A Personal Medium? Myeh

I’ve heard a few people say recently that twitter, Facebook and so on, are intrinsically ‘personal’ media. That is, for anyone to pay attention, you need to reveal something of your self through your postings and uploads. This seems to be the accepted ‘common sense’ on social media. We need to expose our selves to create interest among others.


This is not a terribly new idea. Rather than emerging with social media this is just the grafting of old ideas into a new platform. The social need to look into others peoples’ private lives via mass media goes back to the industrial revolution. The separation of work and home, of public and private meant that people, and particularly women, needed to validate their sense of self and their lifestyle by looking into other’s private lives (see Habermas’ concept of the Public Sphere of Letters). Since peering over your neighbour’s hedge was generally frowned upon this was achieved through flamboyantly written letters and later sentimental novels. The sentimental novel provides the template for the modern soap opera, which allows social comparison, vicarious living, identification and lots of the other stuff that attaches audiences to media. Providing access to other people’s private lives has now become the main ‘active ingredient’ in attempts to attract and engage audiences.


Listen to morning radio. Apart from the few serious news programmes most presenters, under instruction from their producer, let the audience into their home. They chat about how their wife is, how the kids are doing at school, how the family have coped with an illness and so on. This creates identification and attachment among the audience, which is useful if accompanying advertisements are to be effective. This is not confined to morning radio. Access to private life and emotion is now a vital ingredient in politics and business. Ask Tony Blair or Tiger Woods. There is nothing new about mediating your private life to strangers. It has just become far more prevalent.


The idea that social media are by necessity personal media confuses the properties of the medium with the effects of culture. The idea that social media are ‘personal’ reflects the psychological consequences of industrialisation. It also reflects consumer capitalism’s flattery of the individual. As Thomas de Zengotita points out we are all now, as flattered individuals, at the centre of our own universes. We are all ‘worth it’. In a kind of feedback loop, our exposure to advertising, reality TV and celebrity media, has taught us to celebritise (yeah, it’s not a word, but this is a blog) ourselves. So, we can imagine that people care about what we are having for dinner, or what we are wearing, or whatever. When treated as a personal outlet, social media allow us to flatter ourselves. This saves advertisers considerable effort.


Some people may tweet every five minutes to let the ‘world’ know about the mundane details of their existence. That’s up to them. It’s nothing to do with the medium. Massive web presences like Moveon.org, TED.com or Avaaz.org do not depend on access to their members’ private lives. That is because they are promoting a movement, an idea or a principle. Social media, it seems, are only inherently personal if you have nothing to promote but your self.