This paper considers three versions of the claim that society doesn’t existence in order to investigate the problem of the idea of the social in social media. It identifies a convergence between the claims that society doesn’t exist and the social media we have. Yet it notes a disjunction between the media we have and the arguments of net critics and activists who say the problem is centralization and that what we need is individual control. Against this position, the paper argues for the relation between dispersion and centralization and the political potential manifest in centralization insofar as it makes apparent the social relations between people at the core of production.
Three claims for the non–existence of society
If society doesn’t exist, what would social media look like?
Tactics and critique
From concentration to dispersion and back
The social substance
Over roughly five years, eons in Internet time, the term “social media” has become ubiquitous. Taking the place of the contestation and uncertainty over “new media,” “digital media,” “networked media,” “personal media,” “participatory media,” and even “tactical media,” “social media” has effectively hegemonized the field, not only producing a generation unaware of pre–Facebook and pre–Twitter connectivities, but also reformatting prior digital experiments as so many failures or advances on the way to mediated sociality. Perhaps most indicative of the theoretical dilemma social media poses: there is general, assumed agreement on what social media is even as there is significant doubt as to whether society exists.
Three claims for the non–existence of society
For the last 30 or 40 years, society has been said not to exist. The claim appears in at least three versions. The neoliberal version of the claim that society doesn’t exist was voiced most famously by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In a 1987 interview with Douglas Keay published in Women’s Own following her third term win, Thatcher emphasized personal responsibility and hard work . Wanting and working to get more money, she said, was “the great driving engine, the driving force of life.” Against basic principles of social welfare, she argued that it was not the government’s role to look after the misfortunate; it wasn’t society’s fault that they were homeless, sick, or unemployed. “There is no such thing as society.” Rather, “there are individual men and women and there are families.” The neoliberal version of the claim that society doesn’t exist, then, emphasizes individuals and families. Even when churches are acknowledged, they are treated more as sites for the individual practice of faith than they are as social forces. The claim that there is no such thing as society, moreover, is raised critically. It is part of the ideological justification for the attack on the welfare state as a social solution to the social problems inevitably accompanying capitalist markets. Neoliberalism says that the idea that society can deal collectively with common concerns is an illusion. The reality is that it’s every man for himself. People are first and foremost individuals.
A second version of the idea that society doesn’t exist is the network version. The network version appears in a variety of guises in contemporary social and media theory, the most prominent of which is Bruno Latour’s actor–network theory. He writes, “It is no longer clear whether there exists relations that are specific enough to be called ‘social’ and that could be grouped together in making up a special domain that could function as ‘a society’.”  Starting from the position that there is no such thing as society, Latour advocates a sociology that can trace the actions through which things are assembled into associations . Groups form and un–form; they are groupings of previously disparate elements rather than fixed or constant collectivities. The methodology Latour proposes for critical sociology also manifests itself as a solution: the non–existence of society can be fixed with the proper technologies. If we attend to the ways collectivities are assembled, or if we ensure that they have the right techniques and technologies, procedures and processes through which to connect, then we can put together social moments and political issues (Marres, 2005). To be sure, these moments and issues are always disruptable, but that is both liberating and unavoidable.
A third version of the claim that society doesn’t exist can be called the radical democratic or post–Marxist version. In Hegemony and socialist strategy (1985), Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe write:
... we must begin by renouncing the conception of ‘society’ as founding totality of its partial processes. We must, therefore, consider the openness of the social as the constitutive ground or ‘negative essence’ of the existing, and the diverse ‘social orders’ as precarious and ultimately failed attempts to domesticate the field of differences. Accordingly, the multiformity of the social cannot be apprehended through a system of mediations, or the social order be understood as an underlying principle. There is no sutured space peculiar to ‘society’, since the social itself has no essence. 
Society doesn’t exist. Conflicts, forces, power, struggles, competition, and oppression, however, do. “Social orders” attempt to suppress, evade, and “domesticate,” these processes, making them appear as ruptures of a whole rather than as contingent relations among diverse and antagonistic elements.
The primary difference between the network and the radical democratic version of the claim for the non–existence of society is that the network version thinks that objects (things) exist and considers their creative, combinatory action, their agency, as a primary associative force. The radical democratic version pays less attention to things, emphasizing instead a variety of uniting and dividing forces.
What do these three versions of the idea that society doesn’t exist have in common? First, they are from the same basic historical period, the period of the end of the welfare state and the rise of neoliberalism. Second, they all reject the idea of an organic social whole or grounded totality; since society doesn’t exist there is no need for a conceptual account of its ground or basis. Third, and relatedly, they reject notions of natural hierarchies, which would only make sense in a relatively fixed setting. It follows, fourth, that they also reject the idea that there is or could be some central myth, theme, story, or authority that gives structure to society. Rather, there are mutually productive entities (individual persons and objects) and forces.
If society doesn’t exist, what would social media look like?
If there is something right or true about any of these accounts of society and the sense in which it doesn’t exist, what would we expect social media to look like?
The neoliberal version replaces the idea of society with the claim that there are individual men and women and there are families. These men and women are responsible for themselves. They are motivated by money in a competitive, capitalist environment. We can imagine, then, that they are concerned with jobs, maybe with finance, with security, and likely with finding mates and making families that can take care of them with they are old or infirm. We could also expect that these individuals might try to find ways to measure themselves and others so that they can determine who is the most successful, the most powerful. Such knowledge could conceivably help them in the job market as well as let them know who to pursue as a mate (Foucault, 2008). We might also expect that people would deal with the pressures of competition by forming alliances and building networks (Boltanski and Chiapello, 2005). Individual competitors might see it as in their self–interest to combine, so they would probably look for ways to do this easily and efficiently. They would want to know what others are doing in order to keep up with or even get ahead of their competition. They might also want relief from the loneliness of temporary work on short–term contracts, desiring connection to others insofar as they work from home or shift from office to office. Their social lives might be increasingly screen–based since their preoccupation with making money and getting ahead might estrange them from more community–based activities. In short, if the neoliberal claim that society doesn’t exist is true, we would expect a social media tailored to individualism, competition, alliance, entertainment, and pro–creation. We would expect it to be concerned with individual interests — privacy, security, property — much in the way that companies and entrepreneurs are always trying to protect their advantages.
If the actor network version of the non–existence of society is true then we would expect social media to be focused on making, on invention. Insofar as the problem of politics is building issues and enabling association, we would expect ongoing innovation in technologies that facilitate collaboration. We might imagine more apps that let people share — the content would be less important than the fact of sharing. Overall, we would expect enthusiasm with respect to the activity of associating and relatively less concern with the content, substance, or purpose of association.
The social media we would expect if the radical democratic version is true would be basically the same as what we get from the actor network version — a tumultuous media environment. The primary difference would be that whereas the former delights in making, the latter delights in contestation. So we would imagine people designing and using media in order to build identities, coalitions, and alliances. We would imagine media as a terrain of struggle over these identities. And we would expect unceasing turbulence with respect to contents, uses, applications, platforms, and protocols, especially insofar as any sedimentation or cohesion establishes the hegemony of one group or outlook, diminishing the potential of the others (Jordan, 2007).
Generally, then, the three accounts of the non–existence of society would lead us to expect a media environment pretty much like what we have. To be sure, we might be surprised that a common protocol TCP/IP was possible at all. But for the most part the Internets we have, our different devices, uses, and apps, are basically what we would expect. If society doesn’t exist, we would expect social media to correspond in some way to this non–existence — to be individualistic, competitive, fluid, contested, and turbulent. We would expect emergent hierarchies, in groups and out groups, multiple opportunities for individuation and individual self–aggrandizement. To be clear, I am not arguing that the media we have reflects the fact that society doesn’t exist. I am not making a simple “reflection” argument. Rather, the argument I am making (so far) is about mutual constitution: this is the media that “we” as disparate, unequal, competitive individuals would build and use.
Tactics and critique
There is a convergence, then, between the claims that society doesn’t exist and the social media we have. Yet there is a disjunction between the media we have and arguments that flow through critical media theory and tactical media activism. In these circles, we hear that the problem is centralization and that what we need is individual control, individual autonomy, more privacy, better security, more choices, and more options . We hear these points made in the language of critique, even radical critique, as if they were not repeating the dominant ideology of individualism. The presumption seems to be that egalitarian emancipation depends on independence from centralized structures of communication and power. It seems to be, in other words, that centralization is a (if not the) crucial barrier to more just and responsive political arrangements.
More bluntly put, the same mantras of concern that animated John Perry Barlow and the cyber–libertarians on the information frontier and then the California techno–utopians turned Wired champions of the so–called new economy are echoed today. The alternatives and their positive/negative valences are the same: decentralized, distributed, bottom up, contingent, and individual are better than centralized, unified, top down, collective, and planned (Dean, 2010). As Fred Turner (2006) powerfully demonstrates in his book on Stewart Brand and cyberculture, this is an ideological matrix that became powerful during the Cold War and was then “groovied up” in the nineteen sixties.
Why do critical media theorists and activists repeat the critique of centralization in a decentralized media environment? Why do they continue to applaud and urge individual choice and self–organization even as neoliberalism insists on privatization and capitalism insists on individual competition rather than collective cooperation?
Psychoanalysis provides several possibilities (Dean, 2009). The insistence on repeating the same critique might be a psychotic response to missing authority, to the foreclosure of the paternal function. Or maybe it’s a paranoid response that enables the subject to avoid acknowledging what is missing and confronting his own freedom. Or maybe the answer is simple mistrust, an element of the larger cultural crisis of legitimation facing political and economic institutions (a crisis which neoliberalism relies on and exacerbates).
What’s dissatisfying in these psychoanalytic possibilities (even for those who find psychoanalytic explanations compelling) is that the mistrust expressed among critical media theorists and activists is a mistrust of networks, of the very decentralized and individualist processes and patterns an early generation lauded as the remedy to centralized power. The networks we have are not secure enough, not private enough, not flexible enough. Our information and identities are insecure, at risk. We are too vulnerable. The mistrust of networks, then, seems to assume the possibility of a completely free and completely friendly network, where one could say whatever one wanted to whomever one wanted with absolutely no repercussions. In other words, it assumes a fantastic, impossible network that is both secure and politically radical at the same time.
From concentration to dispersion and back
Before addressing the mistrust of networks, I want to recap the argument thus far. My first claim is that there has been a significant critique of the idea of “the social.” This critique has pointed out the ways that something that can be called “society” doesn’t exist, that instead there are persons and things, gaps and flows, and contingencies and processes. My second claim is that the social media we have look like what we would expect from this description of the absent social. They are changing and incomplete, multi–layered, populated by subjects and objects that compete and combine in various ways. And my third claim is if the first two are true, then there is a problem with approaches to social media rooted in a critique of centralization and a concern with privacy, autonomy, individual choice, and security because neither centralization nor the lack of individual choice is the problem confronting radical activism today — not even loss of privacy is the problem.
Rather, the opposite is the case: dispersion is the problem; de–centralization is the problem. Consider contemporary distributed work arrangements. In early 2012, for example, news broke of IBM’s intention to layoff thousands of its German workers, a program called “Liquid” . The company’s plan entails organizing a distributed “talent cloud” on an Internet platform something like Facebook. The company would store information regarding workers’ skills “in the cloud” and rehire them when necessary. Workers would compete for higher rankings and companies would hire them on a task–by–task basis, avoiding inconvenient labor laws, the expense of health benefits, and the need to maintain a physical plant. Personal international employment contracts would subvert national labor regulations. As Andrew Ross (2013) points out, the Internet mobilizes the dispersed work of multiple individuals. It does so, moreover, not simply by allowing for “telecommuting” or by enabling ever longer global supply chains. Rather, it connects people who work for free (that is, who don’t construe their online activities as work for which they should be paid) and free–lancers (or “e–lancers”) who cobble together income through myriad micro–tasks in multiple settings. Ross writes, “As in the offshore outsourcing model, the dispersion of this labor is highly organized but it is not dependent on physical relocation to cheap labor markets.”  Tasks are distributed, workers are dispersed. And this makes organizing an opposition, finding ways to come together in common struggle, building the solidarities necessary to sustain a fight extraordinarily difficult.
Attacks on “centralization” and “hierarchy” thus put the problem ideologically; they invert it. Because they don’t recognize this inversion — or the interconnection between dispersion and concentration — the “solutions” they offer only make it worse. They increase dispersion and amplify noise, making it harder for people to find what they want, to know what they want, and to know what to trust. Albert–Laszlo Barabási’s (2003) work on complex networks demonstrates this point.
Complex networks are characterized by free choice, growth, and preferential attachment. Examples include academic citation networks, blockbuster movies, and the popularity of blogs and Web sites (Shirky, 2006). Barabási explains that complex networks follow a power law distribution of links. The item in first place has twice as many links as the item in second place, which has more than the one in third and so on such that there is very little difference among those at the bottom but massive differences between top and bottom. So lots of novels are written. Few are published. Fewer are sold. A very few become best–sellers. The idea appears in popular media as the 80/20 rule, the winner–take–all or winner–take–most character of the new economy, and the “long tail” (Anderson, 2004).
In these examples, the “one” (the item exponentially more popular than the many) emerges as the field or network expands (hubs are an immanent property of complex networks). In the context of a broadly distributed labor market, expansion diminishes opportunities for income and paid labor (as we’ve seen in the collapse of print journalism and university presses). We should recognize here a primary condition of labor under neoliberal capitalism. Rather than having a right to the proceeds of one’s labor by virtue of a contract, ever more of us now win or lose such that remuneration is treated like a prize. In academia, art, writing, architecture, entertainment, design, and increasing numbers of additional fields, people not only feel fortunate to get work, to get hired, to get paid, but ever more tasks and projects are conducted as competitions, which means that those doing the work are not paid unless they win. They work but only for a chance at pay. The implication of the shift from wages to prizes is the mobilization of the many to produce the one. Without the work of the many, there would not be one (who is necessarily contingent): the bigger the network, the bigger the hub — and the bigger the reward for the one at the top.
The administration of U.S. President Barak Obama has made inducement prizes a key part of its “Strategy for American Innovation.” Outlining its vision for a more competitive America, the White House announced that government “should take advantage of the expertise and insight of people both inside and outside” Washington by using “high–risk, high–reward policy tools such as prizes and challenges to solve tough problems.”  In effect, it decentralized expertise and redistributed risk. Contests privilege those who have the resources to take risks as they transfer costs associated with doing work to contestants (furthering neoliberalism’s basic mechanism of socializing risk and privatizing reward). People pay to do work for which they will not be remunerated.
Multiplication and dispersion are inextricable from powerful centers. Hubs like Facebook are effects of dispersion. The very hierarchies that decentralization and dispersion are supposed to eliminate also result from them. No long tail without the one.
Since hubs emerge out of dispersion, we would do well to think more about some of the advantages of centralization. Conglomeration has its own pleasures; people like being part of something bigger themselves. A key pleasure of social media is the pleasure of connectivity. It is a reaction to the disconnections of precarious labor, the breakdown wrought by neoliberalism. All three versions of the claim that society doesn’t exist accept this. The neoliberal version recognizes that people might want to connect for both careerist and escapist reasons; the actor network version looks for ways to build association; and, the radical democratic version addresses collective struggles. The affective dimension of hubs, then, points to a way in which centralization is desirable: people want to be where their friends are, where the action is.
Social media makes the fact that production is always production for others manifest. Whether it is affect or information (understanding “information” as designating a relation, whether of signal to noise, sender to receiver, or contribution to content), production in social media is reflexive, always a production of relations. The cooperation of different individuals appears as what it is, the productive force that arises out of our combined and multiplied efforts. Rather than congealed within a commodity form that renders relations between people as relations between things, the social substance manifest itself in a clear, visceral way on Twitter, Facebook, You Tube, in fact, in massively popular social media.
The social substance
I have argued that the basic problem of social media, a problem that we access by thinking about the ostensible non–existence of society, is not centralization. Centralization is rather the flipside of the drive to proliferate, as well as a kind of solution to the dispersion proliferation yields. Why do critical media people not get this? I have suggested that it is because of ideological illusion, the repetition of the mantras of new economy neoliberalism as if these were critical insights. To leave the argument here would be one–sided. There is more to it than this because the critical impulse against centralization is right. It just expresses itself in ideological terms, treating centralization per se as the problem rather than ownership and property as the problem. More bluntly put, that Facebook has over a billion active users is not the problem. The problem is that the company that we make in common does not belong to us.
The production of the social substance that we see in Facebook and Twitter is not completely for itself — someone else owns it. There are millions of users and one billionaire. It is not like Facebook and Twitter are user owned: more than a billion users, one billionaire (a clear power law). Facebook is explicit about this. The Web site declares: “Our product development philosophy centers on continuous innovation in creating products that are social by design, which means they place people and their social interactions at the core of the product experience.” 
You can’t eat your friends. There is an ongoing lawsuit, though, regarding whether you can eat your followers...
Because of the property relations that allow a common product to be owned by a single person (or a corporation which, in U.S. law, is a person), producing social relations does not enable producers to procure means of life, means of subsistence. You can’t eat your friends. There is an ongoing lawsuit, though, regarding whether you can eat your followers — a company is suing a former employee for taking his followers with him when he left the job, claiming loss of ad revenue and valuing followers at $US2.50 per follower . My point is that the production of social relations is for someone else, the capitalist. So we are alienated from our means of socializing even as we are completely immersed in them. In fact, the more immersed, the more alienated insofar as there are more hits and clicks and pageviews to be tracked, auctioned, sold, and put back to capitalist use (thus, I use alienation not to describe a subjective experience but an objective process).
In massive social media there is a disconnecting of social relations from relations through which one provides and is provided food and shelter — and this is a real contradiction. Active production of social relations is not active production of food and shelter; and, for more and more people, active production of food and shelter is not the active production of social relations. That is to say, most people are not paid for their productive engagement in social media. It is not the way they earn money. At the same time, most of the active production of social relations does not occur through the production of food and shelter. This means that what paid labor there is in social media produces something else or serves and administers something else. Corrupt arguments like those of Chris Anderson (2008) that announce that everything is “free” in the networked economy obfuscate the reality of the loss of income people need to survive. If everything is free then no one earns the money to pay for food and shelter. Social media relies on a strong, even constitutive division between communicative labor and the labor that produces food and shelter. Emphasizing this division reveals how waged labor and property are fetters on communicative production and thus instruments of alienation.
The problem of social media is the problem of capitalism — private property and ownership. Communication under communicative capitalism is a primary means of production, but it does not belong to us. Our basic communicative acts, our affects and feelings, hopes and ideas, to the extent that we express them electronically, belong to another not ourselves. Hence, even when we critique this other and its system, we contribute to it, reinforce it (Dean, 2010; 2009). Only those who neglect this fundamental feature of communicative capitalism can champion some kind of “new politics” or speak about Twitter and Facebook revolutions. They mistakenly treat as having arrived what is not yet there. The politics that matters is not in the content coursing through the networks. It is in the form of mass individual use of personal media to create new, huge, conglomerations and combinations of people. The form can be used in a new politics — but not as long as it owned by someone else, not as long as it is confined within capitalism.
Marx wrote in The German ideology, “In imagination, individuals seem freer under the rule of the bourgeoisie than before because their conditions of life seem accidental to them. In reality, they are less free, because they are more subjected to the domination of things.”  Critics and activists who conceive the problem of social media in terms of centralization and massness or who think what we need is more dispersion, diversity, and privacy in networks seem to want to make more things accidental, less necessary. The reality is that this is less emancipation, not more, because of the stepping away from the power that comes with collectivity, a power to which social media gives expression. Mass social media like Facebook and Twitter make the fact of collective production, of social power, present and undeniable such that it seems completely bizarre and contradictory that anyone could justifiably own them, or any substantial means of production at all. They are common property but not common property, public but not public, private but not private. To focus on individual privacy rights and security issues is to displace this fact, to push it away and proceed as if capitalism were not contradictory.
I close by returning to the social. The three versions of the claim that there is no such thing as society miss the way that society does exist, namely, antagonistically, through class conflict. Society is not a whole or a unity. Rather, it exists in the enactment of collectivity and common production.
About the author
Jodi Dean teaches political and media theory in Geneva, New York. She has written or edited 11 books, including The communist horizon (New York: Verso, 2012) and Democracy and other neoliberal fantasies: Communicative capitalism and left politics (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009).
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Received 20 February 2013; accepted 20 February 2013.
Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Jodi Dean.
Society doesn’t exist
by Jodi Dean
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 3 - 4 March 2013