The trouble with social media - or rather, one key trouble among many - is that they encourage us to think about the lives of our ‘friends’ (online connections) as elements in our own private info-experience, our ‘stream’; and because we are steeped in the norms of melodrama and other entertainments, we therefore tend (naturally) to think of online lives as ‘dramatic.’ Indeed, we may even perceive them as dramatically adequate, i.e. a digital acquaintance’s troubles will filter through to us not as the emotionally overdetermined mundane that is mere physical life, but as a structured consciousness-manipulation like, say, a TV show.
It makes sense that we would misunderstand our social connections this way. We already apply the logic of dramatic viewership to politics, criminal justice, sports, war, mourning, aging, all of human history…
The difference between, say, the real world and MTV’s The Real World (and its descendants, from Jersey Shore to Nancy Grace) always was and is simply this: life is always continuation, disappointment, deferral, mere action. Life is not significant - drama is a redaction and manipulation of life in which events are depicted precisely and solely because of their meaning, the lessons they impart. (All drama is at some level didactic, necessarily and neutrally so.) What happens in our world just…happens. We interpret it, to be sure, we narrativize and dramatize it for ourselves and for one another, but most of us aren’t stupid or deluded enough to think that day-to-day life is staged for the purpose of revealing significance.
Except that I’m wrong - most human beings are just that deluded. (The delusion is called ‘religion.’)
Facebook, Twitter, and their ilk are dangerous to the social fabric in the same way so-called ‘reality television’ is - indeed, the same way horserace news coverage of (partisan) politics is dangerous to the body politic. These forms encourage us, in subtle ways and otherwise, to imagine our lives as fitting a dramatic structure. It’s obvious how, say, FOX/MSNBC politicking does so, but Facebook is just as much a theatre, a representational matrix, a set of sharp constraints on its hundreds of millions of users’ communicative input and output.
If you’ve ever seen an online argument (in a blog comments thread, say) blow up quickly and suddenly into a ‘flame war,’ you can understand the dangers of anonymity and the nonexistence of ‘empathy at a distance.’ But the problem extends to ‘social media’ networks as well. When interpersonal interactions occur in a form/forum that blocks empathy - when the events of a ‘friend’s’ life come to you in the form of a typo-ridden public news ticker rather than as a social occasion, simply cutting off the biological feedback loop by which humans regulate one another’s emotions and integrate unspeakable or unimaginable experience - we are denied the chance to utilize our incredibly rich emotional sensorium and processing power, our unique mammalian ability to take part in the mechanism of regulation and communication called love.
Social networks don’t transmit love - only infatuation. We relate to our online ‘friends’ the way we relate TV characters, via dramatic mediation.
If you’ve ever talked about ‘other people’s dramas,’ you’ve done what almost every human being does without even thinking about it: you’ve reduced another person’s complex lived experience to the status of narrative for your benefit. Social networks contribute to the misconception that the important thing about the events of our lives is what they mean (to us), rather than the mere fact that they have occurred.
This misconception, this lie, is one of the root causes of human unhappiness. So what.
See the extraordinary book A General Theory of Love for a moving and accessible treatment of the ‘limbic system’ and the neurobiology of love. ↩