Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

Ten myths about social media and the power of visual culture

November 2015

The strongest aspect of social media are the visual elements.

After being commissioned to compile the UK's first Insta-economy report (there's been some press), the received business strategy of organisational control includes new content and the erasure of boundaries between PR, marketing comms, branding and media outputs. Key examples include paid-for content; sponsored user profiles designed to look like an 'anybody'; the overtuning (in my opinion) of myopic and short-sighted, or predictable, content.  

The problem of control over content thus emerges from the commercial incentive to stake out key vantage points and to dominate information intimately related to image. 

In my lecture to Durham University next week I argue the method of design effects the control of content, and debates about commercial impact are only one piece of a larger puzzle. A puzzle that concerns the extent to which circuits of information flow, control, data security, consumer profiling, promotion, consumer behaviour, management and feedback serve the larger constellation of economic incentives and profit. 

The evolving ecosystem of policy, legislation, entrepreneurism, in areas of marketing content illuminate the ways that promotion and culture are closer together and have become tools for structuring contests over the conditions of communication, conditions of participation and strategies in exploiting visual culture. 

It seems important to me not to overstate the power of aesthetics, but also important not to let the presence of co-consumptive content be treated as a side-dish to key literatures on marketing, consumption, society and culture.

What then can we observe about social media?

Ten myths about social media and the power of visual culture

  1. Social media entails the liquidiation of culture and society as we know it; 
  2. Social media accepts without question and promotes visual aesthetics;
  3. Social media transform the history of culture and society into a history of 'image', if not the selfie; 
  4. Social media implies that the difference between mediated / digital content and physical setting is a 'non-problem'. Images and presence dissolve into undifferentiated representation; 
  5. Social media implies a predilection for the disembodied, dematerialised, decentralised self; 
  6. We live in a predominantly visual era. Contemporary communication entails the hegemony (or command) of aesthetics and visual medium; 
  7. There is a coherent class of 'things' called 'social media'; 
  8. Social media are fundamentally about the social construction of the visual aesthetic. What we see, and the manner in which we come to see 'things' matter above anything else;
  9. Social media entails an unhistorical approach to culture and society; 
  10. Social media consists of scopic sweeping regimes to be overthrown by political and economical critique. 

Eight counter-theses on social media 

  1. Social media encourage reflection on the difference between 'real' and an index of 'unreal', visual and verbal signs, and the ratios between different experiences and sensory stimulation; 
  2. Social media entails a mediation on familiarity, the unknown, the unseen, the unseeable, and the unfamiliar; also on the density of gesture; it compels attention to the tacit, the haptic and synesthesia;
  3. Social media are not limited to the study or understanding of images or medium, but extend into everyday, ordinary and mundane practices of seeing, sharing and showing, especially those which we take as immediate with swiftness of reciprocated communication; 
  4. There are no one social media. All media are mixed with varying contexts, ratios and methods of senses and sense-shaping; 
  5. The disembodied image of the self and the embodied self are permanent elements in the dialectics of social media. Images are to portraiture and pictures as species are to specimens in medicine; 
  6. We do not live in a uniquely mediated era. The mediation and replication of self is a recurrent trope that displaces visual culture and into moral and political statements.  Social media is ritually plucked out by the ruthless eye of critique; 
  7. Social media are the visual construction of the social, not just the social construction / replication of the visual. The question of the effect and affect of social media is, therefore, a central issue, but not one investigation in isolation; 
  8. The social and cultural task of social media are to perform a set of representations in the hoary of social construction. 

 The often dialectical concept of a social media culture leaves itself open to the above myths and critiques rather than foreclosing them with the visual merits of the technology and field of vision. Social media involve related worries (sometimes elation) at the leveling of distinctions between 'real' and 'unreal', and the different media. 

To end we might observe that we are very adept at casting our eyes over social media, yet we do not view or read these properly, nor do we listen to it. An argument that is settled by noting that there is no control to pause the flow of information. 

If nothing else, social media may encourage us to dig deeper and look back on traditional contexts, socio-political and cultural situations with fresh eyes, new questions and open minds.