Unnatural Selection: How Social Curation Weeds Out The Wallflowers

Like most of my fellow “echo boomers”, I grew up listening to The Cure. I spent most of my high school years plotting my escape with their poignant lyrics and heart-rending melodies playing in the background. Less than a handful of songwriters can elicit that overwhelming sense of listlessness, diffidence, and romanticism better than Robert Smith, in my humble opinion. My favourite track has always been “Pictures of You” – where Smith paints the image of a long lost love that breathes new life through his remaining collection of photographs. Coincidentally, one of the first films that I remember seeing as a child was Mannequin, starring 80s heartthrob Andrew McCarthy. The ludicrous plot involves a struggling artist who takes a job as a window-dresser for a department store in Philadelphia. He becomes engrossed with his mannequin (played by Kim Cattrall) – the star and inspiration for his crowd-pleasing displays. His inanimate muse comes to life only for him, and they fall madly in love.

As bizarre as it sounds, these references came to mind when I started to think about the extensive amount of personal and social curation that we employ through web interfaces and interactions. Carefully crafted lists of our photographs, playlists, books, belongings on sale and employment history define our online personas. But have these web entities become a more dominant representation of our actual selves? Have they become our default personality? Are we most alive when we’re online? Worse yet, are our virtual lives  more attractive and exciting than our real ones? Gasp.

The delineation of our physical and digital selves truly began to blur in the late 80s and early 90s (strangely enough around the same years as “Pictures of You” and Mannequin’s release dates) with the emergence of personal technology devices. People started to welcome the computer, Walkman, camcorder and mobile phone into their homes – they were no longer the imaginings from Back to the Future II, but attainable gadgets that eventually became permanently attached to our ears, hands and hips. In her influential essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1991), post-modern theorist and technologist Donna Haraway speaks about shifting identity structures in the cascading digital age. She posits:

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. This cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation. (Haraway)

No development has cemented this fusion of machine and organism more than the induction of the Internet between 1989 and 1991. It is within the World Wide Web that “individuals” became “users” who could build new spaces, relationships and identities via a globalizing platform. Impressions could be made in code, as well as in person. These notions fed into an era of technological fetishism, augmented by films like Robocop and Terminator. These sci-fi films accurately captured a period of immense ideological tension – on the one hand, the Internet and personal devices expanded our knowledge and innovation communities, but on the other, there was a fear that the advanced capabilities of these technologies could overshadow or even overthrow the very fibers of humanity. Louise Kaplan discusses the complicated position of artificial humans in her work Culture of Fetishism. She writes:

Whether androids come into existence in science fiction or in a research laboratory or in a factory that designs, manufactures, and sells them to the public, they are “creatures” that reside in that uncertain realm between living and nonliving matter. Because these artificial humans are intentionally designed to simulate living matter and to behave as if they have human capacities, they cast a special light on the principles of fetishism strategy. (Kaplan)

The pervasiveness of the Internet and mobile technologies in our daily lives prove that we have seen more advantages in embracing these developments than disadvantages. The capabilities for expressing creative freedom and accessing infinite information are endless in the web’s  “non-human”, liminal space. Yet these days, our fetishism is tempered with curating tools that define our public, online selves. Whether it’s for the sake of vanity or concerns about security, users are attached to the idea of refining their digital appearance on social media channels, common interest forums and life-organizing apps. Haraway predicted this future phenomenon early on, claiming, “Communications technologies and biotechnologies are the crucial tools recrafting our bodies . . . . they should also be viewed as instruments for enforcing meanings” (Haraway). More recently, Adrian Hon discussed how these meaning makers have become portraits of taste. He writes:

Consequently, most people do end up curating their own lives online, regularly spending hours to carefully select the right photos, favourites TV shows, films, music, artists, books, and interests to show on their profiles so as to make the best impression on friends, enemies, and employers. If this sounds vain, it’s no worse than caring about which clothes you wear (and it’s probably cheaper, as well). (Hon)

What Hon describes here is the ability for online personal curation (on platforms such as Facebook, Pinterest, GoodReads and Amazon) to be an identity statement that attracts similar-minded people. With the world’s population tipping over seven billion and the impossible influx of data circulating around the web, curation is the premiere solution for fostering personal, unique micro-communities in this overwhelming digital deluge. Exemplary services such as Stack magazines and Feedbands take their subscribers’ taste profiles and send them relevant independent magazines and vinyl first-pressings, respectively. LinkedIn delivers potential employers to your inbox according to your listed experiences. These have become valuable, and in fact necessary, services that facilitate and mediate our digital and physical identities. Consequently, opting out of these deeply embedded curating practices often means dropping off the global radar entirely. For instance, if you don’t update your likes on Facebook, how will those clever bots ever know which events in your area to invite you to?

The prompts that we are given through personal curation tools are certainly valuable, but are they filtering too much out of our lives? Surely, there should be limits to how much technology can define and direct our online and “real” lives. Hon goes on to outline the dangers of allowing social curation to pigeonhole our identities:

Social curation is more common – indeed, it’s arguably baked into the web now – but it’s perhaps more insidious, since it means we effectively cede control of our online appearance to friends – and strangers. That may well be the way things are heading, but it’s not an enticing prospect. (Hon)

The fear here is that when we surrender our online decisions and taste profiles to algorithms, do we also sacrifice our individuality in exchange for “trend-worthy” status. For Facebook’s ten-year anniversary, every member was able to access a “Year in Review” which collated the most popular (i.e. liked and shared) posts on their wall in a snappy video that could be shared on their wall. A similar app called Magisto takes videos and pictures from your phone’s camera reel, selects what it deems to be most engaging, and stiches a few files into a “personalized” short film that can then be published on the web. Essentially, these applications tell their users what their highlights and most precious memories are, or should be, based on popular vote and conventions. It is worrying how these forms of social curation seem to support a crowd-mentality. Just as body-image issues are fueled by physical glances and comments, insecurities arise when our online entities can be judged by the click of a “like” button.

Through the lens of a future web publisher, I am apprehensive about how social curation increases self-consciousness (a more recent development since the filter of the screen used to signify an aura of anonymity), which leads to a homogenization of online personalities and content. I worry that automated curating generators and the “popularity by numbers” game will cause publishers to produce less risky work, for fear of not meeting the immediate approval of the status quo. Haraway expands on this idea:

Communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move — the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange. (Haraway)

But there is hope yet. Ultimately, despite all the glory and accolades that a thousand Instagram likes may bestow, we are not simply layers of code. We are mind and heart, flesh and bone. As publishers in our daily lives and in our professions, we need to see the value of personal and social curation and their abilities to reach out to the Internet participants who could easily lose their way in the deep, dark woods of the web. But we need to constantly remind ourselves that klout scores shouldn’t define our choices. Innate human impulses and intuition are still vital for diversifying the world of publishing.

 

Bibliography:

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. Accessed via <http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-a-cyborg-manifesto/>

Hon, Adrian. “ We used to curate objects. Now we’re using technology to curate our lives”. The Telegraph. 24 Aug 2011. <http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/adrianhon/100006825/we-used-to-curate-objects-now-were-using-technology-to-curate-our-lives/ >. Accessed 24 Mar 2014.

Oxford, Tamis. “8 Technologies To Thank The 1980s For”. . Techradar. 16 Sep 2009. <http://www.techradar.com/news/world-of-tech/8-technologies-to-thank-the-1980s-for-635764> Accessed 24 Mar 2014.

Louise, Kaplan. Cultures of Fetishism. Gordonsville: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006. Accessed via <http://site.ebrary.com/lib/sfu/docDetail.action?docID=10167456>

Bhawuk, Dharm. “Globalization and indigenous cultures: Homogenization or differentiation?”. International Journal of Intercultural Relations Vol. 32 Issue 4. 4 Jul 2008. Accessed 24 Mar 2014. <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0147176708000473>