Digimodernism, social media and the (apparently) Real

Alan Kirby’s book, Digimodernism, is interesting for a number of reasons1, not least that it’s published in paper format.  I say this because, like so many publications related to social media, there seems to something rather ironic in that the author still relies on the ‘traditional’ hardcopy format to put across his arguments, even though there is also an ‘e-version’ available.

Leaving that argument to one side, what particularly interests me about this book are Kirby’s notions of the ‘apparently real’ and the ‘endless narrative’, both of which seem particularly pertinent when thinking about social media.  But first, perhaps, we need to be understand what Kirby means by ‘digimodernism’ in the first place.  He uses it in contrast to postmodernism, which he sees digimodernism as replacing.  However, one of Kirby’s problems, in my view, is that he uses a postmodern style of writing to argue for its demise, and in doing so, much of his argument is lost.   Kirby spends much of the book attempting to explain why and how digimodernism has transcended (or rather, ‘dismantled’) postmodernism, without really giving a ‘definition’ of postmodernism.  However, insofar as he does attempt a definition, it is that digimodernism represents a new form of textuality.

More than anything, it’s the internet and social media that has enabled this new form of textuality to come to the fore.  And one of its key elements is the role of the reader/user in endlessly (re)constructing the text.  No longer is there such a thing as a ‘completed narrative’ or a ‘final draft’.  Everything is being perpetually edited and re-edited.  Not that there is necessarily anything new (or ‘digimodernist’) about this: ever since the advent of wordprocessing software it’s been possible to defy the conventions of writing a story (why start at the beginning when you can add it later?), and the same goes for film and other media.  However, the internet and social media seem to have taken this to a whole new level.

Of course, another aspect of the digital text is that, in principle, anyone can now be an author and publish their masterpieces to a worldwide audience.  In practice, it’s not quite that simple, and as most bloggers and e-publishers will tell you, the majority of this material is drowned in the digital ocean.  Then there is the rise of the comment culture, which is also linked to the idea of the eternal draft.  Take, for example, an article in the online version of The Guardian (or any other popular on-line publication): the main article is usually followed by a stream of comments – which can range from a dozen or so to hundreds or even thousands.  To what extent do these comments constitute part of the text?  The same applies to all those Facebook groups: someone posts an interesting article or picture, and then other group members comment on it.  Where is the ‘original’ text in all this?

At the moment, the reality is that this whole process is still skewed towards established media companies, many  of whom have made the transition from ‘off’ to ‘on’ line – and, in fact, many of whom continue to publish in both formats.  It is still unclear to what extent digimodernism has really changed the politics of the media – and of publishing in general for that matter.  The whole comment culture is essentially parasitical, and is dependent on someone producing an ‘original’ or ‘source’ text, and on this text reaching a wide enough audience to enable it to be commented upon in the first place.  And in the end this comes back to questions of power and the political-economy of the text.

However, there is another aspect of digimodernism that isn’t so apparent, and in many ways really is new – or rather, really does ‘transcend’ postmodernism with all its cynicism, denial of grand narratives, and so on.  After all, playing around with forms of text and chronological time not, in itself, a hallmark of digimodernism: it’s simply that digital technology makes this a lot easier.  On the other hand, the idea of the apparently real does seem to mark a break with postmodernism.  As Kirby reminds us, for postmodernism there was no given reality ‘out there’; and neither is there a Real (although one of problems with Kirby’s argument is that it is not clear whether by ‘real’ he means reality or the Real).  For postmodernists there is no ‘outside’ of the text, no referent; rather there is only an endless play of signifiers and signifieds, a self-referential and self-contained semiotics.  The notion of a extra-discursive ‘reality’ (or Real to be more precise) is seen as a contradiction in terms, because the only way to ‘access’ such an extra-discursive ‘reality’ it through language or discourse itself.  To put it in Baudrillian terms: the world, ‘reality’, is just one big simulacra.

Interestingly, perhaps, the examples that Kirby uses to introduce the concept of the apparently real are not specifically digital; rather, he refers to the advent of reality TV shows, docusoaps, and films such as The Blair Witch Project, where the line between ‘reality’ and ‘fiction’ becomes increasingly blurred.  When it comes to the internet, or, rather, its (increasingly jaded and dated) Web 2.0 incarnation2 , Kirby argues that digital texts and on-line publishing (in the form of blogs, chat forums, social networking sites, etc); rely on ‘honesty’ and ‘authenticity’.  It’s not clear what he’s getting at here, because the digital universe is the perfect place to lie and re-invent oneself.  However, I can see that in one sense he’s onto something, because there is something ‘immediate’ and ‘present’ about on-line textuality; a ‘rawness’ that appears to signify ‘authenticity’.  It’s precisely the lack of editing, the lack of ‘polish’ of many on-line texts (and in semiotic terms a ‘text’ can be an image or a piece of music as well as a piece of writing) that gives them the stamp of ‘being real’.

What is exposed in digimodernism is what is normally concealed from the reader, viewer or listener: the process by which a text is constructed, and the how the idea of a ‘finished’ or ‘completed’ text is a fiction.  Instead what we encounter in digimodernism is a perpetual ‘work-in-progress’ of the text; and it is this, I would argue, that makes it seem ‘real’.  Of course, there is nothing new in this either: just think of all those ‘extras’ in DVDs, which often include a documentary on how the film was made, interviews with the main actors, etc.  Again, however, digimodernism has taken this to a new level, where (textual) reality itself is unfolding (unravelling?) into a never-ending ‘work-in-progress’ and in which we can all participate in how it is (re)constructed.

But isn’t this the (ironic) twist in argument?  Hasn’t digimodernism simply exposed what was already there?  In other words, the idea of ‘completed’ texts, of ‘finished’ narratives, of stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, of fixed meanings, was always a fiction.  There is nothing ‘apparent’ about the ‘reality’ that Kirby argues is a product of digimodernism; rather, it is the appearance of the Real itself in all its messiness, discontinuity and incompleteness.

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  1. Alan Kirby, 2009. Digimodernism: how new technologies dismantle the postmodern and reconfigure our culture, New York: Continuum Publishing Group. []
  2. See for example Geert Lovink’s critique of Web 2.0 and social media: Geert Lovink, 2011. Networks Without a Cause: A Critique of Social Media, Cambridge: Polity Press. []