Knowing the Unknown Knower

Blogs and search engines are different approaches to the same problem, different occupations of the same place. They point, though, in different directions. Faced with the challenge of providing a trusted guide through a chaotic, indeterminable, changing field, search engines say “trust the algorithm”. In contrast, blogs say, “trust doesn’t scale.” So while the former offers a reliability based in equations and crawl capacities, the latter says, know the knower. It focuses on the person providing the link, offering the searcher the opportunity to know this person and so determine whether she can be trusted. Social network sites refract the problem of truth yet again: if the issue with blogs is the credibility of the guide or writer, the issue for social network sites is trust in the audience, in the others who might be following me.

In her 2010 book Blog Theory, quoted above, Jodi Dean gives us a snapshot of online trust at the start of the last decade. Reading it today, at the start of a new decade, illuminates just how much has changed.

“Knowing the knower” is the foundation for blogging’s value. Dean explains how early blogs were little more than curators of links on a radically disorganised and decentralised internet. Knowing the blogger, respecting their opinion, shaped your experience of navigating the World Wide Web, that may have otherwise been utterly and hopelessly formless.

In many respects, the purpose of blogging today remains the same. In others, however, it has been inverted. All too aware of its own value, the blogger has further gone underground. Knowing the knower is now, in some cases, impossible — and that is often the attraction of a blog’s output. Though there is an abundance of content, scarcity of self is exacerbated. This is no doubt because the idea of an “authentic online self” has been undermined absolutely by capitalist capture. The more authentic you are online, the more attractive you are to capitalism, because your trust can be commodified and transformed into marketing gold. Just look at Instagram — anyone who has been on that platform long enough will have likely seen a fun account, run by an extroverted someone just sharing their day, perhaps pursuing some niche interest or occupation. (Case in point, my girlfriend and I follows a couple shepherdesses.) Suddenly breaking into a new zone of visibility, their authenticity is easily hijacked by corporations who then pay the authentic blogger to advertise and/or recommend their product.

This transformation is often bittersweet. Those who let capitalism in are likely those who could use the financial boost, selling a self they may have shaped over the years in the service industry, in an environment where the self is often all you have to give, and where putting on a smile is the best way to gain tips. Though their authenticity is immediately undermined, such is the paradox of needing to pay your rent and having little else to give. In the social media age, personality can become a useful commodity.

In the theory blogosphere, hiding behind aliases and avatars was once seen a way to challenge this norm. “Getting out of your face again” was a rejection of the new face of capitalism and a way to seed knowledge on the peripheries of its libidinal circuits. This tradition continues to this day. The knower is, more often than not, hidden. But the reasons behind the donning of a cybermask are long outdated. Now, there is a problem: the unknown knower is just as susceptible to capitalist capture as their more visible rivals have long been.

The unknown knower sells their inauthenticity just as the authentic poster sells its opposite, albeit in a more clandestine fashion. The anon’s profile supersedes the authentic self, easily accruing more followers and more influence than their more visible counterpart, all because they are seen to be in possession of forbidden knowledge. Rather than putting their own face out there because they have something to gain, the anon hides their identity and corrals a sense that they may have something to lose. To hide is made brave, cowardice is inverted. A crowd gathers to listen to the untainted prophet.

The encouraged assumption that the unknown knower has more to lose is, in my experience, very accurate. But this is not because they are bearers of inconvenient truths. It is, more often than not, the establishment, the reactionaries, the conservatives who hide their faces online. They get off on its clandestine networks of tradposting. They go underground, only to disguise any chinks in their overground armour. All the while, those with something to say should go overground with more ferocity. Recognising that the right’s burrowing underground is down to their vulnerability overground suggests now is the time to rise up. Mark Fisher’s argument from 2014 is argubaly more resonant now than it once was:

Perhaps now is the moment when New Times can finally happen – if we can emerge, blinking, from our barricaded (but now extensively connected) cellars, and step out into the desert of a destituted public world, into a mass culture reduced to bland hedonic homogeneity by corporate depredation. Yes, this is hostile country, occupied territory. But how well defended is it? What possibilities are there for us here, now? What could happen, that is to say, if we go overground?



Update: Irony of ironies, the day after posting this I was tagged in a Twitter thread by someone’s burner Twitter account about former NRx blogger, Bryce Laliberte, doxxing his friend to a journalist.

I’ve had Bryce blocked since he had an almighty tantrum in my mentions over a post I wrote about Freudian antecedents to the so-called “Dark Enlightenment”. So I’m not sure why this person thought I’d care, but the hypocrisy of it is demonstrative in the context of this post.

Alt-right anons telling on alt-right face-posters who doxx their secretly alt-right friends sums up the whole circle jerk that is the alt-right mask economy better than I ever could. Most people don’t care, because it is clear that all they’re capable of is generating inconsequential outrage over an establishment that is guilty about protecting its own self-interests.

And someone’s shocked that alt-right solidarity is paper thin?

3 Comments

  1. Interesting post. I don’t think it would be entirely accurate to describe those accounts as ‘hidden’ though – and that might sound like splitting hairs, but it can be useful to think about how these accounts aren’t really hidden at all and to play with terminology. If something is hidden, it is out of sight – yet these accounts are visible, to some extent (and entirely visible to their owners). And, with the right technology, these ostensibly hidden accounts can be illuminated by those ‘outside’. It perhaps might be more productive to consider these accounts as secrets or open secrets – since they are only partially out-of-sight; they are not entirely dissimulated, which is ultimately the source of their agency and power (and I think power is the underlying concern of this post). In not being entirely dissimulated, in occupying that position as a translucent transgressor (I’d push back against this term, since their position as ‘transgressor’ is questionable, but it’ll work for the present), the accounts invite participants (manufactured or otherwise) in the secret – in the upholding and support of that account through follows, likes, retweets. This in turn – that is, this mutual support, this upholding of the open secret, perhaps becomes what Michael Taussig (1999) defined as a ‘public secret’ – a mutually-agreed fiction, implicit or explicit, about ‘knowing what not to know’ (2).

    But, of course, Taussig is writing pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook, pre-social media. Today, on social media, the ‘public’ is always already privatized. In that case, are these accounts still a ‘public secret’? Are they still a public, mutually agreed fiction about ‘knowing what not to know?’ Surely not, since these accounts – as with all of Twitter – are already privatised. And this kind of commodification of the secret, of this emaciated conception of the public and the lack of a coherent sense of what privacy is manufactures a position where secrecy is the subject of ire, disgust, and the assumption that it is always already ‘bad’. The fallout from that prejudice, like the reach of the accounts in question, exceeds social media and affects other areas.

    Apologies – just typing free-hand. A thought-provoking post. Cheers!

    1. And building off that last post: perhaps these accounts then, in light of the collapse of the public & private, are ‘becoming-imperceptible’: “we no longer have any secrets, we no longer have anything to hide. It is we who have become secret, it is we who are hidden, even though we do all openly, in broad daylight” (Deleuze 1980: 46)

      1. Although, ‘collapse’ isn’t quite right – again, its indeterminate, playing on past constructions of public & private that are still hanging around whilst emaciating and eroding them.

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