The Migration of Social Exchange

dbox's image for "Rizwan Mirza, the traveller" (via
dbox’s image for “Rizwan Mirza, the traveller” (via

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.

—Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents

For young people, new digital technologies…are primary mediators of human-to-human connections. They have created a 24/7 network that blends the human with the technical to a degree we haven’t experienced before.

—John Palfrey and Urs Gasser,
Born Digital: Understanding The First Generation of Digital Natives

HOLLAND, Massachusetts — The use of electronic signals for instantaneous, mediated communication began with the telegraph, intensified with the telephone, and today flourishes across the internet. It would not be hyperbole to say that physical proximity is no longer essential to social exchange. And yet, amid the brisk technological changes of our time, our bodies (our physiological hardware, so to speak) remain effectively constant. What mirrors the pace of technology, rather, is the shape of our behavior. As we cultivate new modes of social exchange, we are not just manipulating new tools, but adopting (and inventing) new social/operating systems. At a pace with little historical precedent, we are implementing changes in what constitutes social engagement. In lieu of face-to-face encounters, social experience now often includes, as a matter of course, intensive virtual contact across various media platforms. As if to rhetorically reflect this change, the phrase “social media” has become a ubiquitous, if underdefined, feature of everyday language.

… in the 21st century it’s clear that the concept of “social” is migrating.

Social networking is officially no longer in its “infancy,” says the 2012 Nielsen and NM Incite Social Media Report. Facebook membership now exceeds one billion, with 600 million of its members using mobile devices. And global users now frequent social networks more than any other web destination. As for North America, according to data compiled by Miniwatts Marketing Group for 2012, of the almost 314 million people living in the US, over 245 million use the internet, and 166 million use Facebook. Unsurprisingly, googling “social media” generates a stunning number of results: 441 million with quotes, and 3.5 billion without.

Thus a preponderance of evidence confirms that an extensive and variegated conversation is being had on and about social media. Which begs the question, what does the phrase itself signify? The term is widely considered synonymous with online networks like Facebook and Twitter. That these networks mediate human-to-human contact is plain. What is less obvious to the eye is the information/machine complex that enables the social to migrate so far beyond the mortal coil.

Migration, by definition, involves bodily motion — specifically, the physical transportation of someone from one place to another. Social migration adds to this movement the desire to improve one’s social quality of life. In both cases, one’s body is one’s carriage, so to speak. And these bodily constraints have defined what it means to be a social being for millennia. Until relatively recently, social exchanges depended upon the spatial proximity of bodies. While the telephone began to rearrange the coordinates of this equation in obvious ways, in the 21st century it’s clear that the concept of “social” is migrating.

… the heart of what social media signifies: an unspoken challenge to sift the material effects of a seemingly immaterial medium.

It’s worth noting, as mentioned above, that it’s not one’s body that is mutating; nor is the metaphysical soul somehow gaining flight in this process. Instead, an ancient, spatial concept of sociality is being updated for a new operating system. Bit by bit, social mediation is changing physical behaviors. A distributed array of information architectures is transforming how we relate to one another. On the face of it, human life appears to be shaped by the exercise of free and autonomous will; the American Dream embodies the ideal of the free individual. And yet, beneath the sleek surface of an increasingly technological world, a digital doppelganger, or data body, shadows each individual. This data body, while effectively immaterial, is as functionally real as one’s physical being and identity. Whether the self as distributed entity renders free will purely mythological, as some would have it, or points toward new potentials for the exercise of free will is a matter of debate. Either way, the self, in the age of social media, is a concept in need of an update.

Ghosting physical proximity, and engineered to obsolesce, gadgets harnessing social media amount to more than data libraries, completed tasks, and facilitated exchanges. They provide a prosthetic interface, tying humans to a shrouded infrastructure of tubes, wires, codes, and impulses. But what is out of sight is nonetheless grounded in flesh. In an age of spectral migration, while the mind and body may numb in the performance of new, augmented tasks, they still form an unbroken loop. And any inventory of the effects of social media in the populace, it seems, should include what is statistically immeasurable. Such an inventory should strive to take bodily account of that which evades our grasp.

That is therefore the heart of what social media signifies: an unspoken challenge to sift the material effects of a seemingly immaterial medium. The question of whether we are served by or in thrall to social media is a binary that misses the mark, because the physical self, the one whose existence makes mediation possible, is a frame around a mirror. The mirror both reflects our likeness and conceals the workings of a social media juggernaut. It is, in essence, a design problem: how to quantify qualities of embodiment in an analysis of social media?

Just as birds trace migratory paths with the entirety of their being, we should treat mediation as a bodily extension of, and not a substitute for, physical presence. As artist Brooke Singer proclaimed in her 2001 project “Databody,” which featured her silhouette comprised of data regarding her consumer habits and lifestyle choices, “Everyday worldwide databases recreate my image with increased resolution documenting my every move and working to define future ones.” As our collective sense of the social continues to migrate, may we each, in our own idiosyncratic way, refuse to get carried away by the metaphors we inhabit. Lest we forget that human agency is above all not a corporate concern, nor an ergonomic solution, but a matter of corporeal exigency.

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