Loose thoughts on social media theory, Syria, and digital naked lunches

I recently had the great chance of reading Geert Lovink’s latest book “Social Media Abyss” (just out for Polity Press) and his essay “On the social media ideology” which is part of an ongoing research.

Both are pushing me to think more about what we are really talking about when we talk about social media..what we do with them…why we are so compulsively attracted by them, meanwhile constantly trying to get rid of them, to escape from digital activities -and from digital activism, too-.

Social media, as Geert says, has become the new normal, the new air, the new electricity…invisible but -well, precisely because of that- here to stay.

Social media is the new black.

And you can perceive that also with the waves of Syrian refugees…they do not ask for food, they ask for wifi

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(this is a picture I recently took in Lesbos, Greece, at the Moria camp)

A wonderful documentary made by a Syrian friend -which is unfortunately not out yet- features a Syrian activist who, when feeling that his death is approaching, does not ask for a last drink, a last  read, a last cigarette, or even a last fuck..he asks for a last video. So he tells his filmmaker friend: “My friend, I feel I ‘m gonna die, please make a film of me”. And his friend cynically answers (yet another low-paid worker endlessly freelancing in the digital realm): “Well, die first..and then be sure I’m gonna make a film of you!”.

Friendship becomes the last commodity to sell in the precarity of war and digital labor

We interact, we talk to each other through digital images. We love and hate each other through digital images. The opposition between Silicon Valley utopia and our European techno-pessimism cannot account for this drive, for this addiction and distraction which we pursue every time that we open our news feeds, and digital walls, and the camera-eye of our phone-arm.

Utopia and distopia cannot account for this endless desire of being there yet at the same time to disappear. For the excitement and boredom of being slaves of our digital selves.

Why there was hardly any media in Syria prior to the 2011 uprising while now everything is social-media mediated?

Why armed groups started to film, upload and upgrade every single step of themselves while forming a battalion, reading communiques, shooting, sentencing prisoners to death, if before March 2011 they hardly knew what a camera-phone was?

And why doctors did the same, filming themselves while performing surgery on mutilated bodies in field hospitals?

And why are we now so surprised of Isis activists becoming image-makers and tube-uploaders ? Aren’t we all caught in the same digital mode of being? Aren’t we all attracted by the camaraderie, by the possibility of solidarity, by a certain intimacy and the excitement of a possible serendipity that we feel through social media?

….and aren’t we all, at the same time, repelled and attracted by the savagerie, by the spectacle of horror performed on a daily basis from Syria and in Syria?

David Cronenberg calls it “consumed” in his last novel: the cultural attitude by which we eat and are eaten by our digital selves..and here eaten literally means eaten, small body pieces, little fragments of selves such as our tweets, little digital cries, useless likes and shares that gets swallowed by the networks. We eat ourselves, we consume ourselves to the point that we get consumed..yet these small pieces of us, once being cut away and eaten, start to grow again..all wounds are healed, so we can eat again..something which is apparently brand new, digitally re-born. Digital naked lunches.

Why this frantic updating has become such a powerful cultural pattern? what’s behind that? Which kind of desire, of anxiety? Is it about the urge not to disappear? Or about the urge of leaving a last trace before disappearing? Or is about self cannibalism, the cannibalism of our digital selves, like in Cronenberg’s novel?

I remember the very first smartphone advertisement poster I saw in Damascus, slightly before the protests started in 2011. It featured a Nokia handset, showing a Twitter feed on its screen. The feed, in English, showed a discussion about where to go to dine out in Damascus. Something that sounded like: sushi or steak frites? And the slogan on the top of the poster said, in Arabic: quintessentially social. Five years and millions of video uploads into the Syrian civil war, I wonder whether the “quintessentially social” of social media lies, rather than in food culture and lifestyles, in death and destruction. This is what has become quintessentially social in Syrian social media, quintessentially shareable: endless images of death, made both by those who perpetrate the violence and by those who, using that very same device, believe that they can oppose that very same violence by producing a sociable-sharable-deliverable image of it.

We’re no longer playing, like in the sweet old days of anonymous Internet chatrooms and cybersex. Social media has become too intimate, too familiar, too much close to air and electricity, and so we do not enjoy anymore. Where has the jouissance gone? Where is the staging, the performance, the excitement, and the risk when something is too familiar?

Where has the promise of breaking out of the ordinary ,that social media initially seemed to offer and now does not fulfill, gone?

Is it ultimately consumed, like our digital little selves?