All Hitherto Existing Social Media – a review of Christian Fuchs’s “Social Medial: a Critical Introduction””
Legion are the books and articles describing the social media that has come before. Yet the tracts focusing on Friendster, LiveJournal, or MySpace now appear as throwbacks, nostalgically immortalizing the internet that was and is now gone. On the cusp of the next great amoeba-like expansion of the internet (wearable technology and the “internet of things”) it is a challenging task to analyze social media as a concept while recognizing that the platforms being focused upon—regardless of how permanent they seem—may go the way of Friendster by the end of the month. Granted, social media (and the companies whose monikers act as convenient shorthand for it) is an important topic today. Those living in highly digitized societies can hardly avoid the tendrils of social media (even if a person does not use a particular platform it may still be tracking them), but this does not mean that any of us fully understand these platforms, let alone have a critical conception of them. It is into this confused and confusing territory that Christian Fuchs steps with his Social Media: A Critical Introduction.
It is a book ostensibly targeted at students. Though when it comes to social media—as Fuchs makes clear—everybody has quite a bit to learn.
By deploying an analysis couched in Marxist and Critical Theory, Fuchs aims not simply to describe social media as it appears today, but to consider its hidden functions and biases, and along the way to describe what social media could become. The goal of Fuchs’s book is to provide readers—the target audience is students, after all—with the critical tools and proper questions with which to approach social media. While Fuchs devotes much of the book to discussing specific platforms (Google, Facebook, Twitter, WikiLeaks, Wikipedia), these case studies are used to establish a larger theoretical framework which can be applied to social media beyond these examples. Affirming the continued usefulness of Marxist and Frankfurt School critiques, Fuchs defines the aim of his text as being “to engage with the different forms of sociality on the internet in the context of society” (6) and emphasizes that the “critical” questions to be asked are those that “are concerned with questions of power” (7).
Thus a critical analysis of social media demands a careful accounting of the power structures involved not just in specific platforms, but in the larger society as a whole. So though Fuchs regularly returns to the examples of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, he emphasizes that the narratives that dub these “Twitter revolutions” often come from a rather non-critical and generally pro-capitalist perspective that fail to embed adequately uses of digital technology in their larger contexts.