On Friendship in Late Capitalism

Having recently read Mark Fisher’s “Capitalist Realism”, I’ve been re-evaluating a number of commonplace features of life through the lens of the capitalist implications. The notion of the family unit is discussed briefly in Capitalist Realism, as is the narcissism inherent in social media. In this post I will put forward some of my views on the nature of friendship in late capitalism, as mitigated by social media.

We live in an age where so much of what we do has the aim of production of work for the sake of capital reward. Gradually, mediated through the social sphere of the internet, our private lives and work lives have been merging. There is no such thing as a personal space on the internet so long as it bears the name of the user, and the act of protecting or anonymising accounts draws attention to those who wish to opt out. The presence a person has on social media has a knock-on effect on their work life, with more and more employers turning to Facebook and Twitter to profile their potential employees.

In effect, we live in a world where we have necessarily turned our social functions into capitalist functions. Our social networks have become a place to develop a “brand” for ourselves, where we promote ourselves by means of “likes”, “retweets”, “shares”, the reward of which is the chance of increasing an audience. We develop implicit or explicit brand allegiances with our friends, that we reciprocate promotions and endorsements. The new contractualism of friendship is that if you share my posts, I will share your posts. In this way we have developed a capital value for our interactions and thoughts, which has an exchange rate. We can identify friends who are not efficient in our networks and do not increase our capital, and we can focus our networking on friends who do increase our capital. We are selling ourselves, to our friends and to our employers.

In turn, we find that the effect is alienation. Social networks allow a stripping-down of social interactions and cut through a layer of private life in a way which damages our relationships. It is expected, perhaps even part of the social contract, that the time you spend with a friend is endorsed on social media, as this is the way in which you promote your friend. However, the effect is that you now alienate other members of your social circle by implicit exclusion. The delicate social negotiation is between recognising and endorsing the friend with whom you have spent time as payment for the use of their friend-product, while not enacting a deliberate exclusion of the other friends who are not having their product recognised. Before the widespread use of social media one would not have expected an announcement or acknowledgement that time was to be spent between two friends, and such an announcement would not have felt necessary to give evidence or proof to an interaction. Now, the absence of such a public acknowledgement might be felt as a shame, or an unwillingness of a friend to endorse your friend-product.

Furthermore, the success of a person on social media can itself be a source of alienation. With a thousand silent friends, watching but never interacting, a person will feel alienated from their wider social circle. These large networks facilitate a diffusion of responsibility towards people as individuals. One cannot possibly invest equally in the many hundreds of persons involved in one’s social network. It would be easy to see the application of the bystander effect, where one might appeal to one’s network for some kind of help and yet receive no response regardless of having a large number of “friends”. The effect of this is that a person might have a wide-ranging network of potential friends, but an inefficient network of close friends. Friendships now sit within specific contractual arrangements, for example, one friend may reciprocate sharing certain links, one friend may reciprocate “likes”. The reward set for that interaction is the currency of the particular social media network (“likes”, “favourites”, “shares”), and the mitigation of this relationship by machine encourages this to be a narcissistic process which does not necessarily facilitate acts of friendship that do not entail such rewards (eg, travelling a distance to give physical comfort to a grieving friend, which does not earn a “like”).

Social media itself knows the power of peer-to-peer product promotion, and is desperate to use you as a brand marketer for the products paying for the right to advertise themselves. We know that an advertisement is more effective when it is presented by a trusted source than when it is presented with no other context. The capital aim of social media is to harness the user to promote brands to their friends, through “shares”, “likes”, “retweets”, and so on. Social media also understands that power of products pretending to be your friends, through creating marketable brand personalities. Brands effectively employ social media mascots as character actors for the face of a brand in order to build a “friendship”, which will develop lucrative capital gain. Celebrities also behave in similar ways, and promote their own capital by masquerading as your friends.

Those of us who do mostly abstain from certain social media outposts are automatically made pariahs, and our punishment is exclusion from invitations to “events” in the real world and the lack of promotion of our friend-product. Arguably, social success now depends on the ability one has to interface with public social networking, which now replaces a significant proportion of one-on-one, private communication between friends.

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