[NetBehaviour] DigiMag 37 Interview_Geoff Cox: Social Networking is not Working
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Tue Oct 7 11:20:24 CEST 2008
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Digimag 37 - September 2008
SOCIAL NETWORKING IS NOT WORKING
Txt: Clemente Pestelli
Geoff Cox is an artist, teacher and organiser of events connected with
digital experimentation in the United Kingdom. Within his curatorial route
for Arnolfini, an organisation dealing with contemporary art, he developed
an interesting project whose topic is the intersections between critical
theory of social networks and critical practice of the world of art.
Already from its name, "AntiSocial NotWorking", we can understand that the
project aims at questioning two of the founding terms of the Web 2.0:
"social" and "networking". Within the very rich portal, there are some of
the most interesting Internet projects of the last few years: from
<$BlogTitle$> by Jodi to "Amazon Noir" and "Google Will Eat Itself" by
Ubermorgen-Cirio-Ludovico, from "logo_wiki" by Wayne Clements to "Blue Tube"
and "Friendster Suicide" by Cory Arcangel, from "web2dizzaster" by
sumoto.iki to "Fake is a Fake" by Les Liens Invisibles.
With Geoff Cox, we talked about how, beyond the quick enthusiasm and the
rhetoric of social networks, it is urgent and necessary to develop a
critical theory of social networks, and about how contemporary artistic
practice could be essential for the exploration of new forms of
participation, activism and democracy on the Internet.
Clemente Pestelli: The title of the project is controversial and, at the
same time, fascinating. Can you explain, in a few words, what "AntiSocial
NotWorking" wants to suggest?
Geoff Cox: I'm glad you find it a fascinating title. It's deliberately
playful, a "hack" if you like, and one where it seems to contradict itself
with a double negative. The first point is simple: that by saying
"antisocial", the pervasive use of the term "social" is thrown into
question. I write about this in the accompanying notes to develop a critique
of the apparent
friendliness of social interactions through web 2.0 platforms, but at the
same time to strike a distinction from antisocial networking sites such
as"Hatebook" that are not dialectical enough in my view.
The crucial point is that by stressing friendliness and avoiding antagonism,
politics is avoided. What is also evoked is the critical tradition of
negation associated with dialectics. For instance, "negative dialectics"
would suggest a number of things but perhaps most importantly for this
context more of a focus on subjectivity and structures of communication.
The influence of communication in contemporary characterizations of labour
find their way into the second term "notworking". This is a common enough
joke - "notworking" as opposed to "networking" - and a good way into various
discussions about free labour and how labour time is less and less distinct
from time outside work - as 'nonwork'. Work on the Net is a clear example of
this tendency and one of the significant aspects of social network sites is
the way in which users volunteer their labour time - and their subjectivity.
I like the way when you put all this together -"antisocial" and
"notworking" - the meanings become multiple and contradictory. There is a
further aspect of contradiction and negation at work here too perhaps, in
evoking the concept of "negation of negation" to understand the title not as
a double negative or a simple reversal of one thing with another but an
ongoing deeper engagement.
Clemente Pestelli: In your "Notes in support of antisocial notworking", you
writes about how, during the ascent of social networks, social relationships
were emptied of every form of antagonism and so, in short, of every form of
politics. I think the analysis is right. But if we think about the first
period of the World Wide Web, we cannot but be impressed by the fact that
exactly the Internet was the privileged ground of political experimentation,
exploited by movements and activists from all over the world: an example is
the " Battle in Seattle " of 1999 and the role of Indymedia. Today,
corporate communication platforms such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo allow
to share and spread even more information than before, but although this
fact, I can't see any conflictual approach that is as much efficient. What
do you think has happened? Is it something depending on a precise strategy
of the global corporations or is it something that has to do with the health
Geoff Cox: Both I suppose. I would stress how the production of
non-antagonistic social relations has become absolutely central to social
control. In the notes I cite Rossiter who argues that without identifying
the antagonisms that politics simply cannot exist. As far as network
cultures are concerned this is a technical and social truism. Of course
there is nothing new in this, and earlier iterations of the net are full of
examples of antagonistic tactics.
As for your main question about what has happened more recently, I'm not
sure I'm qualified to answer this. However I suppose the issue for me is how
contradictions are evident in new ways, and that organisational forms are
more networked in character. There are a number of examples of
network-organized forms of political organization, enhancing the open
sharing of ideas - such as Indymedia, as you mention, and what is referred
to as the "multitude" more generally. Contemporary forms of protest tend to
reject centralized forms for more distributed and collective forms, but the
tendency has both positive and negative consequences, both releasing and
limiting future possibilities.
The example of Facebook exemplifies the point in that it both demonstrates
the potential for self-organisation and at the same time the drive to
commodify collective exchanges. Capital recuperates emergent tendencies
really well, as we know. The autonomists refer to the "cycle of struggle" to
emphasize that resistance needs to transform itself in parallel to
recuperative processes. In a really nice description, Tronti says the
restructuring of capital and the recomposition of resistance "chase each
others tails". More tactical and strategic alternatives need to be developed
all the time and I don't think there's a way out of this recursive loop.
Antagonism is a necessary part of this but I'm not sure where to look for
specific examples on the web, better to look elsewhere I think, to peer
production more broadly.
Clemente Pestelli: NotWorking, antithetic to networking, is the other key
word of the project. In particular, in the introductory notes to the
project, you refer to Tronti's essay "The Strategy of the Refusal" (1965).
What relationship is there, today, between job and social networks, when the
time you spend at work can be less and less distinguished from the time you
don't spend at work? How do you think it's possible to combine the idea of
"refusal of work" with the completely absorbing dimension of the Web 2.0?
Geoff Cox: As you say, the confusion over what constitutes work and non-work
turns attention to what constitutes effective action. Refusal to work is one
established oppositional tactic in recognition of exploitation in the
workplace. But it's harder to see how exploitation takes place in relation
to nonwork, or how notworking in itself might be productive. To simply
refuse to take part in social networking platforms or refuse to submit
personal information is not particularly effective in itself. The point, as
I tried to say in the notes, is how to think about "well-assembled
collectives" that can be involved in production that is not an exploitative
situation. As well as Tronti, I refer to Paolo Virno's "Grammar of the
Multitude" for this reason.
What is required are strategies and techniques of better organization
founded on different principles. Peer production offers one example of the
opportunity to explore the limits of democracy and rethink politics. I think
this is a really interesting area of activity that seems to be gathering
momentum - as both an expression of"non-representational democracy" and as
an alternative economic system altogether. Social networks hold the
potential to transform social relations for the common good but only if held
within the public realm and outside of private ownership.
Clemente Pestelli: "AntiSocial NotWorking" is a rich repository of projects
showing a critical point of view towards the different platforms of social
networks and the symbols of the Web 2.0. What can we expect from the works
that are contained in the database? A simple point of view or maybe some
useful techniques for a new creative resistance?
Geoff Cox: The project is modest in itself, hoping to draw together some
existing and new critical works, in a body of practices that take issue with
web 2.0 as an attack on peer production in the sense described earlier.
There are some well known projects and some not so well known but together
they demonstrate the usefulness of creative (art) practice to question
popular forms - or I might even want to make a distinction here between
popular and populism. Arts organizations have enthusiastically adopted the
rhetoric of social networking but the critique is less well developed, at
least in the UK.
The project has tried to draw in practices from software culture more
broadly and bring them to the attention of the contemporary art world -
remember I have produced this project as part of my curatorial remit at
Arnolfini which is a contemporary art organization that is only just
beginning to engage with the internet. But, as for more than this, your
question is spot on I think - whether oppositional strategies are merely
oppositional rather than transformative. This is one of the crucial
questions for anyone working in the area of critical practice.
Otherwise politics might simply be cast as a trendy theme as we see all the
time in contemporary arts practice. The challenge remains as how to make
this transformative or whether art can have a role at all in this. I think
the potential to transform social relations is demonstrated in the dynamics
of social networking technologies but as I said only if certain principles
are maintained. In addition, I think that the current struggles over sharing
digital content, such as those over peer to peer file-sharing, are crucially
important and this is where creative resistance is well-placed. Further
projects that I am involved in will continue to explore this issue in the
spirit of antisocial notworking.
DIGICULT is a cultural project involved in digital culture and electronic
arts. The DIGICULT project is directed by curator, critic and teacher Marco
Mancuso and based on the active participation of 40 professional people
about, who represent a wide Italian network of journalists, curators,
artists and critics working in the field of electronic culture and digital
art. And on a multitude of updated strategies around new media
communication, web 2.0 and networking activities. Translated in english,
DIGICULT is today a web portal updated daily with news but it's also the
editor of the monthly magazine DIGIMAG, discussing with a critic and
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