16 December 2011

Commodification of the Self

I HAVE WRITTEN THAT I do not believe in virtual community, that the phrase itself is a misnomer, and I have been critical of the role of technology in our lives. Recently my attention was drawn to a rave entitled Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace by Carmen 'humdog' Hermosillo posted on The Well, an early online "community" in which she talks about the commodification of the self via the Internet. If anything this phenomenon has become more ubiquitous since she wrote her essay in 1994. [1]

The self here is obviously self without any of the technical spin normally associated with a religious point of view. A single example will suffice to show how the internet commodifies and on-sells the self. This process is exemplified, and perhaps even finds it's apotheosis in Facebook and other online social networking sites. Facebook is a profit making enterprise. It exists to make the owners rich, which it has done beyond their wildest dreams, and it does this by pushing entertainment and selling advertising. The form of entertainment it uses is ersatz social relationships and commodified thoughts and emotions. Each user expresses them self by broadcasts their verbalised thoughts and emotions. This is then re-presented for our 'friends' along with a number of adverts. The friends are supposedly people we have a social relationship with, though often there is no offline relationship at all.

It is the adverts that pay for Facebook. "Free" blogs, like this one, are more or less the same business model. I broadcast my thoughts and opinions which you consume and it's paid for indirectly. I do have Google ads, and get paid about USD10 per year for them [NOTE Sept 2017 I stopped hosting Google ads some years ago, J]. Google don't mind that this is not a popular blog, as long as it's active and some people read it and see the ads. Google's business is all about aggregates of activity. There are tens of millions of blogs like mine, and 100,000s more each day, and some get massive readership. The popular ones subsidise the rest of us. If you want to write an uber blog then lists of top blogs suggest you write about celebrities, technology, politics (certainly do not write the arcane elements of early Buddhist philosophy and linguistics!)

If you don't like my opinions, you don't stop using the internet, you just go consume some other opinions that suit you better - that you find more entertaining. The Internet is an almost infinite source of entertainment. And what is entertainment? Entertainment is an activity we undertake purely in order to experience certain emotions. Emotions are the opiate of the world, which the Buddha clearly knew when he described people as intoxicated by sensory experience. We are often blind to the emotions naturally occurring in us, and only feel the kind of intense emotions evoked by more extreme stimuli. News media actively seek to stimulate our reptile brain, to induce fear, disgust and anger. Just occasionally they try to make us laugh or coo (what I call kitten stories). On the internet the range of emotional provocation is much broader. Whatever emotion you want to feel in yourself, you can turn to the internet to stimulate it. We live in environments that are highly artificial and hyper-stimulating. Modern life dulls our emotions, and so in order to feel alive we seek out artificial stimulation: we're like people who have to have chilli on every meal, and have lost any appreciation for subtle flavours.

Since these personal opinions and stories are now a product being on-sold by Facebook, Blogger, Google et al, then our inner lives have become a commodity with a commercial value. And do we ever stop to ask whether this is a good thing? Should we not be paid by social media for providing them with entertainment content for the businesses that have made them mega-rich? Facebook is basically a social parasite. It kids us that by repackaging a service we already have (email) into a broadcast medium, that we are more in touch with people. But there is no 'touch' involved in email.

In my critique of so-called "virtual community" - ersatz community would be more a more accurate name - I said that online relationships lack eyebrows, they lack the multiple dimensions of personal relationships. Psychologists have coined a term for these non-real relationships: they're called Parasocial Relationships. These can include TV and novel characters, as well as internet friends we've never met. The former are like imaginary friends. Why do we indulge in this kind of relationship? We are social primates. We thrive in small groups where we experience a sense of belonging by being involved in the lives of our community. One of the ways we express our membership of the group is grooming each other. Some people have theorised that language evolved as a form of grooming, and I imagine that language can certainly play this kind of role - especially our non-word sounds. I wonder if texting is another form of grooming.

In the absence of a community to be involved in, we find substitutes in, for example, soap operas. Even quite intelligent people can get caught up in the lives of fictional characters, or in media creations in the form of pop stars. Whether it's JR Ewing, Harry Potter, or Lady Gaga, we want to feel like they are part of our lives. We know all kinds of details about the lives of people who've never existed, because we have a faculty and a drive to be socially involved, and if we don't use it we suffer. Just like a horse or a dog kept in isolation will slowly go mad, we humans do not thrive alone. But more than this we don't thrive when we are surrounded by strangers most of the time. The individual is not the smallest viable unit of humanity. However our communities are no longer spatially contiguous, and we have begun to rely on technology to bridge the gap. For many people their "community" is a disparate group only loosely connected. Such a community may be no more than a series of overlapping sets of cellphone numbers. I suggest that this is why people will interrupt a face to face meeting to answer their phone. Community is a value we all share. But note how isolating relying on the one to one connection of the phone is in case of the interrupted personal conversation.

Our online persona becomes like a soap opera that is processed and sold as entertainment and enriches those who facilitate the process, with little or no real benefit to us despite the hype. All of our selves become commodities to be bought and sold. Nowadays our electronic identity can literally be stolen, and the selves of some celebrities are being hijacked by online impersonators. And we buy into this system, I suggest, at least in part because we are no longer embedded in a community. The whole enterprise is presented to us as a remarkable leap forward in human interactions that is facilitating closer relationships and easier communication, but it only seems attractive in a world where our neighbours are strangers and people are isolated. Accept no substitute.


  1. The full text of Humdog's essay is online in many places. I consulted the version on The Alphaville Herald website.

"When girls stressed by a test talked with their moms, stress hormones dropped and comfort hormones rose. When they used IM, nothing happened. By the study’s neurophysiological measures, IM was barely different than not communicating at all." Wired Science. 7.1.12

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