Social Solidarity in the Age of Social Media and Algorithmic Communication


The coordinate of everyday social life is being reconfigured in the context of social media. They are often lauded as a new infrastructure that connects people, enabling richer participation and building a closely-knit community. They are, however, also critiqued for hollowing out the essence of social connection in favour of data accumulation, constituting the new pillar of what Shoshana Zuboff called ‘surveillance capitalism’ that claims human experience as free, raw material for profit-making corporate practices. Yet, if we widen our analytic perspective, we see that underlying these two contrasting strands is the same premise that our everyday actions and lives have already been deeply, intricately tied to ubiquitous yet invisible feedback loops and algorithmic systems of social media. Put simply, people in post-industrial societies can scarcely act outside of social media context wherein the ongoing digital modulation of reality has been reconfiguring a context for human agency.

From this vantage point, I avoid taking this new ‘social’ on as either a deteriorated or enhanced version of a priori existing social life, as doing so may risk capturing ‘the social’ as a singular experience when realities are far more diverse. Instead, a perspective I want to put forward is to explore how ‘the social’ has been ‘rearticulated’, by reconstructing today’s social life from within individuals’ constrained context of platformed practices.

To explore the meaning of social connection and lives today, I suggest we require the prospect of a critical phenomenology of social media that traces people’s experience
of being connected through social media. Here, I use the term ‘social solidarity’ as conceptual toolkit for exploring this phenomenology of social connection and the meaning of being collective and participating in social lives. By social solidarity, I do not mean a macro-level ‘Solidarity’ or to bonds specific to particular ethnic, religious, or other categories primarily bound by shared characteristics. Instead, taking it as our fundamental interdependence as a human being, based on the state of reciprocal orientation and dependence stemming from the way individuals are interrelated by mediation, I explore social solidarity empirically from the bottom-up, situating people’s experiences with social media and algorithms in a wider context of everyday life, and exploring how they potentially build up towards something that might be termed social solidarity under the general conditions of connectivity established by social media.

Drawing on a qualitative study of 46 individuals in England, conducted through two-stage in-depth interview, Think-Aloud method, and ‘mapping’ of their imagination of the entanglement of social media in their social life through drawing, this research highlights how people’s everyday social considerations take place in reference to social media, showing how this relatively new structure of mediation and connection could be reconfiguring our modes of daily social life, (re)shaping the way individuals develop solidarity in that context. The primary goal of this project is to investigate the potential contradiction between social solidarity and the condition of communication under which we live, with a view to identifying potential solutions that might genuinely enhance social life over the longer-term.