This is the rhythm of our (social media) lives

This is the rhythm of our (social media) lives

Elinor Carmi

What is that noise? I opened the newspaper and the headline was screaming “Saving New York from its own raucous din”. Tuning into the racket, it appears that many people “have had their share in doing away with the evil of radio abuse at unseemly hours. This year, Section 215A of the Sanitary Code enables sufferers from neighbourly thoughtlessness to report to the Department of Health, whereupon an inspector is sent out to investigate the case, warn the offenders, and, if the condition persists, appear against the offenders in court”.

This piece, taken from a 1930 article in the New York Times shows the way that radios became an unbearable noise to city dwellers. But it was not only radio, car horns, construction work, and loud speakers in stores creating a noise that stirred the city into what was called a war on noise. It changed the way people worked, organised, it influenced their health conditions and the way they thought about themselves and others – It disrupted the rhythm of their lives.

Many scholars from social sciences are determined that social media has changed the way that society is organised and structured. But you could find similar notions in the past towards electricity, trains and later on radio broadcasting and television. Whenever a new media technology emerges, people think it is changing the way that society functions. But looking beyond the hype, we were always already disrupted by media.

Back in 1974, for example, Raymond Williams one of the founders of the British cultural studies argued that television broadcasting moved from sequencing of programming to flow. In the early days of television broadcast the transition between shows was marked by a sound or visual cue that signalled the intervals between distinct program units. However, once these programmes started to be sponsored by commercial advertisements, Williams argues, they were disrupted by ads that created a different kind of flow. Williams called this planned flow because it was meant to be seen as natural rather than a disruption; to blur the lines between ‘content’ and advertisements but also, importantly, to create a seamless flow of time that has its own programmed rhythm. As television developed, people were able to tune into it at any hour and be immersed into a planned flow that had its own time and structure. As Williams argues:

“the replacement of a programme series of timed sequential units by a flow series of differently related units in which the timing, though real, is undeclared, and in which the real internal organisation is something other than the declared organisation. For the ‘interruptions’ are in one way only the most visible characteristic of a process which at some levels has come to define the television experience.”

Williams encouraged looking at the television experience as a whole, specifically how the rhythm is influencing the way that social life is performed and thought of. Media always disrupted us, it always changed the way we experience time, place, work, society and ourselves. Another way to think about this kind of ordering is through rhythm and sound, or as the Canadian scholar and composer Murray Schaffer termed it: Soundscape.

The Tuning of the (Social) World

Treating the world as a musical composition, Schaffer saw environments as acoustical ecologies that are composed by nature, animals, humans and machines. Soundscape is constructed by the sounds that human and non-human actors produce and the way they perceive them, but they are also influenced by these sounds – they create a particular rhythm of everyday life. Today most of our everyday life involves tuning in and out of  social media. Much has been written on this topic, but mostly theorised and thought through the politics of visibility and vision. While these approaches provide interesting insights, another way to look at the way social media order people, objects, architecture and the time(scape) they operate in is through sound studies and in particular the concept of rhythm. Contrary to vision, sound and rhythm are not constrained into a particular space; they cross territorial boundaries and at the same time create new spaces and rules of experience.

Although Silicon Valley tries to sell its algorithm religion to the Western world, it appeared that social media companies’ claims that these spaces are run exclusively by algorithms was just as fake as some of the stories that appear on their platforms. Turns out social media still need humans to make these digitally mediated spaces feel more, well, social. Humans might be the weak link, but it was still an important link that held these social media as spaces people wanted to hang out in. We started to hear about content moderators who filter different types of content, and then also other humans who function like newspaper editors and are responsible in editing the trending news that appeared on Facebook. But while the human editors were fired because of the fake news fiasco, content moderators are still employed in order to keep Facebook a clean and friendly space for advertisers and other third parties. Some rhythms sell more than others. Humans and machines have always been entangled with one another, despite social media companies’ attempts to present it as an objective and neutral automation processes.

The most common metaphor used to describe social media has been the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s Panopticon. This unique architecture design, which was originally developed by the 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham, was a model showing how a prison can be built with a single watchman who is positioned at the centre of the structure, while all the inmates who are scattered in a circle around that central node are feeling watched. Foucault used this spatial design to show how specific architectures can influence the way people adjust their behaviour. Because they constantly feel they are being watched, they discipline and train themselves to act in a particular way. However, as the sociologist Zeynep Tufecki argues about the Panopticon and another commonly used metaphor – 1984 – inspired by George Orwell’s dystopian novel:

“The Panopticon is a thought experiment: a model prison meant to control a society of prisoners. But we are not prisoners. We are not shackled in cells, with no rights and no say in governance. In our world, pleasure is not banned; it is encouraged and celebrated, albeit subsumed under the banner of consumption”.

In that sense, social media are not like prisons or dystopian futures, they are actually mediated places where we want to spend our time with our friends and some strangers. In that space, different elements control the rhythms of time, moods and bodies, just like going to an electronic dance music party.

The beat of the rhythm

“Rhythm is a dancer
It’s a soul companion
You can feel it everywhere
Lift your hands and voices
Free your mind and join us
You can feel it in the air

Let it control you, hold you, mold you
Not the old, the new, touch it, taste it
Free your soul, let it invade you
Got to be what you wanna
If the groove don’t get you, the rhyme flow’s gonna
I’m serious as cancer when I say
Rhythm is a dancer”.

Putting aside bad fashion we want to forget but can’t, like crop-tops and yin yang chokers, the 1990s was a decade of dance. Songs like Snap’s “Rhythm is a Dancer” mirror a whole revolution that swept young people across the world – Electronic dance music and rave culture. Scarred from the gloomy 1980s and accelerated capitalism, young people in the West wanted to dance the pain away. And they did. Taking advantage of cities in ruin such as Berlin, London and Detroit, young people gathered in abandoned warehouses, squats and clubs to dance to new electronic sounds. This experience of pounding vibrations, dancing endless hours in dark spaces with flickering lights created new spaces that had their own time and rules. Using other forms of communication such as dancing, raving united people that came from different backgrounds, genders, classes.

Just like in the early days of social media, people and scholars mystified rave culture with utopian stories and theories. But scholars such as Sarah Thompson pointed in her book Club Cultures in 1995 towards some of the politics behind creating the rave culture. The party dance floor is actually very similar to the rhythm that social media structure. Electronic dance music parties have already changed timescapes, as they are usually conducted in the night time and continue into the day time. The DJ set broke traditional modes of experiencing music and created a timeless flow of rhythms in a particular space. Because there was no break between songs, the party was experienced as one long soundtrack called the mix. Such a mix is also conducted in today’s social media with different human and non-human actors who are moving and communicating in various ways, just like the party. Dancing to rhythm is done without explicit pronunciation of words; it is a form of communication of energy, vibrations and feelings just like social media. Although framed in the past as slacktivism, the truth is that many people in social media participate in many ways which are not visible, as scholar Kate Crawford argues, they listen. But they also feel and move their digital bodies between different spaces.

The DJ, with her sounds (vinyl or CDs) manipulates the crowd with the help of various other instruments such as the speakers, lights, and vibrations. As the music scholar Pedro P. Ferreira argues, by experimentation with sound and its technological apparatus the DJ “is also experimenting with his audience’s movements, thus producing a kind of tool that comes from and arrives at his relations with the dance floor”. In this sense, the dance floor becomes an experiment, a unique soundscape whereby there is a leading figure that has interest in guiding, shaping and influencing the rhythms of bodies. But the bodies themselves become part of music rhythm, and other elements are also entangled in this recursive feedback loop such as the time of the year, the turntable, the club (or other space that the party occurs in), people’s expectations and emotions, promotion of the party, and music magazines.

The latest hype around social media, following Trump’s victory, is that social media produce filter bubbles where people mainly hear what they want to hear and hang out with like minded people. And this is quite similar to people who like particular genres of electronic dance music and will only go to specific clubs and meet specific people. (Social) media, filter bubbles, and ordering mechanisms (such as algorithms or DJs) have been shaping in different soundscape, for many years. Perhaps instead of trying to conceptualise and talk about social media as if they introduced a new social world ordering, we need to look for other presents and pasts that can tell us about the way social media functions. We dance to multiple rhythms which guide and structure our lives, we just need to listen and tune in.

Elinor Carmi is a scholar, journalist, ex-radio broadcaster, activist, feminist, and a huge electronic dance music addict. Her research draws on media theory, media history, new media, media law and sound studies. It looks at unwanted media categories, exploring questions around how they are used to construct people and territories. She tweets at @Elinor_Carmi.