Facing the abyss for real


For nearly half a billion people, the social media leviathan, Facebook, is a part of their daily lives. According to recent research, Facebook’s ability to link us with long-forgotten (and new) “friends” may be bad for our emotional well-being.

Led by Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan, the researchers found, “The more people used Facebook at one time point, the worse they felt … the more their life satisfaction levels declined over time…. Rather than enhancing well-being, however, these findings suggest that Facebook may undermine it.”

Jon Johnides, one of the study’s co-authors, elaborates the theorized mechanism: “When you’re on a site like Facebook, you get lots of posts about what people are doing. That sets up social comparison — you maybe feel your life is not as full and rich as those people you see on Facebook.”

The paradox of Facebook is that by focusing so much on the (largely trivial) machinations of one’s “friends,” users subconsciously turn inward. For millennia, poets, philosophers and scientists have all commented on the folly of too much time with just our mirror and our appetites.

Because Facebook constantly inundates users with the social and consumerist minutiae of their network, they are presented with a much fuller range of things and situations to desire. Like lab rats pressing the bar to get a food pellet, the more users get, the more they are reinforced to want.

No author has better explained this idea than the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Writing half a century before the first modern computer was first constructed, Durkheim nonetheless precisely describes what the Michigan researchers have found.

In a thought clearly inspired by Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, Durkheim clarifies the “mission creep” of desires that Facebook magnifies, “…beyond the indispensable minimum which satisfies nature when instinctive, a more awakened reflection suggests better conditions (and) seemingly desirable ends (each) craving fulfillment.”

This leads to one of Durkheim’s most famous observations: “To pursue a goal which is by definition unattainable is to condemn oneself to a state of perpetual unhappiness.”

Of course Durkheim was hardly alone in such pronouncements. Friedrich Neitzsche’s extensive nihilist discourse gets to a similar place. Writing around the same time as Durkheim, Nietzsche states: “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into the abyss, the abyss also looks into you.”

In the present case, the “monster” is the double-edged sword of being both a well-spring of and vessel for new desires. The “abyss” is by extension, our succumbing to their boundless nature. To this point, Nietzsche continues, “… the highest values devalue themselves… ‘Why’ finds no answer.”

We only want; we do not question why.

Many others have explored this theme. In particular, the last bit of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” comes to mind: “The wretch, concentered all in self, living, shall forfeit fair renown, doubly dying shall go down, to the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.”

Interestingly, it is Nietzsche himself who offers one of the more hopeful characterizations of the age: “I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength. It is possible…”

If we are to extricate ourselves from the persistent gaze of the all-consuming mirror, a first step is likely found in being more social in real physical space and less so in the artificial realm of infinite ones and zeros.

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Matthew Pate is a former law enforcement executive who holds a doctorate in criminal justice from the University of Albany and who has advised police agencies around the country. He writes from Pine Bluff. Contact him at pate.matthew@gmail.com.