Through social media, a fashion-like imperative of constant, superficial self-reinvention begins to govern more and more of social life under the guise of facilitating connection and permitting ongoing self-discovery. Our Facebook updates don’t allow us to express ourselves so much as allow consumerism to express itself through us while we provide the labor that sustains it as a communication system. We are produced within that system, with an identity that is expressed through what Baudrillard labeled the “code”—consumerism’s systemized set of signifiers. On social media, we leverage the code to enhance how we are perceived, thus replenishing that code for further cycles.
Social media archives these identity-making gestures as a collection we can continually fawn over and curate. The archiving makes the self seem richer and more substantial even as it makes it more tenuous. Our identity can never be so strong as to render any particular recorded gesture completely negligible; the self becomes cumulative at the same time as it is discontinuous. This has the effect of making whatever is shared through social media seem deeply significant to who we are and unsettlingly irrelevant at the same time.
In social media, advertising’s perennial message—that one’s inner truth can be expressed through the manipulation of well-worked surfaces—becomes practical rather than insulting. We no longer need to fear “selling out” by blending self-expression with hype, as the terms of service of online selfhood already presume our sell out as a foregone conclusion. We sell out simply by choosing to have subjectivity on social media’s terms. Selling out becomes the prerequisite for achieving an even more authentic-seeming self, one that is routinely validated by peer recognition and by recommendation engines, predictive search, and other automatic modes of anticipation.
Through social media, our consumerist satisfactions are captured and fed back into the production cycle as a component of the manufacturing process, regulating supply and furnishing innovation ideas. Maurizio Lazzarato described this sort of productive communication as immaterial labor, work that “seeks to involve the worker’s personality and subjectivity within the production of value.” This is labor that “produce[s] the informational and cultural content of the commodity.” He associates this labor generally with “audiovisual production, advertising, fashion, the production of software, photography, cultural activities, etc.”—jobs once typically associated with the “metropolitan” creative class, whose suitability for this sort of work came not from mastering specific skills so much as from having an appropriate taste-making habitus.
But this group’s apparent monopoly on social creativity, if it ever existed, serves only to structure immaterial labor itself as glamorous, as being somehow its own reward. The capacity to perform creative labor is naturally inherent to sociality, a fact on which social media has capitalized. Being able to build a personal identity is labor we all can perform. Everyone can express themselves—even if it’s just by clicking a thumb’s-up next to a status update. In social media, everyone can “share” their off-the-cuff thoughts and moods and secretly dream of their universal relevance, their impact.
Through immaterial labor, one’s entire being and sensibility, including one’s ability to find suitable collaborators, is enlisted in innovating and circulating cultural meanings, Rather than suspend the sense of self in the midst of work, as Fordist labor discipline demanded, immaterial laborers indulge and develop it. If, as Virno claims, post-Fordism’s great breakthrough is in how it “placed language in the workplace” and made linguistic ingenuity exploitable, it also means that work is no longer contained to the workplace or to working hours but instead takes place anywhere we happen on something to share. “Labor and non-labor,” Virno writes, “develop an identical form of productivity, based on the exercise of generic human faculties: language, memory, sociability, ethical and aesthetic inclinations, the capacity for abstraction and learning.” In other words, communication, consumption, and sociality serve simultaneously as work and nonwork, while substituting freely for one another. Social media supply the infrastructure for this free exchange.
For the companies that administer social media, the diffuse data supplied through sharing become the substance of, to use Virno’s phrase, “the commerce of potential as potential”—selling not necessarily the content we supply but access to what we are capable of supplying, which embraces the entirety of our social being. These companies need not commit to any particular branding message of their own; instead, they aspire to a welcoming neutrality that intimidates no one. They market giving uncompensated content production for their networks as the fun of participation. Subjects have an investment to make that work pay off, not in wages but in attention. This incentive permits social-media companies, whose market valuations are skyrocketing, to internalize more and more of experience and subject it to capitalism’s interpretive lens. More human behavior is understood in terms of maximization. Other incentives are suppressed.
Social media, besides serving as an omnipresent factory and distribution center for immaterial labor, also supplies a scoreboard by which we can track our performance in the attention economy—number of Twitter followers, number of comments on a recent Facebook update, number of reblogs on a Tumblr post, et cetera. Because there are so many options, we can cycle through them in search of micro-validation.