“[W]hat are the more concrete social and political consequences of Twitter, Facebook and so forth? How, for instance, are they changing right before our eyes such basic power relations as leading and following?” — Michael Marder
Social networks, most famously Twitter and Facebook, are changing the way that we communicate and connect with each other. While many thinkers have championed Twitter in particular for providing a means by which movements like the Arab Spring can spread, in a recent article for Al Jazeera, Michael Marder, Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country and author of the forthcoming book Plant Thinking, claims that social networks are changing fundamental aspects of what it means to be a social human, taking the idea of “following” as an example. While the idea of following things of interest through social media seems at first glance to be a means through which one could assert one’s individuality, Marder believes that in the end following in social media is dominated by marketing forces rather than by individual choice.
Marder finds evidence for this domination in the way that ad campaigns frequently tout social media:
From every corner, one hears calls: “Follow us on [fill in the blank with your preferred social network]!” (Having banned such reminders from its airways, France is a notable exception here.) The implication of this appeal is, of course, that if you do not follow, you will be out of the loop and at a disadvantage, deprived of access to the valuable commodity that is information. But, truth be told, it is the number of virtual followers an individual or a company boasts that makes for its social capital, not vice versa. The initial order, “Follow!” betrays the tacit dependence of those who issue it on their present and future followers. It is, therefore, symptomatic of the workings of ideology in the digital age.
The benefits of disguising power with the appearance of individual choice are clear to Marder:
Twentieth-century totalitarianisms still relied on the ideological constructions Marx was familiar with, as they entailed top-down chains of command comprising the leading – with the Leader at the highest point in the hierarchy – and the led. By contrast, the commerce between the following and the followed in the 21st century paints the image not of a vertical system, but of a de-centred, horizontal, reversible arrangement, presumably conducive to a genuine democracy. While the Leader’s power was the origin of the political system, in online networks it is no longer clear where such origins reside. But this is not to say that they have evaporated – only that they have become more thoroughly displaced and hidden.
In the dispersion of the network, even when social capital peaks, amounting to tens of millions followers, all that remains is the formal and quantitative difference – which is also the objective measure of power – between following and being followed. Branching out in every conceivable direction, the network paints an alluring image of anarchy beneath the veil of blurred socio-political relations. In its dispersion, power appears both to undergo dematerialisation and to dissipate, in light of the formal equality of anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account.
Marder finds further proof of his point in the large social media followings of pop stars and in the popularity of the Facebook IPO:
Still, it is relatively easy to reconcile a following devoid of distinct leadership and goals with the Western ideology of individualism. Social networks create the illusion of a community free of conformism: after all, you can choose exactly who you wish to follow, just as consumers are able to exercise their right to purchase this or that commodity on the market. The sum total of what you follow is supposed to be the expression of your personality, of your individual tastes, styles, and preferences. These, however, are not exempt from the logic of the market, let alone of marketing, which is why the most massive followings gather around those figures that are most commodified, ie, pop stars.
The existence of followers gets entangled with the digital lives of those they follow, furnishing evidence of cathexis and affective attachment. What counts here is the possibility of influence over the followers, not this or that particular instance of imitation. Potentiality is, indeed, the capital of social networks. Facebook stocks have made their debut on Nasdaq, where one will have a chance to trade in digital potentiality itself. The idea of following in the age of Twitter will come into its own; it will mean, invariably, “Follow us on the stock exchange!”