Culture & Society

Social Media Emancipated Authors, But To What End?

Digital capitalism seeks to monetize your engagement, but first it wants you to be engaged

Image Credit: filadendron/Getty Images

More than 4.85 billion people have access to the internet. Online, they can find all the information available to humankind and form their own opinion regarding anything. The internet has stripped authorities of any control over information they once had. This alone has radically changed society. But what disturbs the established order most is the new technological ability of the same 4.85 billion people to express themselves. It is not free access to information but free access to self-expression that changes the world. We are living through an unprecedented explosion of authorship.

We can gauge the scale of this explosion by estimating the number of people who were able to communicate their opinion beyond their immediate surroundings before the internet. For example, the Google Books project was aimed at digitizing all the books ever written. There was some debate about what counts as a book, but in 2010 the project came to the conclusion that humankind has written 129,864,880 books. According to other data, scientists have published about 50 million articles in academic journals since the end of the 17th century. We can add about one million journalists and also all the politicians, marketers, academics and others who have conveyed their information beyond their physical reach. We will find that the estimated number of authors in human history before the internet hardly exceeds 300 million.

The chart above, derived from my book “Human as Media,” gives us a vivid picture of this explosion of authorship. Humankind had 300 million authors in 5,000 years of written civilization and, all of a sudden, this number has skyrocketed to 4.85 billion current authors in the space of 40 years. Such authorship has given us unprecedented opportunities for self-expression, but it has also intensified that self-expression in ways that discourage thoughtful, measured responses and encourage polarization.

Authors at the Gates

Social media such as Facebook and Twitter are commonly praised and blamed for creating cultural and political disruption—for good or ill. Online, people can forge conspiracies or seek truth. They can fall for fake news or fact-check it. They can express this or that opinion. But what really matters is that there are now billions who can reach out to others beyond their physical and social confines. This itself has become a formative factor for society, regardless of the content conveyed. (In Marshall McLuhan’s words, “The medium is the message.”)

Besides their colossal numbers, these emancipated authors are also characterized by a wide range of intentions and quality of output. At their core, all 4.85 billion are authors only in the technical sense. They have acquired just the technical ability to contribute to content production and selection, even if only by clicking the “like” button. By itself, internet access confers neither passion nor talent nor charisma. The noble authors of the past needed to have some outstanding quality to surmount the technical and social barriers of publishing. For modern authors, the internet offers an opportunity to contribute at will.

In reality, this opportunity turns into a duty. Social media are specifically good at exploiting our Hegelian “struggle for recognition.” As herd animals, we humans need to feel a sense of being together; hence our thirst for response. Social media provide, or at least offer, a response to even the most minuscule activity of a user. Their settings predefine our actions. If a door has a plate rather than a knob, we can only push it—and we must push it when we use it. Likewise, the very environment of social media is designed to extract our activity in the form of likes, posts, reposts, comments—to extract any meaningful click from our online presence. That is why a contribution—even the contribution of a mere click—is not just an opportunity on the internet. It is a duty, a condition of socialization in the modern world. I click, therefore I am.

Types of Internet Authors

Social media create this environment to perpetuate our engagement so that, after getting online, we cannot reject being contributors. It’s no longer a wonder or privilege—it’s a daily routine. But the forms and degrees of this contribution vary widely. Several categories of emancipated authors are outlined below:

  1. Flickering authors. These authors use the internet mostly for browsing or personal communication. Flickering authors are on the periphery of emancipated authorship. Sometimes, however, they can kick into higher gear and like, share or even comment on someone’s post, most likely that of a close friend.
  2. Silent authors. These are the authors whose authorial activities do not involve typing. They contribute their unspoken opinions by pressing the “like,” “share” and “repost” buttons. Along with flickering authors, silent authors, because of their vast numbers, have a significant role in content selection and distribution on the web.
  3. Interjectional authors. These contributors’ authorship has a minimal material embodiment—it is mostly reduced to leaving an emotional mark of their presence, in the fashion of animals marking territory. This mark is most often an interjection: “OMG,” “LOL,” “no kidding” or their surrogates, such as smiles, emojis, memes and GIFs. It is hard to gather much of a response from such a contribution, but the thirst for response is irrational; it runs behavioral activity, especially when additionally encouraged by the design of a platform.
  4. Commenting authors. These contributors are enthusiastic enough to express themselves by producing more or less heavy content. But they are followers: They add to something already said. This authorial activity needs a starting impulse from someone else. Commenting authors, however, represent the editorial and fact-checking potency of the Viral Editor—the dispersed, collective mechanism of content production, selection and distribution.
  5. Emitting authors. These contributors have sufficient expertise, evidence, passion, and most importantly charisma, to start a discussion. Emitting authors sense trends and turn them into threads.
  6. Principal authors. These contributors initiate not just discussions but discourses. They find the most resonating fibers in the social tissue and pull them out into the spotlight. Their most important characteristic is not just charisma but also autonomy: they need no one to launch discussions they deem important. They are the nonelected tribunes, though not necessarily on political issues.

These categories describe not so much types of personalities but rather types of media activities. A single user can act at different levels of authorial intensity. For example, a regularly silent author can suddenly jump to a higher level if he or she accidentally says something interesting to many. The very design of the social media platform enables authors to perform a quantum jump into a state of higher media energy and become a commenting author or even an emitting author. But most people generally are comfortable within certain types of media activities. The descriptions of their authorial activity tend to become their personal characteristics.

One can suggest different classifications. What is important is that the media activity of 4.85 billion internet users comes down to different intensities of employing their now-technologically-emancipated authorship. Ultimately, the categories boil down to heavy authors, who create the forms for their content, and lazy authors, who contribute their opinions in the “pre-cooked” forms of engagement.

To put it simply, heavy authors contribute their content, while lazy authors contribute only their presence. But their presence differs from that of the silent audiences of the past, such as readers of physical books and magazines. Unlike those audiences, today’s emancipated authors, even the laziest ones, can engage with the environment of content publishing in a variety of ways, ranging from a mere click or “like” to posting something of their own. Their engagement is what sustains social media and the internet in general. Engagement materializes time and attention, the most precious commodity in digital capitalism.

The Commodity of Engagement

The Gutenberg culture exemplified by traditional publishing was and still is based on heavy authorship. Its gatekeepers value, select and encourage heavy authors for political or commercial purposes. Digital capitalism, by contrast, aims at lazy authorship first and foremost.

Yes, designers of social media platforms offer incentives for heavy authors to produce content. For their activity, these authors gain recognition and opportunities to profit (in one way or another). But the “final cause” of social media design is the activation of lazy authors. Even the content of heavy authors, enabled and reinforced by the platforms, aims to make lazy authors expose their preferences through views, reads, the time span of engagement, “likes,” reposts and any other form of reaction. The most important part of any social media platform design is to provide the means of lazy authorship—from “likes” and emoji buttons to quizzes and colored templates for comments.

On social media, any given design feature insists: Do something, react somehow, show yourself! At least click, so that we can see what you are. The click will be rewarded by being noticed. By someone. Maybe. And, for sure, any click will be registered, packed and sold in volume by algorithms. The instant reward of assumed recognition for the minuscule effort of a click is the fundamental mechanism of social network platforms, which simultaneously improves the socialization of users and increases ad sales for the platforms’ overlords.

The evolution of digital media does not reject heavy content. If someone is up to creating it, why not? After all, heavy content supplies engagement, too. But the efforts of digital media engineers are focused on activating lazy authors. They are the central figures of digital media. Social media seduce people into self-displaying at a statistically and historically unprecedented level, and we are left to deal with the consequences. The new media environment provides the greatest service of self-expression and self-actualization, the highest values in Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This gift of personal super-connectedness is hard to overestimate, especially amid the pandemic and recurrent lockdowns.

But with this great service comes great disservice. Aimed to extract our engagement, social media intensify the self-expressions of millions. Those self-expressions are artificially exposed at a scale unseen before, and they spiral into additional rounds of reactions and self-expressions. Unprepared and unhesitant judgments regarding someone’s personal matters or public affairs increase incredibly. Personal becomes public and public becomes personal. The excess of noise mutes centrist opinions and amplifies extreme views.

The very design of social media communication makes its content more likely to hurt than please its participants. Rage and polarization are inevitable outcomes in an environment where even the contribution of a click is reinforced—all for the sake of better ad customization.

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