Performative Emotions and Social Media

Social media has changed the way we relate to each other, and to ourselves. This is not a particularly controversial claim in and of itself; the controversy comes when you attach a value proposition to this change. Even then, “controversy” is perhaps the wrong word. There are a few luddites screaming into the void that social media is ruining kids these days, and by golly in my day we walked thirty miles to school in the snow and we liked it. And then there’s everybody else, who just doesn’t care.

Granted, this isn’t exactly a fair telling. The effect of social media on our relationships, our emotions, and our selves is a hot topic in many social science departments, and has certainly spawned enough TED talks. But there is still a large gap between “we studied this” and “we think this is bad”. Ironically, the talks which are most axiological are the ones most likely to go viral, on the very platforms which they decry.

I would like to reassure you that I’m a young, hip thing and not a luddite screaming into the void, but it isn’t true. Luddite might be a bit strong, but fundamentally this post is about my belief that social media (and reality television, and youtube, and…) are ruining kids these days. How, you ask? By turning us all into actors.

The combination of modern societal/infrastructural wealth and our culture’s obsession with individuality has led to an explosion in the number of people living in the extended adolescence of Paul Graham’s neurotic lapdogs. As in high school, the net result of this is the pursuit of social status for its own sake and beyond any reasonable limits. This would be bad enough on its own, but modern social media amplifies the effect by providing a perfect, shallow, dopamine-inducing medium (is it weird to call “social media” a medium? It feels like I’m violating a plural matching rule somehow) for this pursuit.

What this means is that many people born in the 1990s (and particularly those born in the 2000s) don’t know how to actually feel emotions. I grant this is an unusual claim; it certainly isn’t among the common set of arguments raised against social media. Even so, I believe it is true. Social media and the pursuit of irrelevant status has resulted in a generation and a half of people for whom emotions are performative, instead of felt.

In this world, you can chase happiness, or you can chase the appearance of happiness, and given the distorting lens of instagram only the latter is relevant to the status games we play. Perhaps your sadness is real, but it’s not valuable unless you can ironically caption it with a pithy quote about self-care. Actual felt emotions don’t matter anymore, because it’s become a truth universally acknowledged that “everybody’s a mess on the inside anyway”. This “truth” has somehow simultaneously described the problem and normalized it away, but I believe it’s still a problem. A world in which people are fundamentally unhappy is a bad one, no matter what other nice properties it might have.

The interesting thing to note is that in this world, nerds are at an advantage. I don’t mean the popular, “everybody’s a nerd” modern pop culture version which has lost any useful semantic content; I mean the original version, the people who had just completely given up on social status altogether in pursuit of other interests. Only by detaching yourself from the status games can you start to worry about how you actually feel, instead of how you appear to feel in 10-second snaps. This is something I’ve lost sight of in the last six months, and something I’m trying to recover.

And oddly, on some definitions, going back to my stereotypical nerd roots is going to make me more cool, not less. Either way, I hope it makes me a better person.