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After the Social Media Hype: Dealing with Information Overload


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The “social media” debate is moving away from presumed side effects, such as loneliness (Sherry Turkle), stupidity (Andrew Keen), and brain alterations (Nicholas Carr), to the ethical design question of how to manage our busy lives. This Foucauldian turn in internet discourse sets in now that we have left behind the initial stages of hype, crash, and mass uptake. Can we live a beautiful life with a smart phone, or is our only option to switch it off and forget about it? Do we really have to be bothered with retweeting each other’s messages for the rest of our lives? When will the social fad that is Silicon Valley be over and done with? We are ready to move on. Time to send your last lolcats.

Mainstream internet discourse has turned sour. How long can we bear witness to the shadow boxing of useful idiots such as Steven Johnson, Clay Shirkey, and Jeff Jarvis, who ceaselessly battle Evgeny Morozov over whether memes have supremacy over the American liberal opinion space? Is social media the nail in the coffin of traditional gatekeepers? “Twitter is a vast confusion of vows, wishes, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, complaints, grievances” (James Gleick). Who will guide us in our search for the rules, duties, and prohibitions of digital, networked communication? Where is the stoic calm in this sea of populist outrage?

The internet and smart phones are here to stay. They blend smoothly into our crisis-stricken neoliberal age, which is characterized by economic stagnation, populist anxieties, and media spectacles. The question no longer concerns the potential or the social impact of “new media,” but how to cope with them. In calling this “Foucauldian,” we do not refer to the Foucault of surveillance and punishment, but rather to the later Foucault, the one who wrote about the ethical care of the self. How do we practice the “art of living” with so much going on simultaneously? A few years ago, blog research already invoked Foucault’s genealogy of confession when analyzing Web 2.0’s user-generated content as a self-promotion machine. Recently, attention has shifted towards the aesthetics of mental and physical sanity. Can we speak of a “virtue of networking” that guides us in what to say and when to shut up, what to save and when to join, when to switch off and where to engage? How can everyone’s life become a work of art in this age of standardized commodities and services?

Most artistic, activist, and academic work portrays social media as a technology of domination. Whereas the Unlike Us network (in which I am deeply involved) is engaged in the struggle for internet privacy and the building of software alternatives to Facebook and Twitter, the authors I will discuss here explore the possibility of altering our lifestyles. The data streams may rain down on us, but we still have the freedom to decide how best to respond to this meteorological given. We can remain inside and focus on the shape of the umbrella, or we can take a walk outside and get wet. The sovereign attitude of ignoring the constant stimuli of our techno-saturated everyday lives is not available to everyone. Distraction is a useful holdover from our hunter-gatherer past, when it helped us focus on dangers that could approach from all sides. As such, it is inscribed deep in our human system. But could it also be a gift that helps focus on multiple tasks simultaneously?

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