Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

No Dislike Button: Social Media's Utopian Judgements and Misjudgements

Image Source: RLBPhotoart via Ghost Hunting Theories.

The blog is back! You know that gradual sense of erosion, the haunting of a Millennial mind as it over-surfs through a day that starts with optimism and ends with futility? How do social media contribute to a day's drift toward despair? In a New Yorker article from October 2014, Joshua Rothman criticized Facebook's fake optimism, its missing 'dislike' button, its relentless insistence that we like everything and constantly cough up happy thoughts and accomplishments to build a smiley online community (Hat tip: Daniel Neville). Rothman sees Facebook as an arena, where participants compete as greatest contributors to collective happiness, equated with a complex of good attitudes and real outputs as proof that good attitudes work. Beneath that, there is a misjudgement of those who are not sharing enough good attitude tidbits, or enough evidence of personal success. Rothman thus concludes that Facebook is one of the Web's Kafkaesque lower courts of judgement:
Facebook, like much of the Web, is officially designed to encourage positivity; there is no “dislike” button, and the stated goal is to facilitate affiliation and belonging. But, over time, the site’s utopian social bureaucracy has been overwhelmed by the Kafkaesque churn of punishment. ... Facebook has become a dream space of judgment—a place where people you may know only in the most casual way suddenly reveal themselves to be players in a pervasive system of discipline. The site is an accusation aggregator, and the news feed is the docket—full of opportunities to publicly admire the good or publicly denigrate the bad, to judge others for their mistakes or to be judged for doing it wrong.

Not all of Facebook is devoted to overt judgment and punishment, of course; there are plenty of cute family photos and fun listicles floating around. But even superficially innocuous posts can have a hearing-like, evidentiary aspect. (Paranoia, unfortunately, is inevitable in a Kafkaesque world.) The omnipresent “challenge”—one recent version, the “gratitude challenge,” asks you to post three things you’re grateful for every day for five days—is typically Kafkaesque: it’s punishment beneath a veneer of positivity, an accusation of ingratitude against which you must prove your innocence. ... Occasionally, if you post a selfie after your 10K or announce a new job, you might be congratulated for “doing it right.” But what feels great in your feed takes on, in others’ feeds, the character of what evolutionary psychologists call “altruistic punishment”—that is, punishment meted out to those who aren’t contributing to the good of the community.
Social media's stick-wielding positivity is divorced from human experience, while constantly appealing to experience as proof of its viability. You had better build the happiness of your online community, little Boot-camper. Or else. Positive cultural motivation supposedly drives productivity; except it doesn't. In this fake positive culture, dominated by Facebook's small egotists, success becomes meta-performance, which does not mirror the protracted work and grit needed to accomplish anything substantial. Anyone remotely sensitive to actual positives and negatives is left enervated, isolated, alienated, depressed.

Faking success, wealth and beauty is everywhere. Average people use technology to manipulate their identities, much as celebrities do on a grander scale. Lana Del Rey surrounds herself with images of Marilyn Monroe in photoshopped publicity images. Images Sources: Genius, tumblr, pinterest.

Social media's utopianism has blind spots which can be cleverly exploited. For example, social media have a tough time coping with anyone with Tyler Durden's sense of dystopian mission. A meta-performer can play against positive type-casting, slip behind a narrative of ruin and failure, combine media genres and themes, and not just survive, but cash out as a big success. Earlier this month, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an article, Survival of the Fittest in the English Department, about Jonathan Gottschall, a Gen X academic who applies Charles Darwin's theories to literature. He maintains that all literature reflects some profound human evolutionary story. His method appeals to pre-1960s' Anglo-American philosophical stances against European continental critical theory. But even now, Gottschall hesitates to admit that; he prefers to combine scientific and literary theories:
While I have been a sometimes harsh critic of modern literary scholarship, I don’t want a scientific or evolutionary takeover of the humanities. I’ve argued for integrating scientific approaches alongside existing scholarly tools. 
When the professors resisted Gottschall's new ideas, he took his frustrations one step further, and became a cage fighter. This helped publicize his new book, The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch, released in April 2015. The stunt got a lot of attention online.

Image Source: Fight Club (1999) via Salon.

The Chronicle's academic commenters questioned Gottschall's scholarship. Was this a poorly conceptualized imposition of quantitative scientific techniques upon the qualitative sciences, the humanities? Was Gottschall attacking feminism? Was this some new brand of analytic philosophy, encroaching upon continental philosophical gains made by Postmodernists and literary critics in North America from the 1960s through the 2000s? Whatever this was, it needed to be dismissed. For example:
"Gottschall seems to base the value of his theory on the assertion that it is new and original and will revitalize the humanities. However, it appears that his theory primarily takes pot shots at feminism by using tired old arguments based in gender essentialism and social Darwinsim. What's new about that, exactly? People have never stopped saying that feminism was unnatural and emasculating ever since it became a prevalent way of thinking. There's plenty to critique about feminism. The lens can always be improved, and well-formed criticisms should be embraced rather than censured. We got a lot of really excellent work in gender studies and queer theory through critiques of feminism, and there's still plenty of work to be done. It just doesn't sound like Gottschall has really made any particularly strong, original contributions."
One analytic philosopher with a continental interest complained. The real problem was Gottschall's anthropological application of Darwin's Origin of the Species (1859) to literary narratives and theories:
"I found this article misleading because it might give the impression that Darwinists are being marginalized and English professors are doing the marginalization. I think the situation is closer to the reverse especially if we focus on the subset of English professors who do critical theory. Critical theorists are being marginalized by those who take science to be the paradigmatic form of inquiry. I’m not sure whether this is happening in every discipline, but it is definitely happening in my own discipline, analytic philosophy."
Most commenters missed the fact that Gottschall had already left their theories behind. He became postanalytic and postfeminist on his way to becoming post-institutional, post-professional and post-apocalyptic. The article added a decline and fall element that academics adore: Gottschall's academic career was, he claimed, "dead in the water." Ooh, said the Chronicle, Gottschall "tried to save literary studies. Instead he ruined his career." In fact, Gottschall's cage fighting professor was a kamikaze about to do both:
I had a PhD, my name was on the cover of a few books, and I had already lived my fifteen minutes of fame (or what passes for it among university types), but I was still a lowly adjunct making $16,000 per year teaching composition to freshmen who couldn’t care less. My career was dead in the water. I’d known it for a long time. Whether this was because my effort to inject science into the humanities was before its time (the narrative that gets me through the day) or because that effort was wrongheaded (the more popular narrative in English departments) wasn’t the question. The question was whether I could summon the courage to move on to something new, or at least to provoke my bosses into firing me.

As I paced between my cubicle and the adjoining lounge, a streak of motion caught my eye, and I went to the window. There used to be an auto parts shop directly across the street from the English department. But now a new product was on display in the building’s big showcase windows. There were two young men in a chain-link cage. They were dancing, kicking, punching, tackling, falling, and rising to dance some more. There was a new sign on the building: MARK SHRADER’S ACADEMY OF MIXED MARTIAL ARTS. I stood at the window for a long time, peeping at the fighters through the curtains, envying their youthful strength and bravery—the way they were so alive in their octagon while I was rotting in my cube.

I began to fantasize. I saw myself walking across the street to join them. The thought of my peace-loving colleagues glancing up from their poetry volumes to see me warring in the cage filled me with perverse delight. It would be such a scandal. That’s how I’ll do it, I thought with a smile. That’s how I’ll get myself fired.

Over the next months, I began to plan a book about a cultured English professor—a lifelong specialist in the art of flight, not fight—learning the combat sport of mixed martial arts (MMA). The book would be part history of violence, part nonfiction Fight Club, and part tour of the sciences of sports and bloodlust. It would be about the struggles—sad and silly and anachronistic though they may seem—that men endure to be men.
At first, the stunt was only a beleaguered-Ivory-Tower-meets-Fight-Club mash-up without bigger social media implications. An excerpt from the book:
It’s the night of March 31, 2012, and I am standing half naked in a chain-link cage. I’m bouncing restlessly from foot to bare foot, trying to vent the tension building at my core. I’m surrounded by a swarm of men in Tapout T-shirts who are hooting at me over cups of beer. I can see the young man coming through the crowd to break my face, to strangle me to sleep. It’s like a nightmare.

I’m thirty-nine years old. I’m an English teacher at a small liberal arts college. My first book, The Rape of Troy, focused on the science of violence—from murder to genocidal war—but I learned all I know from an armchair. I’ve never experienced real violence, never even been in a fight. But that’s about to change.

Gottschall's post-cage-fight interviews have turned him into a media actor who has surpassed media profs of the old days. In that regard, he has become his own alter ego as academia's Tyler Durden, not during the cage fights, but in the media aftermath, selling the profs' fat back to them in bars of beauty soap. By the time he reached the Chronicle, he was already hyped by other outlets, and the article about him became most viewed by his fellow academics for over a week. What does it matter if his career is dead in the old school sense, if it has been reborn in this reality media afterlife? By manufacturing this new 'failed' incarnation of himself, Gottschall treated the whole online world like his personal Facebook page. On that page, he engineered an implosion of the me-logic of social media. This is, as the film critic character in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014) puts it, "super-realism." The catch is this is not in a film. Gottschall's supra-professional media personality is real.

A few days later, the Chronicle was still mulling this over. In A Plague of Hypersenstitivity, the professional paper reported that American Generation Y students' social media narcissism turns them into real life social cripples who need professors' constant coddling:
Today’s young people are "me directed." They are what they want and what they have, not what they have accomplished. Ehrenreich maintains that they exhibit "greater narcissism, unrealistically high self-appraisal, and an increased focus on immediate gratification and on external goals such as money, image, and status." On those measures they contrast with the identity norms of earlier white-collar generations, which were identified, influentially, by the sociologist David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd (1950): first, the inner-directed, who learn self-acceptance and the cultivation of competence by internalizing parental (usually paternal) norms; and then the outer-directed, who take their cues from media and peer groups.

These changes, Ehrenreich says, make young people today more "vulnerable to emotional distress." Their individualism is panicky. They lack anchorage. They scramble to mark their self-improvements in a world where it’s become normal to be "awesome" and "amazing." Their sources of social support have declined. Their expectations of the future are, shall we say, destabilized.
Had the students lost their grip on reality or had their professors? Are the students' fantasies of the future really destabilized? Or is kidding yourself about yourself now the only way to survive between the gutted real present and virtual future? Does being socialized by social media turn people into dissociative narcissists of the type that have fueled Hollywood's celebrity successes for one hundred years?

Perhaps Facebook's engineers were na├»ve. To offer no dislike buttons and expect a happy clappy online society filled with successful people is not as powerful as the more disturbing alternative. The latter conclusion - to which Hollywood and the American mainstream music industry plainly came decades ago - is that you can get a lot further if you turn peoples' dreams into darkness, and peddle a virtual dystopia. What passes for entertainment now is not Somewhere Over the Rainbow where bluebirds fly, but the visceral, dark, violent representation of a throbbing, collective Id.


  1. Facebook's apparent fear that a dislike button will be abused reminds me of a story from the early days of the TV "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?", The show originated in the U.K. and when it was tweaked and customized for U.S. TV, Americans started to hear about other countries who had also received versions of the show tailored to their cultures (and currencies). In all versions, contestants answer a succession of questions with escalating pay-offs, but could lose all but a minimum with a single wrong question. To provide wiggle room (somebody has to win something or people stop tuning in), contestants are allowed three kinds of 'cheats': they can eliminate two of four possible answers; they can telephone an advisor; or the can poll the audience. In Russia, television producers soon learned that the third option had to be replaced with something else because audiences in Russia, unlike any of the many other countries to which the show had been exported, deliberately chose wrong answers. In every country there were, of course, audience members who didn't know the answers any more than the contestants did, but gave it their best shot. Usually the answer with the most votes was right, sometimes not. In Russia the audience poll answers were so consistently wrong that it strained credulity that it was a matter of chance. They hated seeing anyone else prosper.
    Facebook's world is unrealistic, but they may have been erring on the side of caution,

    1. Wow, that's quite a story, pblfsda! I would love to be a fly on the wall in Facebook's psychosocial analytical boardroom meetings, where they talk about what resilient aspects of human nature (such as competitiveness of jealousy) they need to harness for profit, and how to do it.