The Data Self and the Social Self

Here is William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890), explaining to us a fundamental aspect of human nature, which social media is designed to exploit:

A man’s Social Self is the recognition which he gets from his mates. We are not only gregarious animals, liking to be in sight of our fellows, but we have an innate propensity to get ourselves noticed, and noticed favorably, by our kind. No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead,’ and acted as if we were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruellest bodily tortures would be a relief; for these would make us feel that, however bad might be our plight, we had not sunk to such a depth as to be unworthy of attention at all.

The data self, both as a new kind of subjectivity and as a name for the only self social media companies care about, is built upon the social self. Or, more to the point, the data self, in the latter sense, is a parasite that lives off of what James calls the social self.

Relatedly, from the archive:

It seems to me that we should draw a distinction among desires that are bundled together under the notion of loneliness. There is, for example, a distinction between the desire for companionship (and distinctions among varieties of companionship) and the desire simply to be noticed or acknowledged. C. S. Lewis, eloquent as per usual, writes:

“We should hardly dare to ask that any notice be taken of ourselves. But we pine. The sense that in this universe we are treated as strangers, the longing to be acknowledged, to meet with some response, to bridge some chasm that yawns between us and reality, is part of our inconsolable secret.”

Among Facebook’s more problematic aspects, in my estimation, is the manner in which the platform exploits this desire with rather calculated ferocity. That little red notifications icon is our own version of Gatsby’s green light.

[Link to the paragraph from James via Sanebaits Thenball.]


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