This is Part One of several blogs wherein I muse on digital culture, post-post modernism, and the implications for being a christian in the 21st century. I don’t even know if it all makes sense to me yet, so bear with me. This may be why I’m not fun at birthday parties.
Several months ago Coca-Cola unveiled a rather genius marketing campaign dubbed “Share a Coke”. In several major countries the soda giant produced bottles and cans with the 250 most common names printed in place of the usual logo. The premise was simple: you find a coke bottle with the name of a friend on it, you purchase said bottle for them, and your relationship to this person is therefore strengthened by the power of consumerism. Not a radical notion in the free market by any means; many products are sold as the answer to our loneliness. It’s a core value and guiding principle in marketing.
The seemingly unintended outcome of this social experiment, however, proved to be far more fascinating. Rather than purchasing the product with names of those people they know and love, consumers sought out their own names with the phrase “Share a Coke with” innocuously hovering over it, thus reinterpreting the whole stated purpose of the campaign. The internet was rife with pictures of people posing next to their own names or ravaging crates of bottles looking for “personal brand” as if the name was a golden ticket to the magical Wonka Chocolate Factory. Soon Coke established mobile printing stations across the country to print any name one cared for on the side of a bottle should one have the 251st-or-lower most common name in the States. I saw one such station at a local college; the queue was lengthy, and its a safe bet most weren’t asking for their granny’s now outdated midcentury moniker (let’s bring back “Ethel” or “Margery”, eh?). A cursory glance at internet searches bears many articles detailing how one can get one’s name on a can, completely disregarding the initial proposition of the campaign itself.
Coke not only halted a steady eleven-year decline in consumption of their products, but posted a 2% rise in sales in a matter of months. It’s a safe bet executives were not particularly bothered by the misappropriation of intent. Perhaps it is even safe to assume their goal was not so much to promote brotherly love and interconnectedness among diverse peoples, but rather to tap in to our need to be seen and our voracious desire to edit and annotate our personal realities. Yet it would have been preposterous for them to pull the lid off the whole operation and admit, “aw hell, just go ahead and buy your name! It’s been about you this whole time!”
Perhaps most interesting here is the fact that modern marketing is never about the product itself, but rather the symbol that product becomes when feeding our egos. The philosopher Slavoj Žižek brilliantly identifies Coke as the objet petit a in his book The Fragile Absolute, the useless product that promises us fulfillment while simultaneously manufacturing the libidinal desire for more. Essentially, our hunger for the thing exponentially increases as we consume it in order to find satisfaction, creating a never-ending cycle of surplus-value.
This concept has dramatically increased its weighty presence in the social media landscape. Not only are objects and experiences being used as filters for our self-identification, but they have become somewhat secondary to the ultimate goal of crafting “being” itself. This is why one can identify social media as a modern existential currency: it is no longer the evidence of a full life, but the substance of it.
Consider basic economic currency exchange. Johnny mows someone’s lawn and they pay him $10. This piece of paper with a dead president printed on it is worthless in-and-of-itself, but it becomes a visual representation, a symbol, of the services Johnny offered in exchange for value. This monetary symbol, however, bears a curious designation in that the disappearance of the symbol is also the disappearance of the intention of the symbol. Were Johnny to lose that $10 bill, he cannot go back to his employer and ask for another one as a replacement. The fruit of his labor and its assigned value have evaporated; it is as though he never mowed the lawn in the first place.
In our post-internet age, the digital documentation of our analog lives operates in much the same way, in two movements. Firstly, photo or status update no longer commemorates a moment, but it shapes our understanding of that moment. In many cases it’s actually the pursuit of the symbol that trumps the event itself, leaving the participant with a token devoid of the invested experience it’s supposed to represent. Conversely, to not provide evidence of that perfect latte or the sublime sunset or whatever it may be causes that moment to become unmoored, unadorned memory and, in turn, forgettable. Like a coin in our pocket, to carry the symbol is to determine the truth of the event.
Secondly, the potential potency of this exchange is still more evident when we realize we have the power to change the face on the proverbial coin, rearrange the inscriptions, and conform it into any shape we desire. The ego-desire is no longer for accuracy but power, the power to control how we perceive and reflect reality. This leads us to a culture of hyperbole that assigns the digital currency an extreme value in order to convince our audience, and perhaps more poignantly ourselves, that our lives are as technicolor and invested with meaning as the evidence suggests. We become hungrier and hungrier for the grandest possible statements of a life already fully-realized, yet we remain painfully disconnected from our current moment (consider the incessant photography at a concert or museum, practically replacing the experience itself with a smaller idol that serves our purposes of saying, “I am here”. Pics, or it didn’t happen). As we engage in this sweetening of the moment in order to match our fantasies the gap between perspective and reality increasingly widens until we are no longer capable of facing the tangible situations of our lives. We collapse under the burden of maintaining an illusion, creating a gaping void in which fear, condemnation, and the anxiety of non-being can fester .
Therein lies our deepest fear in the age of information: we are invisible. We are lost in a sea of faces whose lives seem more wonderful than our own, according to the digital currency apparent. If our value is determined by our relationship to the mass of information presented in the digital realm, we must do what we can to consume cultural reference points in language and symbol that can act as an anchor to prove we exist and we have worth.
In this way, we author our own personal identities according to how we would like for them to be, and in the fullest most hyperbolic terms they can be presented in. No longer are we expected to be the participants in culture, but the engineers of it too. Additionally, we make swift attempts at cataloguing the world around us in a way that prevents us from encountering the anxiety threatened by the ambiguity of life in its own wild and wooly terms. More on that in the next post.
Part Two: “Why You Think You. Can’t. Even., But I’m Here to Tell You You. Can: Rob Bell, Mark Driscoll, and the Sensationalization of Reaction in [Post-Post-Modern Critical Realist] Culture”
For a deeper exploration of this, see The Courage to Be by Paul Tillich.
 Tony Jones brilliantly reflects on this shift, referred to as “critical realism” here: