Part II: The Lonely Crowd

Mediating Thoughts

“The economic system [which is] founded on isolation is a circular production of [that] isolation. The technology is based on isolation, and the technical process isolates in turn. From the automobile to television, all the goods selected by the spectacular system are also its weapons for a constant reinforcement of the conditions of isolation of “lonely crowds.” The spectacle constantly rediscovers its own assumptions more concretely.” – Debord

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(Puff at a cancer stick relieved that it will enable you to make a premature exit from this urban dystopia = Generic Philosopher Pose No.10)

I can imagine poor Debord having a mental breakdown if he were to ride the London tube. To witness an entire tube carriage glued to their iphones and ipads as they quietly observe urban solitude, not daring to break the heavy silence between people for the fear of coming across a bit too friendly and consequently mental, would be too much for Debord. Navigating the London bus system is already pretty daunting, but if you had Debord’s head instead of your own the ride would be psychologically apocalyptic.

Commuters on an overcrowded train

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The people who physically surround us are strangers because we consider the risk of face to face conversation somehow too much to take. We act like socially phobic robots on public transport, yet, conversely, you might have never met some of the people you follow on Instagram or Twitter but for some reason you feel like you know them. After all, you’ve seen what they’ve had for breakfast, lunch and dinner or even what they look like post-coitus. 

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You can take that ‘social risk’ and accost a complete stranger on the internet and spark a debate or conversation. You can even tell a celebrity or MP that you think they’re an arse hole. The consequences of our online actions seem much more trivial than what we do in real life.  Picking an argument on youtube’s comment section or trolling news articles is ‘normal’, but overhearing a group of stranger’s political debate at the pub and injecting your two cents into their discussion is comparatively ‘weird’. It’s ‘normal’ to ‘like’ a stranger’s selfie on Instagram, but giving a stranger a thumbs up on the tube is ‘weird’.

It’s easy to click that ‘like’ button, to ‘connect’ with people online. This might not mean, however, that the sentiment portrayed by the ‘like’ button means much. Are we psychologically engaged in our online interactions? Does technology put psychological distance between each other and between us and our behaviours? Sherry Turkle seems to think that it does. The TED talk below describes how technology has exacerbated an already existing catch-22 that humans experience.

What Sherry Turkle explains in her TED talk is that real life is messy but technology makes human relationships tidy. People say dumb shit all the time. People have emotions that sometimes get out of control.  But, people like to feel in control of themselves and their self-image and social media helps us to do just that. Debord argues that technology enables the “systematic organization of the ‘failure of the faculty of encounter’ and as its replacement by a hallucinatory social fact: the false consciousness of encounter, the “illusion of encounter.”

On the one hand we are inherently social beings, on the other we are fiercely competitive and care a lot about what people think of us. The most obvious place to see this inherent contradiction in action is in (some, not all – rave clubs tend to buck this trend purely because of the nature of the narcotics involved) nightclubs and bars. We head along to a bar, dressed in our most fashionable/suavest/most expensive gear to meet our friends because deep-down we care what they, or anybody else in the bar, for that matter, thinks of us. This is why Moet champagne bottles and VIP areas exist. There’s a heavy dose of showing off involved in a lot of social interactions.

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Social media is a complex exchange of glances. You watch what your friends are doing. You watch how they talk to each other on the comments sections of photographs. You watch how happy they look in those photographs. Knowing that you watch and judge other people’s social media behaviour you might watch and judge your own. You might carefully tailor what you put on Facebook. You craft yourself. They’re crafting themselves too. You might try not to craft yourself – but even this is crafted. Everything is edited. Everything is re-presented.

“All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” – Guy Debord, The Society of The Spectacle.

This is why people on the internet seem better, cleaner, more friendly than those very same people who are sitting next to you on the tube. You only see the healthy breakfasts or really good looking sexual partners that your Instagram pal from the other side of the world displays to the internet. You only see their ‘good side’ in their hundreds of selfies. Sometimes reading people’s twitter feeds is comparable to watching an American sitcom whose script is so witty and punchy that you wonder why real life isn’t as full of pizazz. Why are my ‘real world’ friends not as funny/informative/in the know?

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People aren’t necessarily straight with each other, and with themselves, when they know that other people are watching. They can often mimic other’s behaviour to fit in.  People are hard-wired to ensure their survival in a group. What other people are doing sets a benchmark for what you should be doing. Your values and desires are shaped by the people around you all the more prominently when these are made public. Social media is group mentality on a colossal scale in an intense always on, always online, and always watching way.

“The alienation of the spectator to the profit of the contemplated object (which is the result of his own unconscious activity) is expressed in the following way: the more he contemplates the less he lives; the more he accepts recognizing himself in the dominant images of need, the less he understands his own existence and his own desires. The externality of the spectacle in relation to the active man appears in the fact that his own gestures are no longer his but those of another who represents them to him. This is why the spectator feels at home nowhere, because the spectacle is everywhere.” – Guy Debord, Society of The Spectacle

Consequently, social media has a habit of exacerbating the two contradictory impulses of human crowd mentality (showing off whilst fitting in) in quite an alarming way to produce a culture that rewards banal interactions with banal ‘likes’. The ability to edit our personas online reduces the risk associated with human interactions and the result is a watered down version of ourselves that enables us to fit in with the crowd. Are we really true to ourselves online? Are the connections we make with those we interact with online merely superficial? Is it a connection born out of a fear of loneliness that only serves to reinforce that loneliness?

What does this mean for planners?

1. Likes mean practically nothing. Other than the fact that 62% of online traffic is formed of ‘bots’ and other non-human entities, the mere tap of the ‘like’ button means practically nothing.

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There are no real consequences to weigh up when you click ‘like’ or ‘follow’. If there is less risk to doing something then obviously the value of that behaviour is less. If you save a child from a burning building you are a hero. If you take a spider out of a bath, less so.

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Never form a strategy around gaining Facebook likes. Not only does your brand have to compete with liking a friend’s status or DJ/Photography/Cat Sanctuary Facebook pages, it has no reason to do so. If you’re so insecure as a brand that you want people to ‘like’ you online rather than buy your product and be done with it, then that’s a little lame.

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2. Social media “content” can breed banality. People now judge “content” do by how likeable or sharable it is. In order for it to be likeable it might not be challenging. In order for it to be sharable, you have to ensure that it is suitably bland or samey to other “content” so as not to offend anybody you share it with or, worse, portray yourself as some sort of nutcase. Cat videos, GIFs and memes are obviously more ‘sharable’ than Japanese Hentai Tentacle porn. This is why I populate my blogs with them. They’re populist and counterbalance what I hope comes across a little provocative.

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“Under the shimmering diversions of the spectacle, banalization dominates modern society the world over… The remains of religion and of the family (the principal relic of the heritage of class power) and the moral repression they assure, merge whenever the enjoyment of this world is affirmed–this world being nothing other than repressive pseudo-enjoyment.” – Debord, The Society of The Spectacle.

When you put “content” out on Social Media, try not to care too much if it might form a negative backlash. Sometimes it is more helpful to divide and conquer your audience than be all-things-to-all-people. You’ll forge a deeper connection or (wretch wretch) “engage” with your core fans more this way.

3. Think about how you use social media to feedback on your creative work. If you judge the content you have put up by the number of likes it gets and then decide to produce something of the same ilk, labouring under the misapprehension that you have ‘tailored’ your content to ‘consumer preferences’ (which are poorly expressed through likes anyway), then you are not jolting people to take notice. By merely adding to the noise, to the number of generic videos or instagram shots of food, whatever brand you are working on cannot hold a defining space in people’s minds. It merely falls into the cultural mulch that forms the backdrop of our lives.

Culture: “It is the sense of a world which hardly makes sense.” – Debord, The Society of The Spectacle.

When Debord states that “Culture is the locus of the search for lost unity. In this search for unity, culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself,” he is speaking of how, through culture, we wish to relate to each other, to over-come the “lonely crowd” and our “lost unity” as a society. Unfortunately, when everything refers to everything else that was once popular or successful, you end up with nothing new. Ipso facto, “culture as a separate sphere is obliged to negate itself.”

My other favourite philosopher, Baudrillard, wrote in his essay The Hyper-realism of Simulation (1976) that the use and abundance of media, signs, and symbols has so bombarded our culture that “reality itself, as something separable from signs of it…has vanished in the information-saturated, media-dominated contemporary world.” Photography, mass production, television, and advertising have shaped and altered authentic experience to the point that “reality” is recognized only when it is re-produced in simulation. Ie. ‘Real’ or ‘Authentic’ has its own inauthentic tropes, iconography and visual conventions. There are thousands of pictures of #nature on instagram that all look pretty much the same. “An air of nondeliberate parody clings to everything,” Baudrillard wrote. Everything seems to be an accidental parody of something else. Its all falling into the same cultural mulch.

So aim to produce something new, not something popular. Have faith in being in the ‘creative’ industry. Don’t crowdsource ideas. Come up with your own. Personally, I believe that planners should avoid holding up a mirror to society without making a comment on it. That comment could look at the accidental parody inherent in reality and make it deliberate and pointed. That comment should disrupt reality, not fall into the background of it.

4. Take what people say and do online with a liberal and generous pinch of salt.

There is nothing wrong with looking at cultural insights through social media, but the quantifiable ‘engagement data’ should not lure you into a false sense of security. What we really want to find out about is the motives behind the data. Why do people like something? They may be liking it ‘ironically’ or out of pity as nobody else has liked that friends’ post. Most likely, they are liking it because everyone else has.

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There’s a legendary anecdote that sums it up: A man is watching another man scrabbling around under a lamp post late at night, trying to find something. After watching for ten minutes, and sensing his desperation, he asks the man, now on his hands and knees,“Sir, are you sure you dropped your keys here?” The man looks up and replies, “No, no, I heard them fall about a block away.” Bemused by this confession he asks,“Then why on earth are you searching for them here?” To which he replies,“Well, because the light is so much better!”

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The moral is that although quantifiable data, such as Facebook likes or Retweets, allows for something to be quantifiable, it doesn’t mean it is where you should be looking. It also doesn’t mean that lamp posts should be looking at you either…. Which leads me onto my next post on Big Data.

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