On Social Media & Loneliness

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


May 22, 2012

On Social Media & Loneliness

Stephen Marche’s recent article about social media and loneliness is surprisingly balanced and even-handed. From the reaction on Twitter, I expected Marche to denounce Facebook as the devil incarnate, or at least be slightly polemical. But he just isn’t.

I feel like I’m the only one who noticed this. A typical reaction is from blogger A. V. Flox, who claims that the article is “about how Facebook is making us lonely,” and accuses Marche of alarmism and universalizing his personal experience with social media before asserting what she apparently believes is a contrary argument: “It’s not technology that is the problem – it’s how we use it.”

But Flox is arguing with an opponent of her own construction. Marche answers his title question – “Is Facebook making us lonely” – in the negative, for precisely the same reasons: “Loneliness is certainly not something that Facebook or Twitter or any of the lesser forms of social media is doing to us. We are doing it to ourselves. Casting technology as some vague, impersonal spirit of history forcing our actions is a weak excuse.”

Both Marche and Flox tell us that technology is merely a tool, an extension of what we already are, but never a cause, framing it as an inert thing that we simply pick up and put down according to our needs. It’s as if any technology affords all possibilities and we simply need to express our will and we are magically given exactly what we want. The logical conclusion is that if you are harmed by social media, it is because you have wished harm upon yourself, a clear sign of pathology. There are elements of a just world fallacy at work here, where victims are blamed for their fate because they failed to conform to the approved ethos.

This is typical of cyberutopian discourse, which attributes authorship, responsibility and even agency to technology when it has positive effects, but when it comes to negative effects, the causes are found in some personal pathology or other: a stubborn refusal to adapt to the new paradigm, irrational phobia, jealousy, self-loathing and so on. Good things are technologically-determined, bad things are socially-determined.

In fairness, Marche does offer a critique of social media. But his critique relates to the narcissism of constantly curating your life for an audience, not loneliness. For me, this is a much more significant critique because it is closely linked with the decline of the society of prohibition and the rise of the society of enjoyment. Prohibition is associated with the Lacanian Symbolic, and enjoyment with the Imaginary. The image is an illusory wholeness, an assumption of total enjoyment where lack does not exist. No wonder that social media provokes feelings of envy, a feeling that the Other’s (imagined) complete enjoyment threatens our own, exposing it as incomplete. Confidence is restored when we put our lives on display, once again the object of the Other’s enjoyment.

But still, Flox and others seem to have reacted to the title of the article, more than the substance. The benefits of technology are so certain, that simply posing a question which could expose a flaw is tantamount to a betrayal. In Data Transgression, I wrote about one reason why criticism provokes such strong reactions: the grounding of subjectivity in “the Internet,” a reified singular Other. In more prosaic terms, Silicon Valley has been very effective at marketing its innovations as groundbreaking, revolutionary, paradigm-busting and so on, and conferring this identity on those who advance their agenda in whatever arena they are in.

This could be journalism, marketing, encyclopedia authoring, education, content distribution, whatever – by adding the word “digital” to one’s title, you can invoke the power of Silicon Valley’s revolutionary world-changing rhetoric to carve out a professional niche for yourself. You no longer simply have a job, or even a career. Now you are a change agent whose mission is to overthrow the existing ossified, bureaucratic ways and make the world a better place. Millennials can come into the workplace secure in the knowledge that we aren’t mere inexperienced employees at the bottom of the ladder, we’re bringing a bold new vision while scoffing at the limitations of tradition or habit.

Ideology functions most effectively by giving subjects an false sense of independence from the dominant culture. Put differently, what better way to conform to the system than by disrupting it? Our feeling of being outsiders obscures the ways we are invested in the system we outwardly rebel against. To ask questions about the negative impacts of technology is to disrupt this pseudo-rebellion, the precious inner distance that keeps us from seeing the extent to which we are already caught in the system. Feeling the full impact of reality, we are more motivated to try to change it.