What the Society of the Spectacle and the Madness of Crowds Tell Us about the Life Cycle of Social Media Platforms

Several years ago, I read an article in Psychology Today, The Decline of Play and the Rise in Children’s Mental Disorders. It’s a fascinating piece, and one really should read it in its entirety. The author starts out with this startling observation:

Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for a diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago. This increased psychopathology is not the result of changed diagnostic criteria; it holds even when the measures and criteria are constant.

The most recent evidence for the sharp generational rise in young people’s depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders comes from a just-released study headed by Jean Twenge at San Diego State University.[1] Twenge and her colleagues took advantage of the fact that the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a questionnaire used to assess a variety of mental disorders, has been given to large samples of college students throughout the United States going as far back as 1938, and the MMPI-A (the version used with younger adolescents) has been given to samples of high school students going as far back as 1951. The results are consistent with other studies, using a variety of indices, which also point to dramatic increases in anxiety and depression—in children as well as adolescents and young adults—over the last five or more decades….

The question I want to address here is why.

The increased psychopathology seems to have nothing to do with realistic dangers and uncertainties in the larger world. The changes do not correlate with economic cycles, wars, or any of the other kinds of world events that people often talk about as affecting children’s mental states. Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ’70s than they are today. The changes seem to have much more to do with the way young people view the world than with the way the world actually is.

This article from the Wall Street Journal about the record number of college students claiming disabilities, especially mental health issues, suggests that the trend mentioned in Psychology Today has only continued since the original article was published.

So how is it that young people living in an unprecedented economic boom in the wealthiest country in the world are more depressed and anxious than the generations who were starved and evicted during the Great Depression and who stormed Normandy? The author goes on to summarize his own beliefs – on the primacy of play in human development (Gadamer would be proud) and how children in our society are no longer allowed ample free time. He outlines other clinical perspectives – that young people feel increasingly powerless, that they feel they lack control over the direction of their lives and outcomes.

I think most parents now would blame this situation on a single force in their children’s lives, however: social media.

***

Whether one agrees with his overall Marxist political bent or not – and I do not – the French philosopher Guy Debord offered a useful intellectual framework regarding the problem of alienation and estrangement in rich, modern societies and its role in a paradoxical decline in quality of life.

In The Society of the Spectacle, Debord describes the history of modern societies as “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing.” This is the commodification of daily life into something fictive and apart from reality. In the society of the spectacle, “passive identification with the spectacle supplants genuine activity.” What he calls the spectacle is not itself a collection of images, but a web of social relationships that are all mediated by images and not real interactions. It is an environment wherein people try to sell an idea of themselves to their peers – they treat their own identity as a commodity that ought to be traded – and this becomes the sense of purpose that animates their decision-making.

Anyone who has spent much intellectually honest time on social media can see what Debord describes – a social moment that is characterized and defined by falsehood and fake identities – bear out. And anyone who has spent much time on Facebook and Instagram in particular can become fairly sympathetic with Debord’s class consciousness. (I think where Marxists generally lose people is in their appeals to social engineering as a means to utopia, at any rate.)

I have known people on Facebook and Instagram that have never posted a picture of their children that is not professionally staged and retouched. Imagine what that communicates to their children as they grow older. It’s a form of sickness.

And then there is the destructive impulse people develop toward the avatars of strangers. The dark side of alienation is the need to tear down the images of self others hold out, and this manifests itself in the most banal aspects of folks’ social lives. This is particularly true of Twitter. In its early stages, Twitter was an interesting place to have unlikely and illuminating conversations. It is now a platform devoted entirely to shitposting. (It has also turned what used to be regarded as journalism into shitposting, because traditional media companies realize shitposting can be shared and monetized.) Twitter is where people who hold themselves out as leaders – in government, in cultural criticism, in commerce, in academia – spend every waking hour of their day shitposting about other people, generally people they never have and never will meet in person. Heck, they are so committed to this destructive impulse that they don’t even care if the person on the other side of the digital divide even exists. They are so deeply immersed in the society of the spectacle that they would rather fight with an algorithm than have dinner with their families. Imagine what that communicates to children as they grow older. This is also a form of sickness.

Is it really so startling that children have inherited a fatalistic, seemingly inescapable state of depression and anxiety? Is it really so startling that children who live in this environment see their real peers and want to cause them real harm? That current generations of young people – now the first derivative of the society of the spectacle – can no longer tell the difference between the avatar and the peers they see in class?

It is impossible to be “above the fray” on social media as well. If you are real, you are vulnerable to the mob. The only way to survive is to be phony – to participate in the darling, the inane, and the conspicuous consumption. And as people ultimately crave authenticity, this is a thoroughly depressing activity. It makes people want to lash out.

***

As someone who has spent most of my professional life working in finance and economics, I have to say that the most useful topics I have ever studied are financial manias and crashes. How is it that thousands, and sometimes millions, of people come to be so powerfully deluded about the value of specific assets (stocks, real estate, etc.)?

For financiers, the durable favorite on manias and panics is Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (pdf). Mackay tackles a wide variety of examples where the collective comes to believe demonstrably false narratives, from financial bubbles to alchemy.

Mackay notes that in many of these cases, the people who were selling the illusion were themselves not aware that it was an illusion. Their commitment to the illusion trumped data and experience. They themselves were true believers in their magnificent theses.

He writes, “men … think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”

And so it will likely be with this social moment of online delusion and destruction. One by one, people will turn away from the spectacle and their quality of life will improve because of it – much like the prudent investor will cut their losses on a toxic investment and move on. They will look at the garbage on television, on the Internet, see the very real violence in their communities and among their personal relations, and say, you know what… this is a cancer in my life… I am going to do something else with my one precious existence than entertain an indifferent, obnoxious, and fantasy-prone mob with this false extension of my identity.

***

Facebook revealed in a corporate filing on Monday that an overwhelming majority of shareholders voted to oust Mark Zuckerberg from the company’s board of directors. It’s a meaningless vote and yet quite the statement about the platform that has created this generation’s episode of collective insanity.

In any other publicly traded company, such a vote would result in devastating changes in corporate governance (and much more). But Facebook has two share classes, one for insiders that is substantially all controlled by Zuckerberg, and one for everyone else. Because Zuckerberg owns three-quarters of the company’s class B stock, he has 60% of the total voting power at Facebook and essentially rules the company by fiat. In addition to trying to oust Zuckerberg from the board, nearly all of the outside investors in the company voted to end the share structure.

Facebook has always been Zuckerberg’s golem, and everyone agrees that this is at the core of not just Facebook’s ills, but the country’s ills.

I think we can look at the trajectories of several initially successful social media platforms at this point, however, and say that social media has a well-defined life cycle that does not end well. Initial conditions are pleasant and useful. But as the company expands, crowd psychology dictates that there will be a descent into madness.

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