Wednesday, May 29, 2024

#150 / Commodification Of The Self

Kyle Chayka is the author of Filterworld. That book explores how the algorithm-driven realities we encounter on the Internet have the effect of "filtering out" differences, and have "flattened the world." In a recent edition of The New Yorker, Chayka describes "Coming Of Age At The Dawn Of The Social Internet," which is a kind of personal history. I found his article both engaging and compelling, and I am happy to recommend it to you. Clicking that link to the title should get you there, though whether that will be true for non-subscribers to The New Yorker remains to be tested. Click to test!

As is so often the case, one line in Chayka's article is what captured my attention - one little phrase. After telling us that by around 2006 "the digital and physical worlds were slowly overlapping," Chayka wants us to know (his opinion) that this "wasn’t necessarily a bad thing." For instance, Chayka tells us, he first met his wife on Facebook, as they each identified the same "raucous-but-nerdy" band from Minnesota as among their favorites.

By 2012, having moved on from Facebook to Instagram (Instagram being owned by Facebook, by the way), Chayka has noted that the Internet has resulted in the "commodification of the self." 

That's the phrase that hit me, as I read Chayka's article, and it particularly hit me, I believe, because I had just finished reading a story in The Wall Street Journal that comments on the life of Joanna Goddard, a "lifestyle blogger." Goddard's "Cup of Jo" Blog, which she has been writing since 2007, chronicles her experiences in the following areas: "falling in love, building a family, and navigating everyday challenges." Providing shopping picks and gift guides, for instance, are some of the "everyday challenges" she helps her readers confront. 

Goddard's life, in other words, is the perfect example of a life that has been "commodified." Unlike my blog - the one you are reading right now - Goddard's blog is a paying proposition. Her postings generate 4.2 million page views every month; the blog has three paid employees and brings in more than $2 million per year in revenue.

This is not, apparently, revenue enough for Goddard. She has recently divorced her husband, Alex Williams, a New York Times reporter, and so has launched a new blog on Substack, "Big Salad." In this new blog, Goddard will be "sharing details of her of her freshly single life," and providing "out-loud examples of people who get divorced and are doing well." This new venture is certainly a further example of the "commodification" of Goddard's life. Her total subscriber count for "Big Salad" already tops 110,000. You pay $5 a month to subscribe for the weekly edition.

Chiara Ferragni is another big-ticket commodifier. Her blog is called "The Blonde Salad." For whatever reason, it seems like "Salad" is a metaphor that suits the commodified life. 

Ferragni is Italian, and her immensely profitable efforts online have recently gotten her in trouble with her fans. She has been accused of a scam, in which she appeared to be promoting a charity effort, but with all of the charitable giving actually going to her personally. Depending on how you do with the paywall protections erected by The New York Times, you can read all about it right here

Turning one's life into a "thing," into a "commodity" that can be promoted and sold, won't work for most of us, but those who can get rich from their "commodification of the self" depend on those who follow them - on all the rest of us. 

In an "attention economy," which is the foundation upon which the Internet is built, it is we, the "non-commodified" ordinary people, who provide the "attention," and thus make selling one's life possible, for those few self-commodified "stars," like Jo Goddard and Chiara Ferragni, who can pull it off. Lots of "Influencers" are giving it a go, and we're the ones making their commodification of their selves profitable.

The phenomenon I am highlighting today was identified, way before the Internet, by Bob Dylan, in his 1965 song, "It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding)."  Click the link to hear him sing it, live. Here is the verse that is most directly on point:

Advertising signs they con
You into thinking you’re the one
That can do what’s never been done
That can win what’s never been won
Meantime life outside goes on
All around you

The "commodified self" is an illusion. That's what those "influencers" are trying to sell us - an illusion - and that's what so many are struggling to believe in, to emulate, and to make their own. That's exactly what Dylan is telling us. That "commodified self" is just another advertising con. 

Dylan tells us, in the last line of his song, what we need to remember. As we are tempted, in so many ways, to pay attention to the commodified self that others are making available to us, and as we try, in so many ways, to become, ourselves, commodified, and to make "real" the illusions that those commodified selves seem to promise us, we need to keep in mind the truth expressed in Dylan's last line. 

Forget the illusions. Forget the cons. In the last line to his song, which I have printed out, right below, Dylan tells us what we have actually got [You can click on the link to listen to Dylan sing it]:

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