I have been heads down writing my thesis, thus my absence from the blogosphere lately. As part of my work, I wrote the following piece, which explores a bit more deeply the Baudrillard post I put up a couple of months ago. The article has been posted at the New Communications Review here, but I have pasted it below for you as well. I look forward to your comments, as always.
Characteristics of Authentic Online Participants
We must be cautious of the utopianism that can be found around the emerging global network, exemplified by statements such as John Perry Barlow's "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace,":
"We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one,
so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty
itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building
to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us.
You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of
enforcement we have true reason to fear."
While it is seductive to think that distributed, many-to-many, loosely coupled web connections foreground a new political power to the people, it is certainly not that simple or straightforward. The dualism of command/control vs. distributed communications frameworks conceals the fact that both play the same game, just in a different way. Crucially, in both schemas, technology is used as a means to an end: power. Either in terms of concentration in the hands of a few (e.g., media conglomerates) or via collectivities of individuals that form around certain themes, the goal of both of these is to control the message -- or to put it another way, to seek to make someone take action against their will -- Weber's classic description of power. If we are really seeking alternatives to this type of politics of power, we must look outside this dualism. Or rather, look more closely at what is actually happening online and see if it does not present something different to us – a framework for authentic communications. To get there, we have to ask some questions. I'd like to focus on one here: What would the characteristics of the participants in this alternative framework have?
We commonly think of the people participating in media as actors or spectators. In the command/control schema, the vast majority of people are characterized as passive spectators, simply soaking up the messages transmitted by the powers that be. This schema has been subjected to decades of critique, from Theodor Adorno to Neil Postman, to name two prominent critics of popular culture and media. Whether or not we were "Amusing Ourselves to Death" in this schema can be debated, but let's just say that a common theme here was that humans (spectators) were subject to an autonomous technology, with dark visions of dystopia, or at least rampant couch potato-ism.
The rise of the Internet and social media (the emerging global network) has been characterized as both a reaction to and a combat against the command/control system. We are still in the early stages of this development, and the critiques are fewer and farther between. Many of them read as eulogies to lost power of control with exhortation against the possibilities of mob rule. This fear-based demagogy is confronted with descriptions of smart mobs and virtual communities, with their roving bands of grassroots activists forming and reforming groups around a specific theme of the day/week/month etc. Vast, fast overwhelming of ideas or rules is one of the results. This schema is described as a potential sea change in politics and power. And yet, in many ways, the goal is the same: power. Furthermore, the characteristics of the participants are the same: actors and spectators, described as lurkers. What has changed is the number of actors, given an easier ability to act (create) and band together by the technology itself.
So, with the same goals and comprised of participants with the same characteristics, what is truly different here? In this second schema of distributed communications we can catch a glimpse of something different that may enable us to break out of this dualism and create real change. We can find hints of a way to lead more authentic, ethically fulfilling lives through media technology. One of the glimpses of difference that has been noticed already has to do with the characteristics of the participants. French philosopher Jean Baudrillard offers us this description:
"We are no longer alienated and passive spectators but interactive extras [figurants interactifs]...Being an extra [figurant] in virtual reality is no longer being an actor or a spectator. It is to be out of the scene [hors-scene], to be obscene." (Disneyworld Company)
Baudrillard is offering us something different: the "interactive extra" as opposed to an actor. What distinguishes these two beings? "Actor"* or "one who acts" connotes two things. First, that the actor is a "one", standing alone in his/her action. While we know it is impossible for anyone to act in a way that is not in relation to another, the word itself conceals this. The second connotation is that the action moves outwards from the actor. Obviously, this word, in both its connotations, works well for the command/control schema. Baudrillard is trying to come up with a new description that still has action at its core, but is not necessarily an action of control. "Interactive" works nicely as it, by definition, includes mutual or reciprocal action; the "other" is inseparable from the action. But how do we describe these people in relation? Baudrillard calls them "figurants**", translated from the French in this article as "extras." The initial meaning that comes to us here is that of walk-ons in a play, not an insignificant (to be insignificant is not to be there at all), but a minor part. There are other meanings of figurant, however, that add to the complexity of the overall characterization we are trying to get at here.
These other meanings of figurant include "onlooker, "which is not the same as spectator, as the onlooker/extra is still on the stage, if out of the main scene. Another meaning is "supernumerary" or "exceeding the usual." Three other meanings include "stooge," a subordinate role, but also related to decoy or informer; "puppet", a marionette or doll or one manipulated by others, with connotations of childlike fun as well as political humor and activism; and "cipher," "one that has no weight, worth or influence" but also "a method for transforming a text in order to conceal its meaning." As these various meanings and subtexts of "extra" becomes clear (and I have only identified a few here), one starts to appreciate how this characterization is indeed an apt one for an online participant.
Online, we perform many roles as we construct our digital identities, one of our primary online activities. Sometimes we are advisors, sometimes complainers, sometimes mothers, sometimes liars, storytellers, consumers, businesspeople, etc. Sometimes we lend one of our constructed identities, or the reputation attached to it, to others. Sometimes we ask others to lend an identity to us. All of the meanings of "figurant" contain a relation with others, and all contain a fluidity of role that together are apt characterizations for the multiple, contingent identities we perform online.
It remains for us to consider what Baudrillard meant in his placing of these "extras" "hors-scene," which can mean either "out of the scene" or "apart from the scene." As I previously mentioned, we must be careful to realize that this does not entirely separate participants from the scene; extras are not insignificant, they do exist. They are simply not considered the main players, in the center of the scene or stage. This is appropriate, as in the online sphere there is no center stage. Rather, there are many stages, emerging and disappearing via our work of identity and world construction. "Out of the scene" or "apart from the scene" still implies there is a scene, however. As we see happening online, there are groups (stages) emerging, coalescing around leaders/influencers who have gained certain reputation. Hierarchy is still alive and well, even in this distributed network. It is perhaps easier to break into than in the traditional command/control framework, but it exists nonetheless. An authentic participant, an "interactive extra" remains apart from these power games. He or she is still connected with the scene or stage, but not central to it. (The nature of this connection must also be explicated, but that is for another paper.) This refusal to lay the power games is characterized by Baudrillard as "obscene" in the sense that the participants become taboo, excessive (again related to extra, supernumerary), but perhaps most interestingly, "abhorrent to morality or virtue", or to put it another way, seen as dangerous by traditional social/cultural systems.
For Baudrillard, to be obscene is a positive thing. I see it as a way of a being against both frameworks caught in the dualism I have described. If we are seeking an alternative to this dualism, we need to start looking for interactive extras, and studying what they are doing. In their communications activities, we may find a window into authentic communications, as well as a hint of what technologies this both calls for and makes possible.
*All English language definitions from Mirriam-Webster Online: http://www.m-w.com/
** All French to English translations from Robert Collins Anglais Dictionary.