Re-literation and Remixing the Self on Social Media

Steve Gennaro and Blair Miller
York University, Toronto, Canada

(Re)Mapping Remixes

In theorizing about the self and digital media, it is worthwhile to posit a certain way of thinking about digital media and its relationship with identity that both respects its dynamism, that possibility for change and expression, as well as being keenly aware of its perils.  The work of Jean Baudrillard inhabits this space comfortably, marrying the contemporary self with notions of simulation, representation and reality.  He is overtly aware of an old allegory in our popular literature, surfacing in Borges and even Lewis Carroll: that of a map made to a scale of one-to-one.[i]  In these fables, the maps become such a direct and faithful representation that the real spaces they depict become virtually (and that word is not used here lightly) redundant.  This is at once an odd, reasonable, worrisome, liberating, accessible and yet elusive idea – that humanity might be so adept at replicating reality and anything within it that there could be a vanishing point of distinction between map and territory, original and copy, or a live bass bar and a sample.  While it remains to be seen how much actual control this affords any user, the thought of losing/finding one’s self in representational digital media is now a ubiquitous one.  The map is the world, and few people wish to be bothered with the details of otherwise because of what it might say about the world.

Now imagine if users could change and remodel the map as they went, each their own cartographer… and imagine if the map is the self.

Put simply, music is sound, and sound is vibration, or movement within space.  So musicians, singers and DJs – those who make music – make maps.  Indeed, one is generally primed to move in the way these sorts of maps suggest.  For the night club DJ, part of their artistic expression comes not only from selecting a playlist of songs that will ignite the dance floor and encourage the audience to dance the night away, but also from their ability to take an existing song and remix it.  To remix is to remake, to refashion, and to restyle.  It is to take media that already exists and alter that media to create something new.  In musical terms, it requires the DJ to take an existing song and alter its composition to sound differently, separating themselves as artists from those who limit their performances to replaying already-existing songs left intact.  Remixes can be large in scale or minute in changes but in all cases what appears from the change in composition is not the same song but instead a new artistic creation. Sometimes this remix is as simple as a change in pace, like the 2002 JXL remake of Elvis Presley’s 1968 “A Little Less Conversation” that “took the ripe remixable bones of Elvis and produced a genuine novelty smash hit” by re-releasing the song with a dance beat background and more than 25 years after his death returned Elvis Presley to the top of the singles chart in at least 10 countries.[ii]  Other times the remix is a mashup of two or more existing media texts to create a hybrid that encompasses components from multiple spaces, such as Danger Mouse’s 2004 The Grey Album which placed the acapella rhymes of rapper Jay-Z’s The Black Album against the backdrop of a remixed version of The Beatles The White Album to create an entirely new product.[iii]

This fluid expression through use within media is by no means restricted to music, though metaphors overlapping the two are strikingly consistent.  All media are a remix, as all forms of media build on pre-existing media, never replacing, and only remediating.[iv] Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin introduced the notion of remediation to understanding new media at the turn of the millennium by exploring the processes by which new technologies refashion existing media in a continuing quest for improved hypermediacy and immediacy.[v]   As such, the multi-mediated technology of smartphones in combination with the multifaceted digital environments of social media platforms are themselves remixes of previous technologies (audio, visual, and digital) and patterns of social relations whose hypermediacy and immediacy have altered the structures of identity storytelling through which people digitally speak themselves into existence.[vi]

Working with a constitutive force akin to technology, language is also a remix and is therefore subject to the same logic as the remediation of technological standpoints.  As Robert K. Logan argues in his 1997 book The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age, technology should be viewed as language since technology, like language, builds on the features of its predecessors while adding a number of new information-processing elements of its own.[vii]  In Homo Deus the 2015 follow up to the best-selling Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that Dataism privileges algorithms as a new, remediated, and universal language for the 21st century where “musicologists, economists, and cell biologists can finally understand each other.”[viii] The language of Dataism comes about as a mashup of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and Alan Turing’s Turing machine. Harari notes “Dataists believe that humans can no longer cope with the immense flow of data, hence they cannot distil data into information, let alone knowledge into wisdom. Therefore, the work of processing data should be entrusted to electronic algorithms.”[ix] While Harari ‘s argument that equates the emergence of Dataism to a modern-day religion is debatable, his discussion connects rapid advancements of technology and the resulting hypermediacy and immediacy of information with the required need for a newer structure of language to properly process this information. If remediation is a process by which technologies change and adapt while building on those that came before, then the social by-product of remediation must always be re-literation, which is the changing practices of language in light of technological advancements and changes in media operations, functions, and experiences.  In other words, by remixing we are relearning how to reinterpret and reuse both the original source and even the ways in which the new versions are expressed.  Rapper Busta Rhymes’ “Gimme Some More”[x] doesn’t just “add” Bernard Hermann’s “Prelude”[xi] from the score for Hitchcock’s Psycho as part of its musical production; it opens up the possibility for contemporary generations to mashup convention and wonder how Busta’s beats made it into an old black-and-white horror movie.  The latter is not mere inversion, and the whole set of textual relationships implied calls for new interpretation of media interaction in general, let alone all media texts immediately involved.

James Slevin, in his book The Internet and Society, explores cultural transmission online by updating J. B. Thompson’s theories on the cultural transmission of mass media to apply them to the Internet.[xii]  Slevin suggests that the Internet, in its circulation of information and other socio-symbolic content, combines all three of Thompson’s “aspects of cultural transmission”: the technical medium, the institutional apparatus, and the time-space distantiation.  Seen this way, studying how the Internet was involved in cultural transmission occurs in tandem with studying how the Internet facilitated the reorganization of social relations, via the new possibilities for using and articulating information.  Drawing on both Slevin and Thompson’s ideas, the examination of any technological advancement is also an exploration of the ways in which a society develops new languages to explain and integrate new technologies, and the success of this integration depends wholly on the ability of society, both as individuals and as a collective, to become re-literate.  Therefore, exploring the cultural transmission of participating on social media platforms requires re-literation, specifically for a critical media literacy.

Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share define critical media literacy in “Critical Media Literacy, Democracy, and the Reconstruction of Education” as  “a pedagogical approach that promotes the use of diverse types of media and information communication technology (from crayons to webcams) to question the roles of media in society and the multiple meanings of the form and content of all types of messages.”[xiii] This is an active definition that requires individuals to view media not as a static entity with a fixed series of relationships, but instead as “flow.”[xiv]  For Share, flow refers not only to movement of media but also to how media is connected to global movements and therefore it also includes the cultural transmission and current of products, information, ideas, economics and identities.   Understanding the cultural transmission of social media requires an understanding of media as flow, which illuminates the ways in which media are always interconnected, the ways in which media are always working in relationship with other media, and how media are always remixing.  Media itself is never static, it is never isolated, it is never pure, naïve, or innocent.  The same is also true of our relationships with media, on media, and as mediated across social media platforms.  So, to acclimatize ourselves to the fluidity of media is not unlike “feeling the flow” of remixing: we are listening for openings, connections, while at the same time re-reading multiple texts into one text, which loops into its own preparedness for re-reading.

Same Old New Gear, Same Old New Beats

In his 2012 TED Talk “Embrace the Remix,” Kirby Ferguson, suggests that everything is a remix and that the three main components to remixing require copying, transforming, and combining. [xv] This is precisely what the mobile technologies of the smartphone or tablet do, taking on the elements of multiple existing media (phone, camera, PC, newspaper, record player, television, etc.) in the form of one new technological apparatus by taking part in what Carmen Luke describes in “As Seen on TV or was that my iPhone” as convergence of function.[xvi]  Along with this convergence of apparatus function, social media spaces like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter partake in a convergence of social functions, mashing up roles of the bff, administrative assistant, and therapist.  Similar mashups converge across media and expressions within personal physical space as well: a digital bedroom wall poster, a virtual fashion accessory, a cyber tattoo or piercing.  In DJ parlance, no crate goes untouched, and it is not just the main loop tracks that produce the track.  Even the user is interfaced; all the songs listened to, all the experience, all the practice, all get constantly reworked and re-read when mixing.

True to its nature, the limits of convergence are as boundless as sound.   Every action whether as poster or viewer on a social networking platform allows an individual to create, organize, and continually remix and remediate a self-image or identity for the consumption of not only their own pleasure but also the pleasure of their friends and followers. This “tethered togetherness”, as Ralph Schroeder refers to it in his 2018 Social Theory After the Internet: Media, Technology, and Globalization, illustrates how the remixing of self through the convergence of social function on social media platforms constitutes actions of sociability ranging from the daily ritual of posting to a platform, to other “everyday habits of managing online togetherness,” which include “a good deal of time monitoring what others are doing.”[xvii]  Remixing is the language of media and it exists in all forms: from content to container, hardware to software, and from user to provider. And in the same way that the nightclub audience‘s dancing is required to authenticate the DJ’s remix in real time, the online remix of the digital social self is also a communal act, whereby socialbility legitimates the remixed self. Friends, followers, and online voyeurs listen to the mashup stories we post and then whether by action or by monitoring, authenticate the remixed identity construction through liking, commenting, retweeting, or even simply voyeuristically viewing the remix.

Despite this fluidity, there also exists tensions between it and recentcy biases inherent to technological development. There has been significant scholarship exploring a theoretical generation gap between the practises and comfort levels of using technologies across age groups.[xviii]  The idea behind the generation gap is that one’s comfort with the technology is based largely on what was considered normal during one’s childhood and years of schooling.  For example, we grew up in a world of video games where the video game joystick that you interfaced with had one button and a tall stick that came out of it; this was the Atari joystick.  Our younger siblings grew up using controllers with as many as nine buttons for their Sega, Nintendo, and PlayStation gaming consoles, and our children play video games on consoles that don’t even require controllers to play at all – their own bodies are the joysticks! Young people today grow up in an environment where the hyperactivity of media is the norm; it is not foreign to them.[xix]  However, even within the youth of today, there is a generation gap as media remixes at a pace that is faster than societies ability to retrain and re-literate within the educational system.[xx]  The difference of growing up in a world of Atari gaming consoles versus Wii systems represents a significant technological change and with that changing social experiences. However, that change occurred across 3 decades. Where as a young person entering high school in 2018, when according to a PEW Research Centre study on “Teens, Social Media and Technology” 95% of US Teens (ages 13-17) reported having a smartphone or access to a smart phone and 45% claim to be online on a near constant basis, may experience a generational gap from the graduating high school senior who as a freshman just 4 years earlier saw PEW numbers reflect 73% having a smart phone and only 24% being online on a near constant basis.[xxi]   And this why the idea of the generation gap is a bit misleading as it suggests that technologies change like human evolution, as a slow and adaptive process over time, when in fact the change is rapid and constant and never static.[xxii] For example, the average American child entering high school in 2020 will have grown up with an understanding of media where mobile technologies and social media are normal components of daily media interaction as they will never have lived in a world without the iPhone as the first generation IPhone (the first commercial touch screen smart phone) was released in 2007.  These tensions need not threaten said fluidity any more than a revival of lo-fi sound technologies threatens the prominence of digital mixing.  What is important is cultivating and sustaining a temperament for the covalence of it all.

If this hypertextual, intertextual, and media-saturated society – what Douglas Kellner calls “media spectacle” – is the norm for today’s youth and their experiences with technology, then what is needed is a pedagogy, a philosophy and style of teaching that explores these types of media relationships through a critical lens. Even if educational institutions are unable to develop curriculum at a pace equivalent to the rate of technological change in its surrounding social environment, students can still be participants in a critical pedagogy for unpacking social media platforms, the stories that get told on social media platforms, and the resulting social relations from the stories that are told on social media platforms.  For Kellner the goal should be to create an understanding of critical media literacy that highlights the importance of being active consumers of media who think about the stories they consume, how the stories are made (political economy), how other people are engaging with said stories (audience reception), and what the stories themselves are saying (textual analysis).  The intersecting relationships between political economy, textual analysis, and audience reception are what Kellner calls the three-pronged approach to cultural studies of media, and they are what is required for understanding social media and the remxied social self.[xxiii]

Political economy requires users of media to think about the political and the economic, and how they come together in the production of any particular story or media text.  Political economy asks media users to go back to the stage of production of the text or medium and ask questions such as: who’s making the media text; why are they making it; what’s informing their decisions to make it; and who are they making it for?  Very often the decisions informing the production of media texts are economic, in that they are strategic decisions, planned out in advance, by large-scale media corporations to sell commodities to audiences or to sell audiences as commodities.  At the same time (whether consciously or not) the decision informing the production of media texts are also political, in that within each text there is some form of representation that articulates who benefits and further highlights the power dynamics of a social moment.  Although social media platforms have increased access to media production, allowing more individuals to share their own stories, the production of independent media still occurs on a limited scale.[xxiv] The amount of individuals that have access to disseminate their ideas to be consumed by a mass audience is quite small, and largely reserved for institutions and corporations.  If the number of storytellers in media production is limited, so too is the variety of stories to be told and the diversity of world views that such stories purport to represent.  This is why an awareness of political economy is necessary for navigating digital spaces and remixing of a digital social self.

Audience reception involves the users of media examining not only who else is accessing similar media but how they access and unpack their media experiences.   The first level of audience reception is a consideration of how stories are being taken up by audiences.  Is it for fun, for pleasure, for humour, for politics?  The next level of audience reception studies requires an investigation of whether or not users unpack their media experiences using a framework of dominant ideas.  That is, do they unpack the experiences the way the media producer intends?  Or do they favour a framework of subversive or resistant ideas, using the media in a way that is opposed to its original intention?  While the storyteller can decide how to tell the story, they cannot decide how the audience receives the story’s messages.  Every audience member receives a story differently based on their own individual context.  Every consumer of media always bring to the story they engage with a different perspective that is based on their own life experiences, their own personal histories, and the different media texts that they’ve been involved with, or interacted with throughout their lives.  Not only does each audience member’s engagement differ across each media story they encounter, but the characteristics of engagement themselves continually change as well.   Consequently, using audience reception to unpack stories in diverse media serves as a reminder that there’s a diversity of experiences in interpreting media – not only in how the media gets made, but in how the media gets remade and remixed via audience interpretation.

Additionally, any form of critical media literacy is always rooted in a cultural studies approach that draws on textual analysis, whereby the focus is on whom or what is represented in the text itself, separate from production and consumption.   Practising textual analysis requires more than just a passive examination of the politics of representation.  Instead, as Share argues, a critical media literacy that performs textual analysis also requires “problematizing the process of representation to uncover and engage issues of ideology, power, and pleasure.”[xxv] To do so requires the media user to problematize the representations of race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability and all of the many social variables that act as markers of social status and indicators of who we are to society and how society views us. Whether it is a Disney princess, a cup of Starbucks coffee, the golden arches, or LeBron James, unpacking media texts require critical questions about relationships of power.  After all, representation is always about who has a voice and who does not, who has access to channels of power and who is denied access, who is represented as normal and who is underrepresented, marginalized, or wholly absent from representation.[xxvi]  Even if the text is not intended to be political or reflect political ideas and ideologies, every text is about representation and every text is therefore political.

Media content and media service providers create and transpose base resource of “stories” that reproduce certain lifestyles as normal and legitimate.  In doing so they also inherently reproduce certain lifestyles as illegitimate, or othered, and therefore debase or devalue them socially.  As a result, media has a significant amount of power in our lives.  Douglas Kellner suggests that in order to understand media, with a critical perspective and to be critical consumers of media we have to take a cultural studies-based approach that draws on ideas of audience reception and textual analysis as they are informed by political economy.[xxvii]  This three-pronged approach to critical media literacy serves as basis for the re-literation required as technologies continue to remediate as individuals the ways in which we remix our identities – which also continue to change online.

Seen through the lens Kellner provides, re-literacy is by no means a neutral process, but this fact does not protect it from emptiness either.  Kellner argues that the current media environment is one of oversaturation and media spectacle.[xxviii]  Spectacle here refers to the Debordian notion of the removal of the referent to produce a series of stories for consumption and pleasure and not necessarily for knowledge.[xxix]  The same is also true of the creation of identities on social media platforms where digital profiles often portray the personality and lifestyle of an individual for the consumption and pleasure of themselves and their friends or followers absent from the referent of the individual’s real life experiences.   The digital social self is a remix of identities, an unsubstantiated spectacle of bodies, and a simulacrum of personality grounded in nothing but the appearance of a truth that disappears into virtual space when held up against the mirror of real lived experience.  And yet, the digital social self is at the same time entirely real at the moment in which it is consumed by the online audience.  This is because the referent to authenticity for the posted remixed identity is no longer the individual poster’s real lived experience, since the remixed social self no longer exists on the physical body of the poster. Instead, once posted, the remixed social self exists on the social media platform connected directly to all of the previous stories that have been remixed there already, and the validation and consumption of the participating audience are integral to the referent to which the object adheres.  It takes a village to remix – albeit in reverse-reified fashion.  Think of an EDM DJ’s new live set combining with recreational drugs to give each audience member the feel of a wildly unique genuine experience that is personal to them, while to the outside observer everyone on the dance floor is feeling exactly the same thing: dazed.

The Remixed self of Social Media

The self is a remix.  Both in nature and in nurture, what it means to be human can be defined by the processes of remixing.  In nature, genetics are a remix.  From a biological standpoint, we are all a mashup of our parents’ DNA. Each human being born is the creation of a new text from the combination of two separate texts, where pieces from both of the originals are visible but where a new and unique text has emerged. In nurture, the social self is a remix. We are a collection of ideas, experiences, images, activities, knowledge, and opportunities that largely come from outside of ourselves. It is through our interactions with these social environmental factors that we formulate our sense of self.  In fact, some niche perspectives on early childhood development imply a sort of convergence of nature and nurture similar to how Luke describes convergence of function and form.  Film director Rob Reiner’s Children And Families Development Center, for instance, has been supported by federal United States government administrations in its mission statement that formative brain development can occur as early as birth, bringing “nurture” right up against “nature”, remixing from the moment the PLAY button is pressed for a life’s playlist.[xxx]  Yet, what is distinct about the remixing of the digital self on social media is the speed and frequency at which the individual remixes their projected identity to a virtual audience, and the principle role that the audience plays in validating that identity as legitimate.  We have always performed our identity for public consumption and pleasure, and we have always required the social approval of others for the legitimacy of our identity.  However, with social media, the digital identity exists not directly in the self, but rather on a third-party platform where both the writer and the reader – in equal-opportunity parts – can offer their continual approval or disapproval for all to see.   Therefore, on social media, the self is constantly remixed in a virtual space that is outside the individual but where the physical self is directly impacted by the virtual experiences of both themselves and their friends and followers.

Austin Kleon, in his 2012 TED Talk “Steal Like An Artist”, argues “nothing is completely original; all creative work builds on what came before.  Every new idea is just a remix or a mashup of one or more previous ideas.”[xxxi]   Nowhere is this truer than in the creation of the digital social self.  According to G. H. Mead the self is a social entity, in that the creation of individual identity is heavily tied to how a person internalizes the social expectations in the society around them.  The socialized self then is largely based on the marriage between the ideas of the social world as internalized by an individual, the projections of one’s own ideas to their social world, and the response of the social world to those projections.  For Mead, the self is composed of two parts, the “I” and the “me.”  The “me” generally refers to the ideas, expectations, and behaviours from the surrounding society (and other people directly) that the individual internalizes and takes on as part of themselves, whereas the “I” is the individual’s internal response to the “me.”

In his 1913 piece “The Social Self” Mead seeks to answer the question “what is involved in the self being an object or what is involved in the subject ‘I’ being an object ‘me’?”[xxxii]  The exploration of the subject (”I”) as an object (“me“) is at the core of any understanding of digital identity, especially when examining the remixed self as performed on social media.  Mead’s first axiom is simply that there can be no object without a subject, and there can be no “me” without an “I.”  In the same vein there can be no online identity without a human subject. However, at the very moment where the subject (“I”) begins to present themselves back to others, where it attempts to crystalize and give form to an identity, the self brings to an end being an “I” and its identity becomes an object (”me”) for consumption.  The remixed digital self in seeking to observe itself as a subject (“I”) presents its identity statement to social media by pic, post, comment, like, share, tweet or re-tweet.  However, as Mead states, “the moment it is presented it has passed into the objective case.”[xxxiii] Therefore the establishment of an online identity on social media is a conscious performance by the self, an objectification of the “I” and that is why it removes the subjectivity of the self simply by the very act of storytelling and offering up its digital self to becoming an object for consideration by both the self and others.  The online identity then bears a process similar to the one described by Mead, in that “the “I” can disclose themselves only by ceasing to be the subject for whom the object “me” exists.”[xxxiv]  Having posted their status update or tweeted about their day, the subject (“I”) immediately becomes an object (“me”) for observation and our consciousness of our own identity now exists after the fact as we experience it only through our observations of our posts, comments, and tweets and equally the responsive posts, likes, tweets, and comments of others.  When a confident DJ asserts that they are their music, and vice versa, perhaps they are more accurate than they realize – though, we would argue, they are still so much more than that.

While the presentation of the self for consumption on social media takes a human subject (“I”) and turns them into an objectified (“me”) it does not completely remove the subject (“I”) from consciousness or from the self.  The self is always both subject (“I”) and object (‘”me”).  In fact, for Mead, the self is always in the process of remixing, as part of what Mead calls an ongoing “reconstruction” where there are dialectical tensions between the subject (“I”) and the object (“me”): the subject (“I”) is objectified as it is performed, and becomes a “me” to be consumed by others.   The audience response to this performed identity is then internalized as the subject (“I”) as it reflects on the experiences of the object (“me”), and the self then attempts to resolve the tension between the subject (“I”) as presented and the object (“me”) as received by others though the creation of a reconstructed and remixed identity.  The reflective self, as Mead calls it “acts with reference to others and is immediately conscious of the objects about it.  But besides these contents, the action with reference to the others calls out responses in the individual [them]self – there is then another ‘me’ criticizing approving, and suggesting, and consciously planning.”[xxxv]  Reflection, which happens when the subject (“I”) observers the object (“me”), is a core component to the development of the self.  As Mead concludes, “the growth of the self arises out of a partial disintegration, the appearance of the different interests in the forum of reflection, the reconstruction of the social world, and the consequent appearance of the new self that answers to the new object.”[xxxvi] So while the presentation of the self may result in its objectification, in observing that objectification – that is in reading one’s own tweets or comments or the response of others to their social profiles online – the individual begins the reflective process of internalizing and responding to the object  (“me”) and therefore re-occupies the space of the subject (“I”).  Users of social media continually reconstruct or remix their digital social selves, both as subject (“I”) and as object (“me”) since we are all both storyteller and audience in this perpetual online performance.  In this sense, the enterprise of remixing selves is positively kaleidoscopic, more so that any music DJ’s two, five, eight turntables could handle.  And yet there is an undeniable harmony to the convergence, such that the self, in formulations running through Kant and all the way back to Socrates, is implicitly understood as manifold, much like the way language makes relative sense of what would otherwise be untenable.

Language is a mashup of symbols and signs that act as stand-ins or referents for objects, actions, expressions, experiences, and emotions.  The meaning of each symbol is nested both in how the symbol is encoded and decoded based on its connection to that which it refers.  However, for Baudrillard the postmodern self is over-inundated with a series of media images that are no longer connected to the reality they claim to depict.  Instead, the image has become so far removed from the real that it takes on a reality and life of its own.  This distance between the image and the referent is simulacra, “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality.”[xxxvii]  Baudrillard suggests that simulacra create a hyperreality, which “substitutes the signs of the real for the real” itself and in doing so, results in “a liquidation of all referentials.”[xxxviii] As we’ve already explained, the map makes the real territory tantamount to redundant.  Applied to social media, our use of language, signs, and symbols to remix our identities are simulations of the self, through the creation of a hyperreality of the subjective “I” we desire, and not necessarily the objective “me” we live.

There are inherent consequences for self-simulacra.  On social media, the self can also be a space of contestation when the remix occurs between two competing identities: the self as performed in real life and the self as displayed online.  This is not to suggest that all individuals live out alter egos online that are in complete opposition to their daily lives.  However, social media does allow for the performance of an identity not necessarily as it is lived out but rather as it is desired to be lived out, without any requirement of proof of action, authenticity, or at the very least commitment to the edicts of reality.  This is the remix as a social process. Remixing is socialbility.  Remixing involves groups, families, friends, followers, and even casual observers in order to authenticate and validate the process. By enveloping others into the process of identity construction in a more immediate way across physical distance than ever before, social media addresses the tension of competing selves (physical and digital) by relocating the referent for the posted object “me” that the subject “I” presents not in the physical self (that is its location is neither “I” or “me”) but instead in the “you” or “they” of others.  It is this process, the one whereby the other (“they”) consumes the object (“me”) presented by the subject (“I”) on social media that allows the reflective self “the opportunity for reconstruction of the situation that different and enlarged and more adequate personalities may appear.”[xxxix]

Guy Debord penned The Society of the Spectacle in 1967, in which he focuses on the role of mass media in the creation of a structured social environment that is in fact illusionary.  For Debord, the ideas presented by mass media are so thoroughly replicated and consumed without digestion by the everyday public (the masses) that regardless of the truth inherent in the messages themselves, with enough repetition they can forge an alternative reality – one not grounded in the real experiences, but one whose vast representation takes on the appearance of reality.  Debord argues, “Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”[xl]  In a spectacle-driven society, when representation loses its connection to the referent it becomes illusory, allowing individuals to lust after mass-marketed products at the same time as they gloss over the process and goals of commodity production and consumption.  On social media, spectacle works the same way as Baudrillard suggested simulacra exists in Disneyland: by creating an “an imaginary effect concealing that reality no more exists outside than inside the bounds of the artificial perimeter.”[xli]  The reality that exists for social media users inside the artificial perimeters of Facebook, Instagram or Twitter is a simulation of the self. It is this perception of identity that becomes the online identity.  The digital social self is performed, but the performance is illusory; it is spectacle and simulacrum. Having said that, by its very nature, social media is socialbiltiy and therefore a fertile breeding ground for continuous remixing of the self.  Through the reflexive subject (“I”) observing the others’ (“they”) reception of the posted object (“me”), the presented social self immediately becomes real.  After all, one liberating tenant of reality is that it is all real, even lies and falsehoods.  If it’s on the record, you’ll hear it, whether you notice it or not – guaranteed.  This poses some interesting questions for the study of narrative, storytelling, how identity is formed, and how social relations occur in digital spaces



The social self in the digital age is a remix and a mashup.  Our identities are a mashup of our online performances and our real life actions as they intersect.  At times the online and the lived are harmonious, whereby what we post, tweet, and share is a direct representation of the lived acts of our daily lives, and therefore play out as authentic presentations of subject (“I”) in the presented object (“me”).  Other times, the collection of the images, signs, and symbols we post and tweet in our online profiles are absent from a referent, but because they are validated by the comments, likes, posts, and retweets of friends and followers they take on the authenticity of being real through a hyperreality that allows us to view the object (“me”) that we perform online as the real subject (“I”) of our own consciousness.

In truth, we oscillate back and forth between these two positions.  Therefore, in either case, a re-literacy that explores social media allows us to view both cases as authentic representations of the self, since the digital social self is not an isolated consciousness of the “I” but rather a performance that is always is a collection of experiences informed by the ideas of others, and even other things.  On social media the referent is mutually dependent upon lived experience and audience reception.  As Richard Beach explains, “rather than being passive recipients of media, audiences are now assuming an active role [online] responding to and producing media and this plays a central role in their social identity construction.”[xlii]  The construction of a digital profile on social media, the very act of storytelling and of remixing is consciousness.  It is an active call to an engaged life…even if the level of engagement is at question.  As Dana Boyd argues “a profile can be seen as a form of digital body where individuals must write themselves into being.”[xliii]  What we use as the language to write ourselves into being on social media is a remediation – both mashup and remix – of stolen ideas, images, experiences, and objects that we post as our own with the security of knowing that as soon as we have added them to our profile they have been remixed and we become equal parts landlord and tenant within the digital identity we perform as long as it is recognized (and thus, for better or worse, validated) by friends and followers.

Identity is a performance and we are all poets as we write ourselves into a virtual existence that is borrowed and largely absent of the real, even as it takes on the illusion of reality itself.  TS Elliot in his 1921 collection The Sacred Wood writes that “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.  The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion.”[xliv]  It shouldn’t be a coincidence, then, that debates persist as to whether or not DJs are true artists or “thieves” of some sort.  Whether good or bad poets, in our creation of an online digital social self we remix and remake continuously as the dialectical relationship between Mead’s subject (“I”) and object (“me”) struggle to authentically write ourselves into being.  Our digital identities are much like Debord’s sense of spectacle, in that life presents itself as an immense accumulation of displays in the form of tweets, profile customizations, and comments.  However, online these images are no longer directly lived.  Instead, you only have illusion of a hyperreality.  Yet the spectacle itself is not a collection of images, but rather a social relation among people mediated by images.   As Debord argues, “The world one sees, is its world” and on social media all that remains is the representation of reality, as the reality itself– both to storyteller and to the audience.

Think back to the one-to-one-scale map of the world, and remember we are considering it as a stand-in for the self.  Now remember that the real world in that scenario became redundant.  There is so much to offer within digital media for self-expression, and recognition as such.  Theoretically, it all can go wherever we chose, help us express and be whatever we want to be.  But there is a reason that the empire’s real territory in Borges’ parable is left in ignored tatters, standing in for what should instead be, by all moral intuitions, the map itself.  There is also a reason Baudrillard refers to those dusty shreds and their space as “the desert of the real itself.”[xlv]


[i] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, (University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1.

[ii] Angus Harrison, “Why Elvis vs JXL’s “A Little Less Conversation” Still Matters 15 Years Later How a Dutch producer’s 2002 big beat remix took the world by storm,” last modified May 10, 2017,

[iii] Charles Fairchild, “Why the Grey Album still matters – in black and white,” last modified October 13, 2014,

[iv] Remix: “A music remix, in general, is a reinterpretation of a pre-existing song, meaning that the “spectacular aura” of the original will be dominant in the remixed version”

Mashup: “There are two types of mashups, which are defined by their functionality. The first mashup is regressive; it is common in music and is often used to promote two or more previously released songs…[t]he second mashup is reflexive, and is usually found outside of music, and most commonly in web 2.0 applications. Some examples of this genre include news feed remixes as well as maps with specific local information. This second form of mashup uses samples from two or more elements to access specific information more efficiently, thereby taking them beyond their initial possibilities.”

Both definitions taken from Navas E. “Regressive and Reflexive Mashups in Sampling Culture,” in Mashup Cultures ed. S. Sonvilla-Weiss (Springer, 2010).

Springer Naal PhilaWien/New York.  Book was published in May 2010

Sonvilla-Weiss, Stefan (Ed.) Mashup Cultures, 2010, ISBN: 978-3-7091-0095-0,

Springer Wien/New York.  Book was published in May 2010

[v] Jay David Bolter and Robert Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999).

[vi] “A profile can be seen as a form of digital body where individual must write themselves into being.” Danah Boyd, “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” in Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume, ed. David Buckingham (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007).

[vii] Robert K Logan, The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age, (Stoddart Pub, 1997).

[viii] Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, (Harper, 2017).

[ix] Ibid. Page 429.

[x] Busta Rhymes, “Gimme Some More”, Track 10 on Extinction Level Event, Elektra, 1998, compact disc.

[xi] Bernard Herrmann, “Prelude”, National Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded October 2 1975, track 1 on Psycho: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Unicorn, compact disc.

[xii] James Slevin, The Internet and Society, (Polity, 2000).

John B. Thompson, “Mass Communication and Modern Culture: Contribution to a Critical Theory of Ideology,” Sociology Vol. 22, No. 3 (August, 1988), pp. 359-383.

[xiii] Douglas Kellner and Jeff Share quoted in Jeff Share, “Young Children and Critical Media Literacy,” in Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches, eds. Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 127.

[xiv] Ibid. Page 129.

[xv] Kirby Ferguson, “Embrace the Remix,” TEDGlobal 2012, June 2012, video, 9:42,

[xvi] Carmen Luke, “As Seen on TV or Was that My Phone? New Media Literacy” in Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches, eds. Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 197.

[xvii] Ralph Schroeder, Social Theory after the Internet Media, Technology, and Globalization

(UCL Press, 2018) 83,98.

Note: “Socialbility is about belonging to groups: family, friends and acquantences” 88.

[xviii] See for example, Lynn Schofield Clark, “Digital Media and The Generation Gap,” Information, Communication & Society, 12:3, (2009), pp. 388-407.

[xix] “What Students Are Saying About 2020, Growing Up in Another Era, and Distraction,” New York Times The Learning Network, last modified January 9, 2020,

[xx] “Reimagining the Role of Technology in Education: 2017 National Education Technology Plan Update,” Office of Educational Technology, U.S. Department of Education, January 2017,

[xxi] Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, “Teens Social Media and Technology  2018,” PEW Research Centre, last modified May 31, 2018,

[xxii] The generation gap of technology is also problematic because it doesn’t account for the role that early adaptors play in technology or how early adaptors can exist in all age demographics. See for example Anabel Quan-Haase, Technology and Society: Social Networks, Power, and Inequality, (Oxford University Press, 2015).

[xxiii] Douglas Kellner, “Towards a Critical Media/Cultural Studies” in Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches, eds. Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 7.

[xxiv] How many of my 65 followers on Twitter click a link in comparison to a link posted inside a tweet by Time Magazine to its more than 16.8 million followers on Twitter?

[xxv] Jeff Share, “Young Children and Critical Media Literacy,” in Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches, eds. Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 127.

[xxvi] Professor Sherry Rowley at York University refers to these as the ”who benefits questions” and they are an essential part of her teaching on narrative, storytelling, and cultural studies.

[xxvii] Douglas Kellner, “Towards a Critical Media/Cultural Studies” in Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches, eds. Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 5-21.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle, (Detroit: Black and Red Books 1977),


[xxx] Rob Reiner Children And Families Development Center, “Principle’s Message/Home Page”, Perris Elementary School District, Blackboard, accessed March 2020,

[xxxi] Austin Kleon, “Steal Like An Artist,” TEDxKC, 2012,  video, 11:15

[xxxii] George Herbert Mead. “The Social Self”, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 10, 1913: 374-380; accessed

[xxxiii] Ibid. Page 1.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid. Page 3.

[xxxvi] Ibid. Page 6.

[xxxvii] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, (University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1.

[xxxviii] Ibid. Page 2.

[xxxix] George Herbert Mead. “The Social Self”, Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods 10, 1913: 374-380; accessed 5.

[xl] Guy Debord, Society of the Spectacle (Detroit: Black and Red Books 1977),


[xli] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, (University of Michigan Press, 1994), 2.

[xlii] Richard Beach “Digital Tools for Collecting, Connecting, Constructing Responding to, Creating, and Conducting Media Ethnographies of Audience Use of Media Texts” in Media/Cultural Studies: Critical Approaches, eds. Rhonda Hammer and Douglas Kellner (New York: Peter Lang, 2009), 206-228.

[xliii] ” Boyd, Danah. “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life,” in Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume, ed. David Buckingham (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), 2.

[xliv] T.S. Elliot, The Sacred Wood: essays on Poetry and Criticism, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921)


[xlv] Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra And Simulation, trans. Sheila Faria Glaser, (University of Michigan Press, 1994), 1.

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