Networked Capitalism: A World of Cyber-Cells

December 12, 2013


 The impact social media has had on our daily lives – we now record where we go, what we do and what we think for the world to see – has radically changed the way we relate to ourselves and each other. As the proliferation of social media has become increasingly seamless and habitual, we have become unwittingly accustomed to our mass migration into cyberspace. For this reason, it is vital that we give significance to what is routinely considered insignificant and explore the psycho-social complexities at work. As online communities have become key motors of self-image, social media has exacerbated our fast-growing fixation with personal image and status. As individuals obsess over Twitter retweets, Instagram likes or Facebook comments, inane narcissism has become commonplace. What may have begun as an innocent desire for personal recognition has rapidly descended into an unhealthy fixation with ourselves and our lives.

At face value, online performances and micro-endorsements might appear inconsequential but together they help to create a culture of competitive egotism. Our perpetual urge to share our experiences via micro-blogging sites can be likened to a form of self-promotion. As the competitive spirit of late capitalism has permeated social media, we have been encouraged to rebrand our identity for the consumption of an external audience. Like human commodities, we are encouraged to design, trademark and showcase our online identities. As a result, the line between ‘human capital’ and actual capital has become increasingly blurred. In turn, the individualistic and competitive edge of social media has become representative of a deep-seated pressure to conform to capitalism’s narrow definition of success.

As genuine social interaction has been subsumed by social networking and ‘contact building’, we have encountered an era of networked capitalism. Although this quantified form of social connection might be emotionally deficient, it provides a welcome distraction from anonymous market relations. Nevertheless, social media cannot fulfil our yearning for the immaterial – friendship, leisure, play and creativity – with its fleeting distractions.  Whilst it might offer placating diversions from the other ills of late capitalism, it remains inherently unsatisfying. In the end, the micro-fame of social media offers us image without substance, connection without communication and talk without meaning. For this reason, we must recognise and scrutinise the faux fulfilment on offer.

As social media has contributed to the commodification of ourselves and our interactions, it has radically changed the way we relate to others. Our growing obsession with image and networking has led to increasing social isolation. Social media’s core preoccupation with the individual has pushed emphasis away from the collective. Despite the fact our network of connections has grown wider, it has simultaneously grown shallower. Enmeshed in a spiral of transient, virtual encounters, many of us have turned inwards on ourselves and now lead increasingly atomised lives. Although we are now able to instantly communicate with one another, unrestrained by the bounds of space or time, we have become increasingly disconnected from each other. In turn, interconnectivity has not equated to genuine intersubjectivity.

Without wanting to launch a nostalgic attack on modern life, it appears clear that social media has radically changed the way we communicate. A great deal of our leisure time is now consumed by the humming diversions of social media. This is not to say that friendship has been directly substituted for social media but as the ease of instant communication has grown, the information you would have once learnt over a pint and a catch up session can be speedily observed on a friend’s Facebook page. Facebook has provided the semblance of friendship without the intimacies or the demands of a real relationship. Whilst social media communities can obviously provide great sources of mutual comfort for individuals, enhanced technological connection does not decrease the need for real-time interaction. Becoming an atomised point in a cyber network will never replace being part of a genuine community.

As tight-knit neighbourhood connections have lessened in recent years, specialists argue that we are now lonelier than ever before. Regardless of whether this is true or not, it is interesting to explore social media’s impact on social interaction. What’s more, whilst the feeling of loneliness is obviously not a modern phenomenon – individuals have felt alone in a crowd since the beginning of civilisation – social media has arguably brought more of these feelings to light. For this reason, it is important that we extend our analysis of late capitalism to the micro-structures of everyday life and explore the link between our increasingly atomised lifestyles and the proliferation of social network sites.

The factors which explain growing levels of isolation are both complex and wide-ranging. For example, the growth in working hours and the distances which people commute to work mean that we are compelled to spend more of our free-time on social media sites. What’s more, the need to record and share events as they happen in real time mean that we are often alone together. This leads to a prevailing sense of distraction and unease with the present moment. Ironically, it also becomes increasingly difficult to gain genuine solitude when we are constantly surrounded by the buzzing social distractions of our connected devices.

As social media has made us increasingly obsessed with ourselves and our image it has also affected the way we relate to others. In essence, social media has contributed to a concurrent rise in individualism, self-image, social isolation and collective disconnection. Although there are other key structural factors at work, social media provides a critical lens into the social alienation of networked capitalism. Rather than resign social media to the non-ideological, it is vital that we analyse the seemingly ordinary and banal features of late capitalism.

By Maya Oppenheim | @MayaOppenheim


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