On being Online: Insights on Contemporary Articulations of the Relational Self
Lectio Praecursoria, the opening speech, presented at the public defence of Anu Harju on 16th June, 2017, at the Aalto University School of Business. Professor Fuat Firat acted as the honorary Opponent.
Photo: Anne Kankaanranta
Honoured chairperson, honoured opponent, ladies and gentlemen.
Four days ago, a major event in Finnish political life took place as the Finnish coalition government was faced with dissolution. This was the result of the election of a new party leader for the True Finns party. Although dissolution was later avoided, social media erupted in seconds. Camps were put up. In no time at all, we could witness the formation of us and them as groups sharing ideological and emotional congruence emerged. On a global scale, the same thing happened with Brexit, and when Donald Trump was elected the president of United States.
Social media are emotional media. As concerned citizens rushed to social media to voice their opinions of the recent political event, they were soon faced with the fervour of their opponents. Twitter seemed divided, and Facebook was filled with political commentary and speculation. Even the main newspapers were circulating people’s reactions on Twitter as news, as has become the new norm in broadcasting. As users of media, we were soon immersed in the commentary regardless of our own participation.
Yet, politics is not the only arena to elicit emotional reaction on social media, but increasingly, popular culture and entertainment serve as a site of belonging. Popular culture provides a shared social imaginary, and is able to offer the cohesive glue somewhat lost in the fragmented, globalised world. Six years ago, similar mediated, polarized waves of emotion swept the Internet when Steve Jobs died. Since then, we have witnessed collective commemoration online with the passing of the likes of David Bowie, Robin Williams and Michael Jackson, to mention but a few. Public, collective mourning on social media is a relatively new practice that brings people together in a mediated manner.
Celebrity culture is not only linked to media’s power in producing the celebrity, it is also tightly linked to consumer culture.
Celebrity culture has become extremely pervasive in our culture. As a cultural product, the celebrity is accessible to everyone. Communities of different kind are typically created on the basis of popular culture: this is because through participating in global trends, events, and phenomena we feel we belong to the world, that we are active participants rather than mere spectators.
Celebrity culture is not only linked to media’s power in producing the celebrity, it is also tightly linked to consumer culture. Good taste, for one, is embodied in the celebrity. While the celebrity teaches us how to consume and how to be, they also represent a body and a self that is managed, fashioned and controlled. A person equipped with the capacity to respond to various demands resonating with the ideals of any given time is also able to accumulate considerable symbolic power. It is in this way that the ideal self, the normative notion of the preferred way of being, is also produced.
Now, with the march of digital media, the reverse is also true: we can all become a celebrity. It is common practice to emulate the normative good taste. Popular culture is at the forefront of fashion, for example, and more and more, ordinary people take to blogging about fashion, but also the everyday. These so-called fashionistas often reflect the celebrity style, sometimes in hopes of social and cultural mobility. Some even become a celebrity in their own right.
We take photos and selfies and post them online, on blogs, in Snapchat, on Instagram. We make public comments on Twitter without the knowledge of our reader-base, and engage in conversations with people we are likely never to meet. We construct what Benedict Anderson calls ‘imagined communities’, groups of people who image they form a collective with something in common. Online, we tend to seek similar others.
My doctoral dissertation is positioned at the intersection of media anthropology and Internet studies. Instead of focussing on technology alone or even primarily, it is the social and cultural life in the current digital context that forms the focus of inquiry in these fields. My dissertation is a multi-disciplinary study, and I also draw on sociology of consumption and cultural studies. This allows me to include the wider, global currents in the examination of the more local articulations of identity as these emerge in the relational flow of the Internet.
The goal is thus to increase our understanding of the complexity of being in our digitally enhanced world, and to shed some light on alternative ways of being.
These fields of research share a continued interest in issues concerning identity. Yet, despite the common interest, each operates within the bounds of their own field: this dissertation addresses the relative lack of dialogue between these divergent fields, and offers a multi-disciplinary take on self-construction at the intersection of digital media and consumption.
The aim of the dissertation is to provide insights into how we are positioned in a matrix of varying, even conflicting relational forces: these economic, cultural and social forces position us as more or less included or excluded subjects. The goal is thus to increase our understanding of the complexity of being in our digitally enhanced world, and to shed some light on alternative ways of being.
As relational beings, we exist in a network of relations that make up different social spaces.
I adopt a relational approach rooted in social constructionism, and developed by Kenneth Gergen, to examine the interconnectedness of social, cultural and economic forces that position us. The relational view of being sees the self as a dialectic, social construct that is in constant flux: this is because the relations we are embedded in are also constantly shifting. As relational beings, we exist in a network of relations that make up different social spaces.
This dissertation is an examination of digital culture. I treat the online as embedded in the offline, and see online practices as being informed by those offline. The relational self is fluid, contextual, and emergent: for this reason the binary distinction between online and offline modes of being is not necessary in the relational framework, as the self is always emergent in the relational flow. Thus, it is not meaningful in the context of this study to think in terms of separate entities occupying the physical, offline realm and, conversely, the digital online realm – instead, we can think of being in our digital time in terms of the different manifestations of the self that populate different social and relational spaces.
In order to anchor the relational being into the contemporary globalised context, I also draw on the notion of the social imaginary. The social imaginary organizes the everyday, and makes practices possible by providing a framework that allows us to make sense of the said practices. Imaginaries are involved in how we imagine our lives and our social existence, the norms that guide or constrain us, as well as the rules and regulations we uphold by practicing them.
While imaginaries construct a horizon of conceivable action, it is important to notice the normative dimension of popular imaginaries.
The ability to imagine is a fundamental human capacity. While imaginaries construct a horizon of conceivable action, and can thus be seen as enabling frameworks we draw on in our everyday, it is important to notice the normative dimension of popular imaginaries. For example, how we imagine the good life, or the way we should be, is largely influenced by the imaginaries we draw on. Thus, popular imaginaries do not simply provide input for liberating and emancipatory alternatives, but they are also implicated in constraining how we imagine. Imaginaries can also limit the range of alternatives we are able to imagine. For example, the plus-sized bloggers, examined in this dissertation, resist normative femininity; yet, they nevertheless operate within the feminine imaginary that dictates how women should be, and what they should look like.
I approach the question of the relational self by looking into the consumption practices of digital media users, and how these relate to self-construction in the wider framework of our culture. Consumption spans the more traditional consumer goods, such as fashion and technology, to include consumption of the symbolic. The social spaces I have examined revolve around fashion and fandom, both cultural practices tightly linked to media and popular culture. The empirical material was collected from social media sites that include plus-sized fashion blogs and YouTube memorial videos for the late Steve Jobs.
While I also employ digital ethnography, which translates into spending time in various social media sites in order to gain more detailed knowledge of the community in question, I consider digital ethnography more as an outlook than a specific method. The empirical material was analysed in discourse analytic tradition, combining Critical Discourse Analysis and Appraisal Theory.
In order to examine the conditions under which the contemporary self is constructed, I employ the notion of celebrity. These forces include the market with its inherent market ideology, cultural and social forces, intertwined with media logics of visibility and the prevalent practices of consumer society whereby commodities are used to express identity. In the context of the empirical studies, on one side of the celebrity phenomena we have Steve Jobs, and on the other side the plus-sized fashion bloggers, micro-celebrities in their own blogosphere.
In the process of becoming, we are faced with relational tension and conflict. Negotiating these tensions requires the capacity and ability to respond to the input: we may accept the relational input, or we may reject it.
The findings suggest there is an aspirational self constructed in the social imaginary, reflecting the value system of our society. The aspirational self is conflict-ridden where the two ideals of ‘being yourself’, on the one hand, and ‘improving yourself’, on the other, are juxtaposed. Both empirical cases illustrate this point: the plus-sized fashion bloggers, as much as Steve Jobs and his fans alike, all strive towards this kind of being. However, the process of becoming by way of improvement and control masquerades as ‘being yourself’.
Becoming the preferred self with value and symbolic power in our society requires a lot of work on the self.
Let’s return to Twitter for a while and the topical events. Twitter tells me that the Internet Company Yahoo is set to be sold. The outgoing CEO, Marissa Mayer, was hailed the company’s saviour when hired five years ago. Similar to Steve Jobs, and indeed the plus-sized bloggers, Marissa Mayer epitomises and embodies the ‘aspirational self’. A quick look around various social media tells me that Marissa Mayer participates in beneficiary runs, is healthy, slim and active, and inspires her staff as evidenced by the photo gallery online. She has had a phenomenal career for a female CEO of her age, and she has also managed to have a baby – something the media portrays as proof that women can have it all.
In Marissa Mayer, the ideal self is materialised. While her story is represented as one of success, an encouraging example to all women, it also shows the mechanisms of control present in the workings of the ‘aspirational self’.
Rather than being a simple matter of ‘being yourself’ or ‘realising your true potential’, becoming the preferred self with value and symbolic power in our society requires a lot of work on the self. In this process, the self becomes a commodity.
Entangled with media logics, such commodified self is digitally enhanced, publicly shared and re-shared, and collectively evaluated. With this dissertation, I have showed some of the complexities of today’s digitalised and commodified world, and what the increasing complexity might mean for the self. However, the study also finds ample evidence of the presence of resistance to hegemonic ways of being and doing, and the construction of alternative ways of imagining that is necessary for change. Perhaps with more people participating in the production of alternative meanings, change is possible.
This brings me to my last point. The relational approach to self adopted in this dissertation underlines the co-constitution of being, of the self, at the intersection of various technologies and relations. More importantly, however, it draws our attention to co-action and the potential of relational transformation for a more inclusive future.
Link to the published doctoral dissertation at Aalto University e-thesis here.
Pictured here with the honorary Opponent, Professor Fuat Firat, from University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.