A first attempt to theorise socialisation in a way which is adequate to the challenges of platform society
This was originally published in Carrigan, M. (2021). Growing up in a world of platforms: What changes and what doesn’t?. In What is Essential to Being Human? (pp. 103-131). Routledge. Please use this reference if you’re citing this article.
The ubiquity of personal computing, as well as the smart phones and tablets which followed from it, make it difficult to see its ontological significance even while its practical ramifications remain obvious. The interface upon which these technologies have been built was animated by an ambition no less epochal than that surrounding artificial intelligence: facilitating a ‘coupling’ between man and machine which would vastly expand our analytical powers (Wu 2010: 169-171). This innovation depended on the creation of a practicable interface with the machine: a techno-economic hybrid of miniaturisation and commodification which ensured emerging artefacts could fit into a home and be purchased by consumers. By making it viable for non-specialists to deploy its mechanical capacities, the personal computer rendered a whole range of once startling possibilities a routine feature of everyday life. In many cases these are actions which would have been impossible without this machinery, enabling us to video call distant family members on the other side of the world, stream a near infinite library of cultural content on demand or place orders for groceries to be delivered at a time of our convenience. The possibilities facilitated by the intersection of high speed internet, mobile computing and social networking tend to dominate our imaginary of technological change simply because it is so remarkable that we can now do these things which would have once been regarded as speculative fiction (Rainie and Wellman 2012). But what’s perhaps more significant for our present purposes is the role of these technologies as what Wu (2010: 171-172) calls “a type of thinking aid—whether the task is to remember things (an address book), to organize prose (a word processor), or to keep track of friends (social networking software)”.
In what follows I use the notion of a platform as a generic term for the complexes of technologies through which the constraints and affordances of these innovations tend to be encountered by users: the cloud storage platforms through which the address book is synched between devices, the cloud computing platforms through which word processing software is increasingly delivered or the social platforms through which users engage with their networks. The terminology of the platform emerged during the last decade as a dominant form of framing through which to analyse these innovations and their relationship to each other. It is a slippery term as likely to be found in business books intended for jet setting managers as in academic texts about technology and capital accumulation. It can be used for critique as easily as it can be deployed for corporate self-justification, with the rhetoric of platforms being used to great effect by firms such as YouTube to downplay their responsibilities for how users have deployed the freedom which the firm claims to have merely facilitated (Gillespie 2010). However, I maintain it’s a useful term for three reasons: it breaks us out of an instrumentalist concept of technology as tools, it foregrounds the coordinating capacity of these technologies and it highlights the divergent interests between those engaging with the platform (Carrigan and Fatsis 2021). Furthermore, it provides an organising principle through which technological referents which otherwise become rather diffuse (e.g. the ‘algorithm’ which risks becoming as ghostly an orchestrating presence as ‘discourse’) are encountered in user-facing technologies which are increasingly well-integrated into the everyday lives of their users. In this sense I use the term ‘platform’ to encompass the broader technological landscape in which the platform is dominant, as well as a conceptual frame through which to understand the socio-technical factors encountered by end users in their mundane activity within situated contexts.
Nonetheless, it’s striking how neglected the question of agency has been within the literature on digital platforms. There have certainly been works which have integrative ambitions, for example Kennedy, Poell and van Dijck (2015) and Couldry and Hepp (2016), but these have been the exception rather than the rule. The tendency has been for the analytical focus to be exhausted by the platform, with the character of agency figuring only insofar as it is pertinent to the features of the platform under investigation. This creates an inevitable tendency towards what Archer (1995) calls downwards conflation, seeing agency as moulded by the character of the platform in a way that struggles to recognise forms of value and cultural meaning which evade an algorithmic power that is so easily rendered as totalising (Pasquale 2015). Obviously, there are many cases in which scholars of platforms do consider agency but my suggestion is they often do so in spite of, rather than because of, the underlying conceptual architecture of their studies. This leaves them ill-equipped to deal with agency in a sustained way as something other than a function of the social power exercised through the architecture of digital platforms. This chapter is an initial contribution to a broader project of thinking through the problem of platform and agency, something which realist social theory is particularly well placed to contribute to and which fits well in the current series of which the present volume is the last (Al-Amoudi and Morgan 2019; Al-Amoudi and Lazega 2019; Carrigan, Porpora and Wight 2021). I proceed by focussing on ‘growing up’, by which I mean to recover the substantive and everyday content of socialization, with a view to understanding what changes about the relational reflexivity of this process under these conditions and what remains the same. In doing so, I draw together my contributions to the past volumes which the Centre for Social Ontology has produced in order to begin to develop a more systematic approach to the question of practical reasoning and digital platforms: how do we live well with technology? While this does not exhaust the challenge of platform and agency, it provides a particular approach to these questions grounded in a social realist micro-sociology of reflexivity which aims to understand the emerging contours of a changing world through the quotidian existence of the subjects within it, including how their lives are shaped by the distribution of life chances, availability of social roles and the collective possibilities which their circumstances afford for trying to change these (Archer 2000). In this sense, it starts with individuals but is determinedly non-individualistic, instead being motivated by a commitment to providing adequate micro-foundations for a meso- and macro-social theory of a social world in which platforms are ubiquitous.
In providing these foundations, it becomes easier to resist the tendency towards a technologized essentialism which permeates lay and expert commentary on the implications of socio-technical innovation for emerging adults. These accounts often forego the term essentialism in their self-description but they share a tendency to assume that new types of adults emerge from the interaction with new technologies, even if the reasoning behind this assumption ranges from the deeply sophisticated to the utterly platitudinous. In what follows I analyse how the socialization process is being reshaped by the proliferation of social platforms, stressing the significance of these new socio-technical systems which penetrate deep into the life world while rejecting the suggestion that epochal language accounts for a fundamental shift in personhood. In doing so, my approach is fundamentally biographical in the sense of holding there are invariant features of growing up, to use the idiomatic expression, which follow from the temporally extended character of our personhood: we become who we are over time, through interaction with others, under circumstances we do not choose but over which we can come to exercise an influence.
This is not essentialism about the human, as much as it is about the human within social life and the outcomes which necessarily follow from the interaction between two distinct sets of properties and powers. Contrary to those who suggest essentialism entails analytical rigidity, I intend to show that starting with the invariant features of human agency facilitates the identification of dynamics (viz how socio-technical innovation and the everyday use of these emerging technologies plays out over the life-course), which are otherwise rendered opaque as a result of our theoretical axioms. To do this I develop a number of concepts (particularly the notion of potential selves) which characterise the interface between the cultural archive and the socialization process, with a view to understanding the reciprocal changes between them when their relation comes to be mediated by social platforms.
Human Agency in a Platform Society
These combinations of human agency and digital technology are no less revolutionary for how mundane they have become, as we habitually rely on devices to perform actions which combine our agency with that of the software running on them. It raises the question of what we take this combination to entail. There is an influential tradition which sees this as a matter of co-constitution in which technology and humanity are remade in a ceaseless cycle of co-constitution, often framed in terms of a post-human transition (Carrigan, Porpora and Wight 2021). There is certainly value to be found in this creative literature which has staked out a domain of inquiry but there is a sociological deficiency underpinning it: its preoccupation with what Archer (2000) calls the practical order of subject/object relations leaves it unable to grasp the role of technology within the social order. The focus tends to narrow to the technogenesis of individuals who in aggregate live out a singular relation to technology, as opposed to recognising how richly technology is entangled in our everyday lives with each other (Miller 2011). As Mutch (2013: 28) warns us, imposing too tight an analytical cleavage on the relationship between the social and the material generates a “perverse (given the promise of the concept) neglect of the specificity of the systems involved and an inability to deal adequately with the broader context of practice”. It’s only by keeping these elements distinct that we can begin to analyse the interplay between two sets of properties and powers, in order to ask how the specific technological character of an artefact makes a difference within a specific context. This entails a rejection of technogenesis, with its vision of a ceaseless dance of co-constitution which never (empirically) starts nor ends. It also entails breaking from what Gane (2004: 3-4) suggests is ultimately the Weberian influence over theorising technology, reducing it to the meanings it holds for individuals and the uses which they make of it (Latour 2000). It certainly means we must dispense with simplistic approaches which see technology as moulding human beings, as I will argue in the subsequent section. What we’re left with is a recurrent confrontation between two sets of properties and powers with no a priori reason to assume one has priority over the other. However, to leave things here would simply be to have deconstructed other approaches at the level of ontology, as opposed to offering some explanatory path forward. If we break open the cycle of co-constitution, it becomes easier to avoid treating emerging technologies as sui generis, instead allowing us to ‘digitally remaster’ the established categories of sociological inquiry, as Housley et al. (2014) put it, drawing them into a dialogue with the possibilities and pitfalls of an increasingly platformized society.
In what follows I focus on a specific question: the changing character of socialisation which is likely to ensue from these developments. It would be mistaken to conceive of this as somehow distinct from wider questions of political economy, however, as what Wright Mills (2000) once described as the “varieties of men and women [who] now prevail in this society and in this period” entail political implications. This is what motivated my analysis in our previous series of the ‘distracted’ forms of personal reflexivity which digitalisation encourages, as well as the ‘fragile’ forms of collective agency which tend to ensue from them. My argument in Carrigan (2016) was that three mechanisms accounted for this tendency:
- The multiplication of interruptions generated by a life lived with multiple devices: phones, tablets, laptops and voice assistants are the most popular amongst a growing class of artefacts prone to making demands upon our attention in the course of our daily lives. Each interruption is trivial but the accumulation of them can be deeply detrimental to the possibility of sustained focus (Soojung-Kim Pang 2013).
- The pluralization of communication channels through which mediated interaction is conducted: telephone, video calls, messenger services, social media and e-mail are the most widespread of the proliferating media which facilitate communication between human beings. There is more communication through more channels but also more draining ambiguity about which to use for which purpose and how to combine them.
- The switch from scarcity to abundance within the cultural system (and of access at the socio-cultural level) means there is always more to read, more to watch, more to engage with (Carrigan 2017). If this is close to being free it will likely be available in unlimited quantities for a small monthly subscription fee. Availability doesn’t dictate cultural consumption but it does increase our awareness of the things on which we could be expending our time and attention.
The point I was making is that these mechanisms shape how agency is exercised, as opposed to the powers and properties which characterise it. I use the term ‘distracted’ as an adverb to capture this change which, following Archer (2003; 2007), I see as a matter of ‘internal conversation’: the mundane and quotidian ways in which we talk ourselves through the everyday situations which we face and decide what to do about them. Obviously platformization can have an impact on what we deliberate about, in so far as it confronts us with social and cultural diversity which we might not otherwise have encountered. For example, people to talk to, articles to read or videos to watch. My suggestion is that its impact on how we deliberate is perhaps more significant, as the aforementioned mechanisms create the following:
- The increasing tendency for deliberations to be disrupted by devices calling for our attention and/or the expectation of communication with others through these devices. These disruptions can be evaded through technical means (e.g. turning off notifications for a device) or lifestyle techniques (e.g. insisting on only checking email once per day). However, such strategies are limited by the principles of ‘persuasive design’ which influence the engineering of digital devices in order to decrease the likelihood we can avoid their promptings, as well as the difficulty of acting against what technologists describe as the ‘network weather’ which ensues from patterns of use within a community and the expectations which flow from it (Williams 2018; Weller 2011: 114-116). Furthermore, it means reducing distraction has become an object of reflexivity which in turn has the potential of displacing other concerns from one’s deliberations. For this reason I claim that the tendency for disruption cannot be eliminated, as opposed to mitigated, voluntaristically because it is a consequence of the socio-technical environment a person occupies rather than a matter of their individual orientation to the world. It’s not just a matter of self-discipline with regard to digital distractions, even if self-discipline can help mitigate the problem of distraction in any number of ways. Unfortunately, this tends not to be recognised by orthodox treatments of the topic which are psychological and moralistic, with the former leading to the latter by implicitly reducing it to a challenge of individual responsibility.
- A greater awareness of the many other options available which make it difficult to, as Archer (2012) puts it, ‘bound variety’ by committing to a particular course of action (Carrigan 2017). The range of intelligibilia was once filtered through the socio-cultural context a person occupies, i.e. through the people encountered, the ideas they promulgated, the cultural materials which were available and those with which they were inclined to engage. This filtering certainly still happens but it no longer operates through scarcity, given the range of variety which any connected individual brings into this environment. It becomes increasingly necessary to bound variety as an active process lest the individual slowly slip beneath the tides of potential items of focus which inexorably accumulate within their environment. I agree with Archer’s (2012: 62) Peircean point that “the more social variation and cultural variety available to ponder upon reflexively … the greater the stimulus to innovative commitments”, but that has to be supplemented by an awareness of the variable capacity of agents to cope with that variety, as a biographical engagement with cultural abundance.
These tendencies towards distraction and overwhelming operate in sequence because what the first disrupts (reflexive deliberation) is necessary to cope with the second (abundant variety). To fail in what Archer (2012) describes as ‘bounding variety’ abandons the agent to a situation where, as Durkheim (2006: 270-271) put it, “our sensibility is a bottomless abyss that nothing can fill” such that “the more one has, the more one wants to have, the satisfactions one receives only serving to stimulate needs instead of fulfilling them” (Durkheim 2006: 270-271). His description of the inner life of the bachelor goes some way towards anticipating the moral phenomenology of what Maccarini (2019a) calls the ‘bulimic self’ and Archer (2012) identifies as ‘expressive reflexivity’:
“The humdrum existence of the ordinary bachelor is enough, with its endless new experiments raising hopes that are dashed and leaving behind them a feeling of weariness and disenchantment. In any case, how could desire settle on something when it is not sure that it will be able to keep what attracts it? For anomie is twofold. Just as the subject never gives himself definitely, so he possesses nothing definitely. Uncertainty about the future, together with his own indecisiveness, thus condemns him to perpetual motion. Hence a state of unease, agitation and discontent that inevitably increases the possibility of suicide.” (Durkheim 2006: 270-271)
There are a range of questions here concerning how reflexivity is changing, as well as what this means for the inner life of the subject within a world undergoing transformation. In a sense my aims are narrower because I’m interested particularly in the role which digital technologies play in this process, particularly the platformized variants which, as I shall argue, now predominate. But this narrowness is qualified by the claim that in what Van Dijck, Poell and De Waal (2020) call ‘platform society’ ’where the digital pervades social life to an unprecedented degree, as opposed to being a subsystem within it or an infrastructure from which social action can be abstracted for analytical purposes. The causal powers of platforms to track, analyse and intervene through the activity taking place in them introduces a novel quasi-agentive element into social action which draws upon their affordances. Platforms learn about their users, model their behaviour and leverage these models in ways which are (a) inherently opaque to the modelled in what is an epistemically asymmetric relationship, (b) deploy insights about a population in an attempt to influence individual behaviour, and (c) become more asymmetric with time, as machine learning systems work with expanding data sets (Carrigan and Fatsis 2021). A voluminous expert and lay literature has emerged which deals with the challenges this creates at the level of practical reasoning – e.g. debates about ‘screen time’, ‘internet addiction’, ‘digital detoxing’ and ‘personal productivity’ (Carrigan 2016). The significance of these developments for philosophical anthropology risks being lost because the content of the difficulties is sufficiently mundane as to fall beneath the radar of the human sciences. The mechanisms at work are not easily identifiable within field studies, while the applied behavioural science so influential within the design of digital systems works with the mechanisms which can be discerned through laboratory studies (Williams 2018).
To offer one simple example, for the majority of adults in a country like the UK who carry a smartphone, over 95% amongst 16-54 year olds according to Statista (2020), the constant availability of connection means that what might otherwise be ‘lost moments’, waiting in queues or having arrived early for a meeting, instead become opportunities for purposive engagement (Harris 2014). It has become something of a platitude to observe that constant opportunities to be cognitively occupied must entail some implication for cognition. This doesn’t mean the observation itself is questionable, only that the real challenge is to be specific about what is going on here and to which outcomes it might lead. If we don’t do this, there’s a risk we essentialize a profoundly multi-faceted phenomenon, shifting a complex set of conditions ‘out there’ into a transformed model of the person ‘in here’ which suggests a categorical shift in human being as a result of this process (Carrigan 2014). An example of this can be seen in the (thankfully debunked) concept of ‘digital natives’ who “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” because of having “spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video-games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age”. Such “digital natives” are “all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computer, video games and the internet”, in contrast to the “digital immigrants” who are tasked with teaching this strange and rather alien species (Prensky 2001: 1-2). As many have pointed out, this language of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ naturalises digital inequalities, obscuring the digital divide by constructing all young people as inevitably possessing competencies formed through immersion in digital media throughout their youth. While most scholars have rejected the term, it remains influential amongst the broader public (Boyd 2014: 192-196).
There’s a certain intuitive plausibility to the category which resonates with ubiquitous experiences of watching young people display an ease with digital technology. To reject it isn’t a denial that changes are taking place but rather a belief that categorical accounts of those changes are inherently implausible. If we see new types of (young) people as inevitably emerging from the introduction of new technologies, it’s impossible to ask how the interaction between the casual powers of the people and the causal powers of the technology might play out differently across social contexts. In talking about ‘distracted people’ my point is not to suggest we have or might all come to be such people but rather to suggest that how people exercise their agency is changing under certain conditions, leaving us with the question of what they do and how it is entangled in a broader process of change. In that sense its focus is adverbial rather than verbal. It runs against a broader intellectual tendency at work here which identifies digital technology as bringing about a fundamental transformation, producing different kinds of people who necessitate that we revise our basic assumptions about human beings. These changes might be greeted with enthusiasm, as we can see in Prensky (2001), with the sense of impending catastrophe we find in Zimbardo and Coulombe (2015) or anywhere between these two extremes. What these contrasting accounts share is a sense that certain types of young people are an outcome of exposure to digital technology, obscuring the role played by reflexivity and relations in bringing about these apparent effects. As Facer (2011: 32) puts it,
“The presence of digital technologies in the home has not made all children more creative, more entrepreneurial, more social or more stupid, any more than the sales of Encyclopaedia Britannica or comics in the early twentieth century made all children cleverer or dumber. Nor are all children involved in the same sorts of activity online: they are not all avid games players, social networkers, bloggers or happy slappers. The expert development of competency in these settings, moreover, is fostered by parents, peers and others in the informal learning setting.”
What Facer (2011: 33) describes as the “breathless rhetoric of generational change” completely obscures the difficulty involved “for all generations and age groups of developing complex conceptual and critical skills”. Or for that matter, failing to develop them and what this failure means for the distribution of life chances within a social world in which digital technology is ubiquitous. These don’t emerge as an inevitable by-product of participation but rather through support and guidance in relation to others. There’s a form of essentialism which too often figures in how the relationship between digital technology and human agency is understood; one which is more pernicious for often failing to account for its own implications at the level of philosophical anthropology. In its eagerness to pronounce an epochal shift in how people orientate themselves towards the world, as well as in many cases the ‘hard wiring’ which underpins this, it prevents us from disentangling the various factors at work and the multiplicity of outcomes which different combinations of them are capable of producing.
It doesn’t follow from this that we need to reject essentialism as such but it does mean we ought to be cautious about how we think about essences in relation to technological shifts. To avoid these pitfalls we need an approach to socialization which places sufficient emphasis on reflexivity and relations in order to trace out the interaction between people and technology over time in structured contexts, as opposed to an essentialism which sees new kinds of people as emerging from new kinds of technology. For this reason I will draw on Archer’s (2012) account of socialisation as reflexive engagement before turning to the question of digital platforms and the role this might play in becoming who we are within a platform society (Carrigan 2014).
Socialization as Reflexive Engagement
Reflexivity operates through what Archer terms the ‘internal conversation’. These internal dialogues in which ‘people talk to themselves within their own heads, usually silently and usually from an early age’ (Archer 2007: 2) encompass a wide range of activities, uptake of which varies between persons. Archer (2003, 2007) identifies four distinct modes through which reflexivity is practiced: communicative, autonomous, meta-reflexive and fractured. In each case, the tendency towards a particular dominant mode emerges from the interaction between a person’s concerns and social context over time. It is a personal emergent property with causal consequences that are both internal and external, producing different tendential responses to structural and cultural properties with ensuing implications for patterns of social mobility, as well as aggregative (via tendencies at the population level) and emergent (via divergent propensities towards collective action) implications for social reproduction or transformation at the macro level. The central claim here is that ‘the interplay between people’s nascent “concerns” (the importance of what they care about) and their “context” (the continuity, discontinuity or incongruity of their social environment) shapes the mode of reflexivity they regularly practice’ (Archer 2007: 96). Contrary to many prevailing theories of socialization, her account rests on the understanding that, even at a young age, individuals engage in an evaluative way with their social environment and these engagements, as well as the characteristics of their environment, shape their emerging practice of reflexivity as they move into adulthood. Given the intensification of social change, “there is less and less to normalize” and the traditionally invoked agencies of socialization come to stand as cyphers: “socialization can no longer be credibly conceptualized as a largely passive process of ‘internalization’”. This “relative absence of authoritative sources of normativity’” means “young people are increasingly thrown back upon reflexively assessing how to realize their personal concerns in order to make their way through the world” (Archer 2012: 96-7).
If we follow Archer’s (2012) argument that the intensification of social change means that socialization needs to be (re)conceptualized as relational reflexivity, what I’ve termed the adverbial shift in how reflexivity is exercised has implications for the process of socialization. This involves a significant departure from the orthodox conception of socialization within sociological thought, argued by Archer (2012: 91) to assume high socio-cultural integration (ensuring the receipt of consensual messages), stable functional differentiation (ensuring clear and stable role expectations) and high cultural system integration (ensuring normative consistency). To the extent these conditions are absent from the nascent contexts of young people, an empirical question which invokes the matrix of relations within and through which they become who they are, the socialization process becomes much more a matter of selection rather than internalization i.e. choosing between the difference encountered within the context rather than simply incorporating it into the outlook, concerns and dispositions of an emerging adult. If the norms, guidelines and ideas encountered in the natal context are in tension, as they increasingly tend to be with falling levels of social integration, then any attempt at internalization would inevitably confront the subject with these tensions even if there are a whole range of ways in which these could be negotiated.
To render this in abstract terms risks being perceived as a straw man, counterpoising the homogeneity of tradition to the heterogeneity of late modernity. Archer’s (2012) focus on relations is crucial to avoiding this, framing the issue in terms of the distribution and character of difference within the natal context rather than the mere fact of it as such. Obviously, we should not assume complete unanimity, for example in ideas held or norms enforced, within traditional contexts. This would be absolute socio-cultural integration and, if we hold to a view of innovation as combinatorial creativity, it would seem impossible for such a social order to grow or change. However we can instead see it as a matter of degree, with the macro-social characteristics (socio-cultural integration, functional differentiation and cultural-system integration) corresponding to micro-social experiences (the receipt of consensual messages, clear and stable role expectations and normative consistency) through the configurations of relationships which define the nascent context of the emerging adult (Archer 2012: 87-99). Gorski’s (2016) analysis of American religious right communities as enclaves of normative consensus is a helpful reminder of how people respond to the experiential challenge of declining social integration by seeking to form integrated communities with others with whom they share commitments (Maccarini 2016). These meso- and macro-social tendencies are not just things which happen to agents but rather things to which agents are capable of evaluating and responding purposively in relation to, with implications for the overarching tendency.
This leaves it a matter of individuals negotiating relationships within their settings rather than, as with the detraditionalization problematic, individuals gradually being liberated from the constraints of social structure (Carrigan 2010; 2014). As Archer puts it, “their real relations with others also need retrieving as variable but powerful influences upon the equally variable outcomes that now constitute the lifelong socialization process” because “[o]therwise, the entire concept risks drifting into an unacceptable monadism or slipping into Beck’s portrayal of subjects’ capricious and serial self-reinvention in a social context reduced to ‘institutionalized individualism’ (Archer 2012: 97). It’s not a matter of individuals suddenly embracing untrammelled framing as social structuring retreats from view, as much as individual properties and powers being increasingly necessary to negotiate this structuring: leading to what Archer (2012) calls the ‘reflexive imperative’. This involves the ‘necessity of selection’ and ‘shaping a life’: the unavoidable need to select from the variety encountered through the life-course and the difficulties entailed by shaping a satisfying and sustainable way of living from what has been selected.
Talking of ‘selection’ and ‘variety’ can easily be misconstrued. This is not a matter of detached choice at sequential moments but rather a temporally-extended unfolding of our evaluative orientation towards the possibilities we encounter. Through the developmental process of reacting to environmental stimuli, sifting the pleasant from the unpleasant and the desirable from the undesirable, an awareness of our first-order emotions begins to emerge which immediately poses questions about their compatibility and incompatibility that invite a deepening of our nascent dialogue about what matters to us (Archer 2000; Sayer 2011). As we elaborate upon this, coming first to exist as a being with these concerns and then as one who to some extent recognises herself as such, these evaluative orientations come to act as ‘sounding-boards, affecting our (internal) responses to anything we encounter, according to it resonating harmoniously or discordantly with what we care about most’ (Archer 2012: 22). This intensifies the aforementioned path dependency, with the elaboration of our evaluative orientations in relation to the novelty we encounter conditioning our future trajectory, as some possibilities are “shunned, repudiated or negatively sanctioned’ and others “welcomed, encouraged or positively sanctioned” (Archer 2012: 23). This can be seen as a trajectory of selectivity, with the elaboration of our evaluative orientations serving to filter variety in a progressively more patterned way. Our movement through the world begins to acquire a direction and a style, which we grossly misrepresent if we construe it in terms of an iterative confrontation “with a plurality of uncertain life course options” such that life becomes a “reflexive project” and “individuals are continuously forced to organise the future and reconstruct their own biographies in light of rapidly changing information and experiences” (Mills 2007: 67-8). What such a construal misses is the cumulative manner in which past experience shapes present orientations towards future possibilities, filtering the variety we encounter rather than iteratively presenting us with the open vista of a future to be colonised. The social gets ‘inside’ us through the accumulation of the changes we go through as we make our way through the world (Archer 2012: 51).
Growing Up In A World of Platforms
In the first half of this chapter I discussed three mechanisms with which the ubiquity of platforms confronts users in everyday life: the multiplication of interruptions, the pluralisation of communication channels and the switch from scarcity to abundance. I argued this produces two tendencies in how reflexivity is exercised:
- Deliberations are more likely to be interrupted by technological claims upon attention and/or displaced by the cognitive labour involved in managing and minimising these distracting elements. Internal conversations trend towards the staccato, being shorter in duration and less inter-connected with prior intra-personal dialogues.
- Deliberations are more likely to be vulnerable to the intrusion of alternative possibilities because it is becoming increasingly difficult to bound variety. Internal conversations trend towards the stochastic because there’s a greater awareness of the other things we could be doing, the other places we could be going and the other things we could aspire to be.
These are trends primarily correlative with how entrenched digital platforms are within a subject’s life. However they can’t be reduced to the fact of individual use because there are growing opportunity costs to foregoing their inducements. These might once have seemed relatively trivial (revitalising old connections, expanding personal networks, convenient access to services, expanded opportunities for cultural consumption etc) but the likelihood that Covid-19 will lead to increased platformization means these opportunity costs will grow in their impact, e.g. being unable to book a meal or visit a pub without using a platform to register or being unable to acquire certain goods without using ecommerce platforms. Furthermore, ‘network weather’ creates a diffuse pressure towards their expanded influence, even amongst those who refuse their use: refusal becomes an increasingly reflexive commitment to not be drawn in rather than a default setting of simply not having opted-in.
I have suggested we see their influence in adverbial rather than typological (the mode of reflexivity) or substantive (the object of reflexivity) terms. As a result of the entrenchment of digital platforms within everyday life, reflexivity comes to be more (1) distracted, in the sense of being more vulnerable to interruption by external contingencies (2) porous, in the sense of less likely to sustain a focus on a particular object. This has implications for the mode of reflexivity such as those I touched upon in Carrigan (2017), for example suggesting that autonomous reflexives might be more prone towards cognitive triage, a narrowing of horizons to focus on the urgent rather than the important, as a means of dealing effectively (a quintessentially autonomous ideal) with the challenge of focusing under these conditions. It has implications for the object of reflexivity, in so far as that coping with distraction and porousness risks occupying deliberative capacity, in an organised fashion (e.g. the aspirations to self-management embodied in something like the Quantified Self movement) or a disorganised preoccupation with one’s own struggles which ironically intensifies their impact on the agent.
The Platform Society as the Cultural Context for Socialization
If we think back to our earliest encounters with the internet, to what extent were we struck by the potential vastness of what it enabled us to access? If we consider this in quantitative terms, it becomes clear this vastness is a fraction of what we now confront, with Internet Live Stats (2020) currently estimat
ing the number of websites globally as 1,781,248,975 and rapidly growing. This doesn’t even take account of the torrents of user-generated content available through social media or the cultural archive available through subscription streaming services. What made this initial encounter so arresting was likely the implicit contrast between ‘old media’, with its time-consuming physicality and ‘new media”, with its immaterial immediacy. It was the sense that what we wanted could be accessed on demand, more so with each passing year as the digitalised archive becomes an increasingly taken for granted part of social life (Carrigan 2017). It would be misleading to infer from this experience that digital platforms entail an exponential increase in variety for a number of reasons. Firstly, older forms of media die out or become less significant as what Jenkins (2007) calls ‘convergence culture’ comes to be mainstreamed. Secondly, there is a great deal of uniformity within ‘new media’ as similar competitive pressures, namely to be amplified by the algorithms of the major social media platforms, lead to the production of similar content (Caplan and Boyd 2017). Thirdly, it’s clear variety is filtered by the algorithmic operations of social media platforms in complex and not always consistent ways (Margetts 2017b). Fourthly, ‘old media’ and ‘new media’ interact in synergistic ways, as can be seen in the new forms of engagement which surround television e.g. ‘the back channel’ constituted by a Twitter hashtag for a popular TV show (Couldry 2012: 3078-3128). Another example would be how the most prominent political commentators in the blogosphere often acquire their authority (and in part their prominence) through having their stories picked up by the mainstream media (Couldry 2012: loc 3770-3785). In reality we are dealing with what Chadwick (2017) calls hybrid media and simplistic oppositions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ make it difficult to trace out the emerging interconnections between these media. However, there is a longer-term possibility that platforms are undermining the capacity of content producers to earn a living, suggesting they might eventually reduce variety through their mediation of it (Lanier 2010, Taplin 2017).
This is not to deny the overall increase in variety but rather to caution against assuming its exponential growth, as well as drawing the distinction between net variety and what its distribution means for socialization. It is with regards to the latter issue that social media is at its most interesting, with platforms providing means for self-representations to proliferate. What Plummer (2001: 7) calls ‘documents of life’ have long been “hurled out into the world by the millions”:
“People keep diaries, send letters, make quilts, take photos, dash off memos, compose auto/biographies, construct websites, scrawl graffiti, publish their memoirs, write letters, compose CVs, leave suicide notes, film video diaries, inscribe memorials on tombstone, shoot films, paint pictures, make tapes and try to record their personal dreams.”
I suggest these are one of the key mechanisms through which variety is encountered: fragments of life which, as Thompson (1995: 233) describes it, bring “new opportunities, new options, new arenas for self-experimentation”. His claim was made about media more broadly, such as the role which novelistic, televisual or cinematic narrative plays in furnishing our sense of the world and what it holds for us. However it holds as true for documents of life as it does for crafted narratives, as both present subjects with (fragmented or otherwise) representations of things to do, places to go and people to be. These again can be distinguished from resources of the self, such as the self-help and productivity literatures which thrive across the whole range of digital media. This third category fits most obviously within the cultural system, defined by the logical relations which obtain between their (implicit or explicit) propositions about how one ought to live (Archer 1988). However these three categorisations are analytical distinctions which might overlap in practice e.g. a narrative can be a fable with a clear proposition about how to live or a document of life can imply a message about a way of life being good for others. I offer them here to think about intelligibilia in terms of variety, its mediation and distribution. Unless we recognise the distinctive causal powers a medium entails for the distribution of intelligibilia it will be difficult to identify how changes in the media landscape makes a difference to the production of variety, not least of all one as significant as the shift towards the ‘platform society’. Furthermore, this engagement between social theory and media theory, something which Couldry and Hepp (2016) observe that neither side has tended to be very good at, provides us with analytical instruments to further address the concerns which Archer (2012) raises about the distribution of variety and its relative neglect within social theory.
In the rest of this chapter I focus on documents of life rather than crafted narratives or resources of the self. This is not a repudiation of the interest or significance of the latter two. I have written about these elsewhere (Carrigan 2014; 2016) and see the present chapter as supplementing this analysis. Furthermore, the effect of platformization upon them is in a sense quite straightforward: it makes it easier for new entrants to develop and build an audience for them (see for example the rise of self-help authors whose careers began with blogs, YouTube or podcasts or best-selling authors whose literary careers began with self-published eBooks) thus increasing the pool of cultural intelligibilia with second-order consequences for consumers (the problem of abundance) and for producers (the need to specialise). It also blurs the boundary between consumers and producers by allowing direct interaction between them and making it easier for the former to join the ranks of the later, even if the excitable proclamations of cultural democracy which accompanied earlier social media have been replaced by a more nuanced realisation of the attention hierarchies which pervade these platforms: the fact anyone can ‘have their say’ not only doesn’t mean they will be listened to, it actively militates against it by vastly increasing the competition to be heard (Carrigan and Fatsis 2021). This increased availability of an ever more diverse array of crafted narratives and resources of the self provides a powerful source of potentially discordant ideas which can be accessed from a young person’s bedroom or mobile phone. While some intention is necessary to kick off the process, it’s important to recognise the ‘rabbit hole’ effect in which algorithmically recommended content on the basis of initial selections can soon draw an agent into a place far from where they originally intended to go (Roose 2020). My suggestion is this decreases the feasibility of being an identifier, in Archer’s (2012) sense, representing a further source of disruption to the receipt and endorsement of a normative consensus from the natal context. To the extent platformization also swells the ranks of the rejectors, it correspondingly reduces the pool of those for whom their natal context supplies directional guidance (Archer 2012: 271).
Possible and Potential Selves
Documents of life present us with a more complicated picture in which quotidian fragments of lived experience can nonetheless exercise a significant influence alongside vast inequalities about who gets heard, who gets to control how they’re heard and who really gets listened to. Following Turner’s (2010) account of reality TV, we might suggest this is demotic rather than democratic: it foregrounds ‘normal people’ without in much meaningful sense empowering them. In fact, as well we shall see, it risks leaving this normality entangled in the attention economy of social media in a way liable to induce the hollowing out of that very normality in the pursuit of online recognition (Johnson, Carrigan and Brock 2019). While we have “drawn, carved, sculpted and painted images of ourselves for millennia” it is nonetheless the case that “[w]ith digital cameras, smartphones and social media it is easier to create and share our self-representations” but the platforms upon which we now rely for creation and sharing incline us towards concerns for visibility and popularity which were previously relatively marginal with this sphere of activity (Rettberg 2014: 2, Van Dijck 2013). Under these conditions, we see a breakdown in the familiar distinction between everyday ‘documents of life’ and the glossy representations produced by the culture industries. Far from the claimed openness of social media leading to a proliferation of representational activity, in which all are able to be heard, quotidian self-representation instead comes to be marked by characteristics which were previously reserved for professional production. The hard work of cultivating celebrity comes to be part of everyday life for a growing cohort.
While these considerations might always have surfaced through cultural production, incipient within it through the human capacity for instrumental rationality, it was nonetheless a matter for the individual’s own deliberation: the amateur writer or artist might often have aspired to be a professional but these were aspirations nurtured through reflections on their craft rather than inducements built into the tools they were using. In contrast what we see now are inducements inherent in the apparatus of production itself, as a media system built through online platforms and omnipresent devices remove any limits on the scope of self-representational activity within daily life, while also offering powerful inducements towards pursuing recognition within the metricised boundaries of these platforms. It’s certainly possible to resist what Gerlitz and Helmond (2013) call the ‘like’ economy but these feedback mechanisms mediate social evaluation in a way which can prove immensely powerful, inflecting the approval/disapproval of peers through the evaluative machinery of the platform. It implies a commensurability with those far beyond the natal context, with the handful of likes a photo on Instagram receives from a smattering of followers being newly comparable to the thousands someone else’s photo receives from hundreds of thousands of followers. The result is an apparent recovery of the quotidian, a potentially overwhelming torrent of representations concerning everyday life, driven by opaque and disavowed concerns to represent those lives in a way liable to win acclaim on the platforms used to circulate them. The representations seem more real, percolating upwards from the fabric of everyday life, while often being no more faithful to the reality of those lives than their broadcast and print media counterparts and perhaps considerably less so than their quotidian counterparts. The filtering at work here is both technological and cultural, with the latter all the more powerful for its tendency to be naturalised as an apparent feature of activity upon a given platform (Rettberg 2014: 23).
The concept of possible selves can help us understand the influence of these changes. This is a psychological construct intended to help us understand how individuals envision their expected or hoped for future. While often treated in an under-theorised way, it has been used by myself and others working in a realist mode to gain purchase on the imagined orientation which subjects have towards their future (Carrigan 2014; Stevenson and Clegg 2011). It implies capacities for imagination and memory, drawing on past experiences and present knowledge to construct future possibilities. These are capacities which are routinely affirmed in literature, as Strahan and Wilson (2006) observe in their discussion of Ebenezer Scrooge’s confrontation with his past, present and future selves in The Christmas Carol. In fact one could argue that personal narrative as such would be unrecognisable in the absence of these capacities. We can recognise the dramatic component in any fictional narrative, such as the dramatic manner with which “Scrooge is faced with his past, present, and possible future selves” as Strahan and Wilson (2006: 2) describe it, while still appreciating the reality of the mechanisms at work. These mechanisms are central to what Alasdair MacIntyre (2013) describes as ‘the unity of a human life’: our actions and utterances become intelligible against the background of our continued existence, finding their place as episodes in a unified life which assumes the shape it does through the integration of the episodes which comprise it. Even those theoretical approaches which stress the possibility of endless self-creation and continuous self-reinvention implicitly recognise the existence of something underlying which is capable of changing in these ways (Craib 1998). Such activity unavoidably involves a relationship to the self, usually one in which the present subject redescribes their past self in a way liable to have future consequences (Bhaskar 1989: 171-173). As Stevenson and Clegg (2011: 19) describe the concept:
“Possible selves are future representations of the self including those that are desired and those that are not. They can be experienced singly or multiply, and may be highly elaborated or unelaborated. They may relate to those selves we desire to become or those we wish to avoid. Possible selves play both a cognitive and an affective role in motivation, influencing expectations by facilitating a belief that some selves are possible whereas others are not and, by functioning as incentives for future behaviour, providing clear goals to facilitate the achievement of a desired future self, or the avoidance of a negative one. More significantly the possible selves construct holds that individuals actively manage their actions in order to attain desirable selves and evade less desirable selves. As representations of the self in possible future states, possible selves give form, specificity and direction to an individual’s goals, aspirations or fears.”
Our internal mental activities, which C.S. Peirce described as ‘musement’, resist characterisation in terms of definite functions. They are by their nature open-ended, independent vectors of possibility which exist within us and complicate the process through which the external world is interiorised in a way which can lead to our reproducing it through our actions (Carrigan 2014). One mechanism through which this occurs is the generation of possible selves: present representations of future possibilities for what we might do and who we might become, inviting our evaluation in a way that potentially guides our action in the field of possibilities available to us. However, this is an outcome rather than the activity itself. There are many internal activities we engage in, with Archer (2003, 2007, 2012) investigating ten of them in her empirical studies of internal conversation: planning, rehearsing, mulling-over, deciding, re-living, prioritising, imagining, clarifying, imaginary conversations and budgeting. The opaque character of inner life renders it difficult to link actions to outputs in reliable ways. Nonetheless, we can see in the abstract how each of these activities may be liable to generate possible selves in different ways, with its resonance being entirely dependent on the person in question. For example, budgeting might generate an image of a frugal self, empowering for one person (with implicit links to a financially autonomous self to come, as yet still out of sight) while dispiriting for another (for whom there appears to be no end in sight for necessary financial self-restraint). In each case, these activities take place within a social context in ways we can assume are influenced by that context, suggesting the possibility of a schema through which we can draw out linkages between contextual changes and the specific mental activities of which the generic power of reflexivity consists. In some cases this influence might be uniform, such as the inherent difficulty of sustaining an internal dialogue if an external other is talking to you. In other cases, it might be much more particularistic, even to the extent of being unique to the agent and the situation in which they find themselves. In these terms, the adverbial influences I identified at the beginning of the chapter can be seen as operating across the full range of reflexive activities, being a matter of how they are conducted.
When we situate possible selves in this way, it presents us with an obvious set of questions. Why do we imagine some possibilities rather than others? Why do some aspects of ourselves rather than others preoccupy us? Why do some possibilities stick with us while others fade away? Where does the content of these representations come from? How are they encoded and transmitted? How do people encounter them and how do social structures influence this process? Our inner world is populated with the symbolic resources we have taken in from the outer world, a heterogeneous array of elements which expand our imagination and provide fuel for our creativity (Archer 2003: 69). I suggest that possible selves are a key mechanism through which cultural intelligibilia (crafted narratives, documents of life, resources of the self) exercise an influence over how we become who we are (Archer 2007: 20). Each of these categories provides us with what we might term potential selves. Introducing this category helps us focus on the ‘raw materials’ through which these representations are constructed, as mental activities directly and indirectly draw upon a diverse array of cultural resources in contributing to the generation of possible selves. We therefore need to attend to the “signs, symbols and languages given to us through paperbacks, soap operas, chat shows, docudramas, film, video, self-help manuals, therapy workshops, music videos” as “the resources from which we tell our stories” (Plummer 2002: 137). Through doing so we open- up an important interface between personal life and cultural change, as can be seen through historical shifts in the character and diffusion of cultural forms.
The concept of potential selves helps illuminate the often opaque relationship between culture and subjectivity, opening out a crucial interface between the two and providing an instrument for its analysis (Gill 2008). It also extends the scope of the possible selves constructed, counteracting a tendency to treat individual representations as sui generis and identifying linkages between concerns which have predominantly been the domain of psychology and those of sociology and media. While possible selves refers to the properties and powers of human agents, specifically their first-person representations of potential futures produced imaginatively through any number of mental activities, potential selves refers to the properties and powers of cultural forms. The claim I’m making here rests on Archer’s (1988) account of the objectivity of the cultural system (Archer and Elder-Vass 2012). If we take a hermeneutic rather than constructionist approach to cultural intelligibilia, recognising a relation between an interpreting subject and an interpreted item, it raises the question of the types of relation engendered by specific cultural forms. I’m suggesting that certain kinds of intelligible are amenable to being treated as potential selves by subjects, expressing their inherent character rather than properties a subject imputes to them e.g. a sitcom revolving around the personal lives of twenty somethings is more amenable to being used in this way than a dictionary of etymology would be. Examples of this category may not be produced with the intention of serving as potential selves but their encoding in media (e.g. print, photography, film) enables them to circulate independently of their producers, allowing others to encounter and interpret them in ways which leave them functioning as ‘raw material’ for the generation of possible selves. It is this capacity to be interpreted as a representation of human possibility that grants them the status of potential selves. In this sense it’s a broad category ranging from those which are obviously amenable to being used in this way (e.g. much Young Adult fiction) to those with a more opaque suitability depending on biographical contingencies (e.g. the rulebook for a Taekwondo association). The category includes those cultural forms which have the capacity to be related to in this way, even if methodologically their identification might be limited to established genres which express this capacity through their explicit representation of human possibility (things to do, things to become) and/or poetic structures which invite appropriation of these representations by subjects.
While there have always been technologies for self-narration, social media represents a mainstreaming of self-narration, encompassing an expansion of the modalities through which such stories can be constructed: an enormous increase in the range of their possible circulation. What Couldry and Hepp (2016: loc 4049) describe as “the extended spatiotemporal reach of self-narratives” should be taken so seriously, though the role of platform architecture in shaping the realisation of that potential reach should not be forgotten. In an important sense, the technology of a diary was private by default, liable to be locked in a draw as easily as shared with close friends (Couldry and Hepp 2017: loc 4065). There are certainly prominent exceptions, such as political diarists, however even in such cases the diary made public is usually filtered and edited to enhance public appeal, creating a different iteration of a text that was initially private. Van Dijck (2007: 6-7) offers the concept of “personal cultural memory” to make sense of such private-by-default forms of self-narration, describing them as “provisional outcomes of confrontations between individual lives and culture at large”. The media used to record such memories inevitably shapes the choices people make about what to capture and how to capture it. The ‘mediated memories’ they facilitate are used by us “for creating and re-creating a sense of past, present, and future of ourselves in relation to others” (Van Dijck 2007: 21). With platformization, we see a dramatic transformation in the potential range of such mediated memories, leaving us constructing our relationship to our past, present and future on a scale and with a degree of publicity that would have previously been unimaginable. It is in this sense that we can identify a dependency of the self upon platform infrastructures, with potentially radical implications for how we conceive of the socialization process (Couldry and Hepp 2017: loc 4115).
Platformization has not eliminated technological barriers to accessing what Archer (1988) calls the Cultural System, as much as it has changed their character while also contributing to the exponential growth of that system. There is also a risk of overstating the extent of this shift. There are countless archives throughout the world which have not been digitalised and others which only exist digitally as an index. Much of the archive exists within closed systems, accessible only to select groups such as those within specific organisations. Those aspects which are accessible by default require internet access and basic technological proficiency. Even then, we can inquire into what form that ‘access’ takes: home broadband access across multiple devices is a different proposition from unstable and expensive mobile access or reliance upon public libraries. The nature of this access has important consequences for the biographical implications likely to flow from the digitalisation of the archive. For some, it becomes ubiquitous, a constantly available resource to draw upon as they make their way through the world. For others, it becomes a vector of disenfranchisement, as the assumption of widespread Internet access creates difficulties when organisations in general and public services in particular pursue a digital-by-default strategy in their operations. Recognising these continued constraints is important because it ensures we remain aware that abundance exists virtually for us, as a theoretical horizon for our path-dependent activity within the existing media system (Couldry and Hepp 2016: loc 1569).
Nonetheless digital media has made cultural production newly accessible, relying on devices which are widely available and requiring little specialised knowledge, producing artefacts which can by their nature be reproduced in a potentially endless way without any increase in cost or decrease in quality (as opposed, say, to the risks entailed in passing a photographic album or self-published book around the entirety of one’s social circle). The mobility of phones and tablets, as well as the rise of locative social media, ties representations to particular places in which everyday life is enacted, while the audio and visual capacities of phones and tablets allows it to be documented in rich multimedia. These representations benefit from the affordances of social media, usefully summarised by Boyd (2014) in terms of their persistence, visibility, searchability and spreadability. These facilities serve to ensure the potential range of their circulation, by maximising the opportunities of others to find them while minimising the costs involved in doing so, even if this is rarely realised due to the enormous increase in the quantity of production which they also engender (while the factors described above mean that the quality is much less heterogeneous than commonly assumed). This brings about a transformation in the whole framework through which potential selves are encountered, rather than simply being a matter of encountering more potential selves through media (which could range from a conversation by letter with a distant acquaintance through to the possibilities represented in a Hollywood film).
The Insertion of Systemic Inducements into the Natal Context
There is more representational activity taking place but it is also primed by default for circulation and reception by others in a way that was never true of its analogue precursors, raising important questions about how this changes how people understand their representational activity. In so far as people are orientated towards the inducements of platforms (likes, retweets, views etc), as a generic concern for social self-worth it comes to be mediated by the architecture of interaction, their self-representational activity is likely to become more reflexive. This can be seen most dramatically in the case of influencers, aspiring and otherwise, pursuing online celebrity in order to leverage it for financial gain (Abadin 2015). But these are merely the outliers of a more pervasive trend in which a corporate culture built upon self-branding and self-promotion influences wider social life by engineering these assumptions into their increasingly popular machinery of interaction (Marwick 2013). The implications of this appear as frequently in popular commentary as they do in scholarly research, even if the former tends to lack a nuance which the latter aims towards e.g. claims about the narcissism of the selfie generation, the decreasing capacity to cope with human imperfection and the anxieties which the barrage of perfect images produces in those who compare themselves to them.
Even if we find the moralistic tone and hasty generalisations of these accounts problematic, there is nonetheless a kernel of truth underlying them. If self-representations are increasingly driven by algorithmic imperatives towards maximising their circulation, perfecting their content and most effectively winning the approval of online audiences then consequences for socialization will inevitably flow from this. Craib’s (1994) warning about the importance of disappointment, the existential necessity of learning to live with frustrations and restrictions, comes to seem ever more relevant against this trend. The reflexive and self-referential character of self-representations transforms the normative character of documents of life in a manner which seems unlikely to be developmentally positive, particularly for the generation who have never known any other form of peer feedback. We should avoid idealising past socio-cultural relations, with their capacity to produce shame and dismay in those unable to live up to their injunctions. Nonetheless, the documents of life against which young people increasingly measure themselves in a platformized world present them with normative standards which are liable to prove impossible to meet, corresponding with new forms of shame and sanction produced by these experienced failures.
The Liberation from the Geo-Local
Only a limited array of potential selves circulate within this media system, filtered through the aforementioned constraints inherent in media organisations, as well as the commercial apparatus surrounding them. In contrast, the rich diversity of ‘documents of life’ tended to be restricted to local contexts, due to their reliance on media which did not easily scale (Van Dijck 2007; Plummer 2001). The ramifications of those potential selves encountered were restricted in each case: by the inevitable characteristics of existing networks within which ‘documents of life’ were circulating, as described in the previous section, as well as the many filters in operating within existing media organisations.
If potential selves are primarily encountered through face-to-face interaction, it is liable to leave the individuals concerned embroiled within the dynamics of what Archer (2003, 2007) calls ‘communicative reflexivity’. Under these conditions, individuals rely on similarly situated others to complete and confirm their internal dialogues about what to do and who to be. This tends to generate consensus, not because of any inevitable uniformity of people who approach life in this way, as much as the ‘common sense’ about ‘people like us’ when substantial swathes of the possibilities a person confronts are likely to be discussed with others. The potential selves encountered might be challenging but this challenge is mediated through interpersonal interaction with others liable to share a common starting point. The individual grapples with implications for their possible selves in dialogue with others who are already prone to sharing the same ‘mental furniture’. In contrast, the potential selves encountered in a platformized world have no such commonality underpinning them, beyond the minimal social integration entailed by being users of the same social media platforms. As Van Dijck (2007: 24) puts it, “we no longer need to derive our personal tastes or cultural preferences mainly from social circles close to us, because media have expanded the potential reservoir for cultural exchange to much larger, even global, proportions.” (Van Djick 2007: 24). Not only is this likely to be a further blow to the possibility of sustained communicative reflexivity, it raises the question of the form which social integration can take under these circumstances. We face a disturbing possibility that normative consensus might come to take another form: individual atoms privately matching their behaviour in a collective enterprise of modulation driven by opaque algorithms serving corporate vested interests. Pasquale (2015) draws attention to the comparison inherent to social media metrics, as well as the forms of mutual replication that it might lead to if left unchecked.
Conceptual distinctions matter if we want to understand the influence of digital technology on the socialisation process, as well as what this means for the kinds of people who emerge under changing conditions. Even though the language of essences is somewhat unfashionable within contemporary social thought, the philosophical issue underlying this disputed terminology is fundamentally this question of kinds. It was asked in a form which remains popular and influential by the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills (2000: 7) who highlighted this relationship in his classic The Sociological Imagination, asking “what varieties of men and women now prevail in this society and in this period?”. His interest was in how they are “selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted” and what this meant for “what varieties are coming to prevail”. The obvious risk in dealing with emerging technologies is we overestimate their social influence, even perhaps reproducing the marketing rhetoric of the commercial firms who have a vested interest in convincing others of their significance. This is why we need to exercise conceptual caution in our analysis of how kinds are “selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted” and the role which technology plays in this.
It is such care which those examples I discussed earlier in this chapter lacked, with their hasty pronouncements about new kinds of people emerging from technological shifts. This is one form of technologized essentialism: technology precedes essence. It is tempting to abandon essences in the name of empirical adequacy, as a means of ensuring we recognise the variable outgrowths of these technological changes across wildly divergent social contexts. However, to do so would be a mistake because it deprives us of the key means through which we can avoid such over-statements. It is only through a careful reclamation of the human being’s distinct properties and powers that we can begin to unpick their interaction with technology’s influence and how this unfolds within distinctive contexts. In this chapter I have used the example of reflexivity and socialisation in order to make this point. I’ve argued that the raw materials of socialisation and one’s own orientation to them are undergoing a profound change but that the basic challenge of selecting from variety in order to cobble together a life which has sufficient shape to be liveable remains the same.
The generations growing up within a platformized world, the younger millennials and the ‘zoomers’ who are coming after them, cannot be adequately understood as either digital natives or digital narcissists. They do however confront some unique existential challenges which the economic, social and political ramifications of the crisis unfolding around us makes it even more urgent that we understand. If we read these challenges through the novelty of the technological forms which they involve, intoxicated by the ‘shock of the new’, otherwise evident continuities are left newly obscure: negotiating relations with peers and family in forming a nascent a personal identity, coming to recognise the constraints/enablements of the natal context, appraising what one could be or do in the future etc. The corresponding risk is that we discount the causal influence of the technological, as if socio-technical innovations are mere instruments peripheral to the fundamental aspects of social life. I’ve sought to avoid these corresponding dangers and instead suggested an approach to analysing the influence of technological changes on emerging adults which avoids epochal over-statement while also recognising that significant shifts are underway. Young people aren’t becoming different types of person in a world where social platforms are ubiquitous but how they are becoming persons is undergoing change, with significant implications for their place within the world and what it means for them.
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