In a piece click-baitingly entitled “Trump Doesn’t Just Benefit From ‘Fake News’ Sites; He Is One,” Max Read, whose name must be either a nom de pixel or a serendipity, makes a general observation about social media:
[S]ocial media as an activity isn’t only about distributing information to one’s peers. It often isn’t about that at all. Generally, we post on social media as a way of establishing an identity in a crowded online environment, and in the hopes of receiving some degree of validation in the form of “engagement” — likes, comments, shares. So not only does “consuming information” (or, you know, “reading”) become less and less often distinguishable from “distributing information,” those two activities become wrapped up in the public shaping of individual identity. The news-media economy, in which a small number of publishers competed to deliver new information to a large number of readers, is in the process of being swallowed into a much larger media economy, in which hundreds of millions of functionally identical publishers compete with each other for attention from each other in an environment whose chief function isn’t the dissemination of information, but socially performed identity formation.
In the next paragraph, the concluding one of the post, Read proceeds from getting the matter rather right to, in my view, getting it entirely wrong:
This is, uhh, extremely weird, at best. Traditional news organizations, to state the obvious, are not built to survive an economy like that. You know who is, though? Politicians.
The entire wrongness is in the claim that there is something “weird” about so-called “social media” functioning chiefly as “socially performed identity formation” rather than for the purpose of “dissemination of information.”
Everyone’s identity formation is literally information, while a meaningful difference between one’s “performance” of it and its actuality or supposed actuality may be difficult or impossible to demonstrate – not that it is impossible to dissemble, but the moment I begin to dissemble I take on as part of my “identity formation” the character of a dissembler: We are at least also who we turn out to be, not or not just whoever we may imagine or have imagined ourselves to be.
More to Read’s main argument, however, this duality of intention in social media, the intention to in-form as well as to per-form, is inherent in every act of communication. There is nothing wrong or “weird,” much less “extremely weird,” about “socially performed identify formation” as the or a chief or primary and initial function of “social media” or of any other media. Indeed, the term “social media” is equally redundancy and misnomer: All media are social media, or all media like all modes of communication either are “social” or not mediated or communicated at all. We are always participating, whether speaking or listening, in the re-definition and realization, or “performance,” of identity in a simultaneously defined and realized society-in-fact, or “social” context/contest. At the same time, what we call “social media” are, as Read’s own analysis suggests, the least authentically “social,” least graspably “socialized,” flagrantly anti-social and objectively de-socializing media of all media.
The problem, the problem of our “post-truth” or Trumpian epoch, the moment of President Troll, what causes our intellectual life to feel “extremely weird” to us, is the impairment both of information dissemination as well as of identity performance, since they are different but interdependent.
One shouts fire in the actually burning building to warn one’s fellows of the danger, but also to be, in their eyes and in one’s own, the one who warned or one who did not fail to warn. Our current moment leaves each of us to “perform” whatever self we might hope to discover in a dark and vacant theater, the show having closed long ago. We wonder if we only imagined it was ever open. We or more of us than we suspected – a muster that will in time include many for now wrapped up in shock, and grief, and fear, and rage, and despair, seeing at best only the glimmers of new or renewed possibility – have welcomed or will welcome, will someday come to love the fire for revealing who if anyone is in fact out there.