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social media

It’s a common observation that social media channels allow us to compartmentalise our lives. In a recent performance/lecture by Rebekka Kill at Improving Reality she looked at the political and social differences between Facebook and Twitter. Rebekka compared the platforms to punk and disco (twitter being punk and Facebook being disco), tracking and comparing their use and content she concluded that she no longer wanted to divide herself… She wanted to be ‘herself’ on all channels, she wanted to be both Punk and Disco.

This got me thinking about my use of social media. For about 4 years I’ve delivered a lecture, Schizophrenic Identities and the Networked Society, where I discuss the fragmentary nature of identity through the technologies we use. In it I look at the different naming schemas as ways to differentiate behaviour and identity.

For example, I don’t really use Facebook, but when I do, it’s all about my private life and old friends. I never really talk about work, ideas or interests, it’s truly social, but in a strange, awkward, historic way… it’s like looking at a life I once lived or a path I didn’t take. For people I went to school with, it must be impossible to workout what I’m like now. In this way, I’m socially closed off… distant… standing in the corner, not talking to anyone, during a school reunion .

Twitter is more about ideas and interests, it’s my true place… (although I do go through moments of panic because I realise I’m a bit sweary and negative) – it represents me more as a professional. I think it gives a truer representation of how/who I am.

And then there’s Flickr. Flickr is a heady mix of the personal and professional, it’s a hobby (or more an obsession), a set of ideas and visual thoughts, a prosthetic memory, a window into my eyes, an archive of my observations as a designer. But it’s all about the socially mediated visual – I favourite images for their aesthetic and creative qualities, not their emotional and personal (although there is a case to be made for an emotional aesthetic). It will always be about photography and visual culture.

Instagram (@mwardy), on the other hand, is all about the flow… about friends, observations and ‘liking’. It’s more social, but far more disposable. I don’t want to store or archive my instagram feed, it’s in constant temporal flux and I like it that way. On each channel I have a different code of ‘favoriting’ or ‘liking’ . These are linked to both usage and personal drive. Each one is nuanced and changes over time.

Recently, I’ve had a few friends who massively crosspost (instagram to flickr, twitter to facebook), at times it irritates me, because it collapses my worlds, it’s a flagrant disregard of my internalised rules. But I can live with it.

I guess the question I’d like to ask is: do we have to make the decision about the fragmentation of personality in the design of these systems – i.e. do we identity the ‘part’ of the person we want to cater for? Or are we living in a period of change where the walls between these worlds are slowly collapsing – my crossposting friends are just early adopters. Are we moving towards a social Borgesian aleph, where the complexity of our personalities are compressed into a singular, unified, publicly mediated self?

Or is this a complete and contiguous mirror of our real life social interactions. We adapt, change, pick and choose how we act depending on context and company. Social Media maybe expanding to the point where simple delineations of identity are no longer possible. All we’re left with is the compelling complexity of the modern human condition.

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Bedford square

Bedford sq is fascinating at the moment; on one corner there is a pro-life protest outside the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, on the neighbouring corner there’s a counter protest by a pro-choice campaign. A couple of weeks ago I was on the square with Herbie. He ran up to the pro-life people, to be greeted with pious scowls, he soon ran off towards the pro-choice desk. He was met with smiles and warmth / laughter and conversation. Ignoring my political position on the matter, I find it ironic that those stood on the corner, fighting for ‘life’, didn’t seem to see the joy of it. It’s was quite sad.

Pro-life protest

Beyond that, I find the spatialised aspect of the protest intriguing. Both camps ignoring each other, creating a geography of decision making. As you move around the square you encounter different ethical positions, it’s an argument in spatial terms. You move to locate yourself in the debate.

This is spatial politics at its most explicit. The thing that struck me, was that the process of understanding and navigating the ideas was far easier when physicalised. The contradictions and aesthetics of the philosophy involved was unmasked. The agendas were exposed for all to see.

This is something that gets lost on the internet, the abstraction and reliance of language means that complex debates spiral into rhetorical and circular debates… forget the internet of things, I want the space of networked political debate… this is a lot harder to do, when faced with a man and a toddler.

Herbie is pro-choice

Back in 2004, at a wonderful ‘conference’ called Design Engaged (which was informative, transformational and fun – I made a lot of friends) I gave a presentation about technology and the city – I drew on the ideas of Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord to critique the trajectory I saw being laid down by telcos for the commodification of public space through ‘locative media’. Nearly a decade later, I’m still worried (that’s another post), but my place of concern is far more intimate – it’s our everyday banalities that seems to be rife for commercial transformation.

The rise of facebook and the forthcoming ad-ification of our timelines, means that the most banal witterings of our inner/outer selves become the place and data resource for people to sell us unwanted shit.

Now… this is not a ‘I hate advertising’ post… I have no time for that level of naive debate. What I’m concerned with is the lack of socio-political aspiration involved in mining our meaningless drivel. The power of social media lies in its transformational collective action – its ability to connect, organise and distribute knowledge and action across the globe. It allows for ideas to spread, inspire and engage people in different ways. Surely there’s a better business model beyond the commercialisation of our continual-partial-distracted attention?

I’m fond of the banalities that come from my friends and contacts, I like sharing some of the meaningless crap in my life, I like social media. However, I don’t want to see it reflected back at me in the form of advertising for weightloss pills. I don’t want my everyday struggles to be turned into a sales opportunity. If this is the only way for the internet to progress, let’s get better at it.

The Kony 2012 campaign and video has been discussed a lot. This is inevitable after a video has received over a 100 million views. Thoughtful and intelligent analysis has highlighted some of its geo-political over-simplifications and Invisible Children has had its fair share of critics. The hospitalisation of Jason Russell highlighted the overwhelming nature, impact and popularity of the message.

What I’d like to focus on is how perfect a contemporary ‘media artefact’ the video is. I believe it’s an important point in our visual history and I’d argue that it typifies (or maybe expands) James Bridle‘s concept of the New Aesthetic.

What we see with Kony 2012 is the visual, organisational and philosophic language of the network being used in both form and message. The video is made for the internet and is constructed for the facebook generation. Every cut, faux click and zoom utilizes the visual and aesthetic language of our familar digital lives. We watch ‘the internet’ animate before our eyes, with a message that is produced to a point of sentimental perfection.

The facebook timeline becomes the structural device to move us through history, zipping through time we pause at different points in Russell’s life and enter his atemporal reality. We stop, gaze voyeuristically and move on to another vignette.

Google maps is another device used to move us through the space of the narrative. At one point we descend from heaven, into the heart of Africa in a move that reminds me of Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten.

In many ways this typifies James’ idea of digital ‘ways of seeing’, but it is the collision of both the aesthetic and the political that gives Kony2012 its power. It is using the aesthetic language of the network to mobilise its masses, it’s harnessing the structural formation of digital telecommunications to highlight and change the realities it supports. It is the product and producer of a digital age.