I find it hard to tweet. This is such a laughably self-involved sentiment that my first reaction after typing it is to delete delete delete. In fact, I’m even trying to distance myself from the implications of what I’m saying by calling attention to the fact I’m saying it in the first place. Insufferable, isn’t it? But it’s also true – I’ve been trying to write this piece for a while now, experimenting with half a dozen different openings, always dissatisfied and asking myself: ‘what are you actually trying to say here?’. And what I keep coming back to is this: I really do find it hard to tweet.

Now, before you stop reading this in disgust, I agree that that my finding it hard to tweet is not interesting in the slightest—it’s the cultural impetus behind this statement that deserves attention; the bewildering tangle of social and economic factors that – quite coincidently – also lead to me nervously eye’ing a little box and grimacing over the thought of 140 characters. And this sort of neuroticism isn’t relevant only to Twitter, nor is it even particular to the 21st century, it just makes a good case study;  showing  how areas of our social life that are touted as avenues for self-expression have been colonized by market-forces and consumerism. Whether we should take this seriously, or respond with anything more than an ‘it is what it is’ shrug is another matter altogether.

Anyway, the idea that the internet does not exist solely for our benefit is not a new one. It’s well known that social networks, Google, and other providers of ‘free’ services pay their way through advertising – they use the data we willingly input into their systems in order to sell increasingly targeted ads back to companies. The much-travelled byword on this situation is a quotation from MetaFilter user blue_beetle:

“if you are not paying for something, you are not the customer; you are the product being sold”

But the situation also seems to be much more substantial than a simple analysis of revenue-models. The playwright Alan Bennet commented that the public has “[found] itself rebranded as customers, supposedly to dignify our requirements but in effect to make us available for easier exploitation” (‘It starts with an itch’, London Review of Books, 8/11/2012). Bennet’s comment (which, in its original context, does not refer to the internet) is perhaps more salient, as it calls attention to the ingenuity of the methods consumerism uses. At every turn we are told that companies and brands are only ever looking out for us, only trying to give us the best product or service they possibly can; but the end goal is always more sales and more money spent.

Rob Horning is a critical theorist who has connected this repurposing of social media with the changing methods of 21st century capitalism. Horning’s analysis begins with capitalism’s drive towards efficiency – the extraction of more value from the same amount of labour. This need has depleted the amount of ‘meaningful’ work for much of the populace, making more common, what Horning refers to as a state of percacity (meaning instability, relevant here both in terms of jobs and money). [1]

He continues by describing how this state of affairs is both a result of and supported by the dictates of consumerism. The profitability of consumption encourages capitalist efficiency (creating goods cheaper means they can be sold for more profit) and the need to sell more goods means more money is pumped into advertising. This industry then gives the unstable quality of percacity a glossy makeover, crafting for it the enticing mask of the dynamic and modern individual; fashionable and confident, moving from one stance of self-expression to another with a confident smile and a sweep of the credit card. As Horning puts it:

“Consumerism promises that magical transformations are easy, available on demand, and that a self understood in terms of lifestyles and personality experiments—rather than in terms of communal tradition, meaningful work, or the continuity of life experience—can be a worthy expression of individual freedom.”

Social media binds into this mess in a number of ways. Most obviously, it provides another arena for advertisers to ply their trade in, but it is one that wields more influence than ‘vanilla’ advertising such as billboards and TV ads. These new methods are far more embedded into our modes of self-expression, finding their audience in the same space that we are told belongs to us as individuals and communities. In a previous article for The Inkling I discussed the fallacy of digital dualism (the belief that our digital selves are inherently separate from our physical selves), and the corollary of this – that our personas online are more than just an extension of who we are IRL: the two ‘selves’ interact and influence each other. If we accept this premise then the thought of social media as another branch of advertising becomes increasingly unsettling.

Horning’s analysis highlights how the very tools which attract us to Twitter and Facebook (eg, the promises of connection and interactivity with our peers) have been co-opted by consumerism in order to counteract the usual passivity of consumption. We are forever encouraged to share what we are watching, what we have bought and which brands we ‘like’; we broadcast our desires to make them seem more meaningful, trusting to a correlation between value and audience-share that was taught to us by mass-media in the first place.

The curious duality of social media’s ephemeral/permanent state (only your most recent tweets are relevant yet the whole archive is always potentially accessible) works to sustain and heighten this process. Like the cartoon character riding a runaway toy train, continually laying the track ahead of themselves so that they won’t crash, social media drives us into a iterative process of self-creation/self-curation as we attempt to build up the brand of ‘me’. And as this process continues it becomes increasingly less meaningful: each contribution to our cumulative identities promises to enrich our personalities, giving us more depth and texture – ‘ look how eclectic I am!’ – whilst in reality the more we add to this store of the self, the more tenuous and disconnected each individual ‘moment’ of self-expression becomes, and the more we become disconnected from the entire process.

This is why I find it hard to tweet.

Actually, I regret that pinch of bathos there, I feel that it does Horning’s analysis a disservice:  he is both compelling and convincing, and his work seems of terrible relevance to those unnacountable twinges and itches of modern living; the tiny scratches in the paintwork that let rust set in—the unavoidable consequences of a world that gains it substance as much from 1s and 0s as it does from protons and electrons. Reading his essay ‘Social Media and the Social Factory’ the triggered in me a series of tremor-like epiphanies, and I thought ‘Yes, yes! This guy really gets it!

And yet there is always that nagging desire to step back from this sort of critique and yell ‘so what?’ So what if another middle-class kid wants to over analyse his feelings about Twitter? So what if the advertising industry has infiltrated one more societal arena? Who did we think was going to pay for this stuff anyway? If you’re feeling ‘inauthentic’ then go read a book or climb a mountain!

For these sorts of questions there are no equally loud answers, only quieter explanations. Analysis of this sort matters for the reason it always has – it helps us to better understand our world and ourselves. Social media may (still) seem like a bit of a trivial issue, but its presence in our lives is only ever going to increase, and discussions and critiques of how these systems operate may make statements like ‘I find it hard to tweet’ seem less shallow after all. Well. For my sake I hope they do.

[1] At this point I’d like to note that whilst on the whole this rings true (very few in our generation expect a ‘job for life,’ and the UK government is unequivocally dismantling parts of the welfare state that did provide a sort of long-term security) I’m also aware that I’m writing this a recent graduate with an English degree; unstable job prospects are pretty much a given for me.