OK, this post is not a cultural critique of tagging. That is, however, what my research project is shaping up to be.
During a couple months of reading lots and not posting at all I was able to re-focus on tagging as the conceptual pivot of my research, with stereotyping and branding as divergent — yet not mutually exclusive — outcomes of tagging as a practice. I stress the term “practice” because, as in De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, I see tagging as a sort of “art of the weak”, a clever use of time in someone else’s space within which we have only partial freedom. Tagging is inherently tactical because it populates proprietary platforms; it has an amateur character and does not require a hacker’s knowledge. We all use it, and that’s the banality and the beauty of it.
I’ve also been thinking about my obsession with figures — the Troll, the Digital Nomad, the Gangster — as vectors of theoretical inquiry. While sociological studies have put figures like the Hobo or the Tourist under scrutiny in order to study social phenomena, Benjamin’s Flâneur and De Certeau’s Bricoleur can embody a critical attitude to an environment: the former by maintaining individuality within the urban crowd (as opposed to the passivity of the badaud, the bystander), the latter for its artisan inventiveness and art of “making do”. This is important, however I feel these two figures — when it comes to social media — are now channeling dominant logics rather than challenging them: the time-wasting, meaningless wandering of the Flâneur is now echoed in the purposeless clicking and scrolling that drives social media traffic (in which the promise of individuality is pretty much the engine behind massive data herding), while the remixing skills of the Bricoleur live on in often conservative approaches to meme generation and cultural appropriation.
If we are to accept social media as accomplices in the construction of a globalized, contemporary culture, and we also want to imagine ways of living with them that maintain us sustainably human, perhaps we should look for other vectors. The Hacker is the obvious successor, in that it embodies the most revolutionary attitude possible — a tech-savvy individual who is able to unleash the raw potential of information and carve its own independent niche within it. Still, there are a couple problems with it: first of all, the figure of the Hacker/Geek/Nerd is a bit too well ingrained within the Silicon Valley mythology that imbues the Internet (with all its cultural flaws, brilliantly outlined in Jarett Kobek’s must-read novel I hate the Internet). Second, the banal appeal of social media and their transversal, ubiquitous reach cannot be simply replaced by technical knowledge — not any time soon, anyway. The supremacy of social media marked a point in Internet history in which we are encouraged to gain cultural, rather than technical knowledge.
Coding is definitely the way to design the platforms of the future, but it is limited to a privileged milieu. It is definitely not an art of the weak, a practice of the everyday. Even in its distributed Anonymous incarnation, which is nominally inclusive yet still carrying a hacker/hacktivist ethos, the Hacker/Geek is a specialist, invested and focused on the infrastructure that enables its actions. To actually be anonymous these days requires its share of technical savvy.
As Christopher Kelty points out in his analysis of geeks as a “recursive public”, the infrastructure and the networks enabling the community are part of the community’s culture itself. I am more interested in those publics that are not recursive, yet very culturally invested in identities that lean on social media in a banal, everyday way. This is the reason I would rather focus on artistic tweaking of everyday tagging rather than alternative interfaces — perhaps it allows for different forms of culture to bleed in alongside the infrastructural.
Because tagging happens across platforms, even across physical spaces, it is not always commensurable. Cross-posting from Instagram to Tumblr or from Twitter to Facebook converts hashtags into clickable text, for example, but what about the text or the emojis within a screenshot or an image? What about those on t-shirts or walls? Tagging is a techno-cultural gesture in that it leverages the technical to channel (and construct) the cultural. It is (mostly) machine-readable, but it does not prevent cultural layers to be encoded beyond algorithmic reduction. Readily counterfeit as it is, it is truly an art of the weak.
So, tagging. But what figures, what tactics? That is the question.