Dr. Mariann Hardey

Digitally on.

Speaker, Writer, Academic.

Durham University Lecturer.

I do stuff for the BBC.

Feminist & lovely.

Slanguage of social media

Social City: The Digital Self as Utopian Other

July 2015

A Utopian Conceit

When H. G. Wells’s narrator visits a perfectly realized, alternate version of Earth in 1905’s A Modern Utopia, he meets the utopian Earth’s version of H. G. Wells. This Wells, however, is not a writer, but an administrator, one of this Utopia’s ‘samurai’, its ruling elite. Such is a consequence of utopian writing’s ‘death instinct’, seeking to write itself out of existence – what need does a utopian state have of utopian books? It is also a form of ego projection, since in a utopian state the utopian writer imagines a finer, better version of himself:

‘He is a little taller than I, younger looking and sounder looking; he has missed an illness or so, and there is no scar over his eye. His training has been subtly finer than mine; he has made himself a better face than mine....’

In the twenty-first century, social media can be constituted as a utopian imaginary space in which alternate versions of the self can be projected…


Professor Simon James, Department of English Studies, Durham University and myself will present these ideas in our paper, The Social City: The Digital Self as Utopian Other for the Utopian Sutdies Conference, Newcastle.  You are very welcome to join, Saturday, 09.30am, Saturday, July 4th, The Percy Building, Newcastle University.  

H. G Wells described his 1905 work A Modern Utopia  as a ‘hybrid’ of essay and fiction. This paper is a hybrid of research interests and methods. Begins with a utopian conceit from literary studies [1] 

The economists of Utopia

Over the last several decades social media, digital technologies, smart phone apps, wearable tech, and more(!) have become increasingly participatory.  This shift – perhaps best described as the second great transformation of economic and social systems as an information revolution, to parallel the earlier industrial one – has changed the habits of individuals. Our friend the sociologist has responded by turning to the theories of networks, mass-mediated commodification, legislation and performance to help explain the political, cultural and social effect. This paper is a way of stepping into those discussions, arguing that there is also affect that concern the extent to which we understand the individual and may struggle with the revised conditions of participation – or rather the economists of Utopia.

The economists of Utopia, as I apprehended them, had a different method and a very different system of theories from those I have read on earth, and this makes my exposition considerably more difficult. This article upon which I base my account floated before me in an unfamiliar, perplexing, and dream-like phraseology.

Wells, Section 2, 1905

In my own research (and those of you familiar to this website and blog will know) I have coined the term ‘digital self work’, to describe the familiarity with mediated everyday life and from this standpoint with a considerable emphasis of performed activity – i.e. the reflection and then to act upon the presentation of self in the treatment of social organisation. It is based on this notion that I, we, identify with Wells’s ‘sort of lucid vagueness’, and doubling from the anticipations set as a Preface and titled, A Note To The Reader, ‘in that I have tried to present not simply an ideal, but an ideal in reaction with two personalities’, just as we might when we obscure the hard black and white lines that previously coloured around the real and the digital.  

While postmodernists might speculate about a growing crisis of the self, even the opportunity for new discourses about a gradual liberation from everyday and popular representations of social life, in actuality, the occurrence of such moments is very uneven and gives emphasis to a number of already embedded anxieties. 


In presenting this paper at the Utopian Societies Conference we anticipate a number of critisims such as, IF there is already familiarity with uptopia as functioning for relegious spirituality, for travel and reflection, for day-dreaming, then what are the defining characteristics of our digital-age utopia?


Our answer, but you should come to our paper, is for the utopia as aesthetic, something more playful and out of the perfomance of the social on social media.We can reiterate that there is ‘difference’ in what has gone before, yet there are shared characteristics of behaviour, method (as in the technologies) that softens the edges of difference (social and cultural signifiers bear similarity) the effect of which (to borrow from Wells) is an ‘incurable effect’ of heightened sensitivity to individuality.  


[1] The Professor Simon James, Durham University is joint-author and it was his ruminations on this extract that inspired this paper.