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On the etiquettes of networked affection

What does em—bracing an idea or a person really mean today? Starting with the introduction of the telegraph in 1855 and presently identifiable in the latest generation of smartphones, new embodiments of values of affection and care continually emerge in tandem with communication technologies. As the global material frameworks binding us together transmute, signs and signifiers are modified too, manifesting new codes of emotion and gestures to convey these within a digitised milieu.

For an early example, we can turn to the advent of the twentieth century, when the widespread expansion of the telephone threatened the formalities of letter-writing, in turn creating a market for etiquette guides that would establish procedures for polite remote conversation. Among the promoted rules were courtesies such as identifying yourself and your number upon answering a call, as well as refraining from issuing party invitations over the phone by stricter members of civil society. These behaviours were explicitly designed to ensure modernity did not rupture the continuity of the Victorian and Edwardian ideals. However, as use of the telephone advanced, it soon helped disrupt aspects of these strictures.

Shifting forward to the twenty-first century and the rise of social-media infrastructure, we forego state issued guidance on how to behave, instead contractually binding our[user]selves to the community guidelines embedded within the Terms and Conditions. Instagram, for instance, asks that we only share content we have the right to use, post photos and videos appropriate for diverse audiences, foster meaningful interactions (don’t spam), respect other members by refraining from hate speech, do not glorify self-injury and are thoughtful when posting about newsworthy events. Requests that collectively constitute a modern netiquette guide, enforced by a combination of peer-to-peer policing, algorithmic detection and overseas labour.

However, these rules are far less prevalent in our behavioural conditioning in practice than the unwritten formalities communities collectively project onto one another. The archetype of these new values is possibly the influencer, a figure who, because of their elevated visibility as an online persona, is pressured to perform cynical acts of care. Collectives of influencers are understood to notify each other upon posting, triggering a succession of immediate ‘likes’ to validate one another in the eyes of an all-seeing algorithm. In short, influencers deploy a mixed package of para-social tactics to their audiences to generate trust, a commodity they leverage into brand partnerships.

The trickle-down impact of these habits is evident in our more mundane relations online. Friends have complained to me about partners or the person they’re dating not responding to a new social media post they have mad. Meanwhile I become uneasy when my mother fails to check in with me by sending a daily mum-meme.i We all have internal clocks for how long someone can leave a message as being ‘seen’ without replying. These modes of affection are highly performative and form the foundation of the addiction stimulating systems social media have been built on, yet they now also constitute a new micro-expressive idea of the embrace. To neglect them infers a level of disrespect or even cruelty; put bluntly, the differing approval triggers of Web 2.0 platforms for many now constitute the baseline expression of care in our society. The ease and scale of these interactions are both a blessing and a curse.

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In her text Turing Complete User (2012) the net artist Olia Lialina explores why this economy of exchanges has become so central to ideas of affection, and identifies UX design that ‘turn[s] our interactions with computers into pre-computer actions’, as part of a deliberate policy to monopolise interpersonal exchanges.ii Sets of ‘natural’ gestures and movements replace key inputs ,making our modes of digital expression feel more humane, thereby permitting screen-to-screen care to replace our face-to-face capabilities. The technology theorist Geert Lovink has gone as far as arguing that the social has become ‘a special effect of software’, lamenting that by addicting users to their platforms tech firms have digitised public space as nothing more than ‘a calculated opportunity in times of distributed communication.’iii

Such a reading is too absolute and far too pessimistic to me. The truth likely rests somewhere in the foggy grey zone between a metaverse where a VR embrace is registered through haptic sensors and a dystopia in which affection is solely a metric. Fractions of both realities intermingle when I reply to my mum-meme or provide solace to a friend who struggles with micro-doses of digital neglect. Online affection exists in myriad mannerisms, certain habits are more methodological and contain within them a calculated reference to algorithms, but this foundation does not necessarily debase the sincerity of other gestures that are scaffolded on top. In fact, modern communication technologies comprise a cohabitation of embraces, the artificial functioning as a fluid for the authentic to swim through. From which we could infer that the larger the pool of ‘likes’ the greater our chances of meaningfully connecting… though maybe this is wishful thinking.

Pita Arreola Burns

i Mom´s memes displays my meme archive, extracted from a year of long-distance communications between my mom and myself. It looks to acknowledge the enormous influence of memes in our daily communications, the way in we conceptualise ideas, and the users’ unmeasured labour behind new digital technologies structures and networks. [Accessed on 4/05/2022 at http://www.offsiteproject.org//zip]

ii Lialina, O. (2012) Turing Complete User. [Accessed on 03/05/2022 at: http://contemporary-home-computing.org/turing-complete-user/]

iii Lovink, G. (2012) What Is the Social in Social Media. e-flux. [Accessed on 03/05/2022 at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/40/60272/what-is-the-social-in-social-media/]

Pita Arreola Burns is the Curator of Digital Art at the V&A Museum and the co-founder of Off Site Project. Previously, she has held positions with Furtherfield Gallery and had a career in PR & Communications. Her academic work on online art ecologies has been presented at the Digital Research in the Humanities and Arts conference and has been invited to speak at Centro de Cultura Digital, Future Everything + the Whitworth Gallery, the UCL Multimedia Anthropology Lab, New Contemporaries and Tate Exchange. Teaching credits include the Royal College of Art and Goldsmiths University of London. In her curatorial practice, she has addressed issues of populism, AI automation, tourism in the Global South and robotics shows for the Austrian Cultural Forum London, anonymous Gallery, Electric Artefacts and INDUSTRA.