It’s become a common, contemporary experience: you’re on a social media feed, when suddenly some old statement you made swims up from the past, on the back of a retweet or a new comment, and you’re horribly embarrassed by what you wrote. Not necessarily by the content, so much as by the style. In my case it’s the desire to make the all-pleasing joke, a mock-casual use of ‘kinda’, or this false mix of laid-back chit-chat with an intensely performative, needy, Like-searching intent.

Old photos used to have that sort of effect. You’d catch yourself posing ridiculously, wearing clothes which were meant to signify a social statement that doesn’t make sense any more. But you can push away from the photo of yourself: it was a younger you, you look different now. Words are different. They feel ever-present, always as if you’ve just said them. It’s harder to disentangle yourself. ‘You will pay for those words’ goes the banal phrase – no one ever says ‘you will pay for that photo’.

 

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The recent revelations that Facebook has been giving data to third parties who’ve then used it for targeted political manipulation lead me to face up to this discomfort in more detail. Like many others I downloaded all my data. It takes half an hour or so: all your private messages, apps, ads, contacts, friends, photos and pokes sliced into html files. The largest file of all was my ‘Timeline’, which is a record of all written posts since the day I joined.

This is the content Facebook can use to help commercial and political advertisers target you. It’s the sort of information firms like Cambridge Analytica were able to access and cross-reference against free ‘personality tests’ to create what they claim are startlingly clear portraits of individuals. Even if their claims were overstated, more canny actors can potentially tap into all this data which has been volunteered, accrued over years, and carefully preserved in its entirety.

What was once written on the fly, in the warm heat of conversations and events, was regularly being taken out of its original context and laid out as a slab of cold, printed, context-less data.

There used to be two kinds of words: written or spoken. Written statements were more consciously edited. You’d take full responsibility for what you wrote, and you’d have the chance to hone your words. One was always aware one was writing at least in part for posterity, whether literary or legal. One consciously crafted a voice. One expected to be judged for it.

And then there were the words used in bars and restaurants and rows, still performative of course but also meant to remain largely unrecorded: uttered to blow off steam, as a momentary flirtation or provocation, meant to then fall to the ground and be swept away.

Social media occupies a third, hybrid space – the worst of both worlds. On the one hand a post only makes sense in the context of a specific time and conversation, with its temperature and colour, like dinner-party discussion. But it is recorded like a seriously intended text, and can be judged with that severity long after the fact.

Or, naked and without context, these posts can be stripped for their behavioural qualities. Instead of information or meaning they are read for data: the frequency of certain words; how close certain words are to others; sentiment analysis; whether we use more aggressive language as a conversation proceeds; times of postings and what that says about our personality; whether our grammar, likes and dislikes indicate that we are conscientious or open, extrovert or neurotic.

 

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The idea that our words can betray something about ourselves beyond what we think we are saying has always been the premise of psychoanalysis. When one talks to therapists the way we use words, our Freudian slips and ellipses, is how our unconscious is meant to emerge. But psychoanalysis’ confessions take place in a closed, secure space. Social media uses the same trick as the psychoanalyst: ‘What’s on your mind’ is the question Facebook asks when you open it, much like the shrink does when you enter their cabinet. But this time the unconscious is being revealed not to a doctor but a data broker.

This is the real nightmare of social media. Not so much that ‘they’ know something about me I considered private, hidden. Though that’s unpleasant it’s also somehow comforting, reinforcing the idea that there’s a stable ‘me’ I am fully aware of, to protect from ‘them’. More worrying is the idea that ‘they’ know something about me which I hadn’t realised myself, that my data betrays more about me than I know about myself: that I’m not who I think I am. Ones complete dissolution into data.

There’s a morality tale here: social media, that little narcissism machine, the easiest way we have ever had to place ourselves on a pedestal of vanity, propagandise ourselves, is also the mechanism that most efficiently breaks you up.

The more skilful social media user will claim that they have successfully created a persona, that they are involved in a creative game, that they are playing the data field not it them. But social media has its own logic which dictates that persona.

In studies of ‘emotional and cognitive dynamics on social media’ the Italian computer scientist Walter Quattrociocchi explored 54 million comments over four years on Facebook and found users invariably take up more extreme, more virulent positions with time in order to attract more likes and shares. The dynamics of group behaviour push towards polarisation. Whatever this is, it’s neither about engagement nor expression.

 

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‘The most tragic part of social media’, the writer Zinovy Zinik told me the other evening, ‘is that though people think they are expressing their personalities they’re always just quoting someone else’.

He meant that when people think they are writing ‘what’s on their mind’ on Facebook they are just following a set of sub-literary tropes, prescribed poses. And in the sense that people choose social media as the main forum to express themselves, that means there’s less of themselves all the time. For those who are more passive-expressive, there is always the option to re-post other people as a way of signalling your position: literally transforming oneself into a series of quotes.

As the evening wore on, Zinik and I looked back to the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and 80s, a movement obsessed with the idea of how you could express the individual in a world where Soviet propaganda had occupied all modes of expression. Our politics are more Orson Wellesian than Orwellian, more Twitter-narcissistic than top-down totalitarian, but were there be tactics to be gleaned from them?

One technique the Conceptualists had used was subverting Soviet modes of representation by satirising them – Zinik was now finishing a new novel which did just this by parodying social media speech. But I was most moved by Zinik’s story about a Conceptualist who responded to the depersonalisation of Soviet propaganda by producing custom-made art tailored for just one person, informed by a deep engagement with that person’s life. Could there be a more fitting response to today’s political manipulators, who target you through their knowledge of your data, than to create stories and art that truly targeted an individual, understood them in a way the data harvesters never could?

But while Soviet propaganda fell apart with the end of the political regime, the internet’s ownership of our words is more total and irreversible than the Communist takeover of language (if incomparably less brutal).

There is a sense that words have slipped the leash. We think we’re expressing ourselves, but actually we’re just leaving a data imprint for someone else to make use of. Whether we write an email, a Facebook message, store content on a Google drive, or type out a text, all of what we write is sucked into a semantic web.

 

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I came home recently to find my wife up to something I had never seen before. She was sitting by her computer, giving money to words. She has a small dress-making company, and when she promotes it online she has to pay for each word she uses in the description of the product: to include popular words (dress, blue, wedding) you have to pay more; less popular words (collar, cornflour) are cheaper.

Words have ‘escaped’ from the meaning we tried to impose on them to become real estate: with their own Kensingtons and Park Lanes. And we seem to be caught in a trap: the more we use a word, the more we will be charged for it. We are literally being made to pay for our words.

Fishes and Dragons
Danny Denton | Notes on Craft