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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Social media as masochism


When I read anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s book on gambling, Addiction by Design, it started me thinking of how machine gambling works as an analogue for social media: Both facilitate an escapism through engagement, an immersion in immediate risk-taking routines that obscures the larger existential crises. (A lot more about that in this post.)

Both also seem like masochistic practices that one adopts to escape or offload the burden of self. You do these things to forget about who you are and how you are responsible for how you are seen. That maybe makes more obvious sense about gambling machines, which narrow subjective experience to immediate and arbitrary reward seeking, but perhaps seems like a paradoxical thing to claim about social media, given that they ostensibly serve to build up, circulate, and store the self (or at least the carefully curated tokens of identity). It might seem weird to say that we express ourselves to escape ourselves. But self-expression can dissolve the self as well as build some enduring, legible version of a self.

This 1988 paper by psychologist Roy Baumeister, “Masochism as Escape From Self,” may help in addressing the apparent paradox. He argues that masochism is essentially the shadow of individualism. The pressures of having a unique self — the “high-level self-awareness” and high-pressure decisionmaking involved — can become aversive, and lead to an intensification of the desire to escape from self.


He adds later that “there may even be a cyclic escalation, in which the more responsibility and esteem a person accumulates, the more difficult and exhausting it is to sustain them.” He also notes that “high levels of esteem and agency produce the most complex and elaborate selves, which may also be the most burdensome selves. As a result such individuals may seek the strongest modes of escape—such as masochism.”

Much of social media is a calculated effort to “accumulate” esteem and grant agency. It seems plausible that the intense self-consciousness of ongoing social-media use (certainly a “recalcitrant social environment,” despite its responsiveness) could trigger an intense need to escape from self. Social-media use intensifies self-consciousness through a deeper awareness of the contingencies and vulnerability of our identity, leading to a greater need to escape from it, or at least suspend our consciousness of it.

Somewhat less plausible maybe, though I still believe this is worth exploring, is the possibility that the escape from self that social-media necessitates is often sought through an intensification of social-media use. If some portion of social media use can be characterized as masochistic, or if it can be at once masochistic and self-aggrandizing, then it may be used to alleviate the “burden of self” Baumeister describes even as it intensifies it. Not only would this let us keep obeying the imperative to “express ourselves” and build out our all-important online reputations and networks, but it would allow us to address the anxiety of self-consciousness in the environment that prompts it. To address and control how social media make us feel would seem to require deeper engagement with social media, as in a negative feedback loop. Social media, in other words, has affordances to make “self-construction” masochistic and self-negating — as well as addictive, or self-affirming, or strategic. (Social media makes the self cohere in contradictions.)

According to Baumeister, masochism allows people to escape the self by orienting them on the immediacy of physical experience and by allowing them to dissociate through the creation and inhabitation of a “fantasized identity”:

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Those points about fluid identity and physicality seem not to correspond to social-media use; social media seem detached from physical reality (the “digital dualism” illusion), and sites are frequently committed to imposing real-names on users. But social media can be visceral. Your pulse can race, your stomach drop, as you check to see what has been said about you, to you. You can find yourself unable to tear yourself away from a screen in a chat, held cruelly in suspense as you wait for a response to a message that seems dumber and more misreadable as it hangs there. And as much as real name policies are imposed, alternate identities proliferate, even within the same profiles. The “real-name” identity anchors the creation of fantasized identities, gives them an online baseline from which to differentiate, become operant.

Intensive sharing on social media, then, can cease to seem a building up of a self but its dissolution. That’s not merely in the sense that the more information there is in an archive, the harder it is to assemble into a coherent identity; it’s also a phenomenological dissolution: The acts of engaging with social media become points of narrowed attentional focus, akin to the masochistic myopia that Baumeister notes in the literature. He cites Elaine Scarry to claim that pain destroys our will to consider symbolic meanings and abstractions — the essential components of social identity.


Each act of social-media participation plays on the level of symbolic meaning and identity, but awareness of the ongoing ramifications of this may be so overwhelming as to need to be deferred. More sharing defers that recognition while exacerbating the problem, in part because of that knowledge — the humiliation potentially inherent in sharing can evoke a sharp psychic pain of vulnerability that overwhelms itself. Sharing also figures as a gesture of seizing control of the moment in which pain and humiliation will be administered, and the anxiety can also be diverted to a “fantasy” version of the self that is being elaborated in online platforms and thereby disavowed. (The online self, the avatar, is vulnerable, not me — even if that avatar bears my real name and I occasionally identify with it fully and proudly.)

Baumeister’s analysis hinges on distinguishing between a qualitatively “high” and a “low” level of self-awareness. Judging by the following description, the “high” level sounds a lot like conventional, neoliberalistic use of social media to establish one’s flexibility, fitness, and capacity for projects by building up a network and an archive of self. The “‘low” level sounds like the zoned-out flow experience Schüll associates with poker-machine compulsives (more from me about that here).


In social media, the archive can take on the roles of what Baumeister calls the “high-level awareness of self” so that we don’t have to and can lapse into self-annihilating flow instead by attuning to its rhythms of checking, updating, responding, waiting. Those rhythms are easier to find if we post a lot and post intense or risky or embarrassing things that can desubjectivze us through humiliation and/or pain. The platform’s constrictions take on the function of bondage, restricting autonomy to a limited set of actions.

But the key to social media’s masochistic potential is in how it seems to guarantee an audience. Baumeister notes that “use of mirrors or even audiences in S&M probably also intensifies the immediate, low-level awareness of self. Through the mirror or audience, the masochist’s attention is drawn to his or her immediate condition and predicament…the witness confirms the loss of self by conferring social reality.” Social media, of course, is both a mirror and an audience at once.

Masochistic acts of sharing are meant to invoke an audience, but not for the continuous, archived self — not for the ongoing, identity-signifying connotations of what is shared. Instead the audience is invoked to energize the obliteratingly powerful affect of the present moment by seeming to confirm its humiliating reality, the fantasy identity crystallized in that moment. One puts an aspect of oneself (actual or invented) out there to dream of it being mocked, and that pain of mockery disassociates us from the deeper vulnerabilities of the “real self” that is being deferred and protected for the moment.


The overload

rob in light

This New York article by Casey Johnston about the death of the chronological feed colors within the lines of these sorts of pieces: It takes for granted that people suffer from information overload as if it is some sort of act of god, and that algorithmic curation is therefore an inevitable and necessary attempt to fix the problem. Users are treated as incapable of curating their own feeds, because they are either too lazy, too passive, or too indiscriminate — presumably users follow or friend people whose posts they have no interest in seeing out of politeness or an intent to curry favor with them, and then they end up inundated. As Johnston writes, “It’s difficult for users to adequately curate their own feeds. Most people just follow their friends.“

That claim concedes too much, I think, to social-media-company ideology about how platforms are supposed to be used. What makes such personal curation difficult is not the effort required in doing it (make a Twitter list, start a Facebook group), but the effort it takes to overcome everyone assuming and insisting that it is so so difficult.

Platforms like to promulgate the idea that users are not inclined to decide for themselves what they want, and that they are instead eager to be persuaded and served things they haven’t chosen, like ads. Not only can’t we curate our information feeds, but we can’t curate our personal desires, so we welcome ads and algorithms to solve the overwhelming problem for us.

Johnston acknowledges that maybe companies shouldn’t be trusted to do this sorting and don’t have our interests in mind, but then basically shrugs: “It’s an understandable fear. But, well, that ship has sailed.” We should just give up and roll with it, apparently. Sweet surrender.

Using social media that implements an algorithmically curated feed reinforces for users that they shouldn’t be expected to deliberate over any desires or guide their own information-search processes. Such platforms teach users helplessness. Staging information overload deliberately helps with the lessons. The point is to make the surrender pleasurable, as Will Davies suggests here. As with the “sublime” in aesthetic theory, we are overloaded with information so that we can enjoy being overpowered.

That is why platforms have always tried to saturate users with information and encourage them to constantly add more people and services to their feeds. The overload is intentional. Overload is the point, just like “too many channels (and nothin’ on)” is the whole point of having cable. Social media platforms foreground the metrics that drive overload, opting people in when possible and encouraging them to friend and follow everyone and everything they can.

Such promiscuity leads to the kinds of “context collapse” that companies are invoking to explain why users are posting less. But clearly the platforms prefer “context collapse” to communication. Their business model relies on having a lot of users spending a lot of time on the site, not necessarily on users posting a lot about themselves. Context collapse may make users post less, but it also generates a prurience about what others post; it salts all posts with a sense of risk that makes them more compelling. It also orients users toward consumption rather than production; or rather, it encourages them to limit their own “prosumption” to safe practices — sharing links to signal their own identity, endorsing other people’s content with likes, and so on.

This suits social media platforms just fine; the more programmatic your engagement is with their platform, the better. Ideally you watch your feed like television. Just as algorithmic sorting is posited as something users demand to deal with information overload (when really it allows platforms to serve ads in with content), “context collapse” is deployed to make it seem like users’ sinking into passivity is their own fault and not the platform’s — and meanwhile social media follow the path of all previous mass-media technologies, toward emphasizing the few broadcasting to the many.

We’re supposed to believe that users posting less constitutes some sort of threat to Facebook: If we stop posting, they won’t have as much data about users to use to target ads better. But that is not necessarily the case: Facebook gets the data it needs about users by spying on their browsing activity and keeping track of their likes and other sorts of non-posting behavior. The chief thing that user posts are good for, from the platform’s point of view, is keeping other people engaged with the site.

But a site that is made up only of friends talking to friends is an uncomfortable place to serve ads — the primary business of Facebook. (It doesn’t exist primarily to facilitate connection or even data collection on individuals; those are subordinate to gluing eyes to screens and guaranteeing they see ads.) Hence Facebook seeks a blend of friend-to-friend recognition (the social glue that makes checking Facebook nearly mandatory) with the ordinary sort of culture-industry product that we are well-accustomed to seeing ads with — the sort of content that people typically link to and share, the “quality” content that Facebook optimizes its feed (with constant tinkering and rejiggering) to prioritize.

In re-sorting users feeds, however, feed-curation algorithms aren’t trying to solve information overload; they are hoping to prolong it and make it more enjoyably overwhelming. The sublime overload inculcates users with passivity toward their own curiosity. The procedures that pretend to manage the overload instead direct the users’ surrendered attention toward ads. With their lowered resistance and learned helplessness, they should be more easily persuaded than ever.

Both information overload and context collapse are deliberately induced — they are features masquerading as bugs. Both help us enjoy a more passive attitude toward consuming social media, offering plausible deniability to ourselves when we see the ship of active engagement has sailed.



Contortions of self-consciousness


In his book Sour Grapes, Jon Elster has a chapter about “willing what cannot be willed,” or what he also calls “states that are essentially by-products.” He offers the example of spontaneity: you cannot try to be spontaneous; you can only recognize that you had been acting spontaneously after the fact.

“When we observe that some such state is in fact present,” Elster notes, “it is tempting to explain it as the result of action designed to bring it about — even though it is rather a sign that no such action was undertaken.” This Elster calls the “intellectual fallacy of by-products,” which presumably leads to a belief that we can reverse-engineer the pleasure we take in certain conditions that can’t otherwise be pursued directly. It suggests, too, that we mistake observation of an emotional state as the ability to also identify its cause — noticing my spontaneity made me spontaneous, so I should just think about being spontaneous more!

Reading about ASMR, as in this article about Buzzfeed’s Facebook Live show ASMR News Now, made me think of this fallacy, and how ASMR seems to hinge on defying the idea that you can’t manufacture inexplicable pleasures. ASMR is usually explained as a kind of brain tingle brought on by sounds that conjure intimacy and monotony in equal measure: “soft voices, kind words, a conceit of caregiving,” as Nitin Ahuja explains it in this essay. The sensation seems to steal upon those who experience it, yet it apparently can be triggered reliably by ASMR practitioners who can slur their sibilants in the right rhythm while performing some mundane activity chosen for its unobtrusiveness, its lack of capacity to bear deeper meaning. The ASMR practitioner often performs concentration — through such routines as folding towels, say — so that listeners can let their own need to concentrate dissolve.

The typical ASMR scenario thus seems to stage meditative conundrums of concentrating on not concentrating, dramatizing how the care we often yearn for must be both an expression of special attention and of being taken for granted. It’s about using technological mediation to will an unwillable state, to make our approach to a desirable “by-product” state suitably indirect. The frisson of ASMR is thwarting the principle that you can’t tickle yourself, you can’t plan to give yourself goosebumps. ASMR says you can.

ASMR suggests there is a way out of the contortions of self-consciousness that come from trying to be natural. Elster cites Stendhal’s diary on the recursive desire to act natural (think of him as the original Mr. B Natural) and claims Stendhal “turned to fiction” as a “way of enacting his desire by proxy.”

I wonder if we sometimes hope that our social-media profiles could function in a similar way, allowing us to actively experience what happens to that profile a kind of radical passivity that passes for “naturalness.” Our data gets processed and what we really want to know or how we really want to be is presented to us as not an artifact of our consciousness, of our deliberate consideration, but instead somehow implicit in our past activities.

This desire to have our “real selves” captured behind our backs and revealed to us becomes an alibi for permitting extensive surveillance of the self, for embracing the “inevitability” of surveillance as a prerequisite to self-knowledge. Finally surveillance will let us chart the path to “being natural” without immediately feeling unnatural about it. Inherent in this is our ability to take for granted that “naturalness” is less a state of being than a commodity, and like other emotional commodities, is available on demand by consuming the appropriate goods. When I want to feel “authentic,” I can look at a list of books Amazon recommends for me and simultaneously delight in how well my data pegs me and in how much of me escapes Amazon’s understanding.

Stendhal, Elster notes, didn’t try to “make an impression on others by faking qualities that he does not have.” Instead, he wanted to become “a person who could not care less about making an impression.” One of the seductive things about surveillance is that you know you are making an impression — as so much data —regardless of whatever effort you make or don’t make. You don’t have to try; algorithms will impute intentionality to your behavior without your having to taint it with your own willfulness. The behavior can seemingly remain pure.

Rather than anticipate being watched and feel pressure to perform perpetually, for an unknowable audience whose unknown demands can only open an irresolvable anxiety, one can take the opposite approach, viewing “total” surveillance as effectively the same as no surveillance — as the freedom from having to perform the self for a specific audience because all audiences are possible.

You can trick yourself into thinking that the effort to be natural has become superfluous, and your “naturalness” will be constructed for you from that data for your later consumption. Naturalness, authenticity, realness, and spontaneity (and any other terms for presence qua presence) are all retrospective artifacts; they are all manifestations of nostalgia.

Elster quotes Stendhal as declaring that “it is very difficult to describe from memory what was natural in your behavior;  it is easier to evoke what was artificial or affected since the effort needed to put on an act also engraves it in memory.” This is posited as problematic, as the “faked” aspects of behavior are presumed to blot out what was “genuine” about it. All memories are false memories. We never remember how we really were. Such thinking can produce the life-logging impulse: record everything about my life because I can’t trust what I think I know about my past. But this merely raises the distortions of memory to the next power: one misremembers in greater detail what the life logs cause one to relive.

That problem is solved by having the life logs kept by outside parties — data brokers — who devise a variety of persuasive ways to present that past self as the future. The real person you were that you can’t quite remember turns into the person you are being guided into becoming.

All this becomes absurd and irrelevant if we treat affectations not as masks concealing a true self but as the process of that self being brought into existence. What is natural in your behavior, in Stendhal’s sense, is not worth knowing. It’s a void that makes us susceptible to anyone who promises to fill it, even when they lower their voice to a slurpy ASMR whisper.