(image from cover art of S. Lochlann Jain’s book, Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us)
What techniques of observation operate on social media content, and how does this process serve to construct identities and ways of interacting?
In this essay, I apply a three-player model of instrumental observation to one case of documentation and performance online — survivor vlogs — to present the threads of a general trend in social media theory. I use the case of video logs (vlogs) produced and shared by cancer patients, to argue that information collection and consumer-user engagement with online content constructs legible narrative realities, making up categories of people and experiences.
As a theory, the field of social media remains relatively undeveloped. Social media is commonly left to the domain of marketers, or else social media is treated by academic researchers as another sampling pool. The assumption is that offline and online behaviours are neutral and comparable, and thus are not responsibly treated as discrete realms of human interaction. I present here a constructivist argument for treating social media as discourse, a la Foucault. Interactions online constitute forms of knowledge, boundaries and patterns through which knowledge can be consumed and produced, and markers of subjectivity within their sphere. Social media constitutes a space wherein identities and relations form and reform, dictated in large part by the structural environment of a given web platform.
Before entering our case study, we must define concepts and processes. This essay models online content observation as undertaken by three players: producers, viewers, and hosts.
Producers refers to the original posters; viewers refers to people interacting with social media content; hosts refers to the individuals/firms that manage social media platforms and market in information gathered therein on consumer-users. Social media content can be said to be quantified in terms of engagement and sites encourage increasingly greater participation.
By enhancing engagement, hosts can collect more information on user preferences and identity, algorithmically generated from these interactions, similar to the “public” studied by public relations described by Bernays (1935: 82-84). Producers observe engagement and adjust behaviour; viewers observe and engage with material; hosts observe trends in content and preferences, and attempt adjusting their documentation of material in order to increase information and interaction.
This process brings into existence abstractions of consumer-users, as well as trends and patterns of content that constitute categories — a kind of dynamic “making up people” through observation and documentation (Hacking 1986). In other words, engaging and quantifying online content constructs legible, marketable “types” of people and objects.
This essay studies how online observation creates instrumentally knowable people and objects, using the case of cancer patients’ online vlogs. In engaging with these vlogs, producers articulate their experiences as digestible, shareable narratives; viewers consume and engage with particularly digestible, shareable versions of patients’ experiences, rewarding particularly appealing, understandable depictions of realities; and hosts encourage and expand the reach of marketable portrayals of these experiences in order to generate useful information.
This social media process resembles Lochlann Jain’s “cancer culture” (2007: 78), in that it influences perceptions and relationships with the lived experience of cancer/patients. It forces on patients a conceptualization of their lives in terms of episodic segments — rendering them meaningful, knowable, and linear as shareable vlogs for consumer-users to engage with. Akin to the depiction of cancer/patients in culture, medicine, and statistics, interactive online documentation narrativizes patients’ experiences and imposes on them constrained roles as characters in this story (Lochlann Jain 2007: 81, 83-85). Engaging with this material defines it to viewers and hosts as well; it develops marketable “types” via information on viewer engagement gathered and transmitted by hosts, to sell the typic idea of cancer patients.
By consuming, aggregating, and evaluating depictions of cancer/patients, social media documentation abstracts those experiences into categories; it parallels the process whereby prognosis statistics abstracts cancer/patient stories and temporalities, and constituting knowledge of the subject/object itself (Lochlann Jain 2007). Thus, instrumentally documenting a type, or public, with market-driven observation shapes its relation to itself and others (Bernays 1935; Paley 2001: 138).
This case demonstrates how a form of media mobilizes those truths marketed to fit functional objectives (Bernays 1935). Making up people in this way generates knowledge based on decontextualized, abstract versions of realities, reproduced and rationalized through the observation process. Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness (2011) describes the construction of a politically expedient statistical untruth of Black deviance. Though his thesis is historically different from the case at hand, it is theoretically instructive. We might thus understand how objective-driven, narrativized observation shapes perceptions of reality. It is the making up data to be shared as truth. The fact that narrativized, functional content is appealing, and that functionally appealing content tends to be valued regardless of reanalysis (Marks 2004), builds on this point. Instrumental legibility and shareability often construct perceptions of “facts,” as in the untruth of Black deviance (Muhammad 2011: 4-6; Marks 2004: 208, 212, 218).
As well, drawing from Paley’s (2001) discussion of polls constructing facts and constraining choices for consumer-citizens, we see a similar link between the process of documentation and the functionality of the information generated in making up people. In our case, vlog producers must perceive their experiences as both theirs and viewers’, made for market consumption and competing for engagement. This necessarily defines which stories get told. It limits the choices and imaginings of patients’ realities, based largely on their legibility for consumer-users’ interactive observation.
As in the case of poll-generated data, observation affects choice, which affects the range of acceptable action, and relates to self-conception of those rendered subjects/objects of study (Paley 2001). The case of cancer patients’ vlogs demonstrates how social media observation constructs marketable narratives that affect expression of and relation to experiences. Like the constructed categories in Hacking’s thesis (1986), quantification via engagement by consumer-users brings into existence types of people and objects.
Hacking, Ian. “Making Up People.” In Reconstructing Individualism, ed. Heller, Thomas et al. Stanford University Press (1986): 222-236.
Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. Cambridge: Harvard University (2011).
Lochlann Jain, Sarah. Malignant: How Cancer Becomes Us, accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NxzcFP2vRiA
Lochlann Jain, Sarah. “Living in Prognosis: Toward an Elegiac Politics.” Representations 98 (2007): 77-92.
Paley, Julia. “Making Democracy Count: Opinion Polls and Market Surveys in the Chilean Political Transition.” Cultural Anthropology 16 (2001): 135–164.
Bernays, Edward. “Molding Public Opinion.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 179 (1935): 82-87.
Marks, Jonathan. “Anthropology and The Bell Curve.” In Why America’s Top Pundits Are Wrong: Anthropologists Talk Back, ed. Besteman, Catherine and Gusterson, Hugh. University of California Press (2004): 206-228.