I spent much of my time as a Ph.D. student and then as a Ph.D. candidate pushing back against the luddites, and in particular against the people that were critical of social media. I felt that their blanket assertions that social media was dehumanizing an “artificial” (an implicit critique if ever there was one) were based on now obsolete cultural and social assumptions, and on a misunderstanding of technology rooted in old structural dichotomies like alive/not-alive and biological(social)/mechanical(un=anti-social).
In some ways I still feel this.
But I am also evolving on the topic. Over the last several years, I have come to see and understand what I imagine to be psychosocial properties of social media that perhaps I didn’t before—properties that are maladaptive for social processes and thus for society.
I still doubt that there is an “essential unhumanity” to technologically mediated interaction. But I do see, to the contrary, an “overdone humanity” to technologically mediated interaction.
One of the founding precepts of civilization, whether one likes to admit it or not, is the repression of certain evolutionary propensities, a way of “disowning the animal portion” of human person(s) in the interest of the command-control-coordination-cooperation facility that is our capacity for culture. Civilization is the emergent order that results from our late-developing cerebral cortex, much lauded for its ability to sustain humans’ uniquely high levels of executive function and judgment.
My reading of social media is that it increasingly subverts the dominance of this aggregate wing of the brain of humanity, in the process short-circuiting the useful repression and better judgment that collectively enables durable, deliberative, and productive civilization in the first place. In short, it’s not that social media is dehumanizing, but that it is overhumanizing—that in an social sphere characterized by social-media-interactive dominance, we regress to a state of eros/drive overexpression, failing to sublimate any longer the most animal portion of our natures.
The presence of an endlessly sympathetic audience in conceptual positions of nearest proximity, combined with the similarly guaranteed presence of antagonists slightly farther away, encourages the overexpression of all kinds of impulses and habits of thought unmoderated by high-order-executive function, interpellated by conflict and ego-negation and supported and encouraged by positive reinforcement patterns that traffic in more primitive or infantile forms of ego- and wish-fulfillment. We come to present ourselves in ways that encourage sympathy, pity, outrage, tribalism, and that are motivated and sustained by the portions of our cognitive apparatus (with apologies to those who rightly suggest that Freud is somewhat obsolete, and with the hope that this use is taken to be conceptual rather than clinical) that correspond roughly to id and ego functions.
In short, social media is anathema to any superego-like impulse, or to its gestalt at the social level, and as such structurally corresponds more to the kinds of thinking that lead us to the ill-reasoned but “unavoidable” (read: impulsively powerful and difficult to emotionally regulate) conflagration of World War I than the reasoned and uncomfortable (but highly necessary) detente (and comparative collective maturity) of the Cold War.
Put more simply: social media takes the progress we’d made as a species toward being a collective of “adults” and writes it off, returning us to something more akin to a global population of emotional teenagers—perhaps more “human” rather than less “human” overall, but in a way that lays bare the limits that are at issue when discussing the positive facets of “humanity” as a thing.
Or, another formulation: real grown-ups don’t use social media much, not because it’s dehumanizing, but because it emphasizes the parts of human existence that maturity has evolved to switch off after puberty in the interest of the big-picture species-being—not because it’s dehumanizing but because it is all too sustaining of the most fundamental human frailties.
Or, even another way: on social media, the point is not to unify, but to divide; not to empathetically understand but to incredulously reject; not to persuade through debate but to proselytize or, in case of failure, to disconnect.
Social media is in some ways an advanced tool to enable us to get what we need from others without having to entertain the (often phenomenologically demanding) “better angels of our natures.”
This is different from the “narcissism” argument in that I don’t think that social media inherently leads to self-absorption. Rather, I increasingly think that social media inherently leads to individual and collective emotional dysregulation, to emergent collective action that is irrational and counterproductive, rooted in fears, prejudices, drives, and dis-integration rather than in goals, generosity, and social integration. If the mass media was the high media of fascism and early technomedia (ala Usenet and early Internet) the high media of socialism, then social media is the ascendant high media of late-stage, divide-and-conquer, fulfill-the-drives by obscuring-the-lives capitalism.
I used to think that social media was a family reunion while those around me thought it was a padded cell. Now I increasingly think it is a privileged high school—or even middle school—quad.
This is not meant to be a novel academic argument; I’m sure someone somewhere has said this already. It’s meant to be a kind of admission and concession on my part.