I liked Michelle Goldberg’s column in the February 24 New York Times. I liked it for some good reasons and some not so good. Among the not so good is that she said she had been working on the topic of “the politics of depression” for awhile, but “since I lost faith in my initial interpretation …I never ended up writing about it.
”It was an experience I have had so often that I was just barely able to keep myself from writing her to say, “Really? You too?” That is a really bad reason for liking her column.
Fortunately, there is a better reason That better reason is this paragraph:
Social media didn’t just cut into offline socializing. It precipitated a revolution in consciousness, in which people are constantly packaging themselves for public consumption and seeing their popularity and the popularity of others quantified. It’s not shocking that this new mode of existence would be particularly fraught for those in a stage of life where both fashioning the self and finding a place to belong are paramount.
Let’s start with “precipitated.” That saves her from having to say that social media caused “a revolution in consciousness.” She can say that it was the final element of some toxic cocktail. She could have said, herself, what the other elements of the cocktail were or she could have let anyone else do it. She has identified the straw that broke the camel’s back and it is that straw she wants to talk about. It is social media.
Social media precipitated “a revolution in consciousness.” There is a way of being before this revolution and a different way afterward. She doesn’t say what it was like before, but the “after” account is pretty vivid. People are “constantly packaging themselves for public consumption…” I would have said that that is the normal condition of society. We all do the things we need to do to belong. And after that, we all do the things we need to do to stand out. We are fully aware of neither process, discovering only later what we did and being forced to speculate about why we might have done it.
But the next part of Goldberg’s account is riveting: “…seeing their popularity and the popularity of others quantified.” Two aspects of that seem potentially disastrous to me. The first is the quantification. Nearly all the information that comes with normal social assessment is lost in a single quantified assessment and all the parts of it you might want to argue about are lost behind the blank fact of a number. Not only is it beyond argument as a number; it also seems truer.
What is not captured in this metric? Oh…not much. Only your own intention and your own assessment of the quality of your work. Hardly anything at all compared to the quantified and casual assessments of others.
What could be more central to the self than an answer to the question, “What am I trying to do?” What I am trying to do is more likely to be linked to my fundamental identity than any other single measure I know. The sense of self-efficacy as it is called in some fields or of “agency” as it is called in other fields begins with an answer to that question.
And that is true, I maintain, despite that fact that we are not always doing what we thought we were doing. The readiness of standard categories for intention and action means that we are quite likely to use one of the standard labels—Oh, I’m just making sure he is held accountable—rather than giving a more thoughtful and accurate account. Coming up with an acceptable account of why you are doing something is no mean feat in itself. To skip over that part and to consult, instead, a quantified measure of whether others approve of what you are doing, seems like giving away the store.
And not only that, if you know what you are trying to do, you know both whether you are succeeding and whether you are giving your best efforts to the project. Assuming that you would choose to make some changes if your efforts are failing, it would be nice to know whether they are failing. If you pay careful attention to what you are trying to do, you have a good chance of knowing that.
The world of quantified assessment that Michelle Goldberg talks about seems horrific by contrast. It is a world in which not only you but everyone else in that world is assessed on things that have nothing to do with their intentions. They have to do only with the reactions of others to the way you “package yourself for public consumption.”
The reaction that many young people have to this situation is one Goldberg describes as characterized by loneliness, depression, and alienation. And why would it not be? The people who buy this kind of world or find themselves swept up in it, have lost the crucial connection between what they intend and who they are,
Whether there is a way out of this or not depends on how deep a hold social media have on how many people. There are lots of other things to worry about. The aggregate category some are calling “deaths of depression” continues to rise, for example. Maybe the social media bubble is going to burst and we will look back on it as an oddity, as if we had been visited by a powerful and quirky relative and were glad to see them leave.
Or maybe it is fundamental to who we have become. I hope not.
I want to re-read this tomorrow, but I would be remiss if I didn’t promptly acknowledge how wise, insightful, and fundamentally human this posting is.