Gehl, R.W. (2013). What’s on your mind? Social media monopolies and noopower

Gehl, R.W. (2013). What’s on your mind? Social media monopolies and noopower. First Monday. 18(3).

On noopower1 through marketing and repetition extended into ubiquitous social media:

Operating within the larger political economy of advertising–supported media, it is not surprising that Facebook, Google, and Twitter mirror marketing’s penchant for experimentation and repetition. Software engineers working for these firms pore over data about what actions users most commonly take — that is, what is most often repeated within the architectures of the sites. These engineers then constantly tweak their interfaces, APIs, and underlying software to reinforce these actions and to produce (they hope) new ones. The tiny changes in the Google homepage, for example, are akin to ripples on the surface of a body of water caused by motion deep underneath, as software engineers seek to increase the attention and productivity of users of these sites.


Real–time data collection on links clicked and videos watched provide marketers with the data they need to experiment with different messages, images, sounds, and narrative structures, allowing them to tailor messages to target publics, and then this process is repeated, ad nauseam, in a cybernetic loop. Behavioral tracking of users allows marketers to repeat messages across heterogeneous Web sites as users visit them, as well as make sales pitches via mobile devices as users travel through space. The messages that result in sales are repeated; those that do not are archived (perhaps they will be useful later). Liking, “+1”ing, or retweeting an ad enters users into a contest to win a trip to the theme park built around the movie that was based on the video game currently being advertised, a game in which the main character must use social media to build a following to solve a crime. All of this is, of course, a marketer’s dream: the observation, experimentation upon, and ultimate modulation of the thoughts of billions, the chance to increase what they call (in some of the most frightening language imaginable) “brand consciousness” over other forms of consciousness and subjectivity. It is the reduction of the scope of thought to a particular civic activity. It is the production of the flexible and always–willing global consumer as the real abstraction of our time. Consumption über alles.


Thus, to counter the reductive noopower operating in and through the social media monopolies, activists and technologists must create systems that allow for radical thought and heterogeneous uses, for differences that make a difference. The alternatives to social media monopolies must be built with protocols, interfaces, and databases all designed to promote new political thinking — noopolitical thinking — and to resist reduction of thought to repeated marketing messages of all varieties. We all can agree that this is probably impossible, but we always must keep a better future on our minds as we work with what we have on our minds.

  1. “power over minds, power over thoughts” []