Distraction Free Reading

Platypod, Episode Four: Connections and Disconnections on Social Media

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Platypod

In this episode, Platypod presents a conversation between Baird Campbell (Rice University) and Ilana Gershon (Indiana University Bloomington). They discuss the politics of connection and disconnection via social media in Chile and the US.

This episode was created with the participation of Baird Campbell (Rice University, speaker), Ilana Gershon (Indiana University Bloomington, speaker), Svetlana Borodina (Columbia University, host, producer, sound editor), and Angela VandenBroek (Texas State University, CASTAC web producer).

The transcript of their conversation is available below. The transcript has been edited for comprehension.


Svetlana Borodina (hereafter, SB):

Welcome to Platypod, the official podcast of the Committee for the Anthropology of Science, Technology, and Computing. Here, we host dialogues and conversations about the theories, tools, and social interactions that explore questions at the intersection of anthropology and science and technology studies. I’m Svetlana, and I’m your host today. For this episode, I talked to Baird Campbell and Ilana Gershon about their research on social media in Chile and the US. If you are curious about authenticity, connection and disconnection, and self-making on social media, this episode is for you.

Baird Campbell (hereafter, BC):

My name is Baird Campbell, I’m a postdoctoral teaching fellow in the Program in Writing and Communication at Rice University.

Ilana Gershon (hereafter, IG):

My name is Ilana Gershon, I’m a professor of anthropology. I’m currently at Indiana University, but in January, I’m going to be at Rice University. This is my first chance to publicly announce this.

SB:

Thank you both for agreeing to appear in this episode. I am excited to listen to your conversation about our topic today. Please tell us more about your research as well as the ways in which you think about media as tools for connection, disconnection, creation and destruction of social worlds.

IG:

I realized when I was thinking about this podcast that I’m one of the early people studying social media, and that was really not planned. Very early on in 2007, I began a research project on how people were using new media to disconnect with each other, and I was really interested in all forms of new media that they were using. Letters were fine. Email was fine. I was just interested in the full range of how you use the options that we now have available to us to end romantic relationships. And in part, I ended up doing this research because I had been interested in science and technology studies since I was a freshman in college. I had been doing this kind of reading and never figured out a way to bring that literature into my research. That wasn’t my first research project by any means. And I also got very interested in this because cutting the network by Marilyn Strathern was such an important part of my thinking through the STS literature, to begin with, and I had been really thinking about how disconnection allows you to see things about the cultural assumptions that are getting built into new media or are getting built into any media. Because people right now are creating media to connect all the time. And the designers are not anticipating disconnection. And so you have these really interesting social problems when you want to disconnect and go against the design.

BC:

I had a similarly accidental entry into the field of social media studies and media studies generally. At a time when social media studies was, as Ilana is saying, something that not a lot of people were doing, Ilana was one of the first people I read on this. I work specifically with queer and trans activists in Santiago, Chile. I started out many years ago, during my master’s degree, doing a pretty traditional social movements project and really didn’t kind of know exactly where it was gonna go. Ilana and I were talking before, I was the first freshman class at Michigan, where I did my undergrad, to have Facebook. I started college that same year. And so it has always been a part of the way that I communicate with people. And as I was doing these short preliminary trips to Chile every summer, I realized that most of my interactions with these people were actually happening online when I wasn’t in the field. And then the more that I started thinking about that, the more I realized that a lot more was happening on social media than just communication. And that, by not incorporating that into my thinking, I was potentially missing out on a huge portion of how this community comes to understand itself. And so my project ultimately shifted to this exploration of the ways that queer and trans and gender nonconforming people use social media to find community – yes but also – to negotiate their own identities in a feedback loop between what is available to them in the media and what they are putting back into it. And I had no idea that this was where this project would go. But I think that this speaks to why more people should be doing social media research. I will just say that, for better or for worse, a huge amount of our social interactions and our processes of self-making are happening in the digital space at this point. And so to ignore those spaces feels shortsighted at best.

IG:

Right, but I think, Baird, what’s interesting is that you and I both have an instinct to also not treat those spaces as precious. Just because it’s on media doesn’t make it distinctive in a way that requires all the time a whole new set of analytical tools.

BC:

One of my big I’m-gonna-blow-your-mind moments in my freshman seminar is asking students to think of a medium that isn’t social. Media is, by definition, interactive. Social media has made this the thing about social media – the sociality of it. But television is social, radio is social, telegraphs are social. If we are people who are looking to understand the social, then yeah, media doesn’t seem to me and never has seemed to me, to be like a cordoned-off separate sphere. Because ultimately, where we spend most of our lives consuming media. They shape the ways that we see ourselves and the way that we see the world. And they’re also made by people. So I think media is absolutely an anthropological space. And I don’t think social media is nearly as revolutionary in some ways as we thought it might be in the early years.

SB:

This is interesting. And I would like to ask about the recent trends: Is there anything unique about the different kinds of social media and social media platforms that have been rising in popularity recently? We can think about Twitter, TikTok, and the emergence and growth of BeReal. Can you comment on maybe new opportunities these different platforms offer? As well as what similarities do you see between these media platforms and the other kinds of mediums that we use to establish and fuel our social world?

BC:

So the argument that I make in my first project is an argument that we can and maybe should treat social media as an archival technology. And what is interesting about doing social media research is that due to the rigors of academic publishing, oftentimes, by the time you publish it, the thing that you have written about has changed substantially. And there’s definitely a move away from archival platforms and what sometimes in the literature are called microblogging platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, mostly these kinds of text-based mini blogs. To be clear, this is just what I am observing among my students. But it seems to me that the generation of people who are coming of age on social media right now have learned from perhaps my generation about the advantages and potential perils of archiving your entire life in such a public fashion. And it seems to me that one of the influences that are pushing them toward Snapchat is, by definition, ephemeral. We have stories now across platforms that disappear pretty quickly.

I think there is a shifting definition of privacy, which is something that Ilana talks a lot about in her book. And I think you can already see what was starting to happen from the advent of social media. But I think that these newer platforms are at least selling themselves as allowing people to have more control over what they share, and whom they share it with, and for how long. I think that that’s a pretty natural response to our early experience of social media and the ways that archive can be really beneficial in terms of anthropological and historiographic work but can also be really damaging if you tweeted something 15 years ago that you no longer stand by.

IG:

In general, you’re pointing to one of the major ways in which media is orienting itself around being old and being new, which is every new technology that enters onto the stage is being understood in terms of what has been available beforehand. And so you begin to understand and experience these technologies with that in mind. So what Snapchat is cannot be understood until you understand what kind of conundrums Facebook offered people that they then really wanted certain kinds of solutions to. I find it always really interesting the moments in which we begin to realize that it’s not necessarily the technology itself but the ways in which we’re social on the technology. So I discovered David Henkin’s The Postal Age, in which he charged this complete transformation and communication in the 19th century around how mail worked. But it wasn’t that letters were a new technology. It was the entire infrastructure around the mail. And the ways in which people were using the infrastructure shifted how people were communicating, how rapidly how they understood letters, and what letters could do. And I think the same thing about Instagram right now. Scott Ross has this great article in the journal Linguistic Anthropology about how Instagram actually, as a platform, has two separate media. It has Finstas, and it has the Instagram profile. People are imagining Finstas as doing a completely different archival work, Baird, as you said. They experience their engagement with it as a very different medium than Instagram but defined by the relationship to Instagram. Because it’s a different participant structure, it has a different temporality. There are all sorts of rules and differences in their media ideologies around what Finstas allows and what Instagram allows.

We have a tendency in the United States and also in Europe to think, “It’s the technology.” But it’s so much us and the technology together that is shaping the way newness has been constructed and openness.

BC:

I think this is one of the great points that you continually make. You know, the medium matters. Famously, the medium is the message. But to a great extent, we talk about social media in terms of what we do on it. But we don’t talk about it so much in terms of what we do to it. And we are certainly shaped by social media. But the ways that we use social media are indisputably folded into the next iteration of that platform or a new platform. It’s always people responding to the unexpected use cases of a previous platform with something that, on the one hand, maybe solves that problem and, on the other hand, opens up a whole new can of worms.

And then I just wanted to briefly say, because you mentioned Finstas, one of the things that I find really interesting about the Finsta phenomenon is that, in theory, Finsta stands for “fake Instagram,” but Finsta is actually the private Instagram. In theory, is the one that is not for public consumption.  And we would think is maybe more “authentic.” And I just find it really interesting, linguistically speaking, that the place where we would expect to find more authenticity in the context of social media is the one that is labeled as fake.

IG:

I don’t know if you’re finding this with your students, but I’m finding that my students are really resistant to the notion of authenticity these days. I have never had more moments in class where I will make a statement, and someone suddenly starts channeling Goffman and starts saying, “There is no true self, there is no authenticity. We are different people in different platforms and different contexts”. And I’m like, “Wait, wait, you haven’t gotten to this on the syllabus! How is this now completely within your social analysis of the world, just smoothly oriented?” And so I think the fakeness of Finsta is something that has turned ironic because I often cannot get my students to commit to a notion of authenticity.

BC:

Just for context, I teach mostly first-year students. We talk a lot about this concept of authenticity. Because I think a lot of them have this kind of intuitive sense that we can’t actually ever really define it. When we get to that point in the class, people are always like, “I don’t actually know what it means.” But also, I think, because it is an existing cultural category they’re casting around for something that is authentic and are not really being able to figure out what that would mean. This, I think, in some ways, causes more anxiety about authenticity. In my experience with my students, they’re very skeptical of online performance and terms like “virtue signaling” come up quite a bit. And we always have to have these tough conversations of asking ourselves, “Is that version of this person any more or less authentic than any other version of this person?” When you really break it down, obviously, we come to the conclusion that authenticity is not something that we can hold on to. But I think it is still something that we’re looking to hold on to.

IG:

Yeah, I think it’s interesting that you think we’re looking to hold on to it. And I think it’s because I don’t get this in my class because I turn too quickly to the conundrum of branding and the ways in which people kept talking about personal branding as this magical formula to be able to get a job in my fieldwork. And so I bring that into my class fairly quickly when someone has outed themselves as channeling Goffman. So the ways in which we have neoliberal technologies that are pressuring us to claim a certain kind of authenticity really frustrates not only me but my students. And so the authenticity that they end up talking about and wrestling with is what does it mean to be authentic for the job market? And how does that undercut all the information and skill that they have learned through intense stalking of their exes and trying to figure out who they should date? So having these two juxtaposed about the ways in which they’re developing a tremendous amount of skill at trying to read the traces that are in social media and being frustrated by what they can interpret from social media juxtaposed against the neoliberal pressure to be an authentic self when you are branding yourself, makes, at least in my classes, authenticity this kind of really problematic topic.  I don’t know that it’s a goal that I think it’s because I make it too difficult for them to admit that it’s a goal, even if it is one. I think you’re probably kinder to them, Baird.

BC:

Importantly, the context in my class that we’re talking about: I teach a seminar on social media, a freshman writing seminar. It’s all oriented around them working on a social media ethnography all semester. They pick a topic. They have to do the majority of their fieldwork online because one of the questions that we are asking in the classes is, “What can you learn and what can you not learn from purely observational data online?” And I think the question of authenticity comes up especially for students who are working on social justice or activist-related issues, identity-related issues. It becomes a question “Is this really who this person is? Or is this the person that they think we want them to be?” And I think also that is a proxy fear for them: “Am I really the person that I think I am on social media?” And so I think we probably just spend more time in this liminal space in that class because it does seem to them… And you know, Rice is also a big science and technology school. So a lot of these students are looking for irrefutable replicable data. And, to a certain extent, we just can’t get those data from social media. And so we spend a lot of time talking about what it is that we actually can glean and how we can use that to make arguments. So I think maybe we’re just focusing on different moments in that journey.

IG:

You’re making me think that there’s something I would really love to chat with you about, which is the fact that you’re thinking a lot about identity and gender in a way that I really refuse to engage with it in the breakup book. So it’s very generous of you to kind of engage with my breakup book in the way that you have. But I really had a methodological conundrum in studying breakups, which was that people would come and give me a very clear gender ideology: “This is what men do on social media,” “And this is what women do on social media,” “And this is what straight people do on social media.” I would get really strong and very clearly stated gender ideology. And then, the next person who I talked to was doing exactly the opposite and had the wrong identity to be doing what the person I had interviewed an hour earlier was telling me. I got this really interesting tension around what the practices that people were telling me about and the ideologies that they had that were going to shape what people were supposed to be doing. So I would have lots of conversations with people who would talk about how men were not going to be deeply emotive on social media, surprise, surprise. And then the next time, I would interview someone who would be talking about how much their boyfriend was giving them problems because of the ways in which they were quoting song lyrics on social media and being deeply emotive, and that this was a royal pain in their ass.

And it was also a moment in which I realized that the breakup research that I was doing was deeply problematic because I couldn’t ever watch anybody break up. It wasn’t like I was in a space where I could say, “Guys, if you think you’re in the middle of a breakup conversation, could you tell everybody in that conversation to hold off until I get to come in and start observing?” Everything that I was getting as information was retrospective narratives that they had practiced with other people. I don’t think I got a fresh narrative that had not been told to someone else beforehand. And that really shifted what I thought I could know about people’s gender practices and gender ideologies. And so I just really avoided it in the book. I do not actually talk about straightness. I don’t talk much about identity at all. And so I was really interested in the fact that you had research that didn’t pose these kinds of problems. And also, we’re doing research at a time when perhaps things have gotten a tiny bit more stabilized around how identity and practice might coincide, though maybe your fieldwork shows no stability on this ground at all. I’m also curious about that.

BC:

I hadn’t really thought about that until right now. So I will think out loud about it with you. Obviously, my research largely focuses on gender, the construction of gendered subjectivities. But I think that construction is doing a lot of work. I have never attempted to ascertain what is someone’s real identity. A function of working with queer people is that identity construction for queer people, especially those who have not been able to really come out until adulthood, is a very conscious and deliberate practice in a way that it isn’t always for people who belong to the majority group. And so I was really interested in the actual act of constructing identity, which does not make that identity any less real or valid or authentic. But one of the things that I’m actually really interested in is Why do we need to have a stable gender or sexuality across every sphere of our lives? Does my offline comportment have to look exactly like the person I am online and vice versa? Why do we need this? And the other thing that I have found really generative is what I refer to as a feedback loop – that currently, in Anglo-Global North queer movements, we have this “Born This Way” discourse that we are born with an inherent gender or sexuality, and then we have to find it. And I’m not here to debate that idea. People who know far more about it than I do have done that. But I do think that it becomes really interesting to be able to think about our identities as constructed without invalidating them as identities. I think that in the queer rights movement, we have lost some of that political power that comes with saying, “This is who I am, and it doesn’t matter why I am this person because I am this person.” And I think social media is a really interesting way to watch that as it happens. And also think about the ways that the messages that are coming at us about gender and sexuality are perhaps not more important, but also not less important than the ideas about gender and sexuality that we bring to the online space. I think we have this idea that we have this inherent identity that is just then finding a place on social media.

I found this TikTok channel that talks about my gender in a way that corresponds to how I understand it. But I actually think that our relationship with social media is much more iterative and reciprocal and that what our actual gender and sexual identities end up looking like is very much dictated by what we see as possible and what we see as already happening around us in a digital world.

IG:

I think it’s also really interesting the moments in which you can only do certain kinds of performances online, and the offline world really becomes a complicated space to bring those performances into. That there are some things that can travel across online and offline identity construction and others that become really complicated to do.

BC:

And this was really what inspired my whole research project – that I was doing a lot of preliminary interviews to figure out where to focus, and everyone I talked to, including people who were older than I would have expected social media users to be at that time, almost to a person was narrating their coming out journeys or their transition journeys through the media technologies that they were using. And social media was that technology because it allowed for a placelessness where you could connect with people on the other side of the world, but it also allowed for, in some ways, a pretty separate social sphere from the physical world. I have interlocutors who are 100% out and proud on social media who are not in the real everyday life-world (I never know what to call the offline space). That tells us some really interesting things about identity construction, and I also think that it really points to the fact that social media is, in fact, a milieu of its own. That doesn’t necessarily need always to be tied back to the offline.

SB:

Are there platforms that are somewhat less voluntary than others? Say, for example, LinkedIn. Can one be off Linkedin if they want to find a job? LinkedIn seems to be a platform that people join to access various job ads as well as professional spaces and opportunities. With this super instrumental goal that underlies its existence and thus heavily limits the scope of engagements between its members, what can we make of it?

IG:

I do want to say that LinkedIn itself has a really interesting problem, which is that people actually don’t use it very much. It is hard to be to find active users on LinkedIn. And one of the things that really fascinates me about LinkedIn is the degree to which government agencies and career counselors, some of whom have been funded by the government, have been propagating LinkedIn as a necessity. Other social media don’t have this kind of pedagogical force behind them to get people committed to LinkedIn. But any career counseling space has a workshop on how to create a LinkedIn profile. There’s a tremendous amount of work around standardizing LinkedIn and getting its use that the company itself is not actually necessarily always aware of, or it doesn’t think about as it’s managing it. But the company also has a huge problem, which is when you have a social media that people are being forced onto that they don’t actually go on that often.

BC:

And they don’t stay on once they’ve gotten a job.  It’s not like people have been hanging out on [LinkedIn].

IG:

Yeah, they don’t hang out on LinkedIn. They don’t check LinkedIn that often. Even when they’re looking for a job. They’re not as active as one might expect.

BC

I don’t necessarily always think of LinkedIn as a social medium in the same way that I think about Facebook or Twitter because it has this very utilitarian purpose. And I have also noticed that some of my students will say that they’re not on social media, but they’re referring to a particular set of social media. These person-centered first-generation web 2.0 apps. A lot of these social media technologies are just integrated into our lives in a way that we don’t notice them anymore. And I think LinkedIn, you know, I have a LinkedIn, I don’t ever look at it, but I might someday. I think that’s everybody’s experience with LinkedIn. The fact that it has a very specific purpose is at odds with the ways that a lot of other social media platforms work.

SB:

Have you come across cases among your interlocutors or students of people who make a conscious choice to leave social media platforms? What kind of affect follows such choices, as well as what kind of motivation fuels those choices? How can we think about these choices anthropologically, especially in light of what you have said about the fundamental importance of social media today, of different kinds of social media?

IG:

This is really a burning question that’s been getting more and more traction in social media research or new media research more broadly. What happens when one disconnects? What happens when one deactivates? This was happening in my breakup research in a really nutty way. I was interviewing people fairly randomly. I never knew what stories they were going to tell. And for the space of, I think, three weeks or maybe two months, I had women coming in and telling me that they had deactivated from Facebook because Facebook turned them into a self they didn’t want to be at the time. I was also teaching Friedrich Kittler’s work, who says that with every new medium, you become an ontological self of a different kind. And I was like, “Why are my IU undergraduates channeling Friedrich Kittler, a really salty German media theorist, as they’re talking to me about their relationship to Facebook?” They were quite clear about how Facebook was turning them into people who were engaging with information about the social actors in their life, and especially their boyfriends and ex-boyfriends, that they did not want to have, that it was turning them into compulsive stalkers and turning them into people who check information all the time or constantly questioning what someone is telling them. It is a very complicated, anxious self that they said that the minute they deactivated from Facebook, they no longer had to deal with that. But of course, when they were deactivating from Facebook, that then created certain kinds of social problems for the community they were engaging with so some people would have to create fake profiles for them to manage the social. Is this person actually going to come to this event? And some of them came across men who wanted to flirt with them specifically because they felt that the woman they were flirting with would never be able to find out that they were actually in a relationship and that this gave them an opportunity, because they weren’t in polyamorous relationships, to cheat in new complex ways. And then the women I was interviewing would say, “Did they not understand that I have friends who if I need to check, will check for me?” The ways in which people were enmeshed in social information gathering through Facebook made it both charged and necessary.

BC:

Just to echo that. I’ve been teaching this social media seminar for, I think, five years at this point. Every single semester I have more students who either have a very passing relationship with social media or has actively decided not to have it, which is contrary to what we would expect of the “digital native generation.” But I actually think that it makes a lot of sense for the digital native generation to be able to opt out of these technologies in a way that perhaps we have not been able to because, to bring it back to Ilana’s work, they don’t experience them as new and exciting. For us, there was a world before the Internet and social media and then a world after. For them, this is variations on a theme. This is Okay, here’s the new platform, but this is not a paradigm-shifting thing for them. And so I do think in some ways, perhaps thankfully, the societal mandate to be on social media is one that, at least among my students, seems to be less prevalent. But it’s often for the same reasons that Ilana is highlighting that they don’t like the influence that social media has in their lives and on them and the ways that they’re interacting with people. And you know, interestingly, even my students who are on social media, a lot of the projects that they end up doing are about this deep discomfort with social media. I get a lot of papers on the body positivity space, mental health spaces, all of these corners of the internet that can, in theory, be helpful but can also get really dark. And so I think this is a generation of people who is accustomed enough to the existence of social media that they maybe are able to think about it with fresher eyes.

And then I did also just want to mention, because it bears mentioning, that in my own research, trans women often end up having to deactivate their social media. Sometimes permanently, sometimes for extended periods of time. Because of the outside level of harassment that they receive. So it’s not always cerebral concerns about social media, sometimes it’s about safety. But I think we’re chilling out about social media and I think that that’s a good thing. I think that we are going to look back on this period in history (if we survive it, knock on wood) as ultimately a media panic. I think we have been having a media panic about the internet since the mid-90s. And it is still very much the Wild West. We are only starting to regulate these spaces. And I think that as there are more people on the planet who experience these technologies as part of their everyday lives and do not face age advancements, hopefully, they will become a more integrated part of our lives.

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