Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain - Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot has become a perfect allegory for today's globalised world. Always on our guard, we expect something exceptional to happen at any time of day or night, and the absurd fascination with this shapeless possibility binds us to social networks with all the force of affective attachment Freud termed "cathexis". We intuitively know that the event will arrive by email, in a text message or in a tweet, each of them potentially unheard-of, life-changing, radically new.
More often than not, however, what does arrive is a weekly ten per cent discount from a trendy clothes store or a status update on how utterly bored your friend is. Contemporary communication technologies have much more to do with pure possibilities than with what they actually convey, which is why the gap between what is and what could be communicated fails to shock us. And, because we receive even the least significant messages in a heightened state of expectation, it is difficult to ignore them entirely. Instead, they leave a powerful imprint directly on our unconscious, by now brimming with digital debris and shadowy remainders of hi-tech part objects.
"... One man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king."
- Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1
Given the combination of psychic overinvestment with open-ended expectations, the new media are imbued with nearly messianic connotations. Hurriedly written books in the genre "tweeting-the-revolution" that mushroomed after the events of the Arab Spring testify to this - perhaps necessary - overestimation. But what are the more concrete social and political consequences of Tweeter, Facebook and so forth? How, for instance, are they changing right before our eyes such basic power relations as leading and following?
From every corner, one hears calls: "Follow us on [fill in the blank with your preferred social network]!" (Having banned such reminders from its airways, France is a notable exception here.) The implication of this appeal is, of course, that if you do not follow, you will be out of the loop and at a disadvantage, deprived of access to the valuable commodity that is information. But, truth be told, it is the number of virtual followers an individual or a company boasts that makes for its social capital, not vice versa. The initial order, "Follow!" betrays the tacit dependence of those who issue it on their present and future followers. It is, therefore, symptomatic of the workings of ideology in the digital age.
The value of influence
With regard to the relativity of value, Karl Marx expressed this function of ideology in the clearest terms in Volume I of Capital: "... one man is king only because other men stand in the relation of subjects to him. They, on the contrary, imagine that they are subjects because he is king" (Karl Marx, Capital, vol. I. London: Penguin, 1974, p. 63).
It is up to us to translate Marx's dialectical insight into a couple of simple formulas, according to which
- the balance of your influence is positive if you have more followers than the number of people you, yourself, follow
- this influence resides not in the one followed but in the recognition of her followers
Now, to "unfollow" or to "unfriend" someone is a huge insult, a gesture that breaks the distorted looking glass of ideology and demonstrates the power of the follower over the one followed. No wonder, then, that the media treat celebrities unsubscribing from the feeds of other celebrities as newsworthy events!
"Branching out in every conceivable direction, the network paints an alluring image of anarchy beneath the veil of blurred socio-political relations."
Twentieth-century totalitarianisms still relied on the ideological constructions Marx was familiar with, as they entailed top-down chains of command comprising the leading - with the Leader at the highest point in the hierarchy - and the led. By contrast, the commerce between the following and the followed in the 21st century paints the image not of a vertical system, but of a de-centred, horizontal, reversible arrangement, presumably conducive to a genuine democracy. While the Leader's power was the origin of the political system, in online networks it is no longer clear where such origins reside. But this is not to say that they have evaporated - only that they have become more thoroughly displaced and hidden.
In the dispersion of the network, even when social capital peaks, amounting to tens of millions followers, all that remains is the formal and quantitative difference - which is also the objective measure of power - between following and being followed. Branching out in every conceivable direction, the network paints an alluring image of anarchy beneath the veil of blurred socio-political relations. In its dispersion, power appears both to undergo dematerialisation and to dissipate, in light of the formal equality of anyone with a Twitter or Facebook account.
Digital potentiality itself
Not only the origin but also the end or the purpose seems irrelevant to the idea of following in the age of the digital reproducibility of social and political relations. Traditionally, trailing a master-guide helped the apprentices to achieve a particular goal: for instance, to increase their knowledge or to improve their skills. Some of the West's emblematic narratives, such as The Divine Comedy where Dante and his readers both literally and figuratively follow Virgil through the circles of the Inferno (as well as the Purgatory) and Beatrice through the spheres of Heaven, gave voice to the master-apprentice relation. No matter how lengthy they were, these journeys had an end that corresponded to the accomplishment of concrete objectives.
Compare this to following someone or something on Twitter or Facebook. Unlike goal-oriented - and, therefore, terminal - apprenticeships, these relations do not have an inherent end, unless for whatever reason you decide to terminate them, hitting the "unfollow" button. In their open-endedness, they imitate life, which has neither a guide nor a final outcome because death is not its culmination but rather an interruption.
"It is necessary to know how to follow others, so as to emancipate oneself from this somewhat subservient relation... yet [with] digital following... we are drawn along, more or less haphazardly, by whatever is 'trending' at the moment."
But, like human living itself, following and learning are not purely passive behaviours. It is necessary to know how to follow others, so as to emancipate oneself from this somewhat subservient relation. And yet, digital following precludes the active component of this social phenomenon, as we are drawn along, more or less haphazardly, by whatever is "trending" at the moment. The more we practically follow others, the less we know how to follow, or what following even means.
Still, it is relatively easy to reconcile a following devoid of distinct leadership and goals with the Western ideology of individualism. Social networks create the illusion of a community free of conformism: after all, you can choose exactly who you wish to follow, just as consumers are able to exercise their right to purchase this or that commodity on the market. The sum total of what you follow is supposed to be the expression of your personality, of your individual tastes, styles, and preferences. These, however, are not exempt from the logic of the market, let alone of marketing, which is why the most massive followings gather around those figures that are most commodified, ie, pop stars.
The existence of followers gets entangled with the digital lives of those they follow, furnishing evidence of cathexis and affective attachment. What counts here is the possibility of influence over the followers, not this or that particular instance of imitation. Potentiality is, indeed, the capital of social networks. Facebook stocks have made their debut on Nasdaq, where one will have a chance to trade in digital potentiality itself. The idea of following in the age of Twitter will come into its own; it will mean, invariably, "Follow us on the stock exchange!"
Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of The Event of the Thing: Derrida's Post-Deconstructive Realism (2009), Groundless Existence: The Political Ontology of Carl Schmitt (2010) and numerous articles in phenomenology, political philosophy, and environmental thought. His most recent book, Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life will be published later this year. His website is michaelmarder.org.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.