It’s a banal fact that human beings perceive a conflict between their desire to be individual and their desire to fit in comfortably within social groups. This tension is the source of the plots of, like, 75% of the young adult books ever written. Part of the expression of these conflicting desires can be seen in social hierarchies that are purely about popularity or likability; being at the top permits people to believe that their individuality isn’t in conflict with their social success but is in fact the source of that success. The advantage of being the most popular kid in high school is that your individuality is seen as the vehicle driving you to social success. The rest of the population, meanwhile, is conditioned to believe that their individuality is the source of their unpopularity, and so they live with the implicit choice as to whether or not to alter their outward personality to climb the ladder.
I’m not sure that there’s any alternative to this kind of tension. Conditioning people, in one form or another, is probably an essential social function. Without some degree of conditioning, I doubt humans could function together. It’s unclear why these functions of the self are still so self-injurious, thousands of years after we developed the self. Chomsky says high intelligence may be maladaptive; I suspect instead that consciousness is probably a maladaptive consequence of our intelligence, which is still a powerful enough advantage for passing on genes that it persisted through natural selection. I mean think about the capacity for consciousness to hurt people. Yes, it’s a first world problem to have self-injurious mental behaviors that result in anxiety or self-hatred. But those issues cause massive amounts of real human suffering.
Now I’m not saying for sure that a guy born on a deserted island would lack these kinds of neuroses. I just think that constantly being in the presence of other minds can’t help. Part of the trouble is that our desire to possess a someone-ness has traditionally been socially unspeakable. Talking about this stuff makes people uncomfortable, and in fact accurately describing someone else’s tendencies in personality construction is one of the most reliably powerful ways to hurt them. This is why long-term romantic relationships can often feature the most emotionally brutal fights; the process of self-creation and revelation to another person is never more explicit than in the initial stages of romantic involvement, and no one has more intimate exposure to the gaps between that initial kind of self-representation and the kind that occurs when we are paying less attention, when we are not devoting our energies in the same way we do during those initial stages. It’s not that the first few dates/first six months of dating self is less “real” than the later self. It’s just that the later self, being the product of less energy and less attention, is inevitably more likely to emerge than the one which runs on the incentive of potential sexual and romantic satisfaction.
All of this really comes down to our incredibly well-attuned sensitivity to differences that are actually quite minute. Although much of our current political economy is devoted to the notion that outwardly-verifiable differences are massively important to lived experience, in the most important ways, the majority of humans likely experience life in vastly similar ways. That’s not to discount the importance of the differences– I spend an inordinate amount of my life arguing about them– but for various reasons we discount that percentage of shared experience. My suspicion is that the differences in personality that we find enormous would be far too small for an intelligent alien species to detect. We might do an experiment with the aliens: watch this footage from the party. Which person did everybody else find to be a raging asshole? Which person is shy? Which people are extroverted and which are introverted? Which is funny, and which really wants others to think of him as funny? My guess is that the aliens would just have no clue.
I think this is why experience with people from different cultures (and, crucially, different language backgrounds) can be both enervating and disturbing. Living and working at a university with a giant international population for the last three years, I’ve heard people say several times some version of, “I love to be around my Chinese students; they really interact with you in a very direct, simple way.” I wince because there’s a whole host of problems swirling around in that superficially positive description. Most of all, though, I think what they’re experiencing is being around people whose enculturated sense of other selves is calibrated so differently that they can’t read how others are reading them. So they tend to assume, I think, that there is no reading going on. At worst, this creates traditionally racist impressions– those Chinese people don’t judge me because they lack an inner life. The pleasure is one that Lewis Gordon has identified in his work, the false comfort of perceiving consciousness without judgment. In reality, it’s just a difficulty in parsing social cues across difference that makes us less aware of how we are judging and how others are judging us.
Now the online world creates a set of differences in this interaction that are, I’d wager, neither good nor bad, just different. The problem is that we’ve developed a set of social intuitions and processing functions for face-to-face interactions over thousands of years; we’ve only been interacting this way online for a couple decades. In that sense we’re all just participants in a massive social experiment. This should, in my view, lead to a spirit of skeptical exploration of these online spaces, a kind of collaborative skepticism that can allow us to enjoy them while recognizing that nobody really knows how healthy these interactions are. As I’ve argued before, we actually get the opposite, which is the aggressive defense of uncritical online interaction, despite the fact that these behaviors are economically and socially dominant and thus do not need defending. The internet has an immune system, which is constantly producing antibodies to destroy a tiny and powerless number of germs.
My frustration with terms like “digital dualist” stems from the fact that even those who are most enthusiastic about these communicative technologies can’t coherently argue that there is no difference between online and face-to-face interaction. In the most basic, literal sense, talking to someone in a bar and talking to them on social media just is not the same. And the major reason for that is not really digital at all; the digital divide is usually a red herring. The difference is that almost all online interactions are mediated through language. Through writing, specifically. Despite the fact that the technological hurdles to massive video chat are fairly trivial, and the constant arguments that we’re moving to “the web of images” or whatever other garbage the tech media is pushing this week, the dominant technology through which the internet operates is writing, “a technology that restructures thought.” Facebook could be an online group video chat. It isn’t, and nobody particularly wants it to be.
When people complain about critiques of digital culture, just tell them that the digital part is much less important than the part where everything is just an expression of language. Tell them that every argument about Twitter would apply just as well to hypothetical 10th-century German monks who, under a vow of silence, constantly and endless pass slips of paper under each other’s door on which they’ve scrawled 140 character messages. The digital aspect merely expands the access, speed, and volume.
Being embedded in written language has consequences. The most glaring, to me, is that the process of self-creation which we all undertake becomes necessarily more explicit and more obvious when everything is always mediated through language. Online, many of the social cues that deeply affect how we view and interpret others are gone. Some would call this a good thing; in a world where every self exists as the content of its written language, there is potentially no benefit to being tall, to being white, to being fit, to being physically attractive. That is potentially more fair and more just. But there is the inevitable consequence that, lacking the social cues we have grown up with, people feel undifferentiated, and so they rush to fill the gaps. That means that people end up telling you who they are, rather than showing you who they are, in a way that we associate with pretension and a lack of social graces. This is why social media is so often exhausting; people feel the need to say, “Here I am, and this is who I am!,” and being in the presence of so much self-presentation can be tiring. It’s like the first week of college where, given a clean break from their prior selves and in the presence of social and sexual opportunity like never before, people decide on who they want to be seen as and work it relentlessly. “I’m gonna be the guy who always wears a hat.” “I want to be known for my sarcastic sensibility towards life.” Etc.
I have no coherent theory for why people find other people’s presentation of self so insufferable while they busily go about presenting their own. I guess it’s the Sartre thing. Sartre’s “Hell is other people” is typically represented as an empty, “other people suck, man” type of statement. But in the context of his work, it actually means that hell is other people because other people’s conception of us potentially snaps us out of our self-conception. (“Hey! I’m the guy who always wears a hat!”) That, I think, is the other side of the coin of the living-through-language that the internet gives us. When everything that we are to others is language, we are subject to their language, too. And I think if you look for it just a little bit, you’ll find that aggression online is almost never directed towards ideas but towards others’ conceptions of self. The default argument is not “your ideas are wrong” but rather “you are not the right kind of person, and further you are not the person you think you are.” These claims are more or less explicit depending on the degree of antagonism involved.
Certainly, that is the experience of the internet for me, someone who has an antagonistic relationship with many people. Pop my name in to a Twitter search and you’ll find that most people don’t say “Freddie deBoer’s argument here is wrong” but rather “Freddie deBoer is this kind of person, not the person he believes himself to be.” The notion of the internet as a place where ideas are exchanged absent real selves is precisely backwards, and the constancy of the battle for self-ownership is the source of the persistent anxiety that hangs over all social media like nerve gas. It can also be the source of a certain invulnerability, one that’s accessible to everyone; anyone’s attempt to deny the self-conception of another is inevitably and necessarily an expression of their anxiety about their own. Acknowledge that and criticism becomes toothless.
Various types of social media have proliferated because people want to have more ways to present the self, not fewer. The most trite, most correct take on Instagram is that it is a form of aspirational self-presentation– I am the sort of person who looks at the things in my Instagram feed. I am the sort of person who listens to the music I listen to on Spotify, with those choices broadcast to my Facebook feed in real time. I am the sort of person who looks like this, says my selfie. I am asserting my self-definition in more and more spheres, and I enjoy greater control over them than I have over the pesky, fleshy corporeality of my AFK existence. Online, no one has love handles, absent those rare politicized moments when it is to their advantage to have love handles.
The advantage of old-school blogs lay in the greater degree for self-ownership than social media. You controlled everything with your own space, and as a blog post was far slower and far more considered than your average Facebook status update, there was more of a sense of weight and finality to what you had to say. Twitter is never fully your space, even when looking at you’re own timeline. That’s what people like about it, but it has consequences. Sure, there was intense social conditioning involved with blogs, but it was slower and more disparate. On Tumblr and Facebook, the system of reward and punishment is so immediate, and your ownership so much less total than it was on blogs, that the speed and intensity of social conditioning are dramatically increased. It’s a wonder that the average internet obsessive has much of a differentiated self left to be affirmed or denied by others.
The Zen insight is to remove the notion of an authentic self and to take a kind of refuge in the lack of emotional attachment this enables. I find that, personally, incompatible with the experience of being human. But in an online world which frequently resembles a vast collection of human minds, endlessly bludgeoning each other for the privilege to define themselves against others, and fighting for the illusory goal of a self so durable that it becomes immune to the observation of others… it sounds nice. Rather than seeking a Zen remove, most people sprint in the opposite direction, and seek to advance themselves in the status hierarchy, where important people agree via transactional social relations to affirm each other’s self-conception. This is what I mean by the desire to Be Somebody. Not merely in the typical sense of wanting to be famous or important, but to enjoy the privilege of the crowd affirming the self that you present and wish to be. The flip side is the threat, from above, of the crowd agreeing to represent you as something other than what you wish to be. That’s the other real currency of Being Somebody, the ability to move the crowd to declare the illegitimacy of someone else’s aspirational self. This is, as I said, my general experience of life online.
In part, I must admit, my criticism of all of this stems from my far more pleasant, privileged experience of offline life. Many of those privileges stem precisely from the corporeal, embodied aspects of life that we still can’t, at present, port into online life. These include the demographic inequalities that you read so much about online, but also simpler things like my physical shape, my stature, my presence. Not that any of these are anything to write home about. I just mean that I have am comfortable with them. I have probably met a couple dozen people AFK now that I first interacted with, at length, online. Almost without exception, they have said some version of “you’re nothing like I thought you’d be.” That this is pleasant for me, rather than frightening, indicates that I am a creature of a different time.
This type of talk is not, generally, brought up in polite company. I guess it’s just too detrimental to the necessary functions of social conditioning to get too close to how it works. What endures is a resistance to, and fascination with, the notion of the authentic self. Like most people, I don’t know what the authentic self could possibly be; authentic compared to what? And I’ve read dozens of essays denying its existence. But as usual, the volume of that resistance is itself evidence about the enduring, troubling power of the idea. I suspect that most people would be willing to accept a self that was perceived by some to be a jerk, if only it was stable, if only it transcended their responsibility to create it. Ultimately, there is a self that will exist in the grubby, unhappy grasping between me and you, but for which there is no impartial observer to adjudicate. So I might as well work to express the self in ways that I enjoy, that I find fulfilling and meaningful, rather than the one that I hope you might tolerate. Self-belief can save your life; appearing to others to not be pretentious grants you no real advantage at all. I have made the choice to pursue the tangible good of the former over the ephemeral social value of the latter. In that expression lies the authentic self that therefore I am.