What do we do when we are not doing anything? In the age of kindles, iPhones and other mobile devices, our blank ‘down time’ moments – in queues, on busses, or taking cigarette breaks alone – are no longer spent staring blankly into space or out of windows idly collecting our thoughts, but instead are filled with stimulation. The particular nuance of human experience represented in mutely gazing at an old piece of chewing gum on a bus seat has been rapidly replaced with the promise of the entire history of recorded music and the written word at our fingertips, and a whole social circle a status update or ‘favorite’ away. These gaps in our time represent us at our most crushingly ‘everyday’, but they have been made to do a surprising amount of cultural work in the past decade.
The major version of this trend is in social media. While its earliest formats, Friendster and Myspace, had some sort of announced central function – a coquettish kind of online dating for the first and music sharing and promotion for the second – the conceptual victory represented by Facebook came from its effacement of any such primary ‘content’. For the down time when we are doing nothing, it offers precisely ‘nothing’, in the strong sense of activity reassuringly shorn of any sense of specific consequence or purpose. It allows us to spend such times idly chronicling them, or reading missives of no importance from others who are similarly between responsibilities. As Eli Pariser puts it, ‘the user is the content’, although his book on the topic, The Filter Bubble, shows that perhaps it would be better to say ‘the user is the product’. Whereas the ‘Mad Men’ days of traditional advertising exploited our most privileged and elevated hopes and fantasies, Facebook makes money by recognising the marketability of the utterly unremarkable. Like a number of related platforms, Facebook earns its money by selling details of the patterns of the half-hearted surfing we do while watching television to marketing agencies like BlueKai and Acxiom, who in turn use it to improve the accuracy of the targeted advertising that is now part of all online life, primed to second guess what we are most likely to click on based on our previous web behaviour. This system of the user-as-product is nothing less than a revolution in the concept of the commodity, for never before have the subject who buys and the subject who enjoys been quite so radically separated. It is also to be applauded for the resourcefulness with which it has identified a hitherto uncolonised space for capital in the time we used to spend biting our nails or gazing out of train windows.
Read part 2 here