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Is The Social Network Disrupting Social Class?

Rob Horning at Marginal Utility noodles on our bonding too closely with the individualism of the ‘social graph’ (a term he dislikes at face value, just as I do). He suggests that we may have painted ourselves into a corner by rejecting a class consciousness:

Social graph vs. social class – Rob Horning via The New Inquiry

Social media support, obviously, a view of society as a network, in which individual “nodes” define themselves (and their worth) in terms of their difference from other nodes. Each individual’s value lies in developing and expressing that difference, finding comparative advantage relative to others. There has to be something unique that you provide to make you worth linking to, though that uniqueness may consist of the unique access you provide to a bunch of other people as well as the unique information you are in a position to supply. At any rate, establishing connections to others serves to spread awareness of that difference, meaning that the relations charted in that network (aka the social graph) draw lines of competition as well as of mere affiliation.


This interpretation of how society is organized — the one that anything labeled as “social” by the tech world helps sustain — precludes an interpretation that acknowledges the possibility of class, of concrete groups with shared interests that they work to construct and then use as the basis for forcing concessions from capital. In the network, you are on your own; its ideology suggests we are all equally points on the great social graph, no different from anyone else save for the labor we put in to establishing connections. This obviates the issues of pre-existing social capital and class habitus that facilitate the formation of better connections and the ability to reap their value instead of being exploited by them.

Since the social graph traces intricate constellations that are always becoming ever more complex, it requires massive computer power and elaborate algorithms to interpret and trace out underlying patterns of significance. Generally, only capital has the resources to summon such power, so the commonalities called into being through such analysis of network data are commercial ones. Retailers can figure out what demographic and lifestyle pattern you fit into, whther you know it or not, and then you with advertising that reinforces your belonging and takes advantage of it. (The third episode of Adam Curtis’s The Century of the Self has a section on the roots of this in Values and Lifestyles analysis devised at Stanford in the 1970s.)

But to forge a social class, a different sort of work is required, called forth by a different conception of society, based on antagonisms between blocs (and ongoing fights that require long-term strategies), not antagonisms between individuals (whose spontaneous skirmishes require more or less ad hoc tactics). Think E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which treats class not as a statistical artifact but as something that’s as much forged deliberately by members than ascribed by outside forces. The social graph purports to passively record social arrangements that emerge organically and thus reflect some sort of true and undistorted account of how society works. That conception discourages the possibility of those plotted on the graph from making a social class. Social media users don’t take advantage of their connectedness to undertake the work of finding the bases by which they can see their concerns as being shared, being in some way equivalent. Instead, their connectedness drives them to preen for attention and personal brand enhancement. One must work against social media’s grain to use it to develop lasting, convincing political groupings.

I buy some of what Horning is offering up, but not the fundamental conclusions.

First, I do agree that we are living precariously in the world today, as many — like Zygmunt Bauman — have spelled out. We are unable to find solidarity in our situation, and so, Horning’s analysis has weight: we cannot organize ourselves into the blocs that perhaps would allow us to push for change.

However, I don’t think it is our conscious affiliation into social networks — mediated by Twitter, Facebook, and so on — that is the root cause of our lack of solidarity. On the contrary, I believe that the increase in weak ties that social networks afford may be a way forward into a new-found awareness of our shared condition, and the creation of ways to work together to better our shared situation.

The are larger forces at work in the world — economic inequality, globalism, and misinformation at a massive scale — that have had decades to take root. The upward striving of Americans, most convinced they are soon-to-be millionaires living a middle class life, led to a rapid erosion in the past 50 years of the one-time working/middle/upper class identification. In fact, it is a defining characteristic of post-normal America.

Horning’s piece is an over-shuffled house of cards: he pulls together a smattering of political theory, and ends with a pile of worn out cardboard:

Like neoliberalist ideology and post-Fordist management techniques, social media work to “restore the salience of particularities” and “construct a world sensitive to differences,” to use Boltanski and Chiapello’s phrases. This yields a “confused, fragmented universe, composed solely of a juxtaposition of individual destinies.” We all flounder to get ahead personally but never unite in a meaningfully political way. The 99% dissolves and all that’s shared is statuses, photos, and tweets. And everything remains fucked up and bullshit.

People are actually made better by the sum of their connections, and so are their connections.

One truth buried in there: our identities are increasingly fragmented, based on the spectrum of social contexts we use, and we can become alienated by that.

Personally, my sense is that there are communities with social tools like Twitter, where people are doing something more than a world of one-upmanship, where people are actually made better by the sum of their connections, and so are their connections.

We may not have replaced social class with tranches of social networks, at least not yet. But there is an entire world rigged around the fading promises of class identity, telling us we are first and foremost middle class or upper class or working class. Our entire political debate is centered on that as the foundational ideology, that and the sovereignty of nation states based on geographic cultural inclusion, and exclusion.

We may someday get to a zeitgeist where these ‘givens’ are considered as anachronistic as the divine right of kings and the superiority of white males, but we aren’t there yet. Not by a long shot.

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    Rob Horning at Marginal Utility noodles on our bonding too closely with the individualism of the ‘social graph’ (a term...
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