Media users are caught in a web of habitual behaviors and compulsory relationships.
#3180 Created 09/14/2012 Updated 04/28/2017
How does the virtual impact the real world?
We discussed Jeremy Bentham's (1748-1832) Panopticon, in which a watchman may observe all the inmates (patients, residents, pupils) in an institution as a benefit of the architectural design and by operational procedures, without the subjects being presently aware of the act of observation.
The two concepts contained in the panopticon -- surveillance and control -- are foundational in the structural aspects of today's personal communications environment. While today's media may not have been designed with Bentham in mind, the structural reality creates a Panopticon-like environment, where media users are in a state of constant attention to the media, and under a state of constant observation and measurement through the media.
Both formal research and user comments demonstrate that many online media users are caught in a world of habitual behaviors and compulsory relationships that result in their being tethered to their devices, sometimes 24 hours a day. The addictive nature of social media, which is largely configured to operate on an interrupt-driven basis, commands the attention of users in powerful and unique ways. Different sound and vibration signals draw the users' attention to the arrival of text messages and phone calls, and alert users to the arrival of email messages. Email contains announcements of updates to the pages and postings of friends and aquaintances, and the contents of communications between users engaged in social media stimulate other communications and interactions with related individuals.
In essence, the lives of social media users are disrupted and controlled through the social media. The attention of users is externally directed away from the physical world multiple times daily (often multiple times hourly) into various aspects of the media, and their attention is held within the media for extended periods of time.
This is significantly different that the consumer behavior exhibited prior to social media, in which the content of the media itself (stories, pictures, movies, ads, catalogs, etc.) was positioned as the attractor of attention, and the users of media were in control of selecting which media urgings to which their attention was directed.
The current metaphor is more like trained dogs. The device says "look", and user look, instantly, automatically, without fail. In an instant, an electronic signal switches the user from the real world, surrounded by human bodies, to the virtual world, surrounded by content organized for commercial purposes. In instant, the affairs -- and relationships -- of the real world are demoted to an inferior position, and the virtual world assumes an immediate importance and dominance.
Whereas the inmates in Benthams' Panopticon were involuntary, the inmates in the ePanopticon are enthusiastic volunteers, glad to be there, and willing to commit their time and energy to satisfying the content production requirements of the social media environment. In this way consumers have been trained to accept a role of subservience to media needs, and become willing participants in a system which converts the basic essence of human life -- the time that we are alive -- into a disposable commodity, expended in the interests of specific corporate profits.
And the users like it. They are enthusiastic users, and will readily describe the benefits they believe they receive from the social media experience. The activities that users engage in within social media are satisfying, and the connectivity to family, friends and acquaintances is dramatically increased, and has positive benefits for relationships. As a result, the environment is place of creativity and organization, and can result in people engaging in activities in the real world. Flash Mobs are a great example of the real world manifestation of online activities, and a great number of commercial and business activities are integrating into that matrix.
The question of the division of consumer attention between the real and virtual worlds highlights the commercial tension between the two. The emergence of electronic media triggered the beginning of a process whereby systems and activities of the real world are converted to systems and activities in the vitual world. Local commerce is affected as aspects of consumer purchasing behavior move online, and distribution patterns change as the local retail supply chain is replaced by nationally-centralized package delivery trucks.
In the same sense, the self-identity of consumers is affected by this division. The world before electronic media was defined by geography, as an aspect of the time required to travel through physical space. Relationships and activities were organized locally, with the intensity of consumer activity occurring with geographic limits.
Today's world is not defined so much be geography as by context and content. Online relationship become distinctly non-geographic. If the time that consumers spend on different kinds of activities and communications has an effect on their self-perception (which is its own question), then consumers actively involved with social media are constructing their identities in part as a reflection of the division of their lives between the virtual and real worlds. The self-sense of "who" and "where" can assume virtual aspects, with relationships between people based in the media content that passes between them, sans the texture and meaning that come from face-to-face encounters, and with the padding and obfuscation that come from the constructed and manicured nature of online personalities (you only see the picture I let you see; you never really see "me" in person).
The aggregated attention of consumers is the commercial prize, and the aggregated attention time that consumers pay to the media environment is the medium of exchange. Billions of users have entered this world, and it is important for us to be able to see how the structural aspects of the virtual experience effect and affect the real world.