A Preface, An Artist Statement
The framework within my essay draws from concepts in Michel De Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, and subsequently Lev Manovich’s aptly named essay The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life. In order to lay the foundation whereby the rest of the essay will develop from, an analysis of the core ideas in both texts is necessary. While I did my best to summarize these ideas in my own words, it is impossible to capture the nuances of the authors’ thoughts aftering condensing them. This is why I suggest reading these texts on your own time.
Additionally, I’ve included a further reading list as a part of this writing. This list was largely created due to the fact that my mentor for this project provided me with an extensive amount of resources which I could not read in its entirety, but I felt that they were significant to include. If any part of this writing sparks an interest for you to know more, this list of suggested further reading should be helpful. Where possible, PDFs of my source texts and additional reading are hosted on a Google Drive, so that you may find them easily. Not every piece of suggested reading influenced my writing, but it is related and interesting. The further reading list is available here.
Furthermore, this writing is accompanied by a transmedia element that was included as a playful way to explore the ideas that were dissected in this essay. This essay can be found on various social media sites, including Instagram and Twitter, where they exist in a more visual form. The writing is the same across all platforms, but the reading experience differs from platform to platform. As I talk a lot about appropriating online places, I thought it would be fun to purposely appropriate the very social media platforms I talk about, using them to host a longform piece of writing. So far, I’ve started with Instagram and Twitter, but I plan to continually find as many outlets as I can to host my essay.
I am extremely thankful for my fellow peers, and the team at Virtual Grounds. I am especially thankful for Nasma, Emily, and Mari for their immense support. I would also like to give a sincere thanks to Dawn, who guided me through my struggles, and was so patient with me as I figured out my thoughts.
Walking, Negotiating, AdaptingIn 1980, French scholar Michel de Certeau published The Practice of Everyday Life, an influential book which developed a framework to understand cultural production and consumption, and the ways in which people individualize their surroundings in their everyday experiences. In the chapter, Walking in the City, De Certeau uses the city as an analogy to illustrate power dynamics between producers and consumers. He contrasts the vantage point from the World Trade Centre to those below who walk on the streets. Situated high above the common ground, the viewer from the tower may be able to see the city as a unified whole but cannot see the nuances of the people who walk the city on ground level. In this relationship between the view from the tower and the walker down below, exists a power dynamic that is constantly being negotiated. Through the simple practice of walking, a common person continually negotiates the rules and thoughts imposed upon them by the governing bodies of the city: for example, a person walking in the city may take shortcuts through streets, none of which are identified on any official government regulated maps. But by taking this shortcut, the walker has adapted the space around them to their own needs. De Certeau argues that this negotiation happens all the time in everyday living, with almost every relationship we have to our surroundings. Of course, this walking analogy is just an analogy, but the logic applies to many other relationships. A concrete example may be how someone will adapt a public bench to use as a bed, and an abstract example is how I am adapting and collaging theories from multiple authors to make my own writing. As we increasingly shift to digitally mediated interactions (a shift that was only accelerated by a global pandemic), more and more of our everyday practices happen online. How might we use De Certeau’s analogy and theories to analyze and unpack power dynamics in digital space? Who are the power holders and rule makers in digital space, and how do we negotiate those rules in our everyday online practices? How does webspace get used by the powerful and the powerless? And how do algorithms and surveillance obscure the powerful?
Introducing Frameworks: Strategies and TacticsA driving concept in De Certeau’s text is his proposal of strategy and tactic, categories for identifying the powerful and the powerless. De Certeau describes ‘strategy’ as “... the calculus of force-relationships which becomes possible when a subject of will and power...can be isolated from an environment. A strategy assumes a place that can be circumscribed as proper (propre) and thus serve as the basis for generating relations with an exterior distinct from it...” That is to say, a strategy must be able to be identifiable in order to separate itself from its environment and as such, there is a visibility that is associated with strategy. Strategies assume power and control, able to identify objectives within their scope. Strategies are the producers of rules, structures, and places where their objectives exist within. De Certeau lists a business, a city, and an institution as examples of strategy, but more abstractly this can extend to things like language, and media.
In contrast, those without power are left to use tactics. De Certeau defines ‘tactics’ as “...the space of the other. [Tactics] must play on and with a terrain imposed upon it and organized by the law of a foreign power.” Because those without power also lack ‘place’, they resort to a kind of ‘poaching’ of their surroundings in order to make their environment habitable. Tactics resort to deception and trickery where it adapts, appropriates, and remixes its surroundings, having to take advantage of any opportunities that arise. Tactics may not be able to rearrange the rules of a place, but they can adapt the place to their own needs. Because this ‘making-do’ happens in the practices of everyday living by common people, tactics are often transient, unmappable, and unseen.
‘Spaces; and ‘places’ are an important element in understanding strategy and tactic. A ‘place’ has rules embedded in it, like a city and its streets, or a text and its content. Meanwhile a ‘space’ is the performance within a place, like the walking within a city, or the reading/interpreting of a text. While those with power use strategy to outline a place as their own, the powerless practice tactics to create spaces within these places.
Building off of De Certeau’s theories, Lev Manovich adopts the definitions of strategy and tactic to explore cultural production in digital spaces in his essay The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life. Manovich proposes that in Web 2.0, the logics of strategy look more like the logic of tactics, and vice versa. For example, social media offers options of customizability, in that you can customize your feed, a theme, your profile, all of which are a sort of adaptation which follows the logics of tactic. But Manovich asks two crucial questions: to what extent is the surge of user-generated content driven by the consumer electronics industry? And how much of that content is driven by the social media companies themselves? After all, these companies are concerned with increasing user traffic, as there is monetary gain in having more users on a platform. So are the opportunities to perform tactical practices online truly tactical? Or are they part of a larger strategy set up by companies?
Manovich’s essay was written in 2008, but his interpretation still applies in today’s online landscape, and probably even more so now than before. Since 2008, social media has only further cemented itself in our everyday lives. More than a platform for self-expression, social media platforms can now offer financial opportunities, as exemplified by the relatively new phenomena of ‘social media influencer’, or the profession of ‘vlogger’ or ‘streamer’. And increasingly, we see major brands (many of which existed before the invention of the internet) co-opting these spaces to further build their influence. I argue that social media adds a layer of complexity and obscurity to the definitions of tactics and strategy.
Hijacking Social Media and Hypervisibility
The term ‘Web 2.0’ was coined in 1999, and it referred to a new type of webspace where social interactivity, participatory culture, and user-generated content was exaggerated and emphasized. In contrast to its static and passive predecessor, Web 2.0 saw the emergence of social networking sites, and social media platforms where regular users of the web could be the producers and uploaders of their own content.
When the rush of easily accessible, and relatively inexpensive tools to capture media emerged alongside a plethora of media hosting platforms (YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, etc), user-generated media unleashed a “new media universe”, as Manovich described in 2008. Notably, the distinct feature of Web 2.0 is the social element that is built into these media hosting platforms, whereby you can comment, like, and share a piece of content with ease. These interactive elements are especially significant today, as invisible algorithms determine how often a post gets recommended based on how many interactions a post gets.
Suddenly, everyday life became visible to the greater public. Even predicted in Manovich’s essay was how common it would become to constantly broadcast one’s life (we call it live streaming now). Manovich, referring to everyday living, writes, “What before was ephemeral, transient, umappable [sic], and invisible become [sic] permanent, mappable, and viewable. Social media platforms give users unlimited space for storage and plenty of tools to organize, promote, and broadcast their thoughts, opinions, behavior, and media to others.” Many social media phenomena like memes, and social media celebrities/influencers, rely on their content being hypervisible in order to grow their influence. Hashtags and geotags especially make content mappable in a very literal sense.
It must be remembered that visibility, and mappability are traits of strategy and power holders. De Certeau postulated that having a situated place makes oneself visible, unable to deceive and trick, writing: “The more a power grows, the less it can allow itself to mobilize part of its means in the service of deception...Power is bound by its very visibility.” However it must also be recognized that social media power and influence exists because the creators of these platforms carved a place out of cyberspace, thus any power garnered through these platforms are still governed by the rules of these placemakers— as if the power and influence gained is a locus within a locus. Ultimately, all content that is uploaded to these platforms are regulated by existing templates, algorithms, and terms and conditions.
It is clear that these platforms offer common users the opportunity to make their content visible, but is this content production strategic or tactical? Arguably, not all media that exists online is equal, so it’s crucial to critically analyze how and why this media exists online. Take for example, the recent wave of Black Lives Matter media which became pervasive on social media outlets. The ease of sharing/reposting and subsequently the opportunity for media to become extremely visible allowed for activist related information to spread and flood very quickly. This is not to make the argument that social media platforms themselves were the driving reason why people shared activist/abolitionist media (as that would be excluding external factors like mainstream media coverage of BLM activism, or economic factors which gave people more freedom to focus on social injustices), but rather this is to highlight how a ‘poaching’ of online space occurs when activist media is projected via these platforms.
I will add the fact that activist hijacking/poaching/appropriating spaces is not a new phenomenon; even graffiti can be considered an appropriation of a place, and graffiti has existed for thousands of years. Without mass media outlets to accurately broadcast their thoughts, subculture go-ers are left with either the option to create a completely new media channel for self expression (alternative internet protocols come to mind), or to perform a bricolage, making-do with the space around them, using what immediate opportunities they can find. Here is where De Certeau’s logic of tactics apply, despite the hypervisibility of online content.
Because mainstream social media spaces were built to be easily accessible and very shareable, activists who want to spread awareness and education can ‘hijack’ these features to their advantage. Even more complex is how activists and advocates hijack meme formats, a familiar format of entertainment now being used to share activist media (though I am not commenting on the effectiveness of this type of appropriation, only that it exists). If we go another step further, one can spot how K-Pop fans/BLM advocates hijacked the function of hashtags to drown out right-wing media by posting unrelated K-Pop media using the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag.
On Instagram, unrelated Kpop media still appears under the #WhiteLivesMatter hashtag, even months after the peak of BLM activism on social media
As such, Web 2.0 adds a layer of complexity to the logic of tactics and strategy. Much like in De Certeau’s city, the powerless may not be able to ever escape the rules imposed upon them in the environment, but by using tactics they are still able to ‘make-do’ with the environment around them. Manovich’s interpretation that the logic of strategy has become the logic of tactic and vice versa, is only further exaggerated in the present day with the multiplicity of opportunities that social media provides.
Case Studies: Brand Twitter, Politicians Playing Games, and Obscurity
Brand presence on the internet is not a new concept, as brands have adopted media outlets for marketing purposes as long as media outlets have existed (ads on the radio, newspapers, television, and now ads on YouTube videos, and the list goes on). As mentioned in the previous section of this essay, social media platforms are accessible, and the ease of sharing allows for content to spread quickly. A brand can take advantage of social media’s pervasiveness to grow their influence. However, as with many things on Web 2.0, there is a layer of complexity which renders things obscure. Take the “Brand Twitter” phenomenon, a unique method of advertising:
Wendy’s Twitter making a joke out of McDonald’s Twitter, a competitor brand
“Brand Twitter” is not just the mere presence of corporate giants on Twitter, but it is the way in which they assert their brand presence on Twitter under a guise of casualness, and relatability. Instead of tweeting out ads and discount codes for products (which they still do), Brand Twitter tweets back with jokes, memes, and even depression banter:
Sunny D’s depression banter, insomnia cookies and MoonPie reply back like any good friend would
Brand Twitter brings along another level of tactical/strategy switching. The common practice of microblogging one’s everyday thoughts and opinions on Twitter has been co-opted by brands: under a guise of casualness, seemingly like everyday thoughts, Brand Twitter is able grow their influence without sharing any overt marketing strategy. Mentioned previously, brands proliferating through media platforms is not a new phenomenon, but there is a distinct, almost anti-ad veneer that obscures how prevalent these brands have become in our everyday browsing experiences. It is easy to point out that Brand Twitter tweets aren’t directly selling you anything, but the fact of the matter is that these tweets continually build a brand schema that lingers in our collective consciousness. Ultimately by selling nothing, Brand Twitter is able to create a subversive marketing strategy that doesn’t look like marketing strategy. A coupon code offers little to no entertainment value, but Wendy’s fleeting thoughts and snarky personality adds a flair of drama which gets people talking.
Comparison of post engagement between a typical coupon advertisement tweet (top) which has 67 retweets and 991 likes, versus a ‘Brand Twitter’ type tweet (bottom) which has 2.1k retweets and 33.9k likes
Even moving beyond Twitter, it has become commonplace to see brand and political organizations hijacking the customization culture in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Although valid criticisms can be made about how tactical the customization space really is when it is a selling feature of the game, the customization feature nonetheless is a mini world-building experience that makes the gameplay unique from player to player. As such, it is entirely possible to create a mini brand world where everything from your clothes, house decor, and even dialogue can be customized and built into an immersive marketing experience, making this much deeper than a skin, or unlockable character.
Perhaps this type of marketing is not as obscured as Brand Twitter, but there is a subversion of tactic as strategy because: 1) adapting and customizing is inherently a tactical trait, and so is 2) the poaching/adopting of a place, but ultimately it is all part of 3) a marketing strategy. In the case of politicians using Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it may well be a strategy to reach younger audiences who will be voting for the first or second time.
Official Biden/Harris designs on Animal Crossings New Horizons
Surveillance Capitalism, Invisible Algorithms, Obscurity as Power
In De Certeau’s city metaphor, the World Trade Centre is a vantage point which is able to see the city in its entirety, but not the nuances of the walkers down below. What do we make of that metaphor when we talk about a digital city, where everywhere we walk is mappable and viewable, especially through invisible surveillance tools and algorithms? How do these tools play a role in the discussion of power and obscurity? The powerful World Trade Centre vantage point may not have been able to see our walking in the city, but in cyberspace the vantage point is on our bodies (sometimes quite literally on our bodies, think smartphones, smartwatches, etc).
De Certeau wrote that power was bound by its visibility, and as a power grows, the less it is able to use trickery and deception. How much of that logic still applies when the prevalence of surveillance capitalism is facilitated by the fact that it is mostly obscured? After all, when was the last time you thought twice about your information when you accepted cookies, or considered how your information was collected when you landed on a Google AMP? When was the last time you noticed using a Google AMP?
And if we consider how algorithms continually predict and suggest what we want to see, how much of our practices online are truly tactical spaces that we create for ourselves? In other words, how much are we able to customize our online experiences when what is suggested to us is determined by algorithms?
It is not just that there is an advantage to strategy obscuring itself by using trickery and tactical logic, but that Web 2.0 makes it entirely possible for that to happen due to 1) how visible our online practices are, and 2) the hiding of the complexities of code and data behind a glossy facade which makes Web 2.0 approachable and easy to use. And this facade is effective enough that a common argument surrounding digital surveillance is, “Well if I’m not doing anything illegal, who cares that I’m being tracked?” Even if we aren’t uploading any content, our everyday practices like browsing, liking, commenting, and viewing are visible under the tools of surveillance. There is a lot to unpack about the morality of everyday practices being tracked, but that isn't the focus of this writing. I only make the argument that Web 2.0 continues to exaggerate the ways in which tactics and strategies are read like they are each other, and how they are not identified so clearly like in De Certeau’s original definitions.
Further ReadingSource Texts (PDFs Available)
- Michel de Certeau - The Practice of Everyday Life, 1984 Eng Translation
- Lev Manovich - The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life, 2008
- Pew Research - Social Media Fact Sheet
- An Xiao Mina - Memes to Movements
- Cait McKinney - Printing the Network: AIDS Activism and Online Access in the 1980s
- Zúñiga et al. - Effects of the News-Finds-Me Perception in Communication: Social Media Use Implications for News Seeking and Learning About Politics
- Business Insider - 8 best 'anti-ads' that sold you a product by telling you not to buy it
- The Verge - How Twitter is shifting the power balance from companies to their employees
- Vice - Brand Twitter Is Absurd, and It Will Only Get Worse
- The Atlantic - The Quiet Revolution of Animal Crossing
- Graphite Journal - On the Psychogeography of Cities and the Internet
- Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum - Obfuscation: A User's Guide for Privacy and Protest
- James Bridle - New Dark Age
- Places Journal - Databodies in Codespace
- John Cheney-Lippold - A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control