Social Media Anxiety

by Rob Horning

31 March 2010


In this post about social-media anxiety, Jonah Lehrer makes some interesting points:

The one shared feature that I’m most interested in is also a little disturbing: the tendency of the social software to quantify our social life. Facebook doesn’t just let us connect with our friends: it counts our friends. Twitter doesn’t just allow us to aggregate a stream of chatter: it measures our social reach. LinkedIn has too many damn hierarchies to count. Even the staid blog is all about the metrics, from page views to unique visitors.
What I’m most troubled by is the desire of individuals (especially myself) to constantly check up on these numbers, and to accept these measurements as a measure of something meaningful. We’ve taken the natural nebulousness of social interactions—I might know you’re important, but I don’t know how important—and made them explicit. The end result is that our online relationships are shadowed by power relations.

Amen. Social media quantifies something essentially qualitative and makes it more amenable to economic analysis, as well as making “winners” and “losers” more explicit. All of this makes sociality more openly competitive. And because we compete with everybody in the word theoretically, we are far more likely to be anxious and disappointed with our current status. We can always directly compete with someone more popular or revered or whatever than us. Lehrer notes of a famous friend that the resulting asymmetry has “warped the nature of his online social interactions.” We are all being warped in the same way; the asymmetry hits us all. It’s an version of the problem brought on by advertisements, which establish a false frame of reference for how life is being lived by our peers.
Lehrer is forced to admit that “it’s all too often true: we’re a craven species, obsessed with status for the sake of status. And that pursuit of status shapes so many of our interactions, both in person and online.” That’s basically what Bourdieu demonstrates in Distinction; status lurks behind many things like aesthetics that have pretensions of seeming objective. Hierarchies are always trying to establish themselves as part of the unalterable natural order; a follow-up hypothesis is that the more of social life that they affect, the more natural they seem. One of the depressing aspects of social media is that is that they seem to promise to do away with hierarchy through democratized access, but instead the access extends hierarchy’s reach into spheres of life that were previously not directly accessible to power. Status plays even more broadly in our lives.

And that has consequences like what Amanda Marcotte describes in this post, where status trumps one’s desire to be happy. She illustrates this with the strange antipathy some middle class Americans have for the health care bill that is likely to improve their lot as well as that of society generally.

There are levels of meaning that are simply more important to people than happiness or even realistic risk assessment. Until you understand this, the outrage over health care reform will never make sense.  From the rational actor/happiness project perspective, there is no reason for your average middle class tea bagger to be up in arms over this health care reform package.  It won’t do anything to hurt them, and for a lot of them, it will have substantial benefits.  The simple reduction in fear of being unemployed alone should argue for it, as should the ability of middle class people to continue doing what they already do, which is extending young adulthood for their children until their mid-20s so those kids can situate themselves into more lucrative and stable careers.  I could go on, but seriously, the package has a ton of goodies for these folks.  And yet they freak out.  Don’t they want to be happy?

Well, maybe, but it’s certainly less important to them than maintaining their sense of superiority to other people. They don’t want the rising tide to lift all boats, if their neighbor’s boat lifts up. Just as many people will give up 2 hours of their precious day sitting in traffic instead of having to dirty themselves by being neighborly or, god forbid, living in a smaller place in the city, so they’ll give up reliable health care in order to make sure that others they deem lesser don’t have a share in it.

This sort of thing used to be attacked as a manifestation of “the zero-sum society”. The seeming paradox is that status becomes more pressing when digital abundance has the potential to relieve certain sorts of inequality. But we don’t really want to get rid of inequality, because it anchors our perception of status. We embrace innovations that supply new ways to feel slighted.

A zero-sum society is not inevitably brought on by natural conditions—or “Ananke.” Instead, it’s a matter of the way humans seem to be wired. If you believe what Freud says in Civilization and Its Discontents (I don’t), status competition is civilization’s way of containing our dangerous instinctual aggressive impulses, our natural yearning to rape and kill one another. I guess I’m more in the blame-capitalism crowd, even though human aggression predates it. Like they say, capitalism is the worst system except for all the others.

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