It was on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Any Questions’ last month that a woman from the Lincolnshire audience asked the panel what they were going to do for ‘Scroll Free September’. I hadn’t ever heard of it, but the idea was pretty simple: take a month off from social media. No Twitter, no Facebook and the like.
Could I cope with a digital fast? I could certainly give it a whirl. My family had rightly been giving me a hard time for constantly disappearing from ordinary face-to-face social intercourse into a world of Twitter spats and Facebook threads. Why was I spending so much time arguing with people who don’t like me, rather than enjoying the loving presence of those who do?
Why was I? It’s crazy really. For not only are other people incredibly unpleasant on social media but – perhaps even worse – so am I. On Twitter, I too become an arse.
It is often said that people are so rude to each other on social media because of the absence of face-to-face connection. The other day a chap stopped me outside the Tube and introduced himself as someone with whom I had had a number of twitter arguments. We had a nice conversation and later he Tweeted: “Just met @giles_fraser who was lovely. The upside of this is that I will no longer be able to be mean to him on twitter, which is good for my soul.” Well, thank you Andrew. Likewise. (As you can see, I haven’t been able to resist eavesdropping on my account from time to time.)
But the face to face point is an important one. As the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas pointed out years before Facebook, the face of the other invites a particular form of moral concern; the face-to-face encounter is the ultimate origin of all moral responsibility. Physical distance dissolves our moral connections with each other.
So why do so many of us develop a social media obsession. Partly, I suspect, it is way of being heard, of asking to be noticed. The obsession some of us have with our number of followers is a way of shoring up a fragile ego, as if our existence is only secured through the recognition of others.
Some years ago, the novelist AS Byatt argued that Facebook is like a mirror – it has become the way we work out who we are. “I’m sure it’s a religious matter,” she said. “You only exist if you tell people you are there.” Twitter and Facebook are constant forms of reassurances that we exist and matter. A bit like Lacan’s mirror-stage, except for adults, Facebook becomes a means of developing self-consciousness. When I deleted my Facebook account earlier this year, along with loads of photos and conversations, a bit of my life was erased; I feel like a part of me has been lost.
But the sort of self-consciousness that social media causes is often achieved via contestation and aggravation. So, inevitably, the very thing that we use to reassure ourselves about our presence and place in the world is also the thing that wounds us. It hands us exactly the opposite: insecurity
It is not some obscure stretch, when looking at this vicious cycle, to bring up Rene Girard’s mimetic theory and the philosophy of desire. The French historian, sociologist, and theologian may not be a household name, but is credited by Peter Thiel, the technology investor, “with inspiring him to switch careers and become an early, and well-rewarded, investor in Facebook … [Thiel] gave Facebook its first $500,000 investment, he said, because he saw Professor Girard’s theories being validated in the concept of social media.”
For Girard, desire is learnt; it is a form of copying or mimesis. Child A plays with a toy car, one among a whole range of toys on the floor. But suddenly, child B wants exactly that same car. Child B wants it because child A wants it. Desire is copied – and this leads to conflict over the car. Mimetic desire explains the creation of rivalry.
As Geoff Shullenberger explains:
The possible applications of this thinking to social media in particular should be relatively obvious. The structures of social platforms mediate the presentation of objects: that is, all ‘objects’ appear embedded in, and placed in relation to, visible signals of the other’s desire (likes, up-votes, reblogs, retweets, comments, etc.). The accumulation of such signals, in turn, renders objects more visible: the more mediated through the other’s desire (that is, the more liked, retweeted, reblogged, etc.), the more prominent a post or tweet becomes on one’s feed, and hence the more desirable.
This simple idea that desire is copied might well explain some of the nastiness of the social media encounter – we are sucked into a vortex of contestation, into a cycle of tit-for-tat. Social media aggro is contagious, it is caught through copying. And if this constant reciprocity of conflict is indeed the basis on which we try and secure our place in the world, no wonder so many of us are unhappy and depressed.
For Girard, the answer to this cycle of constant contestation he calls ‘forgiveness’. It sounds a bit soppy, I know. But for Girard, forgiveness means something very specific. It is a way of not copying, of not responding in kind. An eye for an eye, for instance, is an act of copying. Forgiveness is more defiant. It refuses to respond in kind. It’s a way of breaking the cycle, Girard maintains, by not copying the violent other. Not to do as s/he does. This he calls forgiveness. It’s absolutely not about having nice warm and fuzzy feelings about someone who has done you some wrong.
I suspect there is something here that should help me when I return to Twitter next month. And yes, you can remind me of this if I ever get into a cycle of hostile backwards and forwards. Some people are extremely good at not responding in kind. I have not always been one of them. Mea culpa.