As referenced in Paul McFedries blog post “Meet the Datasexual,” social media analyst Dominic Basulto describes datasexuals as individuals who “are relentlessly digital. They obsessively record everything about their personal lives, and they think data is sexy…Their lives—from a data perspective, at least—are perfectly groomed.” I’m not sure about you, but that sounds like a lot of people I know. And as much as I hate to admit it, it describes myself to an extent as well. Now, when I use the term ‘datasexual,’ I’m not referring explicitly to sexual arousal but instead to the feeling one gets when a picture they post on Instagram receives a lot of likes or when a tweet they send out goes viral. There is a sense of excitement in knowing that others are actively engaging with the content you share, and in a sense, validating your online identity.
I think a large component of social media usage is the concept of tracking. As McFedries explains, specifically when it comes to a datasexual, everything online is a numbers game. Individuals in the digital realm obsess about how many likes their profile picture has received and how this number compares to their fellow Facebook users. This same idea can be applied to Twitter, Instagram, or any other social media platform. It’s the idea that a single number defines your social status and level of popularity. Someone with 50 profile picture likes is obviously so much cooler than someone with 15, right? In reality, we all know that the number of likes we receive of the number of Facebook friends we have doesn’t actually reflect our social standing in the world. It does, however, alter the way others perceive us.
Don Slater, in “Social Relationships and Identity Online and Offline,” explains the idea of having multiple identities. Social media has extended the phenomenon he refers to as “disembodiment.” He explains that we have two personas: our online persona and the actual one that we take on in real life. It’s very easy for the line between virtual and physical identity to become blurred and for people to assume that online profiles accurately represent the individuals who create them. Slater also explains that we often times sacrifice authenticity in order to appeal to our audiences. Social media has become a web of white lies. Most things we post are somewhat truthful, but it is the most refined form of the truth. We don’t post the first picture of ourselves that we take, but rather the twentieth one in which we’ve perfected the pose, lighting, etc. This concept is what McFedries refers to as data-grooming. We present the best version of ourselves online, but this self doesn’t always accurately reflect who we are. Social media has allowed for a person to “perform whatever identity one chooses,” and as a result, the person is able to control how others perceive them by selecting which aspect of their identity(s) to share with the public.
This notion of performativity is central to datasexual culture. As Zizi Papachrissi explains in “Without You, I’m Nothing: Performances of the Self on Twitter,” social media platforms “collapse or converge public and private performances, creating both opportunities and challenges for pursuing publicity, privacy, and sociality” (Papachrissi). The idea that is brought to light is that without an audience, no one would care about how they present themselves online. We constantly tailor our profiles in a way we hope will appeal to our friends and followers. A comedian performing to an empty room would not put as much effort into their set as one who was performing for a full house. As McFedries explains, narcissism is at the core of a datasexual’s actions. If you think about it, social media is essentially designed to breed an army of narcissists who obsess about online popularity. Digital media is all about me, me, me. This makes sense considering that when we’re online, we’re in a constant state of self-tracking. Every time someone likes a status, we receive a notification. It’s really a situation of pure mathematics and a science.
One aspect of Papachrissi’s social media analysis that diverges from McFedries is that McFedries uses the metaphor of social media as commodity over social media as performance. He even goes as far as likening ‘likes’ to currency in the mind of a datasexual. Just like how in society wealth determines one’s social status, online, it is likes/retweets/reblogs that determine one’s standing. It all goes to show that likes can be just as powerful an aphrodisiac as money.