Marx in the context of social media
Updated: Sep 12, 2021
For all my fellow MITians… “use value”, “exchange”, “commodity fetishism”, and “Marxism” are commonplace words. However, what struck me most about these terms is how much they have been transfigured in the post-pandemic context. Social media is built on the facets of commodity fetishism, which treats commodities as things within themselves and ignores the social context of final products.
Netizens’ use of social media is ever-increasing, with more and more people logging onto social media sites to bolster connectivity. However, it is the latent function of this media that we call “social” that is truly harmful to those marginalized, and in the background. It is those that are at the edges of society who undergo the real detrimental effects of social media commodification.
So, how does the spike in the use of social media, and by extension, addiction, link to the Marxist ideals of alienation and happiness, or lack thereof? The simple explanation is that social media companies, such as Instagram or Facebook, exploit workers to meet their own ends and disadvantage consumers whose data is being extrapolated for exchange value.
However, the idea of alienation is deeper and more profound than this statement. Social media causes alienation because what we ultimately lose in exchange for a feeling of “connectivity” is our free will and freedom of choice. Our data is often used at the expense of our privacy - large media conglomerates speak to us as subjects, as opposed to humans who have a desire to be connected. Our data is used against us in a myriad of ways. While it might seem that they are providing us individuality and the self-actualization that Karl Marx (and later, Abraham Maslow) hammer home about, they actually are just evidence of a lack of plenitude of being.
To illustrate the latent manipulative functions of the surveillance capitalism era, we can look at some features that Instagram uses, such as data insights, which are monitored by AI and machine learning a technique prevalent in scandals such as the Cambridge Analytica case, makes us mere objects and products of a profit-making machine, in effect, dehumanizing us. This creates a power dynamic between those who make and produce the media and those that use it, which is a classic bourgeoisie-proletariat dynamic. Websites use our personal data against us as we are subjugated and effectively stuck in a closed-loop, becoming the ones who offer companies our surplus. We become the product, instead of the people creating the product.
So, how do we place the word “alienation” in the context of social media and Marxism? Alienation, in the context of social media, is individuals being detached from their labour; everything they post with the intent of intrinsic satisfaction becomes a mechanism of self-alienation, as we ultimately end up posting things for validation or extrinsic satisfaction. Thus, we succumb to the cultural zeitgeist ideals of placing ourselves in cookie-cut categories of a popularity index. This causes the exploitation of user's intellectual labour which generates the popularity indexes. What these users do not know is that they are being used to generate a malignant mutation of capitalism which misleads us to think we are rife with individuality.
Lastly, commodity fetishism is also extremely prevalent, as cell phones now have immense power over us, putting at stake the values of humans and human life. The first instinct we have to see something eye-catching or aesthetic is to snap a photo. Therefore, the quote, “live for the moment” no longer has a purpose. This self-commodification is the equivalent of Marx’s commodity fetishism, for it completely destroys the idea of free will and puts humans in a state of learned helplessness.
Ultimately, it can be said that for all the positive impacts social media has had on today’s democratic societies, we have also been robbed - to a large extent - of finding purpose in our labour, which in the context of social media, is our posts. We have willfully succumbed to our own commodification but the question is, can we bounce back from it?