Attention and whacking the social media piñata for ever more

I had never come across Humdog on the web. Perhaps I wasn’t interested or more likely I was too optimistic about the opportunities of the Internet, but I finally came across her, quoted by Adam Curtis in “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”. In her essay Pandora’s Vox Redux published in 1994 (a year before I’d seen a webpage and two years before I learned to code HTML) Humdog, whose real life name was Carmen Hermosillo wrote amusingly:

“so-called electronic communities encourage participation in fragmented, mostly silent, microgroups who are primarily engaged in dialogues of self-congratulation. in other words, most people lurk; and the ones who post, are pleased with themselves.”

She continues the theme discussing how people commoditise themselves on the web, forecasting the rise of social media:

” i created my interior thoughts as a means of production for the corporation that owned the board i was posting to, and that commodity was being sold to other commodity/consumer entities as entertainment. that means that i sold my soul like a tennis shoe and i derived no profit from the sale of my soul.”

Is it surprising that I had never heard of humdog online? I have a suspicion that there amounts to a conspiracy of silence within the online community. Dissenting voices aren’t repeated and the over enthusiastic Pollyanna class that claims dissent as either Luddism or at least a minority report. But social media rose after this and now we are seemingly stuck with it as a way of getting on in the world. There was once online people and offline people. The web was once a so-modern and so-convenient hobby for technophiles, and therefore was optional, but like most technologies the use of the web and now social media has quickly become an obligation inseparable from other parts of our lives.

Technology is culture and culture is humanity. What starts as fiddling with a gadget becomes indistinguishable from the social practices it then supports. Currently there is much to gain and optimism and enthusiasm sells, and so the critical are labelled stick-in-the-muds. Therefore people turn themselves into zealous advocates, because in the attention economy you must be passionate to be in the running of being heard. Why would you listen to the least passionate? Why would you listen to the quiet and restrained thoughtful voices?

But this feels like a bubble and when bubbles burst, they do so with consequences.

Before the budget airlines people had a nice seat, a drink and a packet of peanuts. Then the classic airlines went bust and the budget airlines put up their prices to what the normal airlines charged but now you get with a nasty seat, no drink and no peanuts. I fear we are entering a world where our working lives are dominated by non-productive self marketing. Where it was once exceedingly difficult to get any attention because the means of communication were expensive to manipulate, now there are low barriers to entry, but a paucity of attention. In order to get attention we have to repeatedly thump the Internet using a stick made of our own identities. It’s become a piñata that we are forced to whack at blindly using social media.

So the new photographer or writer or IT consultant will spend a significant part of her working hours stimulating the social layer to get attention, instead of working for monetary gain or developing as a photographer/ writer/ consultant. So the ideas about some giving way of the Coasian floor, popularised by Clay Shirky, where new forms of communication arise as the cost of transaction reduce, might begin to go into reverse as we get into an arms race. The costs of communication and transaction may increase. Quitting or reducing social activities on the Internet will mean the attention that you require from your customers, will as a matter of certainty go to your competitors. As people swarm onto a new social platform, you must swarm with them, but your presence on the old social platforms must be maintained. Your Web site, and your blog, and your Facebook, and your Twitter, and your G+ and your Flickr, and your 500px – this all rises to a crescendo of commoditisation when you will spend a good part of your working week thumping away. Whether your trade is photography, poetry or IT consultancy, you’ll spend more time working social and less time on what you can be paid for.

This hits at a time that selling information, whether that be ideas or bits in form of music, video, pictures or code is ranging from the progressively difficult to virtually impossible, the majority of this becomes a massive overhead. Some people enjoy gaming the system and put in place a variety of mechanistic means to automate the social overhead ranging from bots on twitter to (my personal hatred) automated commenting and favouriting on Flickr. Whether the sociopathic irony of these programmatic simulacra of humanity is lost to those that pervert the basis of the social medium isn’t clear to me. It is proof that if a game is worth winning it’s worth cheating to do so and I am always happier to receive attention on my photos than I am to expend the energy in commenting on others and finding new and interesting people to follow. Part of this is the overall game of fame that we all want to have an asymmetric relationship and to be more followed than follower means that we will have made it.

But the overall perversity of this is doubled when considering peoples motivation for sharing socially has in part to seeking a form of deeply human connection. A heartfelt comment on a photo; an amusing riposte on Twitter. I think that much of this is just bound to fail in comparison to real human relationships in real life but we don’t have a filter for this yet as we are unconsciously incompetent when it comes to social media. We think we get it but we do not know what we are unaware of and because we are short or the social cues that would allow us to really know whether we are successful or not we succumb to numbers. To which, I will move to next.

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2 Comments on “Attention and whacking the social media piñata for ever more”

  1. What sharp and wise insights. THis reads almost like observational tragicomedy – even as we gain “functionality” we become dysfunctional on deeper, less noticeable levels. Is this what Christopher Fry refers to as the “sleep of prisoners?”

    And what’s the way forward, Chris?

    • christubb says:

      How do you stop an arms race? You don’t because you can’t. My bet is that the level of activity required to game the system will become a burden that the foolish will become bored with. Again I believe that we are unconsciously incompetent currently and we can’t see what will become obvious, as we learn behaviours that will be more appropriate.

      This may lead people to realise that social media is better used to support real life interaction, rather than attempt to, in effect, create social capital at the coal-face of their computers with people they’ve never met. I predict an increase in talking over coffee (talking of which let me know when you are next in town).

      And by the way, I feel the opposite about this within organisations where people are already willingly commoditised (they don’t work for free), they already have purpose and there are many forms of alternative methods of reward and recognition.


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