Over-socialization: Is Social Media Killing Your Individuality?
“Where the real world changes into simple images, the simple images become real beings and effective motivations of hypnotic behavior.”
– Guy Debord
Advances in information technology has culminated into an ever-present force that we call social media. We are all surely familiar with it, and for many of us, it has become an incredibly pervasive aspect of our lives: we regularly scroll through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, keeping ourselves updated on what our peers and public figures have been doing, where they went this weekend, what they had for dinner, or what they thought about what someone thought about what someone said about some (surely very important) event. We scroll through (and sometimes partake in) everlasting debates in comment sections about whether or not homosexuals should be criminalized, or the results of the presidential election, or if a high-schooler far, far away really did stab another high-schooler in the genitals1.
The transfer of information between citizens have been streamlined to a degree never before seen in human history. The rate at which we are exposed to the thoughts of collective society, in the form of social media, keeps increasing. The implication of this is that societal moral codes would also increase its grip on individual thought and behavior, subtly restricting our individual freedom to think and act. Could it be that social media is paving the way for the collectivization of human thought, or even consciousness? If so, what would the consequences be for users of such technology? Notwithstanding the popular narrative of social media as supremely beneficial insofar as it unites us all (globalization, et cetera), This analysis will attempt to find answers for these questions, and delve into what the existence of social media might mean for humanity.
The failed revolution
Ted Kaczynski, the American terrorist so-called the “Unabomber”, embarked on a nationwide mail-bombing campaign in 1978, in a self-professed attempt to kick-start a revolution against what he called the “Industrial Society”. Following these attacks, he demanded that the New York Timespublish his manifesto, as a condition for him to desist from terrorism. In it, he argued in detail that “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race”, as it has destabilized society, made life unfulfilling, and resulted in the erosion of human freedom and dignity 2.
Notwithstanding Kaczynski’s questionable bid to start a revolution via violent terrorism, The Industrial Society and its Future raises striking points regarding the unfavorable impacts mankind has suffered as a result of industrial and technological advances. One especially interesting concept he discussed was that of “over-socialization”, which he defined as the condition wherein moral codes and social norms are so well-internalized into members of society, to the point that attempting to think, feel and act against social expectations impose a severe psychological burden. He further argued that over-socialization can lead to low self-esteem, a sense of powerlessness, defeatism, and guilt.
The idea of social control, i.e. society’s means of imposing rules and punishing violators of these rules, has been well-established within the field of sociology 3. However, the entrance of social media, with its constant and ever-tightening grip on our lives, might change the way social control works — perhaps for the worse. If this were the case, it would stand to reason that people will increasingly be more prone to over-socialization.
The centralized consciousness
The notion of “collective consciousness” has been established by sociologists far before the dawn of social media. Coined by Emile Durkheim, he defined it as the set of shared beliefs, ideas, and moral attitudes which is common throughout all members of a society 4. While initially conceived as a collective “conscience” of sorts, it may well be that the advent of social media is constructing for itself a true pseudo-consciousness, consisting of the sum total of all its participants. To understand this, imagine the entire social media sphere as an organism in itself, and the people who communicate through it as neurons of the creature’s brain, sharing and receiving information through the interconnected network every participant is plugged into. For its users, social media has managed to replace, or at the very least enhance, nearly all aspects of society and the interactions within it.
The consequence for the participants, then, is that the distinction between the “real” and the “virtual” worlds become blurred. Social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson writes in his blog Cyborgology, “We live in a cyborg society. Technology has infiltrated the most fundamental aspects of our lives: social organization, the body, even our self-concepts” 5. The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed in June 2017 that social media is the new “public square”, where people find entertainment, read the news, communicate, and engage in discourse 6. The key difference is that now, the public square is always in our pockets, readily accessed at the tap of a screen. This means that we are nearly alwaysconnected to the collective consciousness — for the pace at which we exchange information with the web, there might as well be routers implanted directly in our skulls.
Raised by social media
Socialization refers to the process in which moral codes and social norms are internalized into new members of a society 7. In essence, socialization occurs naturally for each person, as representatives of society around them control their behavior in order to instill commonly-adhered values. Conventionally, this is done by traditional institutions such as parents and schools. The individual gradually synthesizes what they learn from these institutions, combines them with their own personal experiences, and forms their own moral codes they will live by, which are subject to changes as they accumulate more experiences 8.
Moral development isdivided into two stages: the primary stage administered by parents, and the secondary stage administered by the rest of society 9. Social media changes things for both stages. At the primary stage, young children are increasingly given access to smartphones. One study found that across Europe, around 46% of children 9 to 16 own a smartphone 10, and the numbers are similar elsewhere. This shows that kids are now not only raised by parents, but also by everyone on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.
Similarly, the secondary stage of moral development is no longer done by small communities in which the individual belongs, but by everything they access online. In internalizing norms, socialization also programs how a person views themselves in relation to society as a whole, and people derive satisfaction and happiness in relation to their perceived position in society. It has been found that social media directly affects our brains’ reward circuitry 1112. Coupled with how we are constantly hooked up to social media, it becomes inevitable that it has become the main force of socialization for everyone involved, and thus people will increasingly derive their satisfaction and happiness from their online identities, and how they are perceived online. As we have established, the amalgamation of the “real” and the “virtual” means that a person’s online identity will become indistinguishable from their “actual” identity.
With the ubiquity of social media and the constant influx of the collective consciousness manifesting itself through the digital screens we scroll through on a daily basis, the dangers of over-socialization raised by Ted Kaczynski start to appear extremely relevant. Can we truly deem ourselves individuals, free to think and free to act, when nearly everything we think and do is sources from, and eventually circulates itself back into our smartphones? When we are spoon-fed news and opinions about events near and far, and in return upload our entire lives to Instagram as tribute to satisfy our hunger for social validation? Have we become slaves to the all-encompassing collective mind?
Eerily similar ideas have been raised, quite far back in history. French philosopher Guy Debord wrote in his revolutionary Society of the Spectacle that “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation” 13. If social media comes to mind reading that quote, keep in mind, Debord wrote it in 1967. In line with Marxist theory, he aimed to strike against the capitalistic machine of societyand the “mass media”, which he viewed as the tool used to pacify the masses — to make them forget their true status as slaves to a system hell-bent on producingand consuminggoods endlessly. To Debord, the “spectacle” was the great distractor, hypnotizing people to chase hollow pursuits such as wealth, fame, and all the conventional trappings of “success”. The spectacle was advertising, television, and celebrities, which functioned to keep people from self-reflection, from independent thought, from contemplating the self as an entity apart from the restrictive shackles of common norms and values.
It would not be unreasonable, then, to consider social media as the ultimate spectacle. While manifesting itself today as billboards, popup ads, and the latest political news, the spectacle also takes the form of holiday photos we post on Instagram, the fierce debates we take part in on Facebook, and the hoaxes we unknowingly share on Whatsapp. Every time we participate in social media, we becomethe spectacle, adopting the role of the collective mind, and agglomerating ourselves to the great “global community” that is social media. For each selfie we take, and each minute we sit fidgeting, anticipating the next “like” as an instant placeholder for social validation, we are letting the collective mind strengthen its hold on our individual consciousness. The alienation each individual inevitably feels, Debord argued, would mean that people will eventually be wholly subject to the spectacle, with no time or energy to live a life for themselves.
For some, the argument presented above might not seem sufficiently compelling. You might, for one, flippantly deny that social media has such a strong hold on your subconscious, your thoughts, and your actions. You might feelfree, but for one moment, you might want to re-think: are you really? How long can you spend, on your own, with your own thoughts, without feeling the nagging urge to take out your phone and connect yourself once more with the Instagram-“stories” of people you barely know, or felt people should know (and would care) about some tiny mundane detail of your day? How many times have you woke up and immediately checked how many people liked your newest post? Have you ever been self-conscious of how many “followers” you have compared to your peers? How many of the “personal opinions” you passionately hold are truly, wholly yours, and can’t be traced to some random rant on a comment section somewhere? Contrary to what you might think, you might be surprised just how much the “collective mind” has influenced you.
For Debord, the perceived degradation of humanity inflicted by the spectacle was simply unacceptable. Suffering from depression and alcoholism, Debord shot himself in the head on November 1994 14. An article called him “the victim of the spectacle he fought” 15 — perhaps Debord felt he could never escape, lest by death. His view of media as such an evil force might give too shocking or radical of an impression — however, it is plenty food for thought. In any case, while we are not yet literal cyborgs with physically implanted internet connections, perhaps this might be our last chance to rethink what relationship we would like to have with the collective social consciousness while we still have the option to keep a distance.