Social media as a rhizome

An interview with journalist Vladislav Moiseev on the future of social media and its’ political influence

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An interview with Vladislav Moiseev

An interview by Evgenya Erdakova

New media and social networks have been discussed a lot, including discussions in a context of urban life. However attempts of rethinking and predicting the development in this field and its influence on future of cities mostly were made in the dimension of technologies. We have a conversation with an expert in social anthropology who studies how new media are affecting social reality, forming micro context (self-documenting, interaction on personal level), civic engagement of citizens and how they are changing the context of public administration.

Vladislav Moiseev is a post-graduate student and journalist. He studies philosophical anthropology in The Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA) and works as a correspondent for ‘Russkiy Peporter’ magazine.
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Please, tell us about the trends in self-​documentation and self-​presentation via social media that you consider as the most important?

After the visual turn has occurred and an image has been proclaimed as a basic term of being, anything hasn’t changed fundamentally. All self-​documenting that is happening now in social media, is primarily visual. The most evident example is a selfie, which was chosen in 2013 as the word of the year according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s difficult for me to imagine what new ways and services in self-​documentation will appear, however I can explain how self-​documenting works internally now. At this point, it would be ridiculous to argue that today Instagram is the major means for self-​documenting.

If there is no new ways and services in self-​documentation, then probably new popular subjects (stories) appear? In your early publications you have mentioned food (like #foodporn), sexuality, corporeality, what can go next?

Yes, that’s right. In 1986 Jean Baudrillard wrote in his book ‘America’ that to be connected to an image of virility (i.e. corporeality, sexuality, vitality and so on) is even more important than to own the virility and corporeality. Hence the subjects, the ways of self-​documenting that we can observe in all social media, match this idea. If we consider banal photos of food, pictures with cats, photos of sport activities, all of them relate to only one idea… Well, actually not the only one idea, there were many attempts to explain why all of us do self-​documenting in these ways, but according to Jean Baudrillard’s ideas, these phenomena have ontological foundation – ‘being connected to the image’ of virility. For a process of contemporary self-​documenting I suggest to use term ‘a delirium of reference 2.0’. Baudrillard also called this phenomena ‘polaroid effect’, i.e. at the same time you own both object and its image.

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Governments of many countries fight for control over social media to prevent opposition activities /​photo: Vladislav Moiseev

Not so long ago there were many discussions on a ‘digital detox’ topic. Now it’s not as popular, nevertheless the idea of reduction of digital consumption stays prominent. Would the ‘digital detox’ trend somehow affect urban life in future? For example, it might appear as ‘digital-​free’ areas.

Digital Detox is kind of a trendy thing. It means the following: today I don’t use any gadgets. Indeed, during the whole day everything of this disappears. The point is that disconnection of the digital world is just an illusion: even when we are disconnected for a whole day, we don’t disappear from the digital orbit. A long time ago, for instance 10 – 15 years ago , the idea of virtual reality which is the opposite of real life (‘real reality’) was popular. These two realities are parallel and have no intersection. It is possible to leave the virtual reality while entirely leaving the digital zone. In the epoch of big and slow desktops this probably worked and even first computer interfaces were making attempts to simulate actuality, the way it is arranged. Everything in the Internet was made in a logic of our everyday reality, for instance, the first online shops were designed like offline malls.

Disconnection from the digital world is just an illusion: even when we are disconnected for a whole day, we don’t disappear from the digital orbit

In time this situation has changed dramatically, a person has become mobile, he’s got a pocket-​size portal to the virtual reality – for example, a smartphone or a tablet. This kind of portal works constantly – a person always takes his gadget wherever he goes, he can be connected to networks every moment, push-​notifications don’t allow any posibility of not being aware of what’s going on. Thus actuality and virtual reality together form something common.

There is no virtual reality now, there is only one reality. It is impossible somehow to turn off digital reality because while you are having a digital detox, somewhere in social networks someone is sending you messages, adding you to their friend lists, tagging you in photos and so on. If you proceed to some philosophical categories, you can use an important philosophical concept of ‘body without organs’, which in context of new media studies has been re-​thinked as a ‘digital profile’. So this is the kind of intangible space where our desires are fixed, it is just impossible to disconnect.

Let’s return to social media and urban life. Do you think in the near future all urban spaces will be permeable to new media, or some areas will be kind of a buffer zone? Let’s just say, how social media will be distributed in urban space?

To preface an answer, I want to consider a case of a professor of social media studies who has forbidden using gadgets in lectures. That’s really funny, however this professor gets the point the right way: while someone old and boring is telling you something about new media it’s just impossible not to look aside. This case reveals questions of whether the new media are appropriate everywhere and if they will be everywhere in near future. This question stands very acutely especially in such cases like study process where interdiction of social media is a necessity. That’s why the majority of restrictions on social media will have institutional and state disposition, like it can be in jails, schools and etc.

This is the future of civic engagement and urban life: technologies which somehow bypass direct connection to the Internet 

Deleuze and Guattari created one more very important concept -– the opposition between a rhizome and a tree structure. A state is a shape, a hierarchy, a tree structure, its idea is opposite to new media which is something like a rhizome with nonlinear structure. All state institutions adopt to the existence of new media very slowly. It’s typical not only in Russia but also in other countries. Limiting in proliferation of new media in urban space will be related exactly to state institutions. Furthermore there is a very important moment, which is civic engagement of citizens, that has started actively developing since 2000s and its development keeps on growing, not only in Russia but in the rest of the world as well. This growth of civic engagement is the second important issue in proliferation of new media in which the opposition between the rhizome and the tree structure is involved. For instance, political demonstrations. What happens there? People come out and claim something to their dictator or government. Then a security service brings a car that blocks the signal to prevent dissemination of information in the Internet and to avoid messages on Twitter like ‘guys, come to Manezhnaya! Let’s overthrow the régime!’ And so the car arrives and blocks the network. I don’t know, maybe this car is some action movie story, but a fact remains a fact – you cannot reach the outer world on some meetings because there is no connection for some reason. Especially in the most tense moments such as the Navalny imprisonment. As far as I remember, cell phones didn’t work, no 3G was available. Nothing special, considering how much people were there, but on the other hand there were not that much of them. Some people were talking about the signal being muted. This way or another it is being done.

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Civic engagement of citizens which was developing actively during last 10 years all over the world, has strong relation with new media proliferation /​photo: Vladislav Moiseev

Like it was in Hong Kong, for example?

Yes, like it was in Hong Kong. I’ve been in Hong Kong for a week during the protests and in fact I’ve lived on the barricades. What happened there? The network was blocked: an area in urban space, where demonstrations took place, suddenly was totally disconnected like a dead area, neither laptops nor other gadgets worked there. It was impossible to be in touch with the rest of the world, impossible to call for help, you couldn’t even tell what was going on. There was total isolation which contradicted the whole idea of contemporary urban life. This is exactly the conflict between the tree structure, which has hierarchical arrangement, and rhizome, like a form and formlessness by Deleuze and Guattari. This conflict is so constituted that the State, as the main carrier of the tree structure, appears and tries to somehow put the amorphous rhizome under supervision. Сounteraction arises between the rhizome and the tree structure, however, a new outgrowth of the rhizome appears then. In reality it means that when all signals and networks in the area of protests were blocked, Hong Kongers started to use the instant messenger called FireChat. Do you know what FireChat is?

Sure, it’s an instant messenger, wireless mesh networking app, which allows phones to connect to one another directly using Bluetooth or Wi-​Fi as an alternative to the Internet.

Yes. In fact this technology allowed protesters to cordon off the downtown during several months. This is amazing and proves that when the tree structure appropriates any part of free zone, there is always something new that compensates for the loss. And this is exactly what we see here: if you can not be coordinated via Twitter, we do coordinating in the FireChat. This is exactly what the government is just totally unable to control. Of course, installing FireChat can be banned, but it’s much more complicated. And then, there are a million clones of FireChat, similar apps with the same technology. This is the future of civic engagement and urban life: technologies which somehow bypass direct connection to the Internet and allow to create alternative networks. I suppose, this is exactly what will occur in the future urban life. Well, similar things have been already actively used, this technology is applied, for example, in office life, where it is important to organize a break for coffee and a cigarette quickly, to arrange provocations, strikes or political demonstrations. That is, as soon as the state subordinates the zone of our traditional Internet (i.e. Facebook, Vkontakte, Twitter, Wikipedia or anything else), when the state makes users accountable for their acts committed on the Internet, to put them in jail for piracy, alternative networks appear, which then will be somehow usurped too. As a response to this usurpation new networks and technologies will appear. This is an endless struggle between the rhizome and the tree structure.

Yes. That’s clear. So the rhizome appears to be adaptive and flexible?

Flexible, adaptive, nonlinear, neither bad or good. Some crap can grow out of it, but also something worthy. It’s natural to obey the tree form and become a part of tree-​like form. And to grow to some nonlinear rootlets, let’s say. Basically, some constant countermovement takes place. And all questions that you’ve asked can be viewed from the perspective of this conception. It’s a purely speculative thing, of course, but I liked the Hong Kong’s example very much. Let’s start with the fact that China implies strict censorship. But since Hong Kong has a special status, citizens have their Twitter, Facebook, and such. When the act of censorship appeared during the protest, they have immediately found the way. The root appeared to be before the form. No government figured out how to control the FireChat so far. Of course, you can prohibit downloading it, but there will always be another app. So, I think, the root always stands before the form, in some way. Form always fights the consequences, so it’s always a step behind because it doesn’t evolve on it’s own.