Technological reflexivity for academics

Mark Carrigan and Lambros Fatsis

This is an extract from The Public and Their Platforms, published by University of Bristol Press in June 2021.

The concept of ‘social media addiction’ is liable to provoke the ire of sociologists. However, if we distinguish between a clinical sense and a colloquial sense of not feeling in control of one’s use then the term becomes much less problematic. We need to take these experiences seriously, even if engagement with them has tended to be expressed in unpersuasive terms of ‘dopamine hacking’ and ‘lizard brains’ that reproduces exactly the behaviourism critiqued in the platform itself. Seymour’s invocation of the chronophage, the creature that eats time, helps us frame the issue in a more sociological way: these platforms have been designed around the imperative to increase the time users spend on the platform. They are often accessed through devices that embody the same principles of persuasive design, encouraging us to keep them close and return to them throughout the day. If we are not watchful their inducements can lure us in against our better judgement, leading us to return more often and for longer than we would otherwise choose to.

There is a whole category of software which has emerged around the problems many people experience in this respect, with Apple even incorporating comparable functionality into recent versions of its mobile operating system. What does this mean for sociologists? It is a question of what Bourdieu called skholḗ: ‘the free time, freed from the urgencies of the world, that allows a free and liberated relation to those urgencies and to the world’. It is the condition which enables thinking in the (slightly inflated) manner we tend to associate with scholarship. The tension between skholḗ and social media exists in the tendency of platforms to encourage return, the cognitive stickiness which promises to fill idle or frustrated moments with a potential reward. It is not a difficult problem to resolve but it does require a solution: establishing our own rhythms for platform use rather than subordinating our existing rhythms to the platform. It requires understanding the constraints of our craft, the techniques and processes through which we undertake our work in a quotidian sense, as well as the ways in which platforms can undercut these.

This is a matter of reflexivity in Archer’s sense because it sits at the interface between the platform (its promises and problems) and our working life (its commitments and rhythms), challenging us to calibrate the relationship between them. If we can do this then it becomes easier to escape what Seymour calls the Twittering Machine. This is more than establishing satisfying and sustainable rhythms to our use. Social platforms incorporate a tremendously powerful affective machinery that can be difficult to escape. In an environment saturated with what BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti described as ‘contagious media’, it can be challenging for non-contagious media to win an audience. When content can be modulated in terms of its viral potency by those with sufficient data and expertise, the capacity to be heard comes to seem obviously unequally distributed. When user responses can be inferred in an affective ontology available to some actors but not others, the ability to make predictions about the behaviour of audiences is increasingly one sided. A competitive situation defined by platform incentives and the capacity of some to exploit them risks pulling ever more actors into the vortex, in the hope of being heard above the din.

It is possible to keep a reflective distance from these pressures by being aware of the platform’s capacity to modify behaviour, operating through the metrics of the ‘popularity principle’ and the susceptibility of users to recalibrating their strategic projects in these terms. To do this involves ‘no longer praying at the altar of virality’, as Caulfield memorably puts it, necessitating an acceptance that a loss of influence may ensue from no longer pursuing it at all costs. This opens up the possibility of richer, thicker, deeper engagement which can’t be tracked by a quantitative measure of ‘influence’; being listened to rather than simply heard. It will often mean less reach and alternative conceptions of what success looks like can play a part in this. Adorno’s description of Benjamin’s ideas as ‘radioactive’, such that ‘[e]verything which fell under the scrutiny of his words was transformed’, provides a sense of what this can look like. Rather than focus on the virality of our writing, the breadth of its circulation, we can seek to maximize its transformative potential. This entails a form of reflexivity which the instrumental pursuit of quantified reach will inevitably squeeze out. In a sense this can be seen as the cultural armour necessary to fight our way out of the social media machine without abandoning it entirely. It involves learning, as the late Mark Fisher put it, to develop an instrumental relationship: to use it rather than live inside it. To see it as a means to accomplish our ends while denying it the capacity to define those ends.

Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash

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