Monday, September 08, 2008

Thought Bodies in Social Media

My Ph.D. work has just begun and I find myself reading some work that I had not expected to enjoy as much as I am. The work is in the field of Library and Information Science (LIS). While this field is largely new to me, it has not been difficult to find ways that it relates to the area of media studies. The first week of readings is filled with discussions on the arrangement of information, its classification, the defining of terms, the nature and purpose of historical narratives and, most interesting to me, what this all says about the dominant modes of thought of a given time; how power is attained and maintained.

In one of the readings Radford and Radford (2004) relate philosophical questions of post-structuralism to LIS. In their discussion of Foucault they state that he “notes that his statements have the potential to ‘land in unexpected places and form shapes that I had never thought of.’”

They are able to do this because statements are real; they have a material existence and, as such, have the potential to physically circulate among readers. The readers, in turn, have the capacity to ‘manipulate, use, transform, exchange, combine decompose and recompose, and possibly destroy’ those statements. (p. 71-72)

I can’t help but place this view in the context of the newer forms of media. Does it apply to the blogosphere; to Youtube; to Facebook? Does it apply to the realm of social media?

Yes, all social media contain statements, mostly fitting the definition put forth by Foucault and Radford and Radford; statements that are oftentimes disparate parts, combining to make a “concrete” whole; there is most definitely a sense of arbitrary classification in social media, classification that comes from “the crowd” linking one thing to another based on little more commonality than their personal interest in the subject; statements that, however disparate, are subject to a system of rules that govern how discourse happens in a social network, how one conducts him/herself in respectful ways; statements that fit the post-structuralist character of being “fragile and open to subversion” (Radford and Radford, 2004, p. 61), the subversion that comes from a negative comment on a blog or the fragility resulting simply from the existence of the delete button on the keyboard.

At first pass, however, that fragility leads me to conclude that Foucault’s argument about the materiality is not wholly applicable to social media. I am forced to ask if materiality and disposability are absolutely contrary terms. Do these, to borrow Weinberger’s phrase, “small pieces, loosely joined” really have a material presence in any way? Is the monitor of my laptop the material presence of my Facebook profile? If I print out the text of this note does it lose its essence? Is the paper a dead, corporeal representation of the note (or any other artifact of social media)?

Part of the essence of the note (or the Youtube video, blog post, Digg link) is the comment function. Its fragility and openness to subversion (both to subverting and being subverted) is the fact that the page is ever changing or having the potential to change. The blog may have zero comments, but there is always the potential that the passerby may “StumbleUpon” it. When it takes on the materiality of the paper is ceases to exist as it was; it can no longer be linked to, commented upon, updated. More importantly, the links contained within the content are now deceased. Those elements of the page, which connect it to other bits of information, are no longer “live.” The content that is printed has shuffled off of its mortal (html) coil.

These connections, these links, are the essence of social media, of web 2.0. This discursive formation’s perceived materiality within the confines of a computer network stands in contrast to its true immateriality when it is given the same material form of the book on the library shelf: paper. Yet, the statements of the social network do have material effects. A negative comment on the blog has the same material affect as a negative comment in person; the anonymity of the comment may increase the affect on the psyche; the absence of comment, the silence, is equally affecting at times. The comment is affect “as stimulus…a state of relation…intensities between” (Seigworth, p. 1). As Greg Seigworth states, “thought is itself a body” (p. 2). But does that “body of thought” continue to exist as itself when it moves from mind to blog? Does Facebook contain the “intensities between” when I logout?

The answer is yes and no. Those “intensities between” are of our own creation. As Radford and Radford (2004) state “the world a person sees and experiences is one that is created by the relation of stimuli to other stimuli and not some ‘pure’ perception of the world as it really is” (p. 63). There is no “pure” existence of a Facebook page or a blog. I “author” the layout of my pages. I move, remove and re-move the elements, the stimuli, in relation to other stimuli. My virtual bookshelf is moved from bottom to top to show visitors what I am reading; my wall is shifted downward; I “poke” a friend; the Obama widget on my blog is featured at the top, beside the first post, the blogroll is deemphasized in favor of a tag cloud. But when all the work is done and the laptop is closed, does that content exist in the same way a book does?

Friends are another set of stimuli within the social network. There is randomization to who is at the front of my page when I login. When I receive a friend invitation I am always told who connects me to my “new” friend. We are all statements and the network of social media is contextualizing us for us. We are stimuli and Facebook "sees and experiences us" and tells us how we relate to other stimuli. But how material are our effects/affects? When my fingers are no longer tapping the keys and the bits of information are floating through the network they no longer have the material effects/existence that continue when I leave a book on a shelf. Do they really “continue to physically circulate among readers?” Or are they thoughts without bodies?

1 comment:

Bryan said...

Some nice thoughts, Rob. I think it's important to remember, too, the material aspects of so-called Web 2.0 media that are technologically instantiated. Blog comments are etched into hard disks on servers in any-state-whatever, TCP/IP initiates protocols that flick networks switches on and off throughout the country when I watch a YouTube video, and light zips through fiber optics, bouncing off tiny mirrors as I troll you. Keeping these material aspects in mind helps us resist the perception of so-called "virtual" objects as entirely ephemeral and, thus, as you say, "disposable." Abstracting backward, zooming out to encompass the full range of actants shifting and re-aligning when you're shifting your tag cloud, determining the "essence" of your Facebook page becomes tougher and tougher.