Some Impersonal News

May 12, 2022   •   By Lauren Carroll Harris

WHEN YOU’RE PREGNANT, or want to be, pregnant women begin to appear like mirages everywhere you look. But then, because of public health mandates, I was in lockdown and living inside a meme fantasy. Real life was out there somewhere, but social life existed only on-screen. I became magnetically attuned to a particular genre of social media post: “Some personal news.” An announcement would follow this declaration — a job, a real estate purchase, a graduation, a prize, an award. Or, in one subgenre of the form, a pregnancy. A textual meme composed with an audience of friends and strangers in mind. And another development in the ongoing perils and possibilities of our digital lives.

The generic conventions of the pregnancy announcement are so narrow as to prove a boring 21st-century truism: every act of hyperindividualism plays out within deeply unimaginative and socially inscribed norms. There’s the press-release approach (“thrilled to announce”), the ironic twist (“approaching my MILF era”), the self-conscious reflection on marketing language (“new baby dropping”), and, most dreaded of all, the gender reveal (“gladly accepting suggestions for boys’ names”). Sometimes an ultrasound scan will follow, other times a miniature photo shoot, styled, art-directed, and shot by the expectant couple: a woman, her husband kneeling to kiss her cutely visible belly, as though in a still from her own biopic. At its apex, this genre of professionalized content coincides with a product endorsement or a credit to a commercial videographer. Subgenres proliferate, fueled by algorithmically boosted Instagram reels; the baby name reveal is a particularly brain-breaking new development. For celebrities, posts have replaced People magazine covers. And then, last month, in swaggered Rihanna — a beyond-cool, jewel-soaked mogul posing faux-candidly in vintage Chanel in New York City, renovating the entire form.

So what? It’s a self-conscious era. Working the abyss between who we are and what we project, leveraging the psychology of self-branding as encouraged by Californian tech empires … it’s all par for the course.

In my fourth month of pregnancy, something completely banal made me realize that announcement culture had become normalized within one-on-one relationships. My phone buzzed with a message from a friend I hadn’t heard from in some time. I tapped the message icon, wondering what prompted this new effort at connection. After bumping into my brother, who told her of my pregnancy, she was texting to congratulate me on my “secret.” Temperamentally disinclined to share personal information to my digital social circle, I was now presumed to be keeping my pregnancy a secret. I’m hardly a part of influencer culture, nor am I in the business of content creation. I mainly post pictures of trees. Was a normal private-life event now secretive if you failed to post about it? The message exchange petered out soon after.

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Dr. Clare Southerton, of the University of New South Wales in Sydney, tells me that announcement culture is “absolutely a performance of creating a particular identity.” As a researcher with a long interest in how people live out their lives online and form intimacy with digital technologies, she says,

We’re managing the fact that so much of our lives is lived online. We want to make sure that our offline life — in as much as one exists — reflects our online life. We’re wanting to perform professional models of success — moving to this new fancy job, achieving particular milestones like buying a house and having a baby.

Perhaps that’s why people mainly announce their positive news, mimicking the behavior of advertisers and social media managers, as though life is unfolding like a publicity campaign. In the predigital era, births were formally announced in newspapers, but pregnancies were just, you know, discussed in the course of life. Announcement culture is not always processed through the publicity machine; it’s carried out by us, the users of social media platforms, but it is shaped by a culture of constant PR consumption. In applying public relations thinking to our online presences, we craft a range of communications that are archived, public, and professionalized. “When you’re trying to present yourself to a whole lot of people, you’re not managing that in an interpersonal situation,” says Southerton. “It’s a part of our lives that’s much more curated than an interpersonal situation, like meeting a friend on the street, because it’s permanent. A conversation isn’t documented.”

Facebook has found a way to entice such interactions with its “life events” function, which enables users to formally come out of the closet or herald the adoption of a pet. “Facebook is trying to maintain its place as a central part of your life where you make those big announcements: ‘I graduated’; ‘I’ve had a baby.’” says Southerton. She explains:

There’s a big financial interest in that. Facebook tracks their numbers really closely, and if they see people leaving the platform, that’s dollars out of their pocket. These kinds of functions keep people embedded in the platform and seeing it as a place where their memories are. Where their family is. As part of their core digital life. These subtle digital functions create the conditions to share personal news in particular ways. The platforms are taking advantage of those inclinations to share information.

This circulation of personal news depends on us using our real names and identities, not invented handles as in the Myspace days. Now verifiable data about our individual lives is collected and aggregated. The demographic information provided by our voluntarily proffered personal news then informs which paid content we are served. Cue the targeted advertisements for prenatal collagen, luxury herringbone prams, and organic maternity bras.

You share, I receive, and in doing so, I participate in your digital surveillance. This concept — participatory surveillance — describes the way in which we monitor each other in the online realm. We’re accustomed to speaking of how platforms surveil internet users in a top-down, centralized manner, but it’s users who fuel participatory surveillance. The idea is used by researchers to explain everything from the performance of digital identities to post-9/11 intelligence campaigns in the West and surveillance culture in authoritarian China. “Yes, there’s data being collected about us, which we’re somewhat aware of,” explains Southerton,

but the kind of pleasure and enjoyment we get out of it makes it an acceptable trade-off. Because we want access to the platform, we participate in acts of surveillance ourselves. We look at other people’s content, we do Facebook stalking. So participatory surveillance is not just about the way the surveillance system is conducted on us, it’s about how we participate in it because of the things it gives us access to.

And that thing we’re granted access to? Social cachet. Envy is the engine of social media. By staging virtue and vanity, inspiring jealousy, and quantifying popularity and approval, we get the status and standing we are urged to crave. We are not just the surveillance subjects but the surveillance agents.

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Who is the ideal expectant mother in a “some personal news” announcement? She may wear a tasteful wrap dress that falls below the knee, creates feminine lines, and doesn’t oversexualize her pregnant body. She is desirable, enviable, but nonthreatening. She shows no visible signs of fatigue, discomfort, or sleep deprivation, despite the fact that she has most likely already grown an entirely new organ, the placenta, by the time she makes her announcement. She is excited, yet calm. She may or may not be married, depending on her views about relationship contracts and the history of gendered property relations, but she is in a marriage-like relationship. She has partnered well, in both a fiscal and emotional sense, to a man in a similar socioeconomic bracket, and she is on the ascendant. As an economic unit of two, her partnership has granted her a deep stability in what you might call the couple’s economy. Her career has progressed to the point where she can safely take six months off work. To that end, she has strategically and pragmatically remained in her current job long enough to entitle her to maternity leave. Her mortgage, ideally boosted by the early transference of intergenerational wealth, has been repaid to an acceptable level. Her pregnancy will not interrupt her social mobility. In fact, the broadcast and reception of her pregnancy among a stream of hearts and likes and views will aid her ascent. She has a private obstetrician, takes prenatal Pilates classes, and has paid the deposit for her hypnobirth training. Her baby won’t be the sum total of her life’s work. But she sure is looking forward to the baby shower, and to posting the documentation.

Pregnancy posts are the ur-moment of toxic feminine anxieties and projections, digitized to a mass of followers via a pristine tile on the grid. That’s not to say that everyone pursuing such an approach is a superstrategic monster trying to break into the professional-managerial class. For many women, posting is a convenient way to keep friends and family informed of key life developments. They’re conventionally socialized people — regular, sweet, some with public-facing jobs — carried by the whims of social media and the functions that incentivize such behavior. In mining our lives for content, we’re just people who are socializing on the terms of the culture. There are other possible upsides to these posts. People are genuinely happy when good things happen to other people. It’s a testament to the centrality that social media occupies in our relationships to one another.

The type of pregnancy announcement post I’m speaking of, with its overpromoted narrative and hints of poisonous maternity, is issued by a certain type of influencer, or person with a public profile, who wishes to further propel her entrepreneurial identity. She plays herself as the protagonist in a consistent story in her feed. Her posts operate like commodities, as they are often monetized. With the integration of sponsorship into her announcements, brands can aggressively extract moments from her life to create meaning for themselves. Egos can kiss on the internet.

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Twenty years ago, I was a suburban teen radicalizing in my bedroom, reading No Logo by Naomi Klein. Meetings of the World Trade Organization were being shuttered by antiglobalization demonstrators, and the surge in conservative politics and state power following 9/11 hadn’t yet braked the movement. Toward the end of the long, strange sleep of the 1990s, when the mainstream political consensus had declared that capitalism was our eternal fate, Klein deftly described the way in which brands like Nike could fake a type of individuality. Nike mass-produced millions of indistinguishable industrial products — trash, really — but by branding each one with its logo, the company could convince us that what it was really selling was a unique lifestyle. In turn, we could adopt that lifestyle for ourselves, if we chose between being a Nike person or an Adidas person. It was this approach to branded marketing, rather than any meaningful change in the quality or nature of the products themselves, that saw Nike’s US athletic apparel sales explode from $424 million in 1995 to $1.56 billion in 1998.

Two decades after No Logo, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are currently losing the war against the totalizing branding of our lives. The principles of consumer capitalism have become more deeply internalized in our psychology than in the era of the book’s publication. Then, the battle lines were easily drawn between, for example, ourselves, sweatshop workers, and exploitative multinational corporations. Privatization, Klein observed, “slithers into every crevice of public life,” but she still imagined branding as the territory of multinationals. What of our inner worlds? Written before the advent of social media and the gig economy, No Logo contains no notion of how the logic of privatization was about to slither into our own conception of our lives’ progress.

Brands won our hearts, and we in turn became brands. Neoliberalism, after all, doesn’t just amount to privatization and defunding of public services. It’s a mentality in which we are all encouraged to become savvy, self-marketed creations, and if something is in our self-interest, it is immediately justifiable. In some important ways, securing employment in an increasingly competitive and precarious job market depends on it. Klein clearly understood the feeling of tumbling through a landscape of nightmarish corporate products, and perhaps she sensed how that really amounted to a corporatization of the mind, but the fullness of this idea is not evident in her text. What has eventuated since is the transformation of the self into a product: branding as a self-appointed, personalized process that is autocommodified and messaged online. Your personal interactions become replaced with those that are algorithmically governed. What does it matter that almost everyone’s personal brands, apart from the truly wealthy and powerful like Rihanna, amount to almost nothing beyond social cachet?

Announcement culture is clearly a trend. We move through trends in eyebrows, body lotions, café food, and how we convey ourselves online. We don’t all partake in trends, and we don’t have to. There’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the performance of any type of branded identity online. Debate still rages about the upsides and downsides of these phenomena, and to an extent, they’re being lived and will continue to be, regardless of how we judge them. But what they show is the normalized move from citizenship to personal branding. Now, we adopt a brand identity and a corporate self, in an industrial approach to living life as a series of enviable, high-achieving moments, even as we prepare to birth our children.

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In my reticence to make a standard social media announcement about my pregnancy, the question I’m forced to confront is why I can’t respect the digital rules under which my life is supposed to play out. What makes me so oppositional and unable to adapt to these new conventions? What negativity makes me, a mostly dormant volcano, see the textual meme of the pregnancy announcement as a phony social construction?

As the culture moves towards ever more codified micro-categories of static identities, I’ve shirked and bristled at simultaneity. If I begin to announce my life, I might become a fiction, a one-dimensional character of my own making. But in my brief time on the mom-centric internet, in the scroll of the declarative images of female conventionality, I have slowly come to a series of conclusions: the end point of neoliberalism isn’t just the sale of public assets but complete atomization and aggressive individualism, and you don’t need an ironclad identity (career woman, mom, influencer, artist) if you have a true community. I’d rather lie under a tree and watch the leaves move, work out a different way of building a life based in a real, functioning community.

The motives of privileged people online are not often articulated, and yet they’re scarcely hidden. Status and appreciation are things we have to go and get; they don’t exist inside us without external affirmation. I’m not really pregnant unless you’re happy for me; I don’t really score the dream job until you envy me. I am fertile, feminine, and fiscally wise. I am not living inside a meme fantasy. My social media presence is my job, and my job is my whole. My digital avatar and my self are one and the same. I am accumulating. I am insatiable. I am Brand Lauren.

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Lauren Carroll Harris is a writer and curator. She has a PhD in film studies from the University of New South Wales. Her nonfiction essays of cultural criticism have been published in LARB, Lit Hub, Cineaste, Sydney Review of Books, and The Lifted Brow.