the warnings given by Wendy Hui Kyong Chun in Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media. Chun argues that media technologies are most powerful not when they are considered “new” but rather when they become so habitual and normalized that we no longer notice them shaping our lives at all. Systems of power are most powerful when you internalize their values as a part of your identity and then reproduce those values, all without ever even realizing you’ve been manipulated. As we descend further and further into the abyss of hyper-accelerated niche internet culture, endless doomscrolling, and surveillance capitalism, it will undoubtedly become more and more of a necessary skill to be able to find ways to practice our cultures, identities, and communities beyond the limits of the vast digital prison of influence we currently find ourselves locked within. We must refuse to be our own prison guards.