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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

The Secret Life of Social Media

Friday, July 25, 2014

I have spent much of this summer trying to hammer out a journal article on how different communication technologies – from letters to instant messaging to mobile phones – influence the way in which literary fiction is plotted, since more powerful communications can transcend time and space, and thus change the tempo with which events and interpersonal relationships are conducted.

With this in mind, I was interested to catch an episode of the Secret Life of Students, in which mobile phones and social media play a prominent role in representing the characters’ social interactions, personal feelings, and work-life crises. The representation of text messages, Facebook posts and the like in bubbles above a character’s head is not new. Hollyoaks and the BBC Sherlock are just two examples where this feature is used prominently. However, it is perhaps more unusual to find this in a documentary.

In narrative terms, the function of these devices is similar to that I’ve examined in my paper. Increasingly sophisticated mobile communications serve to dissolve space, so that characters who are physically separate can nevertheless interact with each other in an intimate way, as if in the same room at the same time. Secret Life makes extensive use of jump cuts, so that we see one character with the text message they have written, and then switch to another character sending a response to that message. The constraint that the characters were physically apart, and indeed that the reply may not have been instantaneous, is dissolved. Indeed, one of the programme’s stated aims is to examine how students cope with the separation from friends and family, a separation that is perhaps paradoxically more acute when every message sent from afar reminds them of it. The implicit counterpoint to this is the intimate pressure cooker of the student hall in which personal space and distance are hard to find; as if to stress this, many of the characters still converse with each other via texts and chat boxes even though they are next door, so that privacy is not an option when electronic media can penetrate the walls.

Social media thus serves as a kind of accelerator, giving a sense of events playing out rapidly, in real-time, without the mediation of geography. The students are never alone, but are networked citizens, and the ‘plot’ of the documentary is essentially constructed around how these interactions with others serve to change the students’ behaviours and view of themselves. (On this note, it is interesting that the blurb for Secret Life of Students suggests that it seeks to examine “how social media correlates with their real life experiences” – a problematic question, which falsely implies that somehow social media experiences are not part of real life, when in fact as the programme so readily shows they are woven into the fabric of our networked daily existence.)

Beyond the effect of compressing the distance between the characters, the second feature of social media is that it lends a sense of authenticity to the picture we get of the students. They do not always directly tell us how they are feeling in the traditional piece to camera, but rather tell their friends about how they are feeling via social media, which we can then eavesdrop upon; conversely, the external narrator or voiceover does not have to guide our empathy for the characters, as instead the variously sympathetic, condemnatory, motivational messages that are sent by their friends puts us in a position whereby we are encouraged to feel for them as their friends do. Following the mantra of creative writing tutors, the media stream shows us the characters, rather than telling us about them.

In playing this role, social media is in some senses not entirely new. A rapid-fire conversation via text messages can be seen as the equivalent to an in-person dialogue, the implications of which we have to work out for ourselves. However, whilst performing a similar function of ‘showing’, social media are different from dialogue in that they are passed off as an archival record. Presented on screen, in a form that resembles the look of the original medium, they seem to be authentic. Whereas we know a face-to-face conversation will have been edited – or indeed set up by the producers specifically to expose each characters’ mutual feelings – the representation of popup texts and posts appears (and I stress appears)to be unedited. Because of how often they populate the screen (something not, I think, achievable with earlier communicative media such as letters), and because such messages are usually short and thus not necessarily cut as a conversation must be, they seem like an unmediated testimony about the self.

This impression is, of course, deceptive. Although individual messages might be presented whole, social media works not by self-contained statements but as an ongoing stream of data. The volume of messages shown on screen is probably just a tiny proportion of the posts and commentary with which digital communication showers them on a daily basis, but has been selected to be most revealing. In this way, the programme’s representation of social media ironically replicates the way in which we use social media in our own lives. On social media we craft a persona for ourselves as we would like to be seen by others, not as we actually are; as many have pointed out, we pitch ourselves in violent extremes of happiness or seeking sympathy. So too in the programme what we are actually seeing is not a complete electronic archive of the self on which we can make our own judgement, but a persona crafted as the programme makers want us to see it. Thus the editorial manipulations are concealed behind the presumption that the social media is a true report, just as when we use social media ourselves we assume that it represents our feelings or those of others in an authentic way.

Through the process of editing, the characters duly fall into neat archetypes: the studious and thus slightly alienated aspiring doctor; the young mum studying to achieve a better future for her family; the woman who seems to be a party animal, but whose sociability is actually a symptom of an underlying lack of intellectual self-confidence. That the participants in the documentary have no control over the way their lives are fashioned into these neat narrative categories is not a new problem. However, there is a new ethical question that arises from the way this narrative is fashioned out of their digital detritus. Who owns the messages that we are presented with? Clearly the participants in the programme have permitted the programme makers to comb their mobiles and social media feeds and to propagate them on screen. Yet what about those anonymised ‘friends’ whose messages to the characters we also see? Did everyone who sent them a text message or tweet also sign a disclaimer allowing their correspondence to be used on TV? Even if they did, the scattering of social media throughout the programme serves to indicate problematic, unwritten presumptions about the ownership and privacy of social data. Rather than that correspondence being owned by the one doing the sending, the writer, we assume on receipt of a message to our personal mobile phones that it is now ours, to do with as we please. The economy of retweeting, reposting, reblogging on social media exacerbates this: once you have sent a message, you no longer control the ways it is disseminated. This is, I think, quite different to the way in which we would treat a letter: its manner of personal address and concealment within an envelope materially signifies that it is a private document, to be shared only with care and thought. By contrast, social media commentary seems to be ours to re-present as we please. This is something we do unthinkingly in our lives, and that has been done again – albeit no doubt with a little more reflection – by the makers of the programme. What makes this programme interesting, then, is not just that it pries into the secret life of students, but that it showcases the less than secret lives that we all of us lead, where our digital correspondence with others is ripe for public spectacle.

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Posted by Alistair at 9:00 am


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