post

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a post as (1) a support or column of timber, (2) a stand for displaying notices, and (3) a vehicle or vessel used to carry letters and other postal matter. In this essay, I will elaborate the significance of the digital post in relation to these definitions. I argue that the digital post connotes these meanings in a variety of ways, but is ultimately distinct. Thus, an understanding of the digital post necessitates an understanding of its roots. The OED definition implies that a post is a foundation upon which more complex systems are built and maintained. As a stand for displaying notices, the post is a mass address and a social practice. Likened to the postal system, digital posts make up a networked medium that redefines spatial and temporal limitations in the transportation of information.
As an act of publication, the post’s purpose is to convey ideas by mediating the mind into a form that is movable, comprehensible, and capable of reaching others. It forms relationships between individuals and disseminates information over spatial and temporal boundaries, forming a network. Through an examination of its etymology, the post is revealed as representing two disparate network structures: the centralized network of the post for displaying public messages, and the linear network of the postal system. The critical differentiating factor between these two network forms is the intended audience of address.
The post of the public notice attempts to address all of the members of the network. It does so from a centralized position of prominence, and is incorporated into the systems of power of the network. Access to the ability to publish, whether limited to a particular group, or available to all members of the network has no bearing on access to the posted publications. The centralization of the system ensures that all members of the network have equal access to it.
The post of the postal system, though, directs a distinct and singular message to an intended and specified addressee, ensuring adherence “to certain established standards of regularity, speed, and security.” The network shape of any postal message is linear and unidirectional, with the information moving from sender to addressee. It is important to note that an examination of the postal system as a network, as opposed to the postal message, would reveal a distributed structure. However, this network is irrelevant to this discussion, as it addresses the shape of a system of aggregated and unrelated posts, and does not address the post itself.
In stark contrast, the digital post is capable of simultaneously embodying both network forms, resulting in an unprecedented structure. In this network, the post has a specific addressee, but is differentiated in that these connections are accessible to the entire network. Unlike the publication of an “open letter,” which does not ensure that the intended recipient obtains the letter, the digital post is delivered directly to the addressee. However, the digital post is no less private than the posting of a public notice. The resulting network shape of a singular digital post is entirely distributed, while simultaneously being uniquely linear. It is best understood as a system of connected nodes, where all the nodes and connections are available to every other node in the network.
Hence, the digital post is the dominant communicative form connecting the digital social network, as compared to “messaging” and “friending.” “Post” spans the spectrum of digital platforms and networks that serve to connect individuals via networked computers. The content or message of the post can encompass a wide range of media, with little preference given to any particular medium. Some of these media are more traditional forms, including text, picture, and video, while others are more particular to the social networking environment, such as “liking,” “linking,” and “poking.” The important distinction is that the post as a medium creates value independent of its content.
Due to its complexity, I believe it beneficial to approach the post as an environment through which the personas and avatars represented by “profiles” live, grow, and interact. Doing so, advances us past the materialistic conception of a medium, and allows us to understand the post as a social practice of “digital identities,” embodied forms represented in a digital space. I would like to suggest that it is the post, and not the profile, that forms the basis for the digital identity, as it is the post that confirms the “life” of the profile. Once set up, the profile can exist without a sender or a receiver, and as such only confirms the existence of a data pattern on a server. If the profile is not generating posts, it becomes, in way, dead. Without posting, there is no way to confirm the existence of the inferred embodiment implied by the profile. Alternatively, the post is the pulse of the digital identity. Not only does it substantiate the digital identity, but it can also tell us how the identity lives, its state of health, level of activity, and relation to other identities. As such, it is the post and not the profile that links the digital identity to its embodied, analog, user.
As the representation of a social practice, the post can be understood in Peirce’s terms of icon (a physical resemblance), index (a corollary sensory indication), and symbol (an arbitrary representation). The post operates as an index on the basis of its objectness, pointing to the existence of a specific digital identity and its relative placement in a network. A symbolic understanding exposes the post as content that can be interpreted to reveal aspects of the identity it represents. However, the post cannot serve as an icon because the abstract nature of the digital identity resists iconic representation. Furthermore, the post itself opposes iconic representation by not being consistently grounded in a particular physical shape, format, or form.
When identity exists without iconic representation, there is no representation of the identity as form. In her book on post-humanism, Katherine Hayles raises that when an identity becomes heavily dissociated from its surface representation and heavily mediated by technology, the identity becomes dependent on that technology. For Hayles, the human becomes post-human when engaged in an extensive form of heavily mediated representation. I believe the digital post is a condition of possibility for the formation of post-human identities, as it transforms the identity of an embodied presence into an aggregate of patterned information contingent on its mediated production. To build upon Hayles, I argue that the digital identity conferred by the post is a post-human identity, and that the post-human and posting human are undifferentiated.
On the basis of these singular qualities, the digital post has established a precedent by which the commodity can enter into the digital social network to represent itself. This expansion of capitalism may be the most exceptional effect of the post, as older mediums limited commodities to mediated forms of representation, like the logo or spokesperson. These forms cannot embody the commodity, but only serve to represent it in the abstract. Conversely, the adoption of the post by companies and products bestows commodities with a digital embodiment free from iconic representation. This allows an intensification of commodity fetishism, as commodities are able to represent themselves in digital space and engage in new relations with markets and individual consumers. Through the post, the commodity and the person are reduced to the same pattern of representation. Their capacity to interact with the network becomes analogous, forming indistinguishable expressions of identity.
In many ways the post has produced the ultimate self-amputation by means of technology, allowing for the complete externalization of the self. I can look at a computer screen and observe my own digital identity. This is not akin to looking in a mirror. The identity that is established by the post is distinct, and although reflective, it is not a reflection. Currently, this digital identity requires a physical embodiment to provide the keystrokes that massage the medium of the post into the correct shape. However, it would be folly to assume the post is imperatively dependent on a physical embodiment. It need not be so. The post is many things; foundational, representative, informational, and has become the medium in which the digital identity communicates. But above all the post gives life to the digital identity, thereby substantiating it. Constituo, ergo sum: I post, therefore I am.

Tom Hehir

Bibliography

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“http://www.dictionary.oed.com” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 29 October 2010.
Dunston, Bryan. Postal system in The Chicago School of Media Keywords Glossary. [http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/postalsystem.htm] cited on 29 October 2010.
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