Maybe it’s the voyeur in me, but I like to observe what other people are doing on social media, how they live their lives, and how they present themselves online. In Erving Goffman’s 1959 text, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the sociologist posits, not unlike Shakespeare centuries before, that the social world is a stage and our relationships to others mirror that of a performance. He says we’ve internalized this dual belief that we’re perpetual spectator and performer, constantly acting and judging, making alliances and building a team. Goffman, an anti-essentialist, doesn’t believe anything resides inside a human’s core. Instead, our identities, the people we believe we are, are informed by our relationships to others. To invoke Shrek, while some view their selfhood as one would a peach or an apple, that beneath the fleshy surface resides a pit (the true us), Goffman instead compares subjectivity to that of an onion. Every interpersonal relationship represents a layer of this onion. This is why those who feel too much, or too acutely, often feel half-alive upon experiencing a loss or a death, while those who are skilled networkers and managers of intrapersonal emotion can simply just grab another onion, letting them get on with the show. A hallmark of postmodern society is seamlessness and disposability. To invoke Jean Baudrillard, as a child raised by wolves will become more like a wolf, a person raised by objects will become more like an object. When friends are good for little more than “likes” on a screen, how much subjectivity do we really have left?
Social media has done a number on the human psyche and the social desire to always perform, a light perpetually flicked “on.” There’s a good meme that reflects the heavy burden one encounters when deciding how best to perform on each social media stage. The way one presents oneself on LinkedIn differs from Twitter, from Facebook, from dating apps, and this is a fairly new phenomenon. It’s a truism that one speaks to one’s parents differently than one’s friends or partner, but what does it mean to speak to a platform, to an audience with prefabricated expectations that have been internalized?
I enjoy LinkedIn, thinking it’s a perverted and terrifying platform. To be a white-collar professional means to be an excellent manager of one’s emotions and behaviors to the point where one’s soul and psyche have to fit the habitus and etiquette desired by the institutions which employ such people. If you’ve ever mingled among the corporate elite—lawyers, doctors, middle managers—you will arrive at the conclusion that there aren’t a lot of humans left. Our desires are given to us by the advertising and travel industries, and our behaviors—our habits, predilections, language—are policed and reinforced to the point where it’s almost impossible to arrive at conclusions on our own. I don’t love The Washington Post, but there’s a solid article on the new Orwellian newspeak, and how eerie corporatisms have marched their way into our lives. It’s one thing to “circle back” to an email, but what does it mean to “circle back” when a friend asks to grab a beer on Friday? Why is that we speak this way? Whom does it benefit?
A major malady for which social media provides crutches is capital accumulation, namely social capital accumulation, which is nothing more than the racking up of “points” online—points which, depending on your outlet of choice, can be exchanged for real currency. Consider Twitter accounts which amass thousands of followers and begin subscription podcasts or Substacks, Instagram models who pimp dubious health products, or LinkedIn robot-subjects who are perpetually posting, liking, and updating their work credentials so as to appear as employable as possible. One wonders into what human cost “employability” cuts, for to be employable means to be self-exploiting, docile, obedient, and ambitious, or Byung-Chul Han’s neoliberal achievement-subject, the worker for whom the positive “can” takes on a greater meaning than the negative “should.”
Han’s a keen observer of the limitations of the neoliberal era. In his book Psychopolitics, he argues that the signature affliction of our time is the injunction to never stop working, and this often comes from within, for work makes you clean, sets you free, etc. Covid-19, “WFH,” and countless food delivery apps have enabled this collective sleepwalking, where lines between work and freedom have blurred to the extent that they’re no longer distinguishable. Are our online selves no different? Who is the real you?
If the animal of the obedience society of yesterday were the mole, who scurries about from one tunnel to the next, the animal of achievement society is the snake, who can be in all tunnels, all rooms, at once. We used to have places in our society which were free from work: the church, the restaurant, the fitness center. Today, these places still exist, and yet in any lobby, at any table, there will be a person with a laptop, who willingly lets their work encroach into every corner of their lives.