Who’s afraid of the big Other? The interpassivity of social media
Following on from Claire Moon’s fascinating take on how we present ourselves online, I think it’s important to reiterate the point that any insights drawn from social media research must look at the nature in which the opinions are posted.
The need to understand who, how and why people use social media provides a critical context to any subsequent conclusions drawn from research into what they’re saying.
A recent study by researchers at Boston University discovered that people were, not surprisingly, using Facebook for two reasons: (1) the need to belong and (2) the need for self presentation.
We now check Facebook and personal emails at work and look at work emails at home. Our private and work lives are split in a different way than in the past and we look to present ourselves in different ways on different sites.
This led me to think why we (including myself) use Twitter. A lot of research has already been done on this but I wanted to focus here on a specific type of user: namely the ‘professional’ social media user (and I don’t exclude myself from any of the criticisms I subsequently make here).
In Slavoj Žižek’s The Plague of Fantasies, he explores the idea that belief is always minimally reflective (‘belief in the belief of the other’), while knowledge is precisely not knowledge about the fact there is another who knows. For this reason, we can believe through the other, but we cannot know through the other.
Owing to the inherent reflectivity of belief, when another believes in our stead, we must believe through them. Knowledge is not reflective in this way. When the other is supposed to know, we do not know through him.
This leads onto the idea that the relationship of substitution is not inherently limited to beliefs: the same also goes for feelings and attitudes (eg. canned laughter on a TV show means we don’t need to laugh ourselves, we can benefit from the experience of laughing – say feeling relief after a long day at work – without doing it ourselves).
I believe that this notion of ‘interpassivity’ is also evident in our use of Twitter. In a professional sense, are we now actually reading less on our specialist subject in the misplaced sense that we’re accumulating more knowledge through reading headline tweets and scanning articles?
In a way, it’s as if the people we’re following on Twitter are reading them for us, in our place. Our Twitter ‘following’ stands for the ‘big Other’ (or medium of symbolic registration).
That is to say, it’s enough for others to have opinions or even just read content for us, whilst we impassively share in the idea we too are gaining knowledge. Facebook functions in a similar way: the user doesn’t read his friends’ status updates, Facebook (through the News feed) does.
The interpassivity of the typical Twitter user is evident in the safe, often mundane, headline statistics that are most frequently shared by ‘professional users’ (“11 people a second join Twitter”). They contain no opinion so don’t need to be read. They challenge no-one, so we don’t need to fear a negative reaction from clients or our bosses.
Are we merely just looking to create a back story of interest in a subject area? A professional persona to impress the big Other in case he one day looks to verify our story?
It’s depressing to see ‘curators’ of this type of ‘content’ become people of ‘influence’ in so many areas; as we all become frightened to have a real opinion in case it’s challenged by or upsets this mysterious big (br)Other (our awareness of how easy it is for ‘him’ to monitor us is, of course, another element to this).
Elsewhere, the rest of the population has an opinion on everything and (usually) nothing interesting to say about anything. Wouldn’t it be great if those that did weren’t so afraid to share theirs too?
(image courtesy of Ned Vizzini)