What’s the ‘social’ in social media? An introduction of Unlike Us #2 by Geert Lovink

Geert Lovink
Geert Lovink enthusiastically welcomed everyone at the second Unlike Us conference on the 9th of March 2012 in Trouw Amsterdam. He begins by successfully reminding us why there is reason for us to be critical and ambitious when it comes to understanding the workings of dominant social media platforms, which centralized structures are ruling the Internet and so many of our daily lives.

(Click here for the video of Geert Lovink’s presentation)

The agenda for Unlike Us that was formulated in the summer of 2011 was large and ambitious, says Lovink, but so is the impact of social media on our society today. Although some issues regarding the private and the public and the question of identity and privacy seem exhausted, Lovink assures us that they aren’t yet overcome and therefore will be part of the agenda. However the focus of the conference will also be for example on artistic responses and exploring the relation between politics and aesthetics. Furthermore, Lovink emphasises that Unlike Us also wants to give a voice to alternatives:

There is little known about the alternatives, but we think that it is good to have a public debate about our expectations and the premises of these alternatives. Are they really alternatives to these centralized dominant structures? And how do they deal with the tension between identity and sharing?

After his introduction of the issues that will be addressed during the sessions of the coming two days, Lovink gave us an insight into his newest essay that is partly dedicated to Eva illouz, a sociologist from Egypt who unfortunately couldn’t make it to the conference due to circumstances.

In this essay Lovink turns a critical eye towards the ‘social’ in social media and departs this quest from the seemingly contradictory notion of the disappearance of the social, as described by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard in 1985. “We need to be aware that this obliteration of the social has downgraded the importance of social theory within critical debate and has reduced its intellectual range to a close circle of experts.”

Lovink questions himself if the rise of social media, as the topic of this conference, will induce a renaissance of sociology. Nevertheless one thing is certain; we are in need of general theory on the design of society and sociology should free itself from, what Lovink beautifully calls “their professional impulse”, which is the social implication of technology. We should strive for the “aufhebung” of dichotomies, Lovink continues, which constrain and limit our way of thinking, such as the distinction between real – virtual and public – private.

As Eva Illouz wrote:

If sociology has traditionally called on us to exert our scrutiny and vigilance in the art of making distinctions, the challenge that awaits us is to exercise the same vigilance in a social world that consistently defeats these distinctions.

Although Unlike Us tries to bring people together with a critical point of view, there is still no critical school in sight and according to Lovink people are still overwhelmed and in “hype mode” when it comes to social media. Lovink reminds us that social media are not aimed to revive the lost potential of the social as a mob, but instead the social is reanimated as a simulacrum of its own ability to create meaningful and lasting social relations. Furthermore he insists on looking at facebook beyond good and evil and invites us to take a step back in order to see what is actually going on, on these websites.

The term social has been shifted and neutralized time and again but the social is precisely what it pretends to be: a calculated opportunity in times of distributed communication.

Lovink ends with a call for critical analysis on the use and history of the term ‘social’ in relation to, for example, Silicon Valley and the debate about the architecture of the Internet, which would be an interesting starting point for research.

The essay What’s the Social in Social Media, will be available online soon.