A Shattered Mirror: Détournement & Recuperation of Social Media
And to be honest, this is my final straw with Facebook.
As a business, it’s difficult to just walk away. Specifically, there seems (at least in my head) to be a social expectation that any ‘real’ business have a Facebook page, regardless of how materially practical or useful that relationship is to the actual business. But as a personal user, absolutely, this changes things. I’ve already begun the process of removing my content from the site (and Facebook’s other asset, Instagram). The days of me logging hours on the site, sharing memes and articles, jokes and photos, all the while working against myself to not argue politics in the comments are over. What I leave behind remains to be determined.
For years I’ve made excuses for the network. Despite all its well-documented ills—from introducing distressful content to certain users to advertising conversion abuse to queer users, to unjust bans and un-nuanced name policies—Facebook, for me at least, has remained a necessary evil for community event organizing and promoting all the oddjobs I do to try and make a living.
The new policy though is where I draw the line. It feels too much like threatening my livelihood and connection to community if I don’t cooperate with returning to a closet defined—again—by some social force other than me. And I’ve worked too hard to reclaim the agency to define myself and build the career I want to have a service that should be enjoyable and helpful to my business dictate the terms by which I get to discuss either.
When You’re Banned, No One Can Hear You Scream
Facebook’s recently discovered new policies are not an isolated event. They follow the recent changes to Tumblr’s content policies, Starbucks’ new parental control of their wifi, and years of culture warfare creeping into the way we interface with the internet.
It’s no longer just the geeks and subcultures inhabiting the web in pursuit of better community, but it’s families, it’s kids, it’s MLK’s ‘white moderates’ and their very conservative opinions about who belongs within eyesight of them and their children, whether physically or metaphysically in the developing electronic frontier. We live in an era now where social media is understood to influence elections, and where social media executives are called on to testify before physical governments—or to explain basic concepts about web-based business models, search engines, and the plurality of web-based companies. While we may all share a laugh in the moment, today’s new social media policies are the product of yesterday’s power struggle between congressional and industrial authorities.
Taking a step back from my preferred outlet has given me an opportunity to reflect on these relationships we maintain with the digital landscape.
In the beginning, social media was a sort of meta-geography where the discarded and marginalized of physical society could create and discover new meta-physical communities. So we’ve heard, so we’ve been told, and so we’ve reassured ourselves for years. C’mon you’re not even alive, if you’re not backed up on a drive. Social media provides a platform for the voices we never get to hear otherwise. For some, it’s ableizing in an otherwise disabling world. It’s not something we can just abandon. Talk of doing so sounds like talk of disconnecting from the very people our physical community spaces failed to include. Alienation, isolation—whose side are you even on? Masterfully, our generation has by one perception become addicted to this new landscape.
But that’s not the point, we’ve insisted. This is radical. We—our avatar proxies—post ourselves into liberated communities. Although yes, they are flawed. And it’s not just internal conflicts exorcising their way from our newfound e-community. Facebook has banned drag performers, artists, and trans folks from using their names. Facebook’s colorblind neoliberalism has banned Black women and other activists of color for discussing the social dynamics oppressing them.
Facebook has decided—on behalf of queer people—that ‘faggot’ is almost always a ban-worthy offense, virtually euthanizing a preference at least sometimes derived from the history of ‘gay’ as a slur many in my generation grew up hearing in place of more recognizably charged words like ‘queer’ or ‘fag.’ This is not just our own agency to self-define being censored. This is our history, and the shared history of the social world heterosexuals have made with us, eradicated from the digital landscape.
Despite every insistence that a radical potential remains to be charted here, the cold reality is our relative powerlessness in the digital commons and the progressive recuperation of the territories we occupy. We can marry, define our genders, and select from three pronouns on Facebook—but at a cost of covering up our bodies, using our legal names, censoring the erotic and romantic anarchy of our relationships, and never claiming the space to name ourselves beyond the words permitted from on high.
Mediated Through the Spectacle
“We are parishioners in the Holy Church of Facebook, reproducing behaviour-as-content (taking selfies, writing posts, sharing tweets, clicking reactions) which The Feed distributes according to its own logic (Facebook’s deeply-obscured algorithm). And like the devoted at Mass, we passively take in what the priests have transubstantiated by occulted processes we can only accept, not engage in ourselves.”
(Rhyd Wildermuth, The Hunger of the Feed)
Whether our preference is to grapple with the digital landscape through the metaphor of organized religion or something like a conventional Marxist analysis of labor, the common theme in our augmented reality is the hierarchical power dynamic we find dominant there. We produce content for websites like Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter. We produce a surplused value in the currency of number of users. And although staff accounts litter the sites of our choosing, the power imbalance of social media’s ownership model persists. The owners may also be users, but unlike us, they get to write the rules. To upload here, to work here, to produce content and value here, we instead only have the option to obey. To try for the radical community we promise one another, we too must accept the electronic presence of Nazis as more tolerable than female nipples (and the Jewish desserts mistaken for them).
So successfully obscured is this relationship of user to owner, that our malice more readily associates to The Feed—our digital cubicle farm, our Demiurge, and our factory floor. Our genuine complaints at power translate to resentment of other content-producers, of the digital landscape itself, or of the technology mediating our access to its spectacles. We become Luddites subconsciously leaping ahead to a valid point that no amount of worker-ownership can redeem—that is, that there is something innately destructive in the artifacts of civilization, regardless of who collects the value of production, and the digital landscape is no exception, as innocent as we might prefer to render it in blaming the AI of the Demiurge instead.
After all, how could the digital landscape be anything but a mirror to our own toxicity when it emerges not downward from the gnostic-romantic echelons of cyberpunk aesthetes but malignantly out of industrial production and late capitalist sensibilities?
Yet even in our cyber nirvana, the capitalists remain secured by our distractions. What difference is even a few thousand inactive or deleted accounts? What difference is even a few disgruntled anti-modernists? New users are being bred everyday. And sooner or later, every worker must agree to the terms and click submit. The technology of addiction colonizes every developed and developing household. Like agriculture and animal husbandry, social media and its digital landscape will only be eclipsed by an extinction event. The singularity has already come and gone. Our spectacle is now real-time, immersive, engaged, and experiential for seemingly all.
For better and worse, our lives now reflect the metaphysical. Every business has a Facebook page. We are posed in social media captivity at our protests, images are choreographed and hashtagged—for impact, for exposure, for détournement in the face of social regression, (and for the recuperation of the non-profit industrial complex in the face of shifting liberal ideological loyalties). We are posed in social media captivity of our love, relationships are ‘Facebook official,’ images are choreographed and hashtagged, multiplied for options, filtered—a new body emerges.
#Post Spectacular Prepper
So is the answer to completely abandon the digital landscape for something ‘realer’ to be remembered in person? I’m not sure. (And I’m not even sure that ‘real’ world exists any longer). Conventionally, leftists at least argue to never cede ground to fascists, and while morally rejecting the paternalistic phobias of social media owners may leave us feeling less triggered about the possibility of reliving parental rejection, our departure alone does nothing to stop either outright fascist organizing through the spectacle or the curation of late capitalist ‘normalcy’ intentionally purged of us.
It seems to me that our digital work must push itself beyond the culturejamming of yesteryear, or the cynical resignation to leftbook aesthetics which offer little radicalism beyond a liberal coexistence precipitating our inevitable purge. Digital nihilism comes to mind immediately, but it’s not a task I’m suited for or that I imagine most of us are suited for. Likewise, there is always petitioning for better policies, and in this sense, withholding the labor of content creation provides a sort of cyber strike to pressure change. For years now some dissidents have threatened to form their own alternative networks. While these spaces can be important, they also prove difficult to integrate with sites like this one and those which other folks use to archive their work in these worlds (see: the limited options of share icons offered at the bottom of this post), which of course poses an challenge to the immediate economic needs of our communities.
Practically, I suppose there’s an answer to be in the middle of all these options. Diehard users should campaign for better policies. Folks who can and want to should abandon the digital landscapes no longer welcoming to them. Folks with the skills and desire should create niche alternatives, augmented experiences to the ‘family-friendly’ public persona of social media empires. And those who can and desire to should also revisit the possibility of physical spaces. (Every one of us targeted by new policies should do whatever is in our power to secure our existence in the coming futures—that is, if such organic life still holds value to us).
While we might balk at the accusation that we have abandoned the physical for the metaphysical, the disappearance of lesbian bookstores, gay bathhouses, and nightclubs juxtaposed to the spectacular temptations of being clearly out, clearly labeled, and clearly defined through profile options, memes, hookup apps, groups, and pages provides evidence to our recent reality. ‘Out of the closet and into the streets’ is an artifact to our disappearing publicity. We have traded being queer in public for being queer in zeroes and ones that can easily and non-violently be unfollowed, blocked, banned, and ultimately purged. Yes, social media has helped us organize tremendous marches. And yes, social media has given us space to air grievances external and internal to our community. And yes, social media has amplified the marginalized, viralized our aesthetics, and created reflections for millions of proto-vampires seeking someone like them. But all that—all that progress—can be deleted instantaneously with a policy update we get no say in.
And then where are we to go? If Grindr is shut down, how will we meet? If we are removed from Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, where will tomorrow’s queer youth see reflections of their future selves? Where will we organize our revolutions? Where will we help one another practice better consent and sexual liberation? Where will we grieve? How will we know when one of us is fired? When one of us is dying? When one of us is losing custody of their child to the state?
The policy changes of our social media giants are again a neon warning to the reality of this recuperation. The heteronormativity of cyberpunk’s prophecies is a cautionary tale. For all that social media provides us, we would be foolish to ignore the power held over us and outside ourselves. So regardless of if or how these new policies change your behavior, treat this moment as an opportunity to evaluate the viability of your life and your community without the mediation of the digital landscape.
For all our progress, and for all the futures imagined and realized, we are still queers. And we are not in power in this land (or that).
Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to firstname.lastname@example.org