As we tack up da Nile against da current, thinking about the role of social media in the democracy protests in Egypt, let's muse about social media as cultural fantasies. It's a good excuse to look more closely at ambivalence and the decision tree, those two models of identity in the age of computers and consumer utopia.
Partisans of facebook in the west argue that it improves personal sharing, connectedness, and even awakened the "Arab spring" struggle against dictatorship. Critics grumble that facebook trivializes and commodifies life, and actually spreads loneliness like lice among first-graders.1 What's going on here?
It's easy to confuse attitudes toward the tech machinery—the vehicles—with behavior. People use social media in such diverse ways that generalizations about it are bound to fall short. Indignation at the Trayvon Martin shooting went viral in social media and goosed America's dumbed-down media into paying attention. You can think of all sorts of experiments and pranks organized via social tech.
But let's back up some steps. Consider the creaturely motives implied as a high-strung social animal discovers a way of magnifying its voice across dumbfounding distances to practically infinite others. Recall the amazement of the Huron guide in The Black Robe (1991), for instance, when for the first time he sees how writing can silently put your voice in a stranger's head. It's not just a feat, a trick, or a tool, but an enlargement of self—more life. More you. In the vast trackless forest of North America which an aerial shot reveals to be overwhelming, the moment also hints that this discovery of the written word can substantiate the self. Evanescent experience suddenly becomes a thing you can hold, take with you. You can show it as writing to unpredictable strangers in an unlimited future, or leave it behind for others to discover.
After all, the self is not a thing. You can't take it out and scrub it clean. When you're asleep, you're not here. So one of the most powerful creaturely motives, right up there with breathing and snoozing, is the desire to feel more real. We're social animals. Like handshakes and hugs, greeting rituals—"How's it going, dude?"—function less to convey information than to substantiate the ephemeral self. You're actually saying I know you're real inside your bubble. You matter. We matter.
There's a tradeoff at work. As we enlarge culture and self, we know more, but the change in scale and abstractions paradoxically expands and diffuses or even vaporizes the self. You don't want to know that billions of bipeds more or less like you are shuffling along as you are. Suddenly Durkheim has to invent the term anomie. Rant radio rails against soulless "big government." Losers "fall through the cracks." The myths that sustained the Huron explode into a shower of confetti on the internet. Is anybody authentic? Are we all postmodern facsimiles? You can see why Christians massacred each other over their contested bibles, why Nazis burned disagreeable books, and "conservatives" scheme to keep them censored in American schools. Microsoft Word makes Bill Gates billions; 40% of kids in the developing world go without any school, and budget rant in the US wants to crimp school for losers. Who's real?
Of course just as everybody uses social media for different ends, so their sense of what's real and valuable differs too. Texting to organize political dissent in Cairo or Tehran is different than posting snapshots of a new baby. Yet they share some creaturely motives. Both expand a conviction—real and of course also unreal—of tribal solidarity. In Cairo the messages allowed the nation's "children" to talk back to greedy parental authorities. For the "children," the assertive voice meant a boost in morale. From social death—whoa—a new sense of self and mutual belonging. You could argue that baby pics likewise celebrate fertility, solidarity, and hope. Babies are built to evoke neurochemical bliss and empathy. For the informal family, junior too is a local victory over suffocating authority, death, and futility.
Like other animals, we want to maximize appetite for life, physical and symbolic. Who can be surprised that facebook is much given to food, mating, wardrobe, holiday adventure, and snapshots crying, "Look! It's me. I'm real." Despite all sorts of cultural variations, on the creaturely level the quality of social life hasn't changed appreciably over the centuries. Brueghel's peasants whooping it up or Egyptian tomb-builders relaxing over 101 recipes for beer a few thousand years ago were probably enjoying the same visceral needs as Victorians gossiping over the back fence or this morning's post on facebook.
You can see why facebook is popular. It makes personal two of the core themes of modern identity and power: broadcasting and advertising, which these days are much the same thing. Facebook enables you to broadcast your life, graciously idealizing yourself and your audience through “favorite”—most popular—photos and newsy bits. Like tattoos and piercings, the process displays you. It gets "my" admired products shelf space as friends troll the aisles of the interpersonal supermarket. You can be a feature page in a virtual People magazine. Facebook is a focus group, a consumer survey. And it’s a marketplace, a form of eBay, where everybody buys and sells.
So facebook is a value-making and value-testing machine. A useful gizmo, you'd think, in an age when radical change is blowing up values.
True, much facebook use consists of swapping—"sharing"—trivia. Yet to some extent it's how we're built. Most socializing takes the form of grooming: the mutual back-scratching and flea-plucking that our primate cousins enjoy. Even showing off a new recipe or the loot from your shopping trip is a sort of hunter-gatherer inheritance. Then why the grumbling? Why are we so ambivalent?
One answer lies in suspicions that "sharing" is actually following a decision tree model of identity. That would make sharing more a trophy news flash that you're making the right choices in the aisles of consumer utopia. And the corporate apparatus is watching, selling this trophy self to its advertisers for serious moolah. That makes the critics grumble. There are good reasons to scorn consumerism when it piles up waste and lies and puts you on the butcherblock under the data-miner's knife.
But another answer lies in denial. The decision tree rigidly focuses on particular choices because it makes each seem enchanted with significance. Each decision is make or break, do or die. In the back of your mind you sense that's an illusion, but it supports self-esteem, and who doesn't need to believe? So the complaints are really about the shock of glimpsing how insignificant we are. How can you be satisfyingly heroic among six billion bipeds in a tornado of contradictions? How can you be really relaxed with those billions of other bipeds competing with you for food and work? There's something defensive about the facebook rival called "My Space." In the postwar west, highly psychologized cultures trumpet high expectations for self-awareness and self-fulfillment. Unlike fatalistic ancient peasants, we emphasize the fluidity of identity: retraining, new roles, second lives. In teaching you bloodshed, even the military commands you "to be all you can be." Science fiction and fantasies of obscene wealth open teasing prospects of more life—unlimited life. Symbolic immortality. It's a shock to see cherished bits of you on a facebook page and wonder Is that all there is?
With millions of stories in the media-saturated air, it's tricky to believe in heroism. You think you're potentially a queen, but with suspicion that in the bigger picture we're more like mice or amoebae. You're not the only one with doubts. Look what a global culture hero Mickey Mouse is.
Facebook counters fears of emptiness by fortifying self-esteem. It keeps score as your collection of friends and your personality expand. It putting you in touch with childhood chums it helps you firm up a life story. There's no space or time for the depths that might reveal antagonisms. The sense of solidarity helps to offset a stressful, competitive culture where the push to the top often entails stepping on the head below you on the ladder. Hence the lurid Hollywood fantasies about vicious robots running amok, and anxieties about an epidemic of autism and Asperger's blocking empathy on all sides.
But the same machinery that helps you feel more enduringly significant reduces the self in two ways. For one thing, you become a face "book," and a book of transient electrons and storage devices at that. Even paper books face inevitable rot. And a second problem: in the consolation of the present, the corporate machinery is also reducing you to a sum of information: a commodity spied out and sold to advertisers. The self becomes news to be commercially processed. Facebook is a culture, an atmosphere, and you tend to conform to its obvious but unspoken decorum. In this way social media can keep personal life superficial, airbrushed, and vicarious. You're your own agent as well as script writer.
What's missing are the currents of ambivalence, the awareness of richly contrasting thoughts about things. In a sense ambivalence is an x-ray of decision-making at the root. When the expedition's mascot Gracie lunges after a passing bike, she checks herself in mid-air, apparently aware that the bike is fifty-two times bigger than a mini-dachshund. It's a juggernaut, kid.
Still—what, more ambivalence?—there's nothing new about facebook activity. When have people not advertised themselves with bragging rights and jewelry and shiny badges? Social media are often trivial, but that's nothing new either. Swapping little gifts and hugs is a venerable form of grooming. It relaxes and affirms the ephemeral self of the only animal on the planet that has to manage awareness that everybody dies, that communication is never more than approximate, and the heart is always searching for home. In this sense facebook is another face of the denial that makes life possible. But it hardly exhausts the possibilities of sharing and intimacy.
The problem of course is that like us, denial has limits. As you become aware of denial, it's harder to keep things enchanted. Once you become aware that the lifetime warranty is mired in disclaimers, then you need some other sort of contact to sustain you—less stagey, with more imaginative sympathy. Maybe face-to-facebook.
1. Stephen Marche, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?" The Atlantic Magazine, May 2012.<< http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/is-facebook-m...
Some of the material in this essay appeared in a different form as "Face to Facebook," in the Denial File, the Ernest Becker blog: <<http://thedenialfile.wordpress.com/