Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson talks digital dualism, slacktivism, and why 'Videodrome' is the best movie about social media

Social media matters. Twitter isn't a waste of time and an application like Yik Yak is a useful and arguably, a vital outlet for anonymous speech (as Jordan Sargent over at Gawker proved when he used messages from the app to highlight students of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University criticizing Ted Cruz during his announcement that he was going to run for president). These are the sort of fairly obvious assertions that shock many, but Nathan Jurgenson, the Social Media Theorist at Snapchat and Contributing Editor for the New Inquiry who speaks at Stevenson University tomorrow night, treats them as a given. See, he's less interested in "defending" these elements of the digital realm than he is in explaining how we have to stop seeing things like Twitter as separate from so-called "real life." He challenges the idea that there's "an online world and an offline world," the perspective he has called "digital dualism." What's especially refreshing about Jurgenson's perspective is that it avoids the often clueless, class-and-race-ignoring qualities of so much tech utopianism for a firm and thoughtful philosophical view of how technology is a part of our lives.

Over email, we discussed these issues, along with the topic of the lecture he'll give, "Visibility is a Trap," the significance of social media protesting (derisively called "slacktivism"), and why David Cronenberg's "Videodrome" had all of this shit figured out more than 30 years ago. Nathan Jurgenson's "Visibility is a Trap" lecture begins at 6 p.m. on Thursday March 26 at Stevenson University's Owings Mills Campus in Rockland Center. It's free and there is a reception at 5 p.m.

City Paper: Can you begin by discussing what you'll be talking about tomorrow evening?

Nathan Jurgenson: The title is "Visibility Is A Trap," which is a reference to the philosopher Michel Foucault's famous Panopticon chapter in his book, "Discipline and Punish." He was writing about the trappings of visibility, specifically looking at the birth of the prison. Before, we had dungeons, which exert control through hiding, through invisibility, and then dungeons start to disappear. At the moment, there was this idea of a super prison called the Panopticon from Jeremy Benthem, where every prisoner is in a ring of cells around a tower where guards can see everything. It is through this surveillance by the few over the many that keeps prisoners in check. Control is exerted here not through hiding, but through visibility. Being watched can mean being controlled. Visibility leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to power and control. Visibility is a trap.

CP: So specifically, how do these ideas apply to social media?

NJ: I'm going to talk about social media visibility. There's much discussion about an end to privacy given the ubiquity of state and corporate surveillance as well as personal self-documentation. There's so much visibility on social media, so much knowledge, that we should ask how this visibility is trapping. But I want to move beyond just talking about this kind of surveillance, which is important and well covered elsewhere, to something that is less discussed: Foucault moved from "Discipline and Punish" to a final set of books before he died called "The History of Sexuality." It is in line with these books that I think social media is most trapping. Foucault argued there that sexuality, not sex, but the identity we place around sex, what we say we do and do not do, is a form of social control. Identity is a series of limits and categories you place on yourself. Social media visibility, I think, tends to reinforce identity, reinforce always considering who you are and thus who you are not. Identity becomes a constant project, it builds up a permanent record, and at each turn, social media ranks with metrics, likes, hearts, retweets, followers, and the rest making social hierarchies and status even more omnipresent. What I'll conclude with is asking how social media visibility can be designed to be less trapping. Can we create social media that respects social norms instead of proliferating visibility and social ranking?

CP: I want to talk about "digital dualism." I think younger people especially already get the limits of separating online and so-called "IRL" and even when they use words like "IRL," it's with a tinge of irony. They know they can't actually "escape," and don't want to anyway. Meanwhile, many older people that didn't grow up with the internet and social media really want to hold up this idea that the internet is different from "real life." Can you explain "digital dualism"?

NJ: Digital dualism describes the idea that there is an online world and offline world, IRL versus the virtual, online versus offline and so forth. This is "Tron," "Hackers," "The Matrix," the metaverse where digitality is thought to be spatial and zero-sum from logged off. Meaning that time spent online means time not spent offline. I think this made for good fiction, but it is false. I coined the phrase "digital dualism" to describe what I think is a fallacy. Instead, I think of the web as real, and what happens when not looking at a screen as often quite virtual. I think of one reality full of many flavors of information, like textual or oral information, and digitality is just another vector. It's funny how we talk about digitality like a space—going online—but don't open a book and say we're jacking into text space and surfing the word world.

CP: City Paper recently ran a piece tied to a Walters Art Museum exhibition "From Pen to Press: Experimentation and Innovation in the Age of Print," and in the piece, the writer Marie Claire suggests that in the 15th century manuscripts were to books what now books are to, say, a Kindle or just text on your iPhone. I think that observation really affords us some perspective and makes this "IRL" or "online" problem look rather ridiculous. It isn't a "problem" at all.

NJ: The problem with digital dualism is two-fold. We forget how real digital connection is and we forget how virtual life away from a screen is. The internet is not virtual but filled with real people with bodies and feelings and politics and emotions. When the web came along, people talked about it as if it was some new space where anything can happen, where national boundaries wouldn't matter, where you could be any race or gender or species that you wanted. What happened instead was the web was created by a specific group of people with a specific set of demographics and a specific set of interests and politics. They built the web according to all of these real, long-lasting, social conditions. Bodies, politics, geography were and still are deeply part of every nuance of the web from design to use. But meanwhile, when, for example, women are harassed online it is often spoke of as "just trolling" or "just the internet" forgetting that it is still real. We say "IRL" to mean "not digital" but the "R" in "IRL" of course means "real" and that implies the internet isn't real. No, Facebook is real. Intimate, deep, real human connection can happen through various degrees and types of digital connection.

CP: Right. People's lives are affected in real ways by the internet, positively and negatively, so it's an error to consider that "unreal."

NJ: The other error is forgetting that time away from the screen is virtual. There is much hype around disconnection, detoxing, rituals about putting your phone away, and so on. The internet doesn't go away when you put your phone away, though. We understand time away from the screen as just that, away from the screen—that is, still understood with respect to the screen. I worry that how we talk about digital connection is a problem, that it is a toxin and dirty and unhealthy ("digital detox"), how people say they put away their phone to be more "real." Going back to Foucault, lots of his thinking, even before the books I mentioned, is about how we like to pathologize—that is, describe something as sick and toxic and unhealthy not to describe the sickness, but to simultaneously create normal. Our modern culture has long been obsessed with what is real and authentic and true. It's a never-ending quest and we never find an answer, but we try. We describe the digital as a toxin to thus create our own time away from the screen as healthy, real, true, and authentic. As always, the impulse to determine who is more human, more deep, more real, and more true is a deeply conservative, disrespectful, and restrictive social ranking that always, always ends poorly.

CP: I would like you to discuss "slacktivism" a bit. I'm fascinated by how technology, especially social media, is used by older people and also most people in power, really, as this thing to dismiss or deride. Like, last year, our mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, showed up at a rally against violence and sort of used it to trash online activism, which seemed bizarre to me. Here's a quote from Justin Fenton's Baltimore Sun article "Hundreds demonstrate against Baltimore violence": "Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake...denounced those city residents who merely complain on social media or comment boards. 'This is activism,' she said, 'what you're doing today.'" I imagine a bunch of activists don't need our mayor to remind them that what they do is activism. More broadly though, that speech shows how social media, especially in the context of activism, is a convenient straw man.

NJ: To my point from before, you can see how the term "slacktivism" is used not so much to denigrate political expressions on various social media sites, but more centrally to lift traditional forms of activism as more real and true. What this misses is that activism is never just online or offline. Posting on sites can lead to going in the streets, and people in the streets motivate those at their computers. In any case, political discourse using digital tools can indeed swing opinions and elections. Of course.

CP: At the same time, I get really uncomfortable doing anything more than "defending" these as ideas because I can't personally get behind the utopian elements of a lot of tech people. How do you navigate that? Because whenever I think about the futurists, it's always the dystopic thinkers that seem to have it right, rather than the positive ones, you know?

NJ: I think the frame "is the internet good or bad" gets it wrong. Of course it is both. The internet isn't this separate thing, but it's part of every facet of society and is therefore as endlessly complex as society itself. This framing, I hope, will end shortly as people come to realize the web isn't something that can be good or bad, and we can get past the silly debates. This is not to say the utopians and dystopians are always wrong, but instead that this framing limits how their ideas can be understood and put to use. I've used the digital dualism critique to cut at both utopian and dystopian folks. For the latter, if your critique of the internet can be solved by putting your phone away, then you have a weak critique of the web. The most insidious elements of digitality come from the fact that the web and its logic has burrowed into us—our bodies, minds, identities, even our consciousness—through the way we see the world. We see in the world potential Instagram photos. We think, to more or less of a degree, through possible tweets. We intuit attention and virality in content. None of this goes away when putting away the phone, and even when we do, we understand these moments of disconnection not just as moments but moments away from the web. Social media is too often described just as companies and gadgets and code, but much more centrally, these are fleshy networks of blood. "Network of blood" was David Cronenberg's original title for his 1983 film "Videodrome." I mentioned "The Matrix" as a digital dualist film above—if I may, I would like to posit "Videodrome" as the best movie about social media. It is bodies and humanity being merged and enmeshed and imploded with technology and media signal. Not separate, but mixed and augmented—this is how we should approach understanding the role of social media, whether to just describe, to historicize, to champion benefits, or to critique its trappings.

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