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The Pursuit of Attention: Social Networks, Individualization NOT Isolation

November 29, 2009 by and tagged , , ,

When it comes to new technologies of information and communication, one of the common zombie themes that keeps coming back from the dead is that new communication platforms isolate the individual. There is in this debunked argument the underlying assumption that the only authentic form of social interaction, and the deepest one, is the face-to-face encounter. And so, in a way reminiscent of Putnam’s Bowling Alone, another underlying assumption is that increasing online interaction necessarily comes at the expenses of “real” face-to-face interactions. Again, these assumptions have already been debunked by research but the very fact that important surveys keep asking these questions again and again reveals that these assumptions die hard

See this, for instance (via Chad Gesser):

Or this:

Or even this:

Or when it comes to social isolation:

On this point, I would argue that the United States is a very segregated society, by class and race, and a very polarized one politically. Therefore, it is not surprising that people would belong to networks that reinforce such homogeneity.

But also, look at the way the titles are formulated. These are loaded with negative assumptions regarding virtual networking and interaction and there are every time expressions of surprise when the results do not validate these isolation assumptions but rather complementarity assumptions.

What is undeniable though, is that the mixing of always available networks, social networking platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, transform our sense of self, identity and certainly, our presentation of self. Digital interaction can make us visible all the time and this certainly fosters certain type of behavior, something that has become called the Attention Economy, but I think the Attention Society is better phrase since this goes beyond strictly economic behavior and context, to be seen as an adjunct to the liquid, individualized society described by Zygmunt Bauman.

Consider this, regarding Twitter, for instance, in a very Goffmanian analysis:

The question of attention reminded me of Charles Derber‘s The Pursuit of Attention – Power and Ego in Everyday Life. In this book, Derber argues that attention is both a currency used to evaluate one’s social status and a form of power. With social media platforms, I would argue, and specific social media tools, one can actually measure how much attention one receives beyond googling one’s name. One can use tools to measure a blog traffic. It is easy to count how many followers one has on Twitter and how many friends of fans one has on Facebook.

Attention is a form of currency, reminiscent of Doctorow’s Whuffies. The more one gets, the higher one’s online status even if the attention turns to vilification later on, as illustrated by the Balloon Boy story, and more recently by this:

And so, any attention is better than no attention at all.

Attention is also a form of power: who gives it (a sign of low status as a secretary has to give attention to her boss), who is entitled to it or commands it (higher status / power), who receives it, etc. are all markers of dominant or subordinate social status. However, with new ICTs and social media platforms, attention gets redistributed on both end of the spectrum (production and distribution) and directing attention becomes a source of power more largely available especially when seemingly other-directed attention becomes a form of self-directed attention.

Watch this:

The quote above is excerpted from a post on the so-called citizen-journalists during the massacre at Fort Hood:

In the Fort Hood case, Moore was actually spreading as much untruth as the media at the time (and violating privacy regulations at the same time. And there is indeed an individualized “I was there” quality to these amateur videos of specific events shot without context, analysis and therefore depoliticized and therefore void of actual content beyond the bare images. Which is why these images have ultimately no agency power. They do not change the course of events (in Iran, for instance).

Individualized gazes do not create global social movements for peace or democracy. That still takes old-fashioned organizing. these videos do not translation into social actions but greater social attention on social media platforms for those fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. They might be interviewed on television and see their Twitter following scores swell along with the number of comments for their videos on YouTube.

It is then all about the person behind the camera or the cell phone, and no longer about the subject of the video whose value is only in terms of how much attention it gets for the person filming it.

And as much as mass mobilization is possible online, it does not translate into collective action as it is individualized mobilization:

And online activism may have lowered the political participation threshold but again in an individualized fashion. Similarly, all the citizen-journalist videos, because they are depoliticized (extracted from a critical understanding of their context), appear therefore no different than these oh-so popular cat videos: as objects of entertainment that will gain their filmmakers attention credit for a while… a short while as Twitter trending threads tend to be short-lived, before the next video comes out, cat, political event or natural disaster, makes no difference.

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