Volume 10, Number 2 (July 2013)
Author: Niccolo Lollini
As sharing and self-reporting have become the way of life of millions of people engaging in internet-based exchanges, a great deal of literature has recently focused on the rampant emergence of Internet Social Media (ISM – see, for example: Armitage, 2013). In the field of social sciences, the analysis of ISM has been generally addressed in terms of the connection between such technologies and our evolving relation with others, with society and with our self. While Media Studies are for instance concerned with the impact of new media on our cognitive processes (Kumar et. al., 2010), studies in Sociology have generally focused on the correlation between social variables and ISM usage (Kwon and Wen, 2010). While Social Anthropology has explored the shaping and evolution of so-called ‘internet cultures’ (Palfrey and Gasser, 2010), Psychology has rather revolved around individuals’ motivations and emotive engagement in technology usage (Charles et. al., 2008). Concepts and vocabulary drawn from Psychology and Anthropology in particular have gained popularity in the past decade and, as a result, buzzwords such as digital narcissism and digital natives dominate today the mainstream debate on ISM.
Despite the exceptional number of analysis of the Web 2.0 phenomenon, ISM emergence still needs to be properly conceptualized in terms of its cultural upbringing – the cultural traits and values that nurtured a certain evolution of the Internet technology. While it is certainly valuable to explain ISM emergence in terms of individual needs, drives and desires, it nevertheless appears critical to ultimately look at the relation between psychology and culture. Arguably, the great limitation of psychoanalytic outlooks is that they often overlook culture and the socio-economic structure that are the foundationof society.
The Web 2.0 is a socially constructed technology. The very appearance of modern Social Web reflects critical features of the cultural milieu and values responsible for its emergence and peculiar evolution. In this perspective, a comprehensive anthropological analysis of ISM should attempt to retrieve those elements and traits. I believe Baudrilard’s The Consumer Society ( 1998) can be sued today to represent sone of the most lucid and penetrating interpretations of the Web 2.0 phenomenon. It is en passant amusing that such analysis took place over 40 years ago, in a time when the Internet was at its very inception and the social web was not even imaginable. With his provoking analysis of consumerism, Baudrillard once again proves himself to be one of the most insightful and prophetic writers of our century – and in the case of ISM, the one providing the deepest interpretation of the link between late capitalism and the Web 2.0 occurrence:
…alongside the economic and political institutions, there is a whole other – more informal, non-institutional – system of social relations which interests us more precisely here. This is that entire network of ‘personalized’ communication which is invading everyday consumption. For we are indeed talking of consumption here – the consumption of human relations, of solidarity, reciprocity, warmth and social participation standardized in the form of services – a continual consumption of solicitude, sincerity and warmth… (Baudrillard,  1998:161,162). …the true functional relationship today has resolved all tension. The ‘functional’ service relationship is no longer violent, hypocritical or sado-masochistic; it is openly warm, spontaneously personalized and definitively pacified (Baudrillard, ibid.:164-165).
The analysis begins with the recognition of human relationships becoming increasingly commodified. However, commodification should not be here understood as the widespread idea of individuals simply trying to take advantage of each other. For Baudrillard, the consumption of human relations is rather – and most importantly – consumption of the signs of such relations:
Sociability or the ability to ‘relate to people’, to sustain relationships, to stimulate exchanges, to intensify the social metabolism, becomes in this society a mark of ‘personality’. Consuming, spending and following fashion and, through these things, communicating with others is behavior which forms a keystone of the contemporary sociometric ‘personality’ outlined by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd. The whole system of gratification and solicitude is, in fact, merely the affective modulation (itself functionalized) of a system of relations in which the status of the individual is changing totally. To enter the cycle of consumption and fashion is not simply to surround oneself with objects and services as one pleases; it is to change one’s being and directedness. It is to move from an individual principle based on autonomy, character, the inherent value of the self to a principle of perpetual recycling by indexation to a code in which the value of the individual becomes rational, diffracted, changeable: it is the code of ‘personalization’, which no individual himself possesses, but which traverses each individual in his signified relation to the others. The person as a determining instance disappears and is replaced by personalization. From this point on, the individual is no longer a centre of autonomous values, but merely the expression of multiple relations in a process of shifting interrelationships. ‘The other-directed person is, in a sense, at home everywhere and nowhere, capable of a rapid if sometimes superficial intimacy with and response to everyone.’ He is, in fact, caught in the toils of a kind of sociometric graph and is perpetually redefined by his position in these bizarre spiders’ webs (these threads which connect A, B, C, D, E, in a web of positive, negative, unilateral and bilateral relations). He is, in short, a sociometric being, whose definition is that he is at the point of intersection with others (Ibid.:171).
Sociability, sociometric beings, personalities: the vocabulary itself already evokes a proximity to ISM. The analysis continues even more ‘precise’:
In this network of anxious relations, in which there is no longer any absolute value, but only functional compatibility, it is no longer a question of `asserting oneself’, of `proving oneself’ (Bewährung), but of relating to and gaining the approval of others, soliciting their judgement and their positive affinity. This mystique of gaining approval is everywhere gradually supplanting the mystique of proving oneself. The traditional individual’s objective of transcendent accomplishment is giving way to processes of reciprocal solicitation (in the sense in which we defined it above: Werbung). Everyone `solicits’ and manipulates, everyone is solicited and manipulated. This is the foundation of the new morality, in which individualistic or ideological values give way to a kind of generalized relativity, of receptivity and agreement, of anxious communication — others must `speak to’ you (and speak you: they must address you, but must also express you and say what you are), love you, rally round you (Ibid.:172).
Facebook, the ‘feedback’, and the ‘like culture’, perfectly illustrated four decades before their advent. Finally, what could be referred to as a prophecy:
The consumer society is simultaneously a society of the production of goods and of the accelerated production of relations. Indeed, this latter is the defining aspect. This production of relations, which is still craft-based at the intersubjective level or the level of primary groups, is, however, tending gradually to become aligned to the mode of production of material goods or, in other words, to the generalized industrial mode. It then becomes, by this same logic, the province (if not, indeed, the monopoly) of specialized (private or national) enterprises, and indeed constitutes their social and commercial raison d’être. The consequences of this development are as yet difficult to foretell. It is difficult to accept that (human, social, political) relationships are produced in the same way as objects, and that, once they come to be produced in that same way, they become, similarly, objects of consumption. Yet this is, in fact, the case. But we are merely at the beginning of a long process here (Ibid.:173).
It is again important to stress why Baudrillard’s analysis goes well beyond the simple acknowledgment of an evolution of capitalistic societies toward the commodification of human relations. This would be as simplistic as, by only referring to our psychoanalytic conceptual framework, interpreting people’s constant need for recognition as a ‘need for mirrors,’ ‘identity research processes,’ ‘identity construction processes,’ etc. More than identity construction processes, what takes place rather appears as the construction of personalities. According to Baudrillard, there are no longer constructive, dialectic processes and individuals ‘constituting themselves as subjects’ because we no longer have a real to which to refer. In the absence of steady references, signs are free to fluctuate and value begins to ‘spin around’ (Baudrillard, 1993). The word that we could probably borrow form psychology is mirrors; mirrors that do not however point to some narcissistic complex based on ‘the name of the father’, but rather mirrors reflecting endless fluctuating signs under the paradigm of consumption.
In a consumer society, the consumption of human relations reaches its pivotal position by turning into the major drive of the group. The goal of society is no longer external to the group, something to be achieved. It rather becomes immanent to the group itself as its very metabolism:
We are reaching a point where the group is less interested in what it produces than in the human relations within it. Its essential work may be, more or less, to produce relationship, and to consume this as it goes along (Baudrillard,  1998:172).
About the Author
Niccolo Lollini completed his Master’s Thesis in Japan on humanoid robotics. His doctoral research concerns ‘reverse migration phenomena in post-industrial societies’.
John Armitage (2013). “A Google Home Inspector Comes to Call” in CTheory.net www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=718
Jean Baudrillard ( 1998). The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures. London: Sage.
Jean Baudrillard (1993). Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage.
Ravi Kumar, Jasmine Novak, and Andrew Tomkins (2010). Structure and evolution of online social networks: “Link Mining: Models, Algorithms, and Applications”, pp. 337-357.
Ohbyung Kwon and Yixing Wen (2010). “An empirical study of the factors affecting social network service use” in Computers in Human Behavior 26 (2): 254-263.
John Palfrey and Urs Gasser (2010). Born digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Basic Books.
Charles Steinfield, Nicole B. Ellison, and Cliff Lampe (2008). “Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis” in the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology 29 (6): 434-445.