- The Promiscuity of Network Culture: Queer Theory and Digital Media by Robert Payne
Are we sluts? This is the question posed by Robert Payne, in his introduction to The Promiscuity of Network Culture. The answer, it would seem, is yes. Every day on social media, we share an array of content (photos, links, videos) with an array of other users (friends, followers, strangers) across an array of platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) and on an array of devices (phones, tablets, laptops). Payne argues that this sharing constitutes a form of present-day promiscuity in which multiple and frequent intimate social interactions are encouraged and rewarded. Despite bearing a superficial similarity to the sexual, subversive promiscuity of the past, this present-day version of promiscuity emerges in our changing mediascape sanitized of its risky connotations but still imbued with heteronormative codes. In this book, Payne creates a bold, new theoretical framework through which to consider the promiscuous sociality of new media. In attending to the “queer contradictions within these media” he makes a vital contribution toward a critique of their normalizing tendencies (4).
In keeping with the book’s subject matter, Payne describes his methodology as promiscuous. His hope is to bring into intimate encounter “objects of discussion and intellectual disciplines that do not always come into contact but have interesting things to exchange with one another” (146). To build his argument, he invokes ideas spanning queer theory, media studies, and cultural studies and uses examples ranging from Keeping Up with the Kardashians to Google’s Global Human Trafficking Hotline Network. These recent media examples provide an accessible entry point for undergraduate students while the breadth of theory Payne draws on makes the book relevant to the interests of advanced graduate students and scholars as well.
Chapter 1 introduces one of the book’s core concepts: post-viral virality. Using the example of Project Cascade, a digital tool used to track social media communications across the networks through which they travel in the hope of better understanding their potential virality, Payne posits that present-day discourses [End Page 144] on virality regard it as a positive, desirable phenomenon. He contrasts this with the anxiety-ridden discourses of virality surrounding HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s and asks how it is that the present-day concept of virality became disconnected from the recent preoccupation with viruses. He reasons that, although they seem disconnected, these two discourses animate each other and that traces of viral anxiety from recent history can be observed in the present. Although virality has been rebranded as something desirable rather than risky and marginal, Payne sees in the new concept of virality a reinforcing of the values that imbued the social and cultural discourses surrounding HIV/AIDS. In social media, he argues, minoritarian positions and pleasures are ultimately subjugated (just as they were during the HIV/AIDS panic of the 1980s and 1990s) in favor of the entrepreneurial activities of (normative) “active user-subjects” in keeping with the neoliberal imperatives these media are founded on.
Chapter 2 explores the concept of frictionless sharing as promised by Mark Zuckerberg in his announcement of Facebook’s Open Graph feature by way of comparison to discourse surrounding bareback sexual practices among gay men. Payne proposes that through this particular example of queer sociality, we might glimpse a normative humanism encoded in the type of sharing Zuckerberg proposes. Frictionlessness, Payne argues, is frequently illusory and relies on the construction of an imaginary other (as source of friction), the absence of which signifies positively in the fantasy. In the case of barebacking, the illusion of frictionlessness in condom-free sex is complicated by the multiple physical, interpersonal, and gendered frictions present in sex clubs and other environments where cruising and sex take place. Payne likens this to intimate digital encounters on sites like Facebook in which the illusion of frictionlessness is likewise complicated by “interface mechanisms that undercut agency while promising autonomy and interactivity” (58). This fantasy of frictionlessness in social encounters both online...