Why Social Media Can Never Fill the Void in Our Depressing Lives
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Photo: From the VICE documentary 'Snapchat Plastic Surgeon'
It is difficult to write critically about social media without sounding like an old man yelling at the clouds. We have all acquiesced to the industry's sleek regimes, wilfully commodifying our thoughts, relationships and memories for a handful of Silicon Valley executives. Even the most committed radicals tend carefully to their online accounts, perhaps with an ironic disavowal, an alter ego or corrupted profile photo – sly acknowledgements that the content they produce is ultimately owned by venture capitalists, sold to scheming advertisers.
In his book, Filling the Void: Emotion, Capitalism & Social Media, Marcus Gilroy-Ware manages to critique social media by writing around it, focusing on the society in which it takes shape: what are the social conditions of a world in which "iOS and Android smartphone users spend 17 percent of all their time on their phones in the Facebook app" and "four in ten [admit] to using social media while at the wheel" of their car?
The answer he gives lies in the emotional wreckage of late capitalism. Drawing from Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism, Gilroy-Ware argues that the impoverished life of the contemporary worker – precarious, alienated, bored – is exploited by social media, which promises emotional fulfilment in its endlessly regenerating timelines.
But in trying to "fill the void" with Facebook and Instagram's stimuli, we trigger an infinite regression, flittering between our misery's cause and effect: "We are seeking that 'something' to make us feel better in a place we will never find it," trapped in "a circularity that is essential to the workings of consumerism." It's safe to say Gilroy-Ware is not a fan of social media.
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VICE: If there's one understanding of the world you write against in this book, it's "technological determinism". What is it and why?
Marcus Gilroy-Ware: I'm glad you picked that out. Technological determinism is the belief that technology is the main determinant that acts on and modifies our behaviour. It's those headlines that say thing like, "How social media is changing friendship." My response is always: really? Are you sure it's social media? It's not that technology doesn't have a role in affecting our behaviour, it's just not where the story starts.
Technology doesn't magically appear as if from aliens: it's created from very particular economic and cultural contexts. There's a long history of capitalism producing technology for specific reasons. Journalism's a good example, actually. A lot of the technological introductions into the newsroom over the years have come from management, not journalists themselves. It's about making things faster and more efficient.
Your main argument is about the emotional dimension to our consumption of social media.
I've been teaching digital journalism for a while, and in that work I've had to explain to students how to use social media to distribute their work to a broader audience. But I found myself telling them, in more and more forceful terms, that people are not going primarily onto the web to learn from journalists about what is happening. According to Pew Research, that's happening some of the time – about 18 percent of Americans do that often – but not as much as those in the business of information would hope. Meanwhile, 4 in 10 Americans are using social media on their smartphones behind the wheel of a vehicle. What could be driving them so strongly towards that?
I then came across Mark Fisher's work in Capitalist Realism. I'd been saying things like: people are bored, lonely, depressed, alienated and isolated, and they're going on social media to find something to comfort themselves temporarily. And then in Capitalist Realism, this idea of "depressive hedonia" absolutely fit with what I had been trying to sum up for my journalism students, but without having the political philosophy to put it in those terms.
"Some disturbing research by Dan Kahan and colleagues at Yale University showed that in politically polarised issues, people don't respond to evidence – in fact, evidence that they are wrong only makes them more sure that they are right."
What is depressive hedonia?
In the book he described teaching at a college in east London and said that, whereas normally depression is characterised by anhedonia – the inability to feel pleasure – his students seemed unable to do anything except pursue pleasure as a function of their depressive state. They were locked in further education that, he claimed, wasn't going to make a difference to their lives.
So there are lots of consumables you can put into that category – he talks about junk food and sugar and YouTube – but I recognised something of depressive hedonia in my own use of social media: going on the timeline, scrolling and not knowing what I was looking for. It fits well within the idea of a capitalist realism in which there's this dull ache: knowing our future has disappeared and feeling what Oliver James calls "emotional distress", and needing to be distracted.
But isn't there space for resistance within the confines of social media? For example,PissPigGrandad's Twitter diary detailing his exploits fighting for the YPG in Syria was effective at propagandising for socialism in Syrian Kurdistan, although his account has since been suspended.
Personally, I don't think you can use the tools of capital against capital. Trying to use Facebook to take Facebook down is a fool's errand. But in terms of that broader political picture, there's a lot of talk about it in terms of echo chambers and filter bubbles. I read some disturbing research by Dan Kahan and colleagues at Yale University from 2013 which showed that in politically polarised issues, people don't respond to evidence – in fact, evidence that they are wrong only makes them more sure that they are right.
Propaganda is good at making people who already have views stronger in those views, and perhaps they then facilitate the further spread of that idea in other ways. I think the real place that propaganda is carried out and needs to be addressed is not social media, but the mainstream media, especially TV.
Do you subscribe to digital dualism, the idea that there's a real world and an online world, or does that distinction no longer hold?
I think that distinction's been breaking down for some time. For the younger people I know, social media is utterly continuous with their real lives and they have no familiarity with the idea of cyberspace. I think the myth of "cyberspace", because it was always really a metaphor, is only something that persists in the imagination of early internet users who are still using it. Otherwise, it's only relevant as a historical idea.
That's why it's interesting that you start the book by talking about this relationship between the selfie and death, listing all these people who've accidentally killed themselves trying to get the perfect selfie. It's like the selfie represents a death of the old traditional subject.
I used to collect cases of those. There are now just so many cases of people getting arrested or killed because of what's happened that I can't see how anybody could argue that online life is separate.
Are selfies different from the aristocratic portraits, which, as you point out, citing the work of John Berger, were ways of demonstrating social class and property?
Well, there's the performance of identity aspect to understand it, which people usually relate to the work of sociologist Irving Goffman. And that's gotten rather cliché, but it's something I broadly agree with. It's not just the image – although that's important because you can ameliorate aspects of your appearance – but we're using these things because we're insecure: so why not perform the version of yourself that you want to be?
But aristocrats were also performing their identities, weren't they? Hasn't the selfie "democratised", to use a loaded term, what was once a practice of the upper class?
Now there's something that's available to everyone that was only available to them, in that sense, yes – but is taking an Instagram selfie now the equivalent of what aristocrats were doing that John Berger writes about? No, because there are lots of other ways you can produce an image of yourself that communicate exclusivity and privilege in the ways those aristocratic portraits did. I'm thinking now of the Kim Dotcom image that he circulated with himself of his ex-wife and yacht – people can show their wealth in other ways. Aristocracy and those kinds of power haven't been democratised. In fact, inequality is getting worse, so I don't see that our ability to make images of ourselves is much of a democratisation.
Filling the Void is out now through Repeater Books.