1. It’s unreasonable to expect that using social media will fix us. Yet users tend to mistake them as therapeutic media, because they simulate interaction with other people, offering the illusion of control over our relations with them. But social-media use establishes control only in that it allows us to see our psyche as the only one that matters, the only one that is real. Social media serve as tools to rearticulate the stories about ourselves we’ve already constructed under the guise of communication with others. We approach social media not as conversation that will potentially dismantle our illusions, but as a game in which we manipulate opaque others into providing the scaffolding for the self-concept we’ve brought in.
We turn to social media to confirm our worries, not to resolve and dismiss them. The self doesn’t “develop” in these media; the interactions with others are contained in the interface, limiting the sort of intersubjectivity that produces psychical change, if not preventing it altogether. Social media are powerful means for protecting the self as it already exists, with all its psychic defenses in tact.
This sort of subject — at odds with itself; always seeking but not quite achieving a tenuous balance of security and autonomy — has a symbiotic relation with consumerism, which provides a steady stream of products and experiences that allow us to repeat the momentary accomplishment of that balance in a purchase, in a seemingly circumscribed decision. Social media also sustain that sort of subject for the same reasons, though with more elaborate means. Social media, in fact, subsume much more of the sort of experience that once escaped the consumerist paradigm (or at least seemed to). We can process interactions with others in terms of their convenience and utility to strictly ourselves, and our bottom-line social-media metrics.
One can imagine a different sort of social media, one much like sociality itself, in which virtually nothing is “frictionless” — in which friction is actually the whole point. This sort of social media continually confronts users with the inadequacy of their defenses rather than providing a way to re-enact them on a larger scale.
2. Maybe services like Snapchat can posit a different sort of subject, a post-commercial subject, a subject that doesn’t use memory as means of self-protection. It refuses an archive, and subjectivity, as we experience it, is an archive, a palimpsest — layered, deep.
Sarah Wanenchak, in an oracular post called “Dispatches from ephemeral social media,” imagines a future in which social media use reaches an apotheosis of immediacy that dissolves the possibility of a subject rooted in memory. In her projection, social media use, self-documentation, is a way of processing and discarding experience, to circumvent the hoarding of memory, regarded in this vision of the future as a kind of existential encumbrance.
Ephemeral social media, Wanenchak suggests, could become a model for how we conceive of the body’s registering experience:
You pick life apart one second at a time; it’s not a net or a book of records or a server farm full of bytes and bits but grains of sand that slip through yours and everyone’s fingers. You feel the texture of each one as it passes over your skin. Your nerves document each one in flashes of sensory input. Then it’s gone and you never miss it again.
Social media allows us to disentangle experiences in time, isolate them and make them into discrete sense impressions. But this is not in order to remember them but in order to discard them: Isolating them in time — disconnecting them from an ongoing, sense-making narrative that integrates them across time — allows us to let them go. The self is not cumulative; the body does not register or record trauma or pleasure; rather it allows those affects to resonate, like a plucked guitar string. The string doesn’t remember what notes it played, no matter how expressive they may have sounded.
“The experience of time is the experience of ruin,” Wanenchak offers. “You don’t have to look back.” The consumption of real-time in social media can thereby serve as an escape from the depredations of time, from the threat of decay, death. Social-media use is a hyperacceleration of self-documenting that tries to propel us out of time, into a ceaseless present. If there is nothing to remember, there is nothing to worry about.
But as Adam Phillips points out in “Worrying and Its Discontents,” worrying is a good mechanism for forgetting, for screening deeper concerns out with ephemeral everyday concerns. “Worrying implies a future, a way of looking forward to things. It implies a conscious conviction that a future exists, one in which something terrible might happen, which is of course ultimately true. So worrying is an ironic form of hope.” Ephemeral social media would obliterate this kind of worry, which could open up not a richer experience of freedom but a deeper sense of despair. We need to worry to not despair.
Phillips notes that “worrying tacitly constitutes a self — or at least a narrator — by assuming the existence of one; for how could there be a worry without a worrier? Social media trades on this, offering opportunities for standard worry, standard accommodations and protections of these self-constituting fears.
But the social media Wanenchak is positing denies worry, and its reward of the self, for a broader fantasy of abundance that stems from the obliteration of time: that there is “enough” experience for everyone, enough memories for all, once we strip them of their self-constructive purposes. “There’s more than enough for everyone and everyone’s guaranteed their share,” Wanenchak writes. This seems true only if social-media use allows for an escape from status games rather than a deeper implantation within them. The whole point of conventional (non-ephemeral) is to create status games where there weren’t any before, and thereby make the accumulation of friends and social capital more tangible, more worth pursuing with deliberate strategies. Thanks to LinkedIn, etc., You can now measure your progress in this game much more easily.
Would ephemeral social media reverse this? Change zero-sum games of status into de-gamified Zen bliss? The idea of a fair “share” — of meaning or affect or intensity or whatever is being distributed socially in these media — still implies a measurement of the immeasurable, an accountant of jouissance. It seems better to imagine this in terms of the elimination of guarantees, of shares, of the possibility of even comparing.
The subject that can’t remember, that can’t worry, that can only record the instant, is not available for communication in any conventional sense. This sort of social-media use would be the pursuit not of better communication but of a more perfect solipsis.
3. In “Returning the Dream: In Memoriam Masud Khan” (which follows “Worrying and Its Discontents” in this collection), Phillips quotes D.W. Winnicott: “At the center of each person is an incommunicado element, and this is sacred and most worthy of preservation.” Phillips interprets this as a “negative theology of the Self” and goes on to argue that in Winnicott, “the aim of intimacy is to sponsor the solitary unknowability of the True Self.”
Social media posit a much different conception of intimacy: intimacy is established through connection and sharing, through precisely expressing the self, not treasuring its unique ineffability. The True Self is anything but incommunicado. Social media destroy intimacy, as Winnicott defined it, promoting instead an absolute knowability of the True Self as captured in profiles, updates, and timelines. Intimacy is a matter of thorough data collection, efficient circulation of shared material, diligent response to an intimate’s postings — not a matter of protecting a sacrosanct interior space that can’t be expressed but can be obliterated.
Again, this allows social media to sustain a subject that fits consumer-capitalist incentives — a productive self that communicates more to become more, a self that seeks recognition through possessing objects, or some amount of quantified attention. For social media to subvert this kind of self — for them to support Winnicott’s negative theology of Self — they would need to be seen as expressing precisely what is inessential about ourselves.
Maybe this is already the case. The more we share in social media, the more clearly we define the negative space where the ineffable self resides. Sharing is a process of shedding, a place to purge what we think we know about ourselves, because what we know, what we can say, is always inherently wrong. Our “true self” can then be inferred in the silences, the gaps. Intimacy, then, is going over someone’s social media offerings and reassuring them, Yes, none of that seems much like you at all. The death of intimacy comes when they accept that you’ve got yourself pegged.