Social Media, Mass Society, and the Desire for Attention

A Twitter thread, slightly expanded, for those of you with the good sense not to be on Twitter. 

Thesis: Many of our present social, political, personal disorders are rooted in or related to disorders of attention. But … disorders of attention are themselves rooted in an earlier disorderd state: that of the anonymous individual of mass society.

The desire for attention is itself a good and perfectly human desire. In Arendt’s terms, it is the desire to appear and act before others and to be noted in our particularity. It is the desire to be seen and to be acknowledged for who we are.

For Arendt this appearing and acting happened in the public realm as opposed to the private realm or the social realm. The political arena of the ancient Greek polis was her model for this public space. The private realm was the realm of the household. The social realm was a more recent development, it was the realm of mass society. It was not a private realm, but neither was it a realm in which the individual could meaningfully appear in the integrity of her particularity.

The scale and structures of mass society denied individuals this space of appearing. Most individuals no longer had access to a realm wherein they could be meaningfully noted by others. (Aside: celebrity culture is a vicarious satisfaction of this unsatisfiable desire. See also Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.)

Social media appeared to satisfy this need through platforms designed ostensibly to satisfy this desire for what was now termed “connection.” But what actually appeared was an increasingly compulsive because never fully satisfied desire for attention.

In part, this is because, like mass society, social media does not operate at a scale or in a space conducive to meaningful human appearing and action.

Rather than reconstituting human-scaled spaces of embodied appearance and action, social media generated mass-scaled spaces where our disembodied avatars competed for attention on platforms explicitly designed to generate this compulsive seeking after attention.

Also, where pre-mass society spaces were delimited and distinct from private spheres, the new public constituted by social media colonized private life, making it, too, fodder for the new quasi-public sphere of competitive attention.

Social media thus amounts to an apparent avenue for assuaging the disorders of mass society but fails and makes matters worse by doubling down on and exacerbating the original problem: the elimination of human-scaled spaces for individual appearance and action.

3 thoughts on “Social Media, Mass Society, and the Desire for Attention

  1. Nice to see more attention drawn to this historical trajectory, especially from a rooted perspective. You put it together lucidly, and whether or not we all align perfectly on values, I think your value framework makes it a more fruitful plumbing. I’ve read plenty of “genealogies” that seem like mere catalogues, illustrating contingency and nothing else. I wondered if there are particular thinkers you liked or found apropos on mass society. I’ve read a bit of Gasset, Bell and Simmel on this, but not much more.

    The transfixing spectacle of the celebrity is fascinating in and of itself; however, I also think it’s interesting to look at the distance we’ve come in the last 50 or so years. McLuhan always insisted that artists were the avante garde of the electric age for their curiosity and persistent attention to the fringes of perception, perspective, etc.

    Aren’t celebrities the analogous figures in the late twentieth century in terms of negotiating media and the attention of anonymous audiences, not to mention non-perishable, detailed records of their behavior, images and communication, etc. Probably someone somewhere has thought more about this angle, and I’d love to read that.

    I think primarily about how every little micro-interaction has now taken on a perspectival quality that magnifies risk exponentially. Plenty of people came before, prisoners for instance, who had to find ways to manage a lack of privacy, but celebrities were the first to provide models for the masses for how to react to the perils and plunder of the unseen gaze, weren’t they?

    These models were monuments in the cultural education of every first world kid (and many others) for those decades, and they were numerous: the cycles of public shame and atonement, the “owning” and flaunting of infamy, carefully crafted masks and speeches that betray neither emotion nor fixed meaning, constant mutation to retain attention, all of the strategies that Reagan’s aids coined “perception management”, and many more. And they weren’t just models for mitigating risk, but also for deriving the social and financial rewards of mass attention.

    For my money, I’m certain that these models primed an enormous share of the behavior I see on social media today. And I think it’s important to note that these models of risk management hold especially for those of us who weren’t envious of celebrity glamour but now have to negotiate similar social perils anyway. Nothing that Zuckerberg or even the maestro Steve jobs achieved in marketing has come close to the favors done for their companies by MTV in the 80’s and 90’s.

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