In René Descartes’ famous Discourse on Method, he summarizes the proof of his own existence with the dictum Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am). As an answer to someone doubting their own existence, it’s pretty OK (despite the tradition of philosophical criticism which has found various flaws with the line of reasoning itself). The interesting thing about the Cogito to me, though, is not whether it technically works as a philosophical argument, but rather the fact that the particular verb chosen is cogitare. It makes sense in the context of the argument, where the only thing we are supposed to assume is the activity of thinking itself. But there is a deeper move being made here: the elevation of thought as the quintessential or bedrock activity of human existence. In reality, any verb will do: I love, therefore I am. I dance, therefore I am. I sneeze, therefore I am. For Descartes, the only one of these that we cannot ultimately doubt takes place is the act of thinking. Typical philosopher! But since the Cogito, as Kierkegaard pointed out, is basically already a tautology, why not use a different verb?
My hunch is that in each age, or each culture, or each value system, there is a similarly-elevated human activity regarded as the sine qua non of existence. Each of these ergo sums (if I can call them that) encapsulates what we think to be most important, most constitutive of our human identity. The lack of this quality will result in significant anxiety, the sense that one is not fully participating in whatever it means to be human. Descartes’ anxious doubting was assuaged by the act of philosophical reasoning, which proved to him that he was real. For someone alive during, and participating in, the Romantic movement, the anxiety would have centred instead around the amount and depth of authentic emotion; the ergo sum of that period would have been “I feel, therefore I am.” This is how you know you are really human: you exist in a state of transcendent passion! I’ve always found it interesting to consider: what is the “X ergo sum” of any particular time or place?
A year or two ago, for a variety of personal reasons irrelevant to this little essay, I somewhat intentionally decided to reengage with social media. I scrolled through my Facebook feed again for the first time (after declaring my relationship with it “complicated” some 10 years prior). But mostly I started to follow friends and post on Facebook’s more glamorous younger sibling, Instagram. There are many, many reflections I could write about the state of social media as I found it, and upon my own emotional and psychological state as I engaged with the apps. Many of the various downsides of social media are now fairly well-recognized, and don’t require my reiteration. But one feeling I noticed kept coming up again and again: an anxious need to establish myself as present by posting something, anything. I’m here, I exist, I matter! It struck me that we may have here the evidence of a new ergo sum: Communico, ergo sum. “I share, therefore I am.”
From my own self-reflection and observations of others’ behaviour on the platforms, it does seem there is now a heightened urgency around the sharing of experiences over against the mere having of them. It is not enough to go on vacation; it must be live-blogged! It is not enough to eat at a fun restaurant with friends; the friends must be tagged! It is not enough to have a funny thought in one’s own head; it must be refined with the choicest of memes and emoji and shared. And so on. Of course, sharing our experiences with one another is not a strange or pathological behaviour. On the contrary, it is an integral part of human relationship. On a deep psychological and emotional level, we need others to know our feelings and thoughts about the things in our shared reality, and we likewise need to empathize with the experience of others. What’s new seems to be the degree to which the act of sharing itself has superseded the reality of the thing or experience shared. Enjoying an experience with those present (even if that is just myself) is replaced by the need to immediately translate that experience into the realm of social feedback. I suspect that this means there is some kind of core anxiety of identity at play here. Am I even a person if I am not establishing my presence in these various online places with content of the kind that will cause people to see me how I want to be seen?
I would have thought that identity anxieties would be about the lack of attaining a situation prized by the surrounding culture (however locally or globally defined). In ancient Greece, maybe you’d feel some identity anxiety if you were a foreigner, or someone who couldn’t participate in the civic or martial affairs of the day, for whatever reason. In mid-2000s Silicon Valley, maybe you’d feel similarly if you weren’t building a “disruptive” startup. There are a no doubt a large number of “identities” that have been seen as of paramount value over the years: warrior, scholar, saint, parent, entrepreneur, scientist, evangelist, libertine, empath, sex icon, guru, artist, athlete, etc… But nowadays, perhaps as a consequence of society having approximated the liberal ideal of freedom of self-determination, it seems that more important than actually attaining any of these identities is the establishment of the identity via social media. And so what becomes common in our age is not a particular identity per se (because we each choose our own from a wide and even conflicting array of options), but a kind of meta-identity or modus operandi of identity establishment. We are defined, not so much by who we “are” in some kind of essential or internal way, and more by the space we carve out for ourselves via the act of sharing. The result is that “sharing” transitions from being a basic human social practice (the kind typically found among close relations and which facilitates the establishment of empathic bonds), to being a much more consequential (and therefore anxiety-ridden) social practice of establishing one’s chosen identity (qua identity) in the most highly-trafficked sphere of human society today: social media.
So far this is just a hypothesis I’m developing from observations of cultural change over the last few decades. I don’t claim to have proved it. I also feel the need to pause and anticipate a few of the possible reactions to the hypothesis so far:
- I’m not trying to claim that this way of using social media (what we might call “sharing as identity establishment”) is the only one; clearly you could point to any number of examples of posts that don’t fit this description. In fact, probably very few people do only this on social media.
- I would acknowledge that “sharing as identity establishment” happens in many human contexts, on and offline—not just on social media. This whole thought experiment is dealing with the question of identity anxiety, and as I’ve already indicated this is not a new question. What does seem new to me is the extent to which this “sharing at one another” has become a dominant mode of discourse (well, a dual monologue, as it were). As such, this mode of engaging with social media is by no means “abnormal”, and is probably hardly even worth comment anymore; that’s exactly the point! The fact that it doesn’t seem to register that we are doing something different, or more, with “sharing” than we used to, is precisely what has me intrigued.
- The fact that many of us choose not to share at all on social media does not run counter to the hypothesis. It is not surprising that, faced with the huge amount of effort required to establish one’s identity online, many people would decide not to play the game. This doesn’t mean the game isn’t the dominant one, though, in just the same way that in a wealth-driven society some people might resign themselves to being poor because they don’t feel that there is any opportunity for change in their circumstances. The identity anxiety persists, and has simply been capitulated to completely.
So, if any of the hypothesis is at all right, how did we wind up here? First and foremost I see the current situation as an unintended consequence of the design of social media. As companies like Facebook/Meta have unabashedly pushed forward the concept of “connection” (whatever they mean by it; it’s certainly been twisted beyond all recognition into something like sheer access to personal information), we are essentially force-fed a never-ending stream of posts from people at varying degrees of separation from us. When these feeds are sprinkled liberally with advertisement we are left feeling even more overwhelmed. There is the sense that to be heard amidst the clamour we must shout (share) all the louder and all the more. And so a vicious cycle develops: to be “seen” by our peers we must engage in the rigorous process of identity establishment by sharing enough to be noticed. But this increases the amount of information in the feeds, making individual posts (which we may regard on the hypothesis as bids for identity establishment) less likely to be seen. And so we must shout even louder.
If you agree with any of this, or that it’s at all a problem, what is there to do about it? I think there are two levels on which we can give some suggestions. Practically, we can recognize that social media is an imperfect and distorted model of healthy social structures. It’s not “normal” (in the history of humanity, anyway), or necessary, to passively keep in touch with hundreds or thousands of people. It’s not “normal” to be constantly bombarded by personal news and announcements of varying degrees of significance from people at varying degrees of intimacy. I think it’s possible to choose smaller and more intentional spaces in which to engage in the act of sharing, which are less likely to encourage a distortion of that sharing in the direction of anxious identity establishment. I think it’s even possible to use digital tools for this purpose (groups of friends and families can maintain their own ad hoc social media networks via chat apps, for example, in ways that more closely mirror real-world relationship structures). Choosing smaller venues does mean intentionally foregoing the “reach” that our sharing might have. I see this as a choice to trade the “quantity” of reaction (likes, comments, etc…) for the “quality” of interaction (dialogue with people you actually independently know and care about). None of this is to discount the various benefits that social media apps provide, but merely to point out that in their current design they are perhaps pressing the normal human sharing impulse into a service for which it was never meant.
On a deeper level, I think we have to face the classic existential questions (what I’ve called “identity anxiety” or “anxiety of existence” here) without flinching. It’s certainly true that being an “influencer” (at least the kind which I most often see online) is a vacuous kind of identity, utterly precarious in its situation. But it’s also true that other, more traditional, identities are equally precarious, if only in the limit and less obviously so. Hooking your existential cart up to the horse of motherhood, for example, might be more wholesome (not to mention more valuable to the community), but at the end of the day it’s not going to leave you free of anxiety (what if you cannot have children? What do you do when they leave the house? Etc…) Philosophically, I tend to agree with the teacher in Ecclesiastes, who declares all such things to be a kind of mist that eventually evaporates. Any kind of ergo sum which depends on our abilities, our productivity, our intelligence, or our fortune in life, is bound to generate anxiety, or to draw lines of value judgment that leave some people out. What if the ultimate value of a person, our “identity”, is not so differentiated and special as we would like to think? What if it just is, established not by a process of existentialist self-determination, but by the words that declared every single part of creation good? This would be an identity which cannot be lost or tarnished. It would be an identity which cannot be denied to any person, no matter their race, gender, nationality, abledness, wealth status, or any other attribute or lack thereof. It would be an identity which could never result in anxiety. And finally, it would be an identity that would never even need to be shared about on social media, because everyone would already possess it equally.
If I believed all of that, which I would like to, then I would probably post a bit less, or at least less self-centredly, on Instagram. If I believed all of that, which I would like to, then I would be asking how to move more concretely from anxious communico (“I share”) to true communio (“community”).