Instagrammatization: Considering the hypomnesic milieu facilitated by a hybrid social media platform
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In March of 2021, Facebook Inc. announced plans to develop an advertisement-free version of social media platform Instagram. The plans have been met with strong criticism, which is only the latest in a long line of critique on social media. The field of new media studies, however, is rife with seemingly contradictive appraisals of social media platforms. While some understand them as cash-grabbing monoliths responsible for divisions in society, others see them as merely reflecting societal problems, while yet others understand them as boons to humanity that contribute towards countering those problems. In part, these contradictive statements can be explained as caused by a general understanding of human society and technology as two separate elements, and a repeated focus on only individual aspects of technology – the way individual technologies function, the possibilities they afford, the way they are used and configured, or the way they operate within constellations of economic power. This thesis presents the philosophy of Bernard Stiegler on memory and technics as a way to overcome the binary opposition between society and technology; the French philosopher understands humanity and technics – tools human beings use to exteriorize memories and carry over experience to future generations – as locked in a perpetual process of mutual becoming. Stiegler’s philosophical project is explicitly politically engaged. It is aimed at how specific configurations of technics may cause a form of psychological harm that the French philosopher refers to as symbolic misery. According to Stiegler, this symbolic misery first emerged from 20th century mass media and fosters xenophobia, fanaticism and forms of resentment. The aim of this thesis is three-fold: to operationalize Stiegler’s philosophy, to illustrate, through an analysis of the Instagram social media platform, how his philosophical ideas may indeed be useful in empirical research, and to provide new insights into the role Instagram might play within contemporary Western society, especially in regard to its alleged polarization. After the introduction of some theoretical additions to Stiegler’s philosophy in order to attune it to our contemporary 21st century media landscape, a three-pronged analytical approach is developed that takes together discursive interface analysis with a consideration of Instagram’s selection and ordering algorithms and a consideration of Facebook Inc.’s business model. Based on the analysis, it is found that, due to way Instagram’s current configuration is aimed towards generating advertising revenue, it fosters an environment from which symbolic misery and polarizing tendencies might emerge, while it simultaneously also offers precisely the means necessary to combat these tendencies. To an extent, these findings nuance Stiegler’s philosophy, which originally states that technics can work either towards or against symbolic misery. The thesis concludes on the thought that, while on paper, an advertisement-free children’s version of Instagram might perhaps not be such a bad idea, it might nevertheless be subjected to the same drawbacks its adult version is subjected too; after all, from a methodological perspective, the discursive interface analysis reveals broader tendencies within contemporary Western society. In any case, as a society, we will have to consider the balance between social media platform’s boons and the drawbacks caused by their subjection to market forces, which might foster symbolic misery, but at the same time do promote the existence of social media platforms in the first place.