Introduction: Utopian and Dystopian Technological Formations of Change
For the last century, different authors have tried to argue that technology is fundamentally changing who we are and what we do. These notions of the future have been on a spectrum from utopian to dystopian. For instance, Teilhard de Chardin’s “noosphere” and Omega Point identify the idea of a networked and autonomous organism emerging from our connections (Steinhart 2008). In some ways, the noosphere resembles Pierre Lévy’s (1997) claim that contemporary technology has spawned a kind of “collective intelligence,” and most of his subsequent work has been an analysis of this emerging phenomenon. Alvin Toffler’s (1971) best-selling Future Shock similarly identifies the juggernaut of technological change and how we must adapt to it for our own survival. Langdon Winner’s (1977) early work on “autonomous technology” helps explain this predilection and the sometimes fear with which we approach technology: increasingly, technology is conceptualized as working without supervision in a manner that is beyond automatic—what Victor Ferkiss (1969) identified and Winner (1977) concurred as “technics out of control.”
The development of the Internet for more than thirty years, and particularly the Web for the last twenty years, has served as a new site for the speculation around technological change. In many ways, the debates echo and resonate with some of these past considerations of technology. In fact, a component of media and communication studies, led by Levinson (1999), buttressed by Wired magazine, and expanded by the Toronto Media lab, has resurrected McLuhan and proclaimed that many of his insights around media and the exteriorization of the senses now make sense in the networked era of the Internet. In related parallel veins, others, such as Jenkins and his notion of participatory media being made possible through new media forms and their facilities of connecting, sharing, and producing, have taken the insights from cultural studies and repainted them into a study of both “transmedia” and networked “fandom” as an effective model to describe the uses made of contemporary culture (see Jenkins 2006a; 2006b; Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2013). Axel Bruns (2008), in developing and deploying the term produsage to describe online experience, where the individual is no longer an audience member but a hybrid of producer and user that is engaged in her media consumption/production, has advanced that an identifiable public sphere—nuanced through his study of Twitter as micro-, meso-, and macroforms of communication—is developing through the hundreds of millions who are now using social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook (Bruns and Moe 2014, 15–28). Social thinkers, such as Harrison Rainie and Barry Wellman (2012), have taken their analysis of the online networked life and celebrated the powers and communities produced through the new networked individualism.
In contrast, the dystopian critiques of the Internet and new technologies of communication and information have revolved around one principal theme: that the technologies we have most embraced have allowed the expansion of a culture of surveillance. Although there are many variations on this critique of technology, one of the most interesting is related to how online entities gather personal information about us, aggregate it, and send it on to interested parties, such as advertisers (see Turow 2011). A variation of this critique is related to privacy and how the new movement of information online has allowed for all sorts “erosions of privacy” (Rule 2007) and even identity theft. In addition to this form of surveillance and threats to privacy, there is a general belief post–Snowden crisis that governments are likewise compiling and aggregating information about individuals as they search for forming moments of illegality and potential terrorism (Ball and Wood 2013).
Technology’s Effect on Subjectivity: The Transformed Self
The argument that follows is an analysis of how these technological pushes identify a change in subjectivity in contemporary culture. The utopian and dystopian discourses around technology isolate an apparent cultural change and point to elements of exhilarating empowerment and its dialectic, the sense of powerlessness and manipulation. These polar opposites actually have led to an easy game of critique and countercritique, with accusations of technological determinism floating close to the surface of most of these analyses. What I would like to pursue here is how these elements are producing a public self that resembles the citizen, the consumer, the audience member, and other categories of the public self—but are qualitatively different than these categories of the self. Central to this argument is understanding how this technocultural shift has produced a different relationship and organization of the self in terms of the public, the private, and the intimate. It has led to different strategies of the production of the self that are building in our culture as individuals work tactically and strategically in territories and on grounds that demand a different constitution of the self.
Understanding the Implications of “Intercommunication”: Its Key Components
Conceptually, what is occurring is a distinctively transformed engagement with the public world. In previous work, I have developed the concept of intercommunication to help describe this new configuration that identifies a shift in the use of media and a different intersection in forms of personal communication that relate to media (Marshall 2010a; 2014a). One of the difficulties in both analyzing and describing what are now called either social networks or social media is that on the surface, they appear to be a form of mediated interpersonal communication. Once one begins looking more closely at the content that is prevalent on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest, among many other forms of social networks that are used regularly by an estimated 73 percent of Americans, for example (Pew 2013), and by more than 1.4 billion people worldwide (Statistic Brain 2014), it becomes evident that the interpersonal operates as a sophisticated filter of all sorts of messages that come from a variety of sources. Thus media sources are highly prevalent on Facebook walls and are interspersed with very personal photos and commentaries for the vast majority of users. Music is regularly shared, liked, and commented on. YouTube videos, a partial social network in and of itself, with its channels and commentary, are linked via social media, leading to a dissemination and, ultimately, an exhibition of amateur and professional content. Media and entertainment images and articles are commonly part of Facebook users’ communication platform. Social media, then, are a varied combination of interpersonal communication and highly mediated forms of communication. What has been naturalized is the individual as the fiber that connects these formerly distinct worlds together. As an application of technology, social networks produce several kinds of social patterns that are fundamentally defined as communication, and because of this integrated nature, they are best described as “intercommunication.” The fundamental components of intercommunication are listed and described as follows. These components of intercommunication are a means of synthesizing the way online culture has worked to shape contemporary subjectivity:
Individualized. Although not completely, the economics of the current generation of the online economy are organized around the individual. Our social media accounts are personal and are connected to equally individualized e-mail accounts. Even the structure of identifying our “homes” on social media is dependent on this form of individual registration, which transforms the most institutional corporation or organization into an individual profile. This individualization is a form of online affordance, as its structure naturally fits into the individual structures of payments, accounts, and credit that predated the Internet in banking. The individualized structure of online culture facilitates the related relationship to personal security and has led to the prevalent discourse around protection and privacy that circulates around the economic self whether online or offline. It also has intersected with how new economies develop online. The purchase of “applications” or “apps” became a new business structure with the development of the Apple smartphone as individuals were invited to expand the functions on their devices through downloading the software or online platform onto their mobile phones (Goggin 2011). Whether free or for a charge, the application dimension of the online economy demanded an individualized structure of registration that once again facilitated a banking-like identity.
Interpersonal. The attractiveness of the contemporary Web, from Web 2.0 to what is called now more ominously the Semantic Web (a term originally coined by Tim Berners-Lee and now used to differentiate the power of the Web to make sense of and relate data and produce new information for those who have control of those data), has generally been linked to its capacity to make connections to one’s friends. Facebook privileges the notion of friends, while Twitter’s relations are determined by a much more prophet-like terminology of followers. In both cases, social media have made online communication less formal than letter writing or its more modern variation, e-mail. Twitter’s 140-character limitation has privileged aphoristic forms of communication that imply an interpersonal understanding—in many cases—even to be understood. Threads of communication on Facebook or via Twitter are comfortably written in half-sentences or caption-like as they connect to associated images and resemble text messaging. This value of the interpersonal is privileged in using social media. Prestige is at least partially bestowed by the numbers of friends and followers one has in the system. More importantly, the interpersonal connection defines the valuation of social media over other forms of media: the actions of “sharing” and of “liking,” the related actions of “retweeting” or “starring,” are the engines of the online economy. The movement of this kind of shared information defines relative interest as well as the points where individuals are interpersonally aggregated. What is attractive to the user—the capacity to connect to and share with friends—is also the exact location where monetizing begins by the social network companies.
Indexical. If sharing and exchanging are the key experiential elements of social media experience and define its qualities of intercommunication, they also underline the value of what can be described as indexical forms of communication. From semiotics, an indexical sign is one that points to or implies a relationship to another sign (see Chandler 2007, 37, 42–44). Indexical communication defines the constant effort to extend communication from one image, text, or video to another. The indexical quality of intercommunication via social media identifies the way in which the various forms of advertising and cultural industries work to insinuate themselves into the personal construction of value that social media produces. The indexical dimensions further highlight the way in which communication is extended and augmented in online culture.
Multiple registers of communication. From the term itself, intercommunication implies that different registers of communication are visible and invested in simultaneously. Thus chat is linked with images; a YouTube video may construct a broadcast form of address in its parasocial relationship to its audience, but when it is repositioned into an interpersonal form of exchange, this style of communication is altered. This multiregistered structure of communication that intercommunication expresses is perhaps best seen in meme culture. A particular video or image is transformed by users for its rearticulation and reexpression across online culture. The universe of a particular meme may include millions, but its rearticulation may be designed for just a few hundred friends (see Shifman 2013). These multiple registers imply formal, informal, personal, and intimate forms of communication that are all connected to the same Facebook account.
Internetworked. The individual of online culture is constantly aggregated. In the first order, as I have discussed under the category of the interpersonal, we as users of social media are encouraged to connect and make connections. Game players are rewarded for their ability to develop friendship networks in different online settings. The significance of connection is twofold. For the individual, it defines a different constitution of value and identity. Connections determine reputation as they work to configure the presentation of the self to a defined micropublic world. For the industry, networks and connections are the means to establish economic value. The interrelated quality of identity online allows different kinds of information to be generated as well as providing the source for greater and greater exchanged content. The actual information contained in the shared content helps define our identities further, and this information has become the economic fuel of the Semantic Web: although information appears to define the social and reputational dimensions of the user, it also regularly defines how that identity intersects with commodities and services. For example, if our interpersonal communication consistently addresses personal fitness and exercise, it is very likely that the intercommunication environment that the individual inhabits online will have links, images, and connections to fitness applications for tablets and iPhones or diet and exercise advice and products. The internetworked movement of information of the self actually generates personalized content that in its direct address plays with older media’s more removed form and register of advertising address.
Intercommunicative Public Persona: Online Culture’s Transformation of the Public Self
It is a significant question to explore our awareness as users of how online culture and its pervasive use is transforming our notion of ourselves. Intercommunication has certainly become naturalized through our use of social networks and mobile media in our everyday practices. The level of that naturalization defines how much we have integrated the new dimension of a kind of public display of the self. Nonetheless, online culture—as evidenced through the billions using social media and the Internet as part of their daily lives—does make us sensitive to a new version of ourselves, a persona, that is formed through what we do and present online. Living and experiencing intercommunication makes that persona related to the values promulgated through these online locations. A patterning of a public self is emerging from this intercommunicative environment. It is a strategic and pragmatic persona—a mask that should be seen not necessarily as a negation of a truer self but rather as a technique to move through a transformed public world. What follows is an application of these components of intercommunication and how they have begun to structure individual variations of an intercommunicative public persona.
Specular Persona: The Particular Specular Quality of Contemporary Culture
One element of online culture and the related social media is that the individual leaves consistent traces of identity. These traces go well beyond filling out profile pages and registering accounts. Facebook in particular has trails of images and comments, updates and responses. The intercommunicative environment means that an archive of the self’s forms of communication remains as a sediment over time. Unlike verbal communication, which is temporally evanescent, however much our memory attempts to reconstruct it, social network account-homes structure a highly developed version of ourselves over time—a timeline of engagement, investment, and exchange. No matter how much we imagine that social networks are about connection, they also make us look at ourselves and how we present ourselves to the world every time we sign on and check in. This public dimension of the timeline of media and communication pushes us to read ourselves as others might read us (see Rosenberg and Egbert 2011). In other words, our Facebook homepage becomes a mirror of our public identity, and we use our sites to preen, to adjust, and to edit ourselves. Our homepages makes us internalize the processes of how we present ourselves through this particular presentational media.
Serial Persona: Archiving the Self/Managing the Self
Simultaneously, our sites on LinkedIn or Facebook or Instagram begin also to archive our identity. The recent tenth-anniversary video produced by Facebook for each of its users underlines the way in which we are mediatized in our construction of our public online identity and its relationship to time (see Brady 2014). These archives work in different temporal loops. We expose versions and variations of our identity poses that produce daily forms of interaction with our friends and followers: in this way the temporal loop has the currency of news media. Our status updates provide the immediacy and presence of our personas. A longer temporal loop is collected through what we store on our social media sites and also how we categorize those forms of storage. Thus photos may be collected over time and grouped under trips, events, and people. Our longer temporal identity is determined by text and image conversations that establish how we project our own form of networked self. The replies of others and our own replies to others determine a kind of internal ranking of value. Through our links to our favorite forms of media, images and videos are pushed our way in news feeds or on our walls based on our prior decisions as to what we like. We allow these media favorites and their promotional feeds and content to define us in some parasocial way that makes us included and belonging in their core, faithful and fanlike audience.
It is difficult to describe effectively the archived self that is part of how we manage this intercommunication. Besides our direct accounts of social media, our online identities are also shaped by what appears when our names are “searched” through search engines like Google. In addition, our images are sometimes “tagged” and thereby appear to our friends whenever we make an appearance in a post. Because of this quality of search in this online intercommunication environment, there is an identity accumulation that becomes associated with our online activities. The best way to describe this layered identity is to link it with how television characters and the actors who are associated with them take on a serialized drama. The online persona is very much like this serialized character of ourselves: it resembles us and, in some instances, is very close to our identity, but it remains something that is a projection of our self for particular and directed purposes. It is essentially a serial persona derived from the archive of material that circulates around our online activity (see Marshall 2014a).
Reputational Persona: Status
Implied in both the ideas of the specular persona and of the serial persona is that this new intercommunication world also has expectations that we are managing our reputations in some way. The many moral panics around youth and online culture usually deal with issues of reputation management out of control: thus we hear of potential employers checking social media and searching online only to discover that a potential employee is revealed to have a drinking problem or other form of social or sexual indiscretion (Messieh 2012). Similarly, university admission officers are now known to survey social media when apparently equal applicants exceed places to differentiate candidates (Urist 2013). Scandals, which have been one of the tropes of celebrity discourse for most of the last century, are now seen to be the bête noire of online culture. The plenitude of images, comments, and connections to people who may no longer be “friends” presents the possibility that one’s persona could be transformed and reconstructed. This transformation threat is not exactly identity theft in the classic notion of fraud, but it does describe how an intercommunication sensibility produces what can be described as an ascendant focus on a “reputational persona” (Madden and Smith 2010). With the flow of individualized information that is shared across social networks and divided and reaggregated through data analysis, a large element of online activity is shaping the constructed identity that has developed or is developing for the individual. Like celebrities themselves, individuals have to manage their level of online access to privacy and intimacy: on one hand, revealing the self connects you to others and in some ways provides the affective “flash” and “allure” that maintain your presence; on the other hand, constructing a professional identity or—without the burden of a work identity—a presentable identity becomes at least considered in the contemporary moment.
A reputational persona is focused on the management of status and connects to the instability of public identity that has been an elemental part of capitalist culture for the last two centuries (De Botton 2004). For some, the connection to as many others is of great significance, and one’s reputation is determined not only by the number of friends and followers one brings together through an online persona but also by the power and influence of those friends. As Marwick’s (2013) research on Silicon Valley culture illustrated, this idea of influence, power, and reputation was essential for many in their management of their technology-related careers. Individuals attempted to connect to new businesses as well as new ideas and trends in the development of online applications and companies through social media and online networked connections. In a similar vein, Klout, the online application that tries to calibrate influence, works to build the value of reputation for both itself and individuals and thereby works to monetize influence and brand the self (Hearn 2010; Hearn and Schoenhoff 2016). The reputational persona leads to a commodification of the self and what has come to be known in consumer studies literature as self-branding (Banet-Weiser 2012). Although managing a branded persona is ubiquitous, it is perhaps best seen in the individualized channels of YouTube. Reputation is determined by subscribers and viewers as the model of attention and reputation merge the old structure of broadcasting influence with the new, much more individualized invocations and connections of YouTube (see Burgess 2009).
Conclusion: A New Public–Private World
Contemporary identity is shaped by two dimensions that have emerged from technology and, specifically, the applied technology of this generation of online culture. The industry behind online culture cajoles, seduces, and invites the user to move into becoming part of a different public sphere. It is a public sphere defined not by citizenship but rather by participation and, maybe even more significantly, revelation. Whatever activity we engage in online, whether it be online gaming or social networking or watching, we are encouraged to participate in order to reveal elements of ourselves. This push to revelation has an economic motivation that we have detailed in this chapter as data about ourselves are collected by the companies that host our personal revelations for all sorts of purposes and ends. Equally, as online culture becomes more naturalized as part of everyday culture, with greater levels of participation in social media, gaming, and online viewing and reading, the production of an online self becomes normal and naturalized. As Rainie and Wellman (2012) detail, what is emerging is networked individualism: our awareness as individuals that we are part of elaborate and interconnected networks is another push toward the production of public versions of ourselves. The public persona produced in this environment of micropublics, rankings, and reputation is one that incorporates the exigencies of intercommunication. It pushes us toward what Jan-Hinrik Schmidt (2014) describes in his analysis of Twitter as “personal publics.” Like Bentham’s panopticon that Foucault (1995) detailed, we are aware, in our comportment of the public version of ourselves, of the way that intercommunication works. We are increasingly aware that we have to produce and present ourselves and that we have to work on this public self regularly and often.
This is a changed world that emerges from the application of technology and its reorganization of the value of the public presentation of the self. Increasingly, individuals in online culture are becoming pragmatic and strategic as they incorporate an intercommunication ethos into their online personas. Currently the personal and the private, and, for some, the intimate, are the engines of online culture; but perhaps we are moving toward a much more managed public persona. Hannah Arendt (1958) lamented that contemporary democracy has lost the divide and value between the public and the private. On first look, this new version of ourselves is incredibly revelatory and an extension of the intimate into the public sphere; but perhaps, like the panopticon, it is pushing us toward a new public sphere where all citizens are hyperaware of the public and private identities and separate them, where online culture becomes a very controlled public persona as we learn to develop and manage our public selves in an intercommunication environment.