Facebook is not a tool of love, or even self-love. It's a tool of self-loathing.
The data wizards of Menlo Park stuck their hands into the muck last week to show us how we fall in love in the digital age. Some of the analysis by Facebook’s data team was barely that—I would hazard a guess that most of the graphs were put up there to impress advertisers.
Nevertheless, the inferences and graphs are part of an idealized myth that has perpetuated since Facebook’s inception. The social networking website is often labeled as a tool of love and self-love—much in the same way the traditional glass mirror has been.
“Thanks for the love, Facebook” were the closing lines of a recent Hindu article that sought to commemorate the effects of Facebook over the course of its ten-year existence.
But to me, the glass mirror has always been better defined as a tool of self-loathing, as American philosopher Lewis Mumford put it in his 1934 mangum opus Technics and Civilisation:
“If the image one sees in the mirror is abstract, it is not ideal or mythical: the more accurate the physical instrument, the more relentlessly does it show the effects of age, disappointment, frustration, slyness and weakness. Indeed, when one is completely whole and at one with the world, one does not need the mirror. It is in the period of psychic disintegration that the individual personality turns to the lonely image to see what in fact is there and what he can hold onto; and it was in the period of cultural disintegration that men began to hold the mirror up to outer nature.”
One of Mumford’s central theses is that the mirror is the only tool that can divorce the self from the “influential presence of other men.” It essentially encourages a sense of narcissism.
Facebook too is a reflective tool of self-loathing; albeit one that encourages a form of neurotic vanity over mere narcissism. We do not turn to Facebook to view our own reflection or our own self. Rather, the reflection that Facebook returns is one we cannot divorce from the “influential presence of other men”.
The Evil Queen
We go in front of the altar of Facebook to subject ourselves to judgment from the social milieu. The image that we project to the Facebook is not our own face, but an idealized version of our self that is projected for pure social consumption. The reflection that we receive, in the form of comments and likes, tells us how the image was viewed by our “Facebook friends”.
The cycle then continues. We keep adjusting the projected image in order to hopefully bring the reflection closer to the projection—but it never truly happens. Even in Facebook, we are desperately alone. Where the self-loathing begins is when we realize that, unlike the glass mirror, the image reflected by Facebook will never match what is projected.
This is a possible explanation of why Twitter, for instance, is an inherently more ruminative medium than Facebook. It is an even explanation of why sometimes people delete their Facebook accounts, but log back in a few weeks later.
But to me, Facebook’s disintegration of the self (combined with some of the graphs by Facebook’s love gurus) is a glimpse at how we can more efficiently analyze social media usage.
Much of the technology and business analysis surrounding social networking is often shaped by the way the social tool is defined functionally. For instance: Facebook is used only for words + photos, Twitter for news, Instagram for photos, Snapchat for dirty photos and so on and so forth.
This has proven to be wrong – because we use everything for everything. Twitter does photos, Instagram does words too, etc etc. After all, as the saying goes, nobody uses a phone to make calls anymore right?
A far better way, therefore, to analyze social tools is by measuring the type of relationship that one has with the networking service in particular.
Facebook is a way of being judged by the social masses—and therefore is automatically a tool for maintaining “weak” ties, not strong ones. This is why after couples become a couple; the number of Facebook posts they exchange goes down.
A messaging service like Whatsapp on the other hand is a way to maintain “strong ties” with people you actually know. Whatsapp is a tool of love far more than Facebook will ever be—after all it’s been helping long-distance relationships survive at zero economic cost!