The Saving Power (and destroying power) of Social Media

An answer to the essay question: Does social media make us more lonely? (Turns out that it does and does not—in true Hegelian fashion!)

Update: Won the 2021 Trinity College Philosophy Essay Prize.

I. Introduction

Two qualities distinguish social media from previous technologies: egocentrism and democracy. Social media is more egocentric than previous technologies because, rather than consuming information selected by others and for others, it tailors that information for the individual. This egocentrism is compounded by social media’s democratic nature where each person can broadcast, i.e. speak out to the public rather than simply receive information. Instead of passive consumption, social media provides us with functions such as ‘like’, ‘comment’, ‘share’, endowing each individual with a democratic voice, alongside ‘report’, ‘block’ and ‘follow’ allowing individuals to shape their interactions to their own ego. Whereas older technologies like newspapers are forced to appeal to diverse audiences, social media’s functional malleability and democratic egocentrism allows it to be shaped to appeal only to the individual.

This technological change is not one we can easily dismiss because, as Heidegger suggested, technology is itself a way of knowing. As beings thrown into a world of entities that manifest themselves as equipment, we come to understand ourselves through using—engaging with—them. Technological change, therefore, leads to ontological change: when social media changes how we interact with the world, it changes us. This is why Walter Benjamin writes that “human sense perception…is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.”[1]

         To account for social media’s technological—and correspondingly ontological—shift, then, it is perhaps most helpful to introduce Hannah Arendt’s distinction between solitude and loneliness as a way to understand how social media’s specific technology predisposes us to loneliness. Loneliness, which Arendt describes as being “deserted by human company but also…myself”[2] is not physical but psychical: it strikes when one is bereft of others’ opinions for it is only when we encounter other opinions—another viewpoint on a world that manifests itself diversely (does this add something?)—that we encounter other persons.[3] We are individuals by virtue of our opinion——and it is this action—Socrates’ examination of the doxa in the agora—that characterizes the realm of the human and enables true companionship.[4] In contrast to loneliness’ lack of opinion, solitude—characterized by intense thought—is a collision of opinions within the individual. This is why ‘echo chamber’ is used to describe ideological discourse: in the echo chamber there is no other, but only one’s voice reverberating in a hauntingly alien sameness. 

II. Friendship

Loneliness is dispelled either through solitude—my conversation with myself through thinking—or by friendship—the conversation between individuals equal in their humanity but different in their thought. Both modes rely on the same fundamental principle: friendship proceeds “from a man’s [solitary] relations to himself”,[5] where the friend is “another self”.[6] Where friendship is impossible, the individual can still retreat to the inner citadel of the solitary self.  [7] Social media, however, threatens both solitude and friendship. Its democratic egocentrism threatens solitude by incorporating the public into the private and attacks the bases of friendship through its qualities of flatness, fragmentariness, and inattention.

We are all equal in our humanity but distinct in our personalities. Through reason (logos) we find the shared understanding from which speech (logos) (I find this necessary to  link up with the next line)—the vehicle of our individuality—arises. In logos we find our persona—the mask our words weave for the public—derived from our personare, our sounding through that distinguishes us. The public-world becomes woven together when the voices of the other and the self sound through their masks. Joined in friendship, in shared speech, one’s opinion—one’s individual view—is channeled into the world, a world in which they encounter other opinions, thereby dispelling loneliness. 

Flatness disables friendship because it inhibits personare: without dimension, we cannot speak to others in our voice nor hear the nuance in theirs. This problem is not new. Even the Athenian polis, built upon the ideal of allowing each person to speak in their individuality, found itself corrupted by the tyranny of the majority, as shown in Socrates’ death. For us, it is important we realize this tyranny need not be Orwellian or even overtly political. It can rise directly from social media’s democratic impulse—the desire to broadcast the self to a group—for this broadcast makes it impossible to speak in our own voice. Like the pulp-journalist, but to a lesser degree, we fall prey to generalizations that increasingly flatten to accommodate a growing audience. In broadcasting ourselves on social media—i.e. to the crowd—we lose the privacy of individual-to-individual conversational speech where we reveal ourselves in the spontaneity of losing self-consciousness by being attentive to others.

However, even where social media allows for one-on-one conversation, flatness prevails due to the medium’s fragmentary nature, thus leading, naturally, to inattention: when the continuity of conversation is broken by distance in space and time, our attention becomes diverted and the conversation grows increasing segmented; the flow of speech now circles only around the surface—the surface where the voice cannot sound through—without ever rising to the necessary spontaneity that allows for companionship. 

Fragmentariness and inattention makes it impossible for us to reveal ourselves because although revelation is possible en masse—it is how writers become the reader’s friend—what is missing is the required length and continuity that forges individualized thoughts—thoughts that channels us away from loneliness towards either friendship or solitude. Thought, in its individuality, takes time to develop. Reduced to fragmentary sentences, details (“the wealth of colors”) become lost to an all-encompassing flat “night in which all cows are black”.[8]

This is the true peril of egocentrism. When everything one consumes is made easily digestible, simplified to one’s comfort, encountering someone else becomes impossible. Aided by fragmentariness—the most effortless manner of digesting information—and its handmaiden, inattention, social media divorces us from engaging with the difficult nuances and intricacies required to sound through the persona and see the personare: after all, social media asks, why spend a month reading Joyce when SparkNotes presents the material in an hour? While it might be unnecessary for us all to go through the trouble of reading Ulysses, when generalized to the sphere of interpersonal interactions—as social media does—the space and time required for friendship is forfeited. Devoid of spontaneity and effortful engagement, social media’s flatness is exacerbated by egocentrism, fragmentariness, and inattentiveness that prevents the mutual understanding required to become “another self,” trapping the individual into an otherless, friendshipless, vacuum.

III. Duality

However, much of what contributes to loneliness and solitude remain intertwined and accessible only together. Social media’s technological revolution—leading to democratic egocentrism, flatness, fragmentariness, and inattention—is not inherently negative: democracy can, in its full form, promote friendship; egocentrism prepares a strong sense of self; flatness allows us to deal with masses of people; fragmentariness makes information easy to digest; and inattention preserves our attention for what is essential.

We should not forget, either, that the individual has a life outside of social media. Fragmentariness, flatness, and inattention are not qualitatively new—people have worked in the fields, in factories, and in offices in abject conditions for centuries and even millennia while still managing to retain private sanctums of interaction (the family dinner table, for example) where companionship, friendship, and love can be enjoyed. Even in the absence of others in this sanctum, the companionship of oneself allows the transformation of loneliness into solitude.

The danger of social media arises from the blurring of the demarcation between public and private. The intrusion of the public into the private sanctums disrupts the ability to find solitude or sound through to friendship: we are, instead, always both alone and in full view, unable to rest in solitude or be spontaneous in the company of others. The Romans depicted this need for duality in the figure of Janus, who presided over doorways, one eye on the open world and another inside the home, protecting the private from the public. This too is the function of the Sabbath, to preserve the private in rest, thus enabling the individual’s solitude. The breaking of this boundary—in the businessman’s inattention to his children while pondering a deal or in a son’s reporting of his parents for being disloyal to the state—is when the individual, finding nowhere solitude nor friendship, becomes lonely.

Though the problem is nothing new, social media’s specific portability—its residence not in a particular place but in a device that moves easily from here to there—makes this boundary particularly susceptible. This technological advance materializes in a different ontology: instead of returning from flat, fragmentary, inattentive work to more present, concrete friendship and solitude, everywhere the same overtakes us. As soon as public fragmentariness and inattention intrudes into the private the private is destroyed; it cannot withstand the public’s assault. Dimensionality is removed from life and, thereby, a locus of echoing, empty loneliness is created around the individual.

III. Saving Power

But where danger is, grows

The saving power also.[9]

Yet, within social media’s inclination towards loneliness lies also the possibility of true friendship and rewarding solitude. Though the public might become a tyrant, it might also—exemplified in Socratic dialectics in the agora—provide the space for opinions to collide and weave together a common world, a space where friendship is brought forth into being.  

         It is not realistic to look upon the Athenian city-state as a model for the polis or togetherness given our densely populated cities and ever-larger countries—as Marx’s critique of industrialization suggests, flatness grows as numbers grow: in the mass factory we become alienated from our work and our fellow workers. But it is in addressing this historical stage of development that social media—while a danger to friendship—contains also the power to salvage it.

         Social media’s power lies exactly within its danger, in its democracy, its egocentrism, its portability. It allows us to communicate with others no matter where we are. It provides—even if underutilized—the potential to present our full individuality to whoever wishes to see it. Its intrusion into the private has the potential to carve out a social sphere where the tyranny of the public can be evaded. Within the social, it unites us by common interests, questions, conversations, allows the individual a space to dwell, to contemplate, to find friendship. Metaphorically, it can build a multiplicity of social-states—large enough to find others but too small to fall prey to flatness—and create an agora, united by shared passion but expressive in difference, where one can reveal one’s individuality expecting attention, dimensionality, and coherence. It contains too the possibility of limitless—reaching out to the totality of extant human beings to forge the realm of the social—without sacrificing the individual at its core; it contains, therefore, in its tendency to loneliness, the promise of full immersiveness—of being-with, friendship, and rich solitude.

         Nothing essential to social media makes us lonely. Like fire, it can be either the torch of hope or the flames of destruction. It can destroy or save, make us less lonely or more. It depends on its manner of use, on the function for which we grasp the tool. However, because it is easier to destroy than build, it is harder to wield social media positively than let it run free in its volatility, making us more lonely. Instead of assessing it binarily, we must think much more carefully on what social media is, how we use it, how it can be used. Much about social media makes us lonelier. But the antidote to its danger is not avoidance, censure, or destruction. Rather, we must think of it as a new social sphere, a new agora, a new way of being brought about by technology that can make us more lonely but also can be thought through to new and surprising ends, new ways of finding friendship and being with others—a place that, like Plato’s Academy, may escape the perils of Democracy in its self-selecting social sphere. We may, in such a sphere, sound through in our multiplicity of individuality, let our opinions collide in our shared world, and truly think about social media—how it can make us less lonely, rather than more. 

[1] Illuminations, p.217

[2] Life of the Mind, p.76

[3] The Human Condition, p.58-59

[4] The Promise of Politics, p.13

[5] Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Chapter 4

[6] And love, the most intense form of friendship, is just “two solitudes protecting, defining, and welcoming each other.” Letters to a Young Poet, p.38

[7] Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, Chapter 4

[8] Phenomenology of Spirit, Section 16

[9] Hölderlin, Patmos, quoted in Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, p. 34

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