Elliot Vredenburg, originally from Toronto, now lives in Los Angeles and drives a 1995 Honda Civic LX (blue). His written work emerges largely as an extension of his training at the Ontario College of Art & Design University [sic], where he studied graphic design. Currently, his research investigates the human implications of technological high modernism, the political consequences and capabilities of the digital image, nature made by people, and the weird intersections of branding and marketing practices with social control and surveillance.
Notes Toward Social Media Surrealism
On a recent trip to Silicon Valley, I found it strange that the posters adorning the walls of the businesses I visited frequently depicted imagery of socialist realism. Much later, I realized there may actually be a helpful comparison to be made between Stalinism and the soft dictatorships of social media. I am not equating living conditions in the Soviet Union under Stalin to the rampant narcissus of contemporary social networks, but some similarities between the two are too pronounced to deny. Through using positive affirmation for ideological purposes, these dictatorial regimes generate what Boris Groys terms the “linguistification of society.” The image-commodities that are produced on social media are measured empirically, in accumulations of human attention time. In this manner, users are trained pedagogically in what receives a positive, affirmative response. Every platform becomes a marketing opportunity, full of (in)dividuals eager to aspire to social media’s equivalent of the New Soviet Man: the ideal algorithmic search-subject. Language is no longer only used to describe society, but also to organize and shape it. Just as the valuation of symbols of achievement over actual achievement in the Soviet Union led to the use of forced labour to realize Stalin’s inflated aspirations, positive affirmation in the social media economy has generated exploitative labour practices, in the fields of the digital labour-farms that are proliferating in developing countries (often those of the former Soviet Union). Digital farmworkers are paid for their bare humanity, per thousand clicks of the “like” button. Drawing from these parallels, I will suggest that the “zones of indistinguishability,” sought by Soviet “unofficial artists,” present ways of looking at online marketing that can highlight the shortcomings of traditional modes of protest (“you can’t shame the shameless”), and overexpose the financialized attention economies that underlie the social web.