Jennifer Pybus examines the benefits of social media in her article “Accumulating Affect: Social Networks and Their Archives of Feelings.” She highlights the fact that “posting content has become a necessary means by which to maintain intimacy with peers” for many social media users (235). The archive of digital information is exponentially expanding, even though privacy-protecting behaviors continue to increase, especially among young people. Pybus analyzes the effects that the increasing archive of digital information has on its users and the economy.
Pybus begins by examining the social relationships found through social media. These networks “allow users to: (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (Pybus 237). It’s interesting to note that Pybus argues that “users don’t typically go to these sites to meet strangers, but to maintain preexisting offline friendships” (237). That may depend on the type of social media one looks at, because plenty of networks allow for anonymity and to further the goal of creating new online friendships (think Tumblr). Regardless of the anonymity of the user, social media does help people feel comforted and built up when they are feeling insecure. This latter reason may explain why so many details of a user’s life are fudged online. By posting only positive or “airbrushed” experience to social media, users can feel more secure due to the positive feedback they get from their friends list. Social media promotes these interactions and, in doing so, becomes a successful example of “stickness,” a term marketers use to refer to the “amount of time spend on a website” (Pybus 237). The more time users spend on the network, the more successful the network is.
While many scholars argue that social media is used to exploit users into providing data for the “information economy,” Pybus argues that users can “nonetheless enjoy the effects of networked sociality generated when the engage with their divergent groups of friends” through an “archive of feelings” (238). An archive is not a static construct of documents, but rather an ever-changing ”space of interpretation and contestation that has the power to make meaning through its ability to privilege certain discourses over others. Who and what gets remembered and who gets to make these existential decisions, are issues with important social, political, and economic ramifications” (Pybus 239). In an “archive of feelings,” focus is placed on how the texts are constructed, rather than the content themselves. The creation of the archive preserves emotions and memories, and these preservations can often be more important to the users than what is actually created.
Social media promotes a different way for bodies to connect with each other. In this connection, “each message, note, and photo that gets uploaded carries with it the ability to affect not only a friend in the network but equally the individual user, based on the way that this object is received by the members of his or her respective community” (Pybus 240). A piece of information’s effect on a person changes based on whether he or she chooses to upload it to social media to share with friends. The user uploads this piece for a reason, and it has the ability to maintain relationship and memories through the act of being shared with friends. The act of sharing allows people to feel connected with each other and, in the process, encourages more sharing of information with each other. As Pybus notes, “The more we use sites such as Facebook, the more we post, the more we are motivated to generate and share additional content” (242). The fact that social media is almost purely user-generated in fact allows its continuation.
Of course, Pybus highlights a paradox within this system because what is shared is only a representation. Social media can never fully recreate experiences, regardless of users’ desires to “place everything in the archive” (Pybus 242). However, Pybus argues that “Such an archive would not only be utopian and perhaps somewhat perverse, it would have the effect of erasing memory all together” (242). Social media works because users make their own choices about what to upload into the digital archive and what kind of experiences they want to create within the network.
Because users can create their own selves within social media, many scholars, such as Sherry Turkle, conceptualize identity as having separate selves within each network. We have different identities based on who we are talking to and sharing with. Others argue that the different selves come “together to produce a more singular, albeit fractured, identity, driven not only by the architecture of the technology but also by an active need for sociality (Pybus 243). Regardless of the theory one might subscribe to, users have the ability to present distinctly separate selves to different groups of people, and, as Pybus argues, it is important “to think about [the] related power/knowledge questions that emerge when we begin to examine the choices that determine what information will come to represent us, affect others, and subsequently affect ourselves” (243).
Finally, Pybus does attend to the fact that marketers are making increasingly substantial use out of the data from social media. Why make a study of human behavior and consumption when it is immediately available already on social media? Concerns about how organizations are becoming “hungrier and hungrier” for user data are not unjustified (Pybus 245). Pybus argues, however, that “To focus only on how corporations extrapolate our data negates those very real affective relations that propel the increased production and circulation of data by users” (245). Social media users are still getting very important benefits from the networks, regardless of how those ensuing relationships are being analyzed.