Photo by Kat Jayne
Social media is messy: a raucous collision of strident opinions, banal brunch pictures, trolls, nudes, reactionaries, revolutionaries, memes and boomers credulously reposting chain letters. This mess is part of the appeal. That’s what drew billions of users to these platforms. Yet we also hate the mess. Many of us even want to clean it up. Whether through shaming, dogpiling, doxing or some other tactic of social excision, a growing number of people have been pressing for the cleansing of the inherently messy spaces of the internet. Social media mobs all seem motivated by a need to purify.
Purity is a curious concept: defined by what it isn’t, characterised by absence, not presence. It is the state of being clear of dirt, pathogens and other undesirable stuff, untouched, uncorrupted. There are many practices and rituals associated with keeping treasured objects free from impurity and pollution.
In her book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas argues that dirt is matter out of place. Pollution is not a matter of fixed attributes (dirt, soil and sand, for example, are not pollutants in themselves) but a matter of context (soil on your plate is dirty; soil in the garden is not). Purity is not a wholly religious phenomenon, as Douglas shows: we are just as concerned with purity in secular contexts, such as medicine, psychology and law. Pollution is an encounter with something that is in a place where it shouldn’t be:
In a chaos of shifting impressions, each of us constructs a stable world in which objects have recognisable shapes, are located in depth, and have permanence. In perceiving, we are building, taking some cues and rejecting others. The most acceptable cues are those which fit most easily into the pattern that is being built up. Ambiguous ones tend to be treated as if they harmonised with the rest of the pattern. Discordant ones tend to be rejected.
Julia Kristeva took Douglas’ ideas further, arguing that rituals of purification are inherently about the abject, which crosses borders, destabilising the boundaries between self and other, subject and object. The abject is often associated with—though not limited to—bodily fluids such as excrement, blood, pus, urine, semen and so forth. These things exist within us, but, once they pass beyond the body, they become monstrous and disgusting because they disturb our sense of system, order and civilisation:
[the abject is] radically separate, loathsome. Not me. Not that. But not nothing either. A “something” I do not recognise as a thing … on the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture.
For Kristeva, then, purification usually involves avoiding or ejecting the abject. However, the predominance of digital culture complicates Douglas’ claims about “stable worlds” and Kristeva’s notion of the process of abjection. The internet surmounts physical and data processing limitations, to connect people and worldviews. National, physical and emotional borders are all breaking down. Worlds no longer hold stable, but the concern with purity remains.
When Web 2.0 emerged, many net utopians claimed that the internet offered a purer version of the marketplace of ideas, where people could be exposed to other worldviews, without the filters of traditional media. It has not turned out this way. Information and viewpoints are increasingly accessed through social media and search engines like Google, where these ideas are tailored to one’s existing commitments. These “filter bubbles,” as Eli Pariser calls them, “serve up a kind of invisible autopropaganda, indoctrinating us with our own ideas, amplifying our desire for things that are familiar and leaving us oblivious to the dangers lurking in the dark territory of the unknown.”
The filter bubble theory perhaps too heavily leans on a model of online navigation based on searching. But so much navigation on social media is based on scrolling. Often, we see things we don’t want or need to see. The algorithmic economy of social media relies on a certain amount of randomisation: you need to see things you haven’t seen before in order to provide data for engagement measurements that can be used for future advertising. The attention economy strategy par excellence, after all, is the clickbait article: the larger the number of clicks through the site, the greater the chance that users will be convinced to buy the advertised products that subsidise it.
But, increasingly, mere clicks are not enough. Ours is now an economy of reaction. Instead of simply clicking through to the latest bromide or banality—themselves often a reaction to something—we are increasingly encouraged to offer our own thoughts, feelings and opinions on the matter. We’re all reacting to reactions to reactions. The constant demand for liking, sharing, upvoting, retweeting and favouriting depends on an implicit moral framework centred on the seemingly unending self-expression of autonomous subjects always primed to react. This process of interpersonal communication ultimately serves the continuation of platform capitalism, which operates according to a logic of constant evaluative reactivity.
In such a system, the user is pandered to, encouraged to think of her perspective and vision as pure. Although dystopian and circumspect narratives about social media abound, there persists a celebratory idea that such communication technologies are democratic because they give everyone a voice, in accordance with the anarchic dreams of the net utopians, who hoped to bypass traditional media gatekeepers. But, in practice, the affordances of social media are much more banal. It gives people greater capacity to voice their opinions in public. Everyone has opinions—what an innovative insight!
The platitude that the internet is giving everyone a voice sounds empowering, but the idea also unwittingly celebrates atomisation because those millions of voices speaking their truths serve the reaction economy. This situation has rarely produced political change. From #metoo to the Arab Spring, political movements on social media have tended to fizzle out because, as Byung-Chul Han has argued, social media produces swarm movements, rather than mass movements.
The digital swarm, Hang claims, is a highly volatile pattern of collective movement. This movement differs from the sort of collective organising that enabled twentieth-century political change:
Organized labor is not a matter of fleeting patterns; it consists of enduring formations … only when a crowd is resolute about shared action does power arise. The mass is power. In contrast, digital swarms lack such resolve. They do not march. Because of their fleeting nature, no political energy wells up. By the same token, online shitstorms prove unable to call dominant power relations into question. Instead, they strike individual persons, whom they unmask or make an item of scandal.
Han’s critique of shitstorms (his term for social media mobbing) shows how outrage has been crowdsourced and decentralised via the mechanism of the digital swarm, which is a highly atomised form of collective. Han’s account is avowedly pessimistic, but insightful because it highlights how volatile, leaderless and amorphous political action and censure on social media tend to be. Such forms of organisation are too ad hoc to be anything other than politically inchoate. Such shitstorms bubble up and dissipate quickly, and—perhaps because they primarily occur on social media, where a particular idea of the individual is reinforced—the targets of such outrage tend to be individuals too. Han seems to be on to something here.
The shitstorm is aptly named. It does very little other than cause a mess and create a pungent stench that sticks to certain individuals. Ironically, in our attempts to clean up the inherent messiness of social media, lots of us are pointlessly flinging shit at each other.
Most social media platforms are designed for persons, not people. This distinction is not merely semantic. Under the guise of collectivist verbs like sharing and networking, social media privileges comfortable navigation of its platform, with a highly individualised subject in mind. But the social is not comfortable. Living with and alongside people is hard work. Social media makes one believe that it is as easy as flicking on your phone and sharing your thoughts. And to some extent it is. But being social isn’t just about putting things out there and offering up your voice: it is about the exchange of voices, it is about the risks to your self-conception when you encounter the other. Social media actually hinders the work required to be social. It’s less social and more me-dia, because it reinforces a moral and political model of a precious self, which must be protected from societal forces.
The desire for moral hygiene on social media, expressed through the many behaviours associated with cancel culture and shitstorms, is merely the logical extension of the pure self imagined at the heart of the reaction economy. Facebook asks you what’s on your mind? Twitter asks you what’s happening? Instagram invites reactions to your visual world: brunch, selfies, cityscapes, gym photos, stories about what you’re doing to which others can respond.
Regardless of whether the platform is visually based or not, you must be seen on social media. The more you express, the more you serve the needs of the platforms. Your preferences and passions are both demanded and shaped by this system. You are encouraged to produce content of value and to assess the value of everyone else’s content, thus contributing to the system and to the culture of the reaction economy. When you contribute free expressive labour to these systems, the reaction economy is making work you like a starving artist, while promoting the idea that you are a monarch in your own little corner of the internet.
You are the kind of sovereign who is both indulged and manipulated and thus manipulated through indulgence. In the solipsistic free-for-all of the reaction economy, outrage endures. Because a pure self can only react, a pure self cannot be self-reflective or engage with threatening ideas, a pure self must not risk the pollution of the social. Most damningly, because purity is only ever the lack of something, a pure self is a self in pursuit of its own emptiness.