One of the most fundamental aspects of modern life is that much of it is lived on and through social media. We create profiles, post pictures, update stories, and even find new careers and lovers on various sites and apps. But is all this good for us? Our always-online way of living has been called into question for quite some time now, with many people, young and old, finding themselves burned out and disconnected in a world with no shortage of connections. So what does this prevalence of social media mean for our society at large?
This question is one of the starting points for my guest today, Matthew Flisfeder, in his new book Algorithmic Desire: Toward a New Structuralist Theory of Social Media (Northwestern UP, 2021). While he is curious about the affects of social media on society, he also spends much of the book trying to flip the question around and ask: what does the structure of our society mean for social media? Flisfeder is interested in thinking of social media in it’s social, political and economic context, seeing the form our current social media takes as a gateway into broader social and economic structures. This broad Marxist vision is brought together with the theories of subjectivity developed in recent critical theory, particularly of Slavoj Žižek, to better understand both the ways social media hooks us into exploitative mechanisms, but it also gives us some offramps for possible resistance. Flisfeder is no luddite; not only is he himself an enthusiastic user of social media, but his critique here is meant as a course-correction rather than an all-out condemnation. If social media today produces alienation rather than true connection, then what does that tell us about society more broadly? And, more provocatively, what does it mean for broader social critique to take the social in social media seriously?
Matthew Flisfeder is an associate professor of rhetoric and communications at the University of Winnipeg. He is also the author of Postmodern Theory and Bladerunner and The Symbolic, the Sublime, and Slavoj Žižek’s Theory of Film. You can follow him on Twitter.