By Maren Mitchell.
Love them or hate them, the Kardashians embody the rise of an economy conceived from the exponential growth of the internet: that of attention and the self. Throughout the progression from Web 1.0 to 2.0 (the terminology for what the world wide web was and what it has now become), we’ve seen blogging—reserved for those with the deliberate desire to profile themselves online—grow into Facebook which has burgeoned to contain profiles for 2.41 billion individuals (as per August 2019). Social media is no longer an offshoot of the internet; it is ingrained in our existence. How does social media result in an attention economy and the monetisation of the self, and what does this mean for our physical reality? And is our collective inclusion in this phenomenon a black hole we’re all inevitably going to be pulled into?
I contend that the polarising effect of the Kardashians is due to our social division into two opposing camps: those who accept social media for what it is and those who believe themselves to be immune to the desire for attention on social media, and instead prefer to distance themselves from those who openly capitalise on it. But in reality, we all do—albeit to varying extents. What there is to gain from an online presence has been termed ‘social capital’. This may include things such as the number of followers or Facebook friends, Uber ratings, TripAdvisor ratings, eBay seller and buyer ratings, number of hits on Google, number of LinkedIn connections etc. And there is literal money to be made: better ‘social capital’ is thought to result in higher earnings, better jobs and earlier promotion. As illustrated by Tom Jackson in an article for the BBC, in Nigeria there are bank lenders who review social media profiles to determine creditworthiness with the slogan, “Get rep, get cash, stay fly.” Even if explicit monetisation is not acknowledged or achieved, the very act of using social media deems you a part of this attention-seeking culture. Why upload a personal picture to an online site if not for attention?
Additionally, there are those, such as the Kardashians, who openly commodify themselves via such means. ‘Influencers’ have recently come to populate our feeds, and have broken down, as Zeynep Tufekei puts it, “the top-down directives of promotional culture”. They are clever: their posts are not purely advertisements but an amalgamation of personal stories and everyday life with sellable products ingrained within. It is their online personality and lifestyle depiction that is appealing and therefore entices us to buy the products they appear to be using. Their ability to openly capitalise on it is not to be mocked—the manipulation of effect is an impressive skill.
The influencer’s ability to revolutionise advertising in this way, one #OOTD at a time, is due to the model of selling and reselling data about our identities as their followers. Our age, gender, location and interests are bundled together in order for businesses to target us. Even if you may not seem to be capitalising from your own online profile, others are. And this is not a concept to be taken lightly: Cambridge Analytica, Trump, and the presidency of the most powerful country in the world spring to mind.
We can try and separate ourselves from the economy of attention and the self but it will become increasingly difficult. The role of social capital in instances in which it would desirably be irrelevant has become crucial. We’ve all been witness to heartwarming stories about families able to resolve or reduce their woes via a successful ‘Go Fund Me’ fundraiser—a website in which a person can create an individual donation page. A successful Go Fund Me fundraiser is rooted in the attention economy: it requires exploitation of the self. Go Fund Me campaigns are generally for personal causes in which success is more likely if the public can engage in and empathise with the story. And it is vitally dependent on attention. Obviously, the more exposure a campaign receives, the more donations it is likely to collect.
Charlie Brooker’s hugely popular Netflix series ‘Black Mirror’ has conceptualised itself as demonstrating a dystopian vision of the future which often reflects extreme potential outcomes of the life we are already living. One episode, named ‘Nosedive’, depicts a world in which social media obsession consumes the society and each daily interaction is rated out of five via social media to determine social status. Is that where we are headed? If social capitalism follows the route of financial capitalism in which those with the most catapult themselves ahead in terms of privilege and advantage, while those left behind become less and less likely to ever catch up, then yes, that is where we are headed. We might even already be there.