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Communicative Capitalism/Sexualities: Literature Review of the New ‘Me’ in New Media

an addition by Appleyard

The social media service (SNS) is a symbiotic relationship between user wants and service needs. In other words, social media institutions ‘provide stability and meaning to social behavior’ (Scott, 2012:15) whilst relying on the expropriation of such behaviors to service user wants, motivations and desires – to encourage meaningful user-generation and mediation. Early Internet research suggested that the advancement of computer-mediated technologies could ‘challenge the existing political hierarchy’s monopoly on powerful communications media, and perhaps thus revitalize citizen-based democracy’ (Rheingold, 1993:14). However, as Andrejevic (2013) points out, under neoliberal market pressures ‘the servers, the network backbone, and the local service providers – remains largely in the hands of a few large corporations’ (p.128).

The economy has a long and integral history with media institutions. Market pressures under capitalism are converging with rapid technological advancements, presenting economic solutions to social problems. Jodi Dean’s work (2002) points to ‘a situation in which criticism is pointless because any problem it might reveal can only be solved by the very strengthening of the capitalist, technocratic system’ (p.105). Use of CMC technologies is feeding consumption through a social service i.e., ‘what consumers wanted, from their deepest desires and fantasies to their more transient preferences and fancies, would be gathered, compiled, analyzed, and delivered’; not just to the user but to any third party who would want to capitalize on such analyses. Although the possibilities of identification in social media are boundless, it’s inherent function is proprietary to the conditions of the user-base in which it operates and is generated. Dean emphasizes how production and consumption drives ‘an ideological formation that uses democracy, creativity, access, and interconnection to produce the subjects of communicative capitalism’ (p.103). Communication capitalizes on personal information and identities as part of an aliasing process, a distorted and categorized version of the self and conceptions of ‘me’. SNSs are dependent on tactics that will increase usage, profits and the flow of interpersonal information. In Dean’s (2013) own words, ‘we might expect a social media tailored to individualism, competition, alliance, entertainment, and pro-creation’ (p.2).

In such a media landscape, people are adapting to how they build conceptions of ‘me’ through a ‘configurable networked self’ (Cohen, 2015:69). Recent literature has honed in on this concept, citing ‘social norms play an important role for our privacy in everyday life by regulating what information is shared during interactions’ (Steijn, 2016:117). Larsen (2016) focused on growing aspects of use, on young people’s construction and co-construction of identity(s) online giving president to ‘communicate our own life story’ (p.24) – an open source networked identity conceptually rooted in interaction. Hill (2013) points to this identity, or “toolhood,” being utilized within the social network as a manageable substitute for ‘interpersonal interaction’. Other scholars have connected pedagogics to the way platforms like NING (Hughes et al. 2016), Tinder (Duguay, 2017), and Grindr (Jorgensen, 2016) educate users, channeling them into particular behaviors. Like the customization of interactive avatars (Heller & Goodman, 2016), social media profiles are the creation or channeling of individual self-identification. Servicing the self-identification of users, like their conceptions of sex, gender or age, presents a tactical market analysis and profiteering strategy. Under such confines, the user profile joins a vast computational ecosystem, where binary categorizing and algorithmic processes aliases information as part of the greater networked experience. People’s identities and conceptions thereof are increasingly adapting to the informational norms managed by a process of mediatization through SNS use.

Like with other aspects of mediatisation research (Ekstrom et al. 2016; Deuze 2014; Mazzoleni & Shultz 1999), media-embedded processes driving sociocultural change are becoming the norm. People now sexually communicate through media-embedded socio-sexual practices afforded and accommodated with(in) the use of SNSs.

Previous literature has seen the ‘intimate media cultures of mediatization’ (de Ridder, 2015) transform sociolsexual norms of identification, attraction, and orientation. Plummer (1998) coined the term ‘communicative sexualities’ when describing with the transformation of ‘people’s values related to sexuality and the media’. McNair talks of a ‘democratization of desire’ (2002) and ‘commodification of sex’ (2013) affected by media infrastructures. de Ridder’s (2017) most recent work studies media is effecting the relationship between conceptions of sexuality and social media, calling for ‘a deep conversation on values, communicative sexualities, politics, and media’. The paper points to the considerable changes that have occurred in the last decades concerning how sexualities are lived (Weeks, 2007), and how social media is influencing the ‘long sexual revolution’ and sexual politics (Schaefer, 2014; Seiddman, 2010: Timm & Sanborn, 2016). He cites Attwood (2009) when examining changes in sociosexuality – ‘media went from repressing sexuality’ – ‘to eventually pushing the sexualization of culture’ (p. 11). Approaching sexuality in media is to approach ‘the role of media’s power (technological, symbolical, and institutional’) (p.1). The social network service is modulating user’s ‘lived traditions’ of sexuality into ‘symbolic content’ (Hepp 2012), ‘reorganizing places as media spaces’ (Couldry 2004).

Hilton-Morrow & Battles (2015) introduce sexuality as a categorization process. Sexual identity and language are constructed and managed, ‘continually in flux as cultural meanings are continually negotiated’ (p. 10). This negotiating of norms in the construction and management of sexual identity on SNS presents an insightful perspective into media-embedded forces that normalize certain behaviors, orientations, and desires. Examining the axiology of sexual discourse sees ‘the foundational categories of identity – the binary of sex, gender, and the body – can be shown as productions that create the effect of the natural, the original and the inevitable’ (Butler 1990a: viii). The body is the site of sexual materialization, molded by a symbolic hierarchy of norms and values that the SNS has appropriated into a performing (dis)play of desirability.

The SNS as an instrument for desirability and the interpolation of desire…this kind of instrumental desire is ‘meant to include wishes about how the past might have been as well as desires for the present and future, and to include sensuous along with intellectual goals’ (Schroeder 2001). With the nature of the SNS as outlined, a person’s intrinsic desire is being symbiotically acted out or performed with the accommodations and affordances permitted – capturing desire through a kind of communicative capitalism of identifying sexualities.


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