“Liking” and Loving: Identity on Facebook

By one of those odd twists of associative memory, John Caputo’s little book, On Religion, came to mind today. Specifically, I recalled a particular question that he posed in the opening pages.

“So the question we need to ask ourselves is the one Augustine puts to himself in the Confessions, “what do I love when I love God?,” or “what do I love when I love You, my God?,” as he also puts it, or running these two Augustinian formulations together, “what do I love when I love my God?”.

I appreciate this formulation because it forces a certain self-critical introspection. It refuses us the comforts of thoughtlessness.

A little further on, Caputo takes the liberty of putting his words to the spirit of Augustine’s quest:

“… I am after something, driven to and fro by my restless search for something, by a deep desire, indeed by a desire beyond desire, beyond particular desires for particular things, by a desire for I-know-not-what, for something impossible. Still, even if we are lifted on the wings of such a love, the question remains, what do I love, what am I seeking?”

Then Caputo makes an important observation:

“When Augustine talks like this, we ought not to think of him as stricken by a great hole or lack or emptiness which he is seeking to fill up, but as someone overflowing with love who is seeking to know where to direct his love. He is not out to see what he can get, but out to see what he can give.”

Not too long ago I posted some thoughts on what I took to be the Augustinian notes sounded in Matt Honan’s account of his time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. In that post, “Hole In Our Hearts,” I employed the language Caputo cautioned against, but I’m now inclined to think that Caputo is on to something. His distinction is not merely academic.

Plummeting, perhaps, from the sublime to the … what to call it, let us just say the ordinary, this formulation somehow triggered the question, “what do I like when I “Like” on Facebook?” Putting it this way suggests that what I like may not, in fact, be what I “like”. The question pushes us to examine why it is that we do what we do in social media contexts (Facebook being here a synecdoche).

Very often what we do on social media platforms is analyzed as a performance or construction of the self. On this view, what we are doing is giving shape to our identity. What we like, if you will, is the projected identity, or better yet, the perception and affirmation of that identity by others. This, of course, does not exhaust what is done with social media, but it is a significant part of it.

There are, remembering Caputo’s distinction, two ways we might understand this. Caputo distinguished between love or desire understood as a lack seeking to be filled and love or desire understood as a surplus seeking to be expended. This distinction can be usefully mapped over the motivations driving our social media activity.

When we think about social media as a field for the construction and enactment of identities, we tend to think of it as the projection, authentic or inauthentic, of a fixed reality. Perhaps we would do well to consider the possibility that identity on social networks is not so much being performed as it is being sought, that behind the identity-work on social media platforms there is an inchoate and fluid reality seeking to take shape by expending itself.

The entanglement of our loves (or, likes) and our identity on social media has, it turns out, an antecedent in the Augustinian articulation of the human condition. Caputo went on to note that the question of what we love is also bound up with another Augustinian query:

“Augustine’s question — “what do I love when I love my God?” — persists as a life-long and irreducible question, a first, last, and constant question, which permanently pursues us down the corridors of our days and nights, giving salt to fire to our lives. That is because that question is entangled with the other persistent Augustinian question, “who am I?” …

What we love and desire and who we are — these two are bound up irrevocably with one another.

“I have been made a question to myself,” Augustine famously declared. And so it is with all of us. The problem with our talk about the performance of identity is that it tends to tacitly assume a fixed and knowing identity engaging in the performance. The reality, as Augustine understood, is more complex and whatever it is we are doing online is tied up with that complexity.

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