“Social media is, in many ways, becoming less social,” Brian X. Chen writes in a recent New York Times article. “The kinds of posts where people update friends and family about their lives have become harder to see over the years as the biggest sites have become increasingly ‘corporatized.’ Instead of seeing messages and photos from friends and relatives about their holidays or fancy dinners, users of Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter and Snapchat now often view professionalized content from brands, influencers and others that pay for placement.”
This has become received wisdom: Social media used to be genuinely about “friends and family,” but then tech companies perpetrated a bait and switch: They promised an easier way to stay in touch with people we care about but turned into television. They enclosed the “social” as a way to force people to watch ads and disclose themselves to innumerable agents of commercial surveillance. As a result, they are now “ending” or “over.”
But what does it mean to claim that something can be less “social”? This seems to concede that social life should be understood quantitatively, in terms of attention data and profit flows, and not qualitatively, in terms of friends and family bonds. A different interpretation of “social” would render it incoherent to say that there could be more of less of it, just as it makes no sense to say there is more or less of “society.” The question is not how much “social” one encounters but the form social relations take and which forces structure them. Social practice is an inherent aspect of how we are situated in a society, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been continual attempts to commodify it, to meter it and mete it out.
The premise that social media ever offered “more social” to users should not be taken in a commonsense way, as if they were ever for more “community” or more “authentic connection” or “genuine conversation” or any other conventional idea of sociality that pre-existed them. Rather, the platforms always aimed to reconfigure sociality into something more consumable.
Since “social media” caught on as a term, social has served as shorthand for business models that take advantage of user-generated content and map the networks traced by how that content circulates. The word works at the same time as an alibi for those models, implying that they are pro-social and community-centered, that they mesh with users’ sense of a pseudo-civic duty to volunteer and collaborate with others on the platform. “Social” as a business model posits sociality as something separable that users can perform only when they feel like it and on terms they seem to control, as a mode of self-expression. Tech companies produced a consumer good that they labelled “social,” structured an environment in which that good can be consumed, and reinforced the idea that consumer behavior itself is the essence of sociality. Platforms made social interaction generally appear as shopping or conspicuous consumption. What can be bought with our attention? Who is buying the way we are selling ourselves? That certainly constitutes a change in social relations, but that doesn’t mean we should accept the resulting product as where the “social” is located. The social, in this case, is the set of forces and relations that make and distribute that product called “social,” which then presents itself as an obstacle to understanding those forces.
One can speculate about the how much of social media adoption was voluntary — because it appeared to simplify the complicated commitments that social being requires, because it seemed to ease or even resolve conflicts between “the individual” and “society” (to put it into high-school-English-class terms) — and how much was compulsory, a result of that same social pressure they also supposedly resolved. Either way, social media made social practice seem as though it were no longer diffused throughout society but was something personalized that appeared on a screen, algorithmically contorted to reflect a calculation of an individual user’s sense of self-importance and centrality to the world. Social media offered sociality for a society without solidarity.
When Chen claims platforms are “less social,” then, perhaps we should be celebrating. They never should have been social in the first place. If the contrived and limited kind of social practice that platforms facilitate has less of a hold over people, that would be great, if not for the overarching awfulness of the set of economic conditions that produced social media in the first place. It would be great if the “social” business model could be dissolved into a more familiar form, where profit is wrung not from “sociality” as such — from the de facto existence of social relations in a society — but from “parasociality” as we once knew it, the set of identifications and pseudo-intimacies that characterize our relations to entertainment. It would be comforting to think that this is all platforms have been all along: not totalizing projects trying to reduce the entire range of social behavior to what fits in a phone app but conventional media companies selling entertainment and audience shares. After all, what is worse? Selling ad space against the texture of your friendships and your various family announcements, or consuming ads in between content-creator videos that give you the comforts and consolations of being a spectator? (Not either-or but both-and.)
In manufacturing “social,” tech companies gave new grounding to the “society of the spectacle” that Guy Debord theorized, with technology that could better substantiate and reproduce it and make it more encompassing. The third paragraph of The Society of the Spectacle (1967) is basically a description of social media at their most expansive: “The spectacle appears at once as society itself, as a part of society and as a means of unification. As a part of society, it is that sector where all attention, all consciousness, converges. Being isolated — and precisely for that reason — this sector is the locus of illusion and false consciousness; the unity it imposes is merely the official language of generalized separation.” When people talk about being “online” or “too online,” they are testifying to that separation (and that perception of separation as a form of false consciousness).
Social media platforms prompted users to conduct social life as a mode of representation, making spectacles of themselves and one another, but platforms in their totality are “the spectacle,” what Debord defines as a “world view transformed into an objective force” and “the prevailing model of social life.” When users began to adopt social media, it may have been because they seemed both a respite from and an accommodation to that model: a respite because they seemed contained and isolated, separate, and an accommodation because they more harmoniously integrated users with life under consumerism, wherein, as Debord puts it, “the economy’s domination of social life” drives “an obvious downgrading of being into having.” With social media, you could “have” “social.”
Platforms thus sustain what Eric-John Russell, in this essay on Debord and Adorno from Radical Philosophy, calls Identitätszwang, borrowing the term from sociologist Joseph Gabel’s False Consciousness: An Essay on Reification. For Russell, Identitätszwang is a condition in which “people come to identify with the appearances of social life, under compulsion to recognize themselves and their needs within the dominant images, representations and appearances produced by commodity society — including today the avatars, emojis, gifs, memes, hashtags and what Hegel might have called other ‘picture-thinking’ units of digital communication.” That is, people identify with the spectacle, or the platform, or “the algorithm” as well as with the content they distribute.
I like the term Identitätszwang because it echoes the chess term Zugzwang, when the fact that it’s your turn puts you in a no-win situation: The agency forced on you makes you lose. Social platforms likewise turn the agency they structure for users against them: Every move you make on a site like Twitter is a loss, which is part of what Willy Staley describes in another New York Times “end of social media” piece. As he simultaneously boasts about his popularity on Twitter and deprecates it, one gets a sense of Identitätszwang in action. Being good at Twitter means being bad at Twitter. It means you have identified your agency with its mechanics and metrics. That agency is experienced as real and consequential — more opportunities to speak, to spy, to cajole, to supplicate, to bully, to self-promote — but it is also a betrayal of the kinds of agency one could strive to achieve outside platforms.
Staley describes this as a “tragic bargain”:
Twitter took the wild world of blogging and corralled the whole thing, offering writers a deal they couldn’t refuse: Instant, constant access to an enormous audience, without necessarily needing to write more than 140 characters. But they would never again be as alone with their thoughts, even when they were off the platform. Twitter follows you, mentally, and besides, anything can be brought back there for judgment. Perhaps worst of all, they would be gently cowed into talking about whatever it was everyone else was talking about, or risk being ignored, and replaced by someone who would.
Who moved his cheese? Social media seemed to promise “free expression” and agency but was actually as coercive as the rest of capitalism, under which being “free” means being free to work or starve. It’s not Twitter that follows us but the socioeconomic conditions it stands for, in which there is no space preserved from capitalist subsumption, no outside the system.
If Russell is right, adopting the form of behavior that social media structures can be interpreted as a self-protective act of mimesis, a way of copying the prevalent mode of domination. Instead of merely feeling helplessly subject to it, one can feel like they are a microcosm of it. This is ultimately a mode of disavowal: I’m counting friends and followers but the number’s don’t really dictate “true” friendship for me. I look at what’s trending, but I don’t actually follow it. I want to get likes, but not really. My blue check was ironic. (I never had a blue check.)
When Staley gestures toward the “hopeful” early days of social media, we are again supposed to entertain the possibility that tech companies really meant well then and their indifference to what effects their products would have on the world was just “naive.” But that’s just the template for the disavowal that platforms administer as their version of the “social.” We let the customers decide what our platforms are for. Users guide our algorithms to show what they really want to see. Platforms are “what we make them” and “what they make of us” and thereby somehow neither, so it appears as if no one is responsible for the social and no one can do anything about it.
Russell, drawing on Adorno and Debord, describes a condition under which “various media elicit mass psychological behavior for which base survival and integration assume the form of satisfaction.” Those various media are social media platforms today; perhaps they will some form of AI-generated pablum tomorrow. But that condition can’t be understood, Russell argues, as a “simple one-way framework in which a juggernaut of commodified culture merely imposes its contours upon otherwise tabula rasa spectators.”
On the contrary, we find a form of pathological projection in which people strive to adapt to a schematism accompanied by a set of ready-made reactions to the cultural products on display, with their empty promissory notes designed to indefinitely prolong an unsublimated anticipation of pleasure, depleting the already scarce psychological resources of weak egos.
As one of those weak egos, I take that a bit personally. But it’s true that I still want sites like Twitter to work for me, not only because of whatever “reputational capital” I may have built there but also because I’ve adapted to its schematism. I’ve built a version of myself there; I not only anticipate pleasure but derive it from the ready-made reactions of myself and others.
This was part of what I was trying to get at when I gave a quote to Ellis Hamburger for his “end of social media” piece for the Verge, that “people like being a product.” I wasn’t trying to be glib or counterintuitive; I think that “being a product” is a kind of protective mimesis, a way of feeling safe and valued in a society devoted to commodity circulation.
Hamburger’s argument is similar to Cory Doctorow’s thread about “enshittification,” which makes the case that platforms pull a bait-and-switch on customers and content creators alike. As Hamburger writes:
Each platform began honorably, with young founders enthusiastically revealing that if you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product. “We’re going to do things differently around here!” they say through a grin.
And then the founders discover, one by one, that there’s something not quite right about the business of social media. They made their apps free to scale their community, and then they found there was no turning back. Unfettered growth became the only way forward, no matter how unrecognizable the product had to become to get there.
Again, I don’t know how “honorable” any company’s intentions are: There is no reason to think any founder has any other intention besides pursuing growth and proft from the beginning. The “initial promise of a place to connect and share with friends and family” is not an act of charity or goodwill. It just means the platform wants to puts connecting and sharing in a marketplace; it wants to teach us how to commodify those relations much like we already commodify our labor power. and then force us to sell them at a discount.
To latch onto that promise isn’t a sign of how much you cherish caring and sharing with your communities and how eager you are to adopt a technology that seems to make more of it possible; it’s ultimately a mark of Identitätszwang, in a spirit of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” It signals that one no longer believes in the viability of noncommercialized sociality, even if one still dreams of it. It means that one is coming to terms with social practice that is measured and sold, looking for the best deal on it, trying to find its most efficient or convenient package.
And that’s how people become products themselves, deriving a reliable form of recognition when other kinds of social practice have been undermined. If you strive to be the product, you can believe that you are for sale on your own terms, that you’re evading exploitation, that you’re not being deceived. It feels necessary for survival, as when people used to insist that having accounts on all the platforms wasn’t optional if you didn’t want to be left behind, if you wanted to be employable, if you wanted to come across as a normal person. But it remains a form of collusion with the forces of reification rather than a form of resistance or counter-cooptation.
Russell’s description of the “relations of recognition adequate to the inverted world of the commodity and its spectacularization” — that is, the sort of “social” demanded by consumer capitalism that we find ourselves complicit with — is dour enough to have made Adorno proud. But, for all its bleakness, it is still readily recognizable as a description of social media:
Here a defensive anxiety retains the individual’s propensity for fierce competition while seeking social acclaim and recognition. This is compounded by a dependence on vicarious warmth provided by others, yet alongside a fear of dependence. It is a tension not reducible to a personality structure but emboldened by a society that rewards pseudo self-insight, calculating seductiveness, nervously self-deprecating humor, a ravenous craving for notoriety while contemptuous of others and insatiably hungry for emotional experiences.
This description suits social media not because there was something uniquely terrible about those platforms, but because those platforms more obviously reflected the “society of the spectacle” that produced them. They haven’t become “less social” but are instead providing a better and better look at what the social has become.
Help! I need somebody. Help! Not just anybody. Help!
This is a great read and very helpful for me!