Welcome to A Work in Progress. This is not a “newsletter”—I do not publish on a regular cadence or about any particular topic; sometimes I write essays and sometimes I write poems. If you’re reading this because you are a subscriber, thank you for following along.
I’m thinking about social media, specifically the foundational invariants in the design of our online social environments. I think some of these are terrible, maybe even evil. They are in some ways the original sins of social media, and I’m not sure what it is that we can do about them.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
And in sin my mother conceived me.
I’ve hit a breaking point with social media. Years’ worth of low-grade anxiety has finally blossomed, the seeds of which were first planted in the recesses of my soul at the tender age of thirteen. To be completely honest with you, I fucking hate it on here. Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, it doesn’t matter—they are all exactly the same.
Man, the master of this world, through the creation of a new one attempted to crown himself a king. He wanted to become a God, but with this coronation came mistakes that, for a number of reasons including rational self-interest, cannot be undone. These mistakes are exploitative; they hijack fundamental aspects of human nature and biology—recognition, consumption, and memory—for material gain.
These mistakes cannot be undone, because undoing them would fundamentally change what it means to be on a social network today. In other words, these flaws are the original sins of social media.
After careful consideration and user testing, we are no longer going to define people as your “friends.” The functionality of adding people remains, but the interaction is focused on the term “follow” instead.
—Biz Stone, Friends, Followers, and Notifications (2007)
For Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, nineteenth-century German idealist, human nature and the very notion of self-consciousness came down to what he called the struggle for recognition.In brief, humans have a fundamental desire to be recognized by others, so much so in fact that people even risk their lives for it.
Now fast forward to our comfortable, 21st century, liberally democratic existence where we’re all recognized as equals in the eyes of the law and tell me what it is that you want when you fire off a tweet or follow someone.
Social media has taken this struggle for recognition, ported it over to the digital realm, and weaponized it. With every follow, like, retweet, etc. we ask, or rather we beg, for the same thing—recognition. “Please recognize me.” This is so deeply engrained into our online psyche that we don’t even realize it anymore.
Take Twitter, for example, where every single relationship begins in a state of asymmetric recognition.Even if only for a second, there is always a moment where only one person is doing the following i.e: the recognizing. Even if only for a second, someone is living an unrecognized existence. The second the coveted follow-back is finally earned, normally through a series of timely and clever replies, it is colloquially said that the two become mutuals. And it is here that the relationship goes from being one of asymmetric recognition to one of mutual recognition. Hegel is probably rolling in his grave.
This casual lack of recognition is not normal. To Hegel, the entire story of history is the progressive resolution of conflicts around asymmetric recognition. His core argument (nowadays also attributed to Francis Fukuyama who built upon Hegel’s work) was that liberal democracy largely solves the problem of universal human recognition, and he was right: it eventually eradicated slavery and largely took care of other forms of discrimination (another word for a lack of recognition). Hegel’s mistake, however, was the failure to predict the timeline in which we virtualize our entire existence and begin to play by antiquated rules once again.
Before social media, this sort of status asymmetry was only a problem at the tail ends of our liberally democratic society—famous people or those who are dehumanized (of which there are many, sadly—see refugees or homeless people). Social media has democratized extreme status asymmetry and, as if that wasn’t enough, it has also quantified it with a millimetric precision.
Produce or Die
Relationships on social media are not only status-asymmetric, they also largely exist in a purely consumptive capacity. One’s entire existence online is predicated on the production of “content”. If you do not produce, you do not get recognized. Why follow someone who doesn’t tweet?
So you start producing content. Should production halt, the most likely outcome is that you get unfollowed. Online, this is the equivalent of death, where death is the loss of someone else’s recognition.
This leads me to an insight that I had recently. Social media is not actually social, it’s parasocial:
Parasocial interaction (PSI) refers to a kind of psychological relationship experienced by an audience in their mediated encounters with performers in the mass media, particularly on television and on online platforms. Viewers or listeners come to consider media personalities as friends, despite having no or limited interactions with them.
A parasocial interaction, an exposure that garners interest in a persona, becomes a parasocial relationship after repeated exposure to the media persona causes the media user to develop illusions of intimacy, friendship, and identification.
In other words, nobody on the internet actually cares about you. I’m sorry. It’s fake, all of it. People might like what you put out and they may even agree with you often. Maybe you even consider some of your online acquaintances to be friends—but until you meet someone in real life, you’re nothing more than a button click away from death.
How many of these people that you interact with online actually know you? They don’t, sorry. They know the online version of you that boils down to tweets and photos and video essays. When those stop coming, when you stop showing up on feeds in your network, you effectively die. In the worst of cases, you don’t even die on your own terms—somebody kills you.
We’re all stuck in this rat race of production and consumption, often times letting it eat away at our actual IRL relationships, without even realizing how fickle and shallow it all is.
Nobody on the internet actually cares about you. I’m sorry.
You are Meant to Forget
Perhaps the most pernicious of the three original sins is the way that social media hijacks memory.
A computer’s memory is fundamentally different from that of a human’s in more ways than one, but none of them perhaps more important than its permanence. Human memory, as we all know, is not permanent. It is possible to forget things. In fact, the ability to forget is very important—you are meant to forget. Human forgetfulness is a feature, not a bug.
A computer, on the other hand, will never forget, unless you ask it to. And as we virtualized every single facet of our lives, we began to replace human memory with that of a computer. We have lost the ability to forget, and are now suffering the consequences.
It is common knowledge that a person’s social circle shrinks as they get older. People fall to the wayside, relationships don’t pan out, interests diverge, life bifurcates. We zero-in on those that are most important to us. I don’t like to appeal to nature, so I won’t say that this is natural, but I will say that it is the default. And we have no evidence that this is a faulty default, one that needs to be re-engineered.
Despite this lack of evidence, the advent of social media has taken this default and completely inverted it. Thanks to the computer’s perfect memory, we have enslaved our social circles to unbounded and near-exponential growth for the rest of our lives. Instead of shrinking over time, our social circles now grow forever, non-stop, until the day that we die.
This can’t be good for us. I’m not convinced that I’m supposed to remember even half of the people that I went to high school with?
Whether it’s heavier topics like a toxic relationship or something more mundane like a post on the wall of your freshman year crush, social media does not let you forget. It does not want you to forget. And I think that you and I were meant to forget.
Ok, it’s not all bad. There are good things, even great things, about being online. But these things have largely been forgotten, I think. They are easy to forget.
While everybody tries to escape the real world in search of virtual ignorant bliss, chasing fake internet points, I think we should swim the other way. The online exists in service of the offline. We must never forget this.
We’re lucky to be alive, why are we trying to run away? Why do we care so much about this fake, faulty, virtual incantation of our very beautiful and real world?
I’m reminded of this from Hannah Arendt:
This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.
We can and should transmute everything that we do online into meaningful IRL relationships and adventures.
Life is a gift. We’ve built a tool that can augment it tremendously. Why are we trying to replace it?
A disclaimer: I’ve never read Hegel. I’ve never even read Kojève! As far as Hegel goes, what you’re getting from me here is regurgitated Fukuyama, who regurgitated Kojève, who regurgitated (or rather, interpreted) Hegel.
That said, in reading Fukuyama, I came away with an appreciation for Hegel’s struggle for recognition. It has left an indelible mark on my worldview, I now see it everywhere.
Facebook, the only social network where this is not the default for everyone, is now virtually irrelevant. In short, the follower/following dynamic won because social media is optimized for famous people.
I really enjoyed this piece.
I especially liked the way you compared social media to Hegel's idea of struggle for recognition. Thanks
this was fun. you write well! subscribed