Social Media, Capitalism and Performance: ranting about living in a post-digital age

As I was philosophising about what topic to talk about in this week’s blog post, I thought about the people I looked up to in the digital world, specifically the ones who themselves had given commentary on ‘the digital’ in the past. I thought about comedian and film director Bo Burnham and his 2018 film ‘Eight Grade’ depicting the coming-of-age of a middle-school girl in the contemporary post-digital world, Youtube video essayist CJ the X and the 2020 Netflix documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ starring whistle-blowers from the social media industry. This blog post is basically a short rant that followed in my head after philosophizing about this.

Generation Alpha

The digital and ‘real’ world are rapidly moving closer to one another, to most young adults, teens and children, the digital world constitutes a large part of their everyday existence. Digital content is produced and consumed at an ever-increasing rate and for most of us, life would be unthinkable without it. In this sense, digital devices not only act as a device on its own but can be seen as an extension of ourselves, like one of our limbs, allowing us to perform superhuman activities (for example communicate through space and time) while still in our own human bodies. Whereas my generation (gen z) witnessed the beginning of the post-digital society and with it, the rise of social media platforms as we now know them, the generation after mine, generation alpha, has never known a world without them. Today’s children learn how to move and behave in ‘the real world’ at the same time they learn how to navigate digital spaces, for them, the previously existing boundaries between the digital and physical world have (virtually) faded away. I believe this development (like most) is neither exclusively good or bad but while I could go on and on about what the implications might be, I will instead focus on a few consequences and discourses that have popped up for me so far (inspired by Bo Burnham, CJ the X, ‘The Social Dilemma’ and others).

Performer, Audience or both?

People that are familiar with Bo Burnham’s work know that he often talks about the performer/audience divide. (see Can’t Handle This (Kanye Rant) form Make Happy) He also talks a lot about the fact that through social media everybody can be a performer, in fact, everybody must perform on a daily basis mainly through social media platforms that have democratised and globalised the world of content-making. (In Conversation: Bo Burnham Live on “Good One”) In his newest comedy special ‘Inside’ this topic is addressed again with him eventually coming to the depressing conclusion that there is no escape from constant performance as the digital and physical world are so ingrained that even when not interacting with the digital world, you (or young people) are trying to perform the digital world into the physical one. (Bo Burnham vs. Jeff Bezos – Video Essay by CJ the X) In his film ‘Eight Grade’, this also gets addressed. The protagonist, Kayla, a girl in middle school who has grown up with social media as a part of her life forever, turns to social media and Youtube to perform as a way of escaping her own life which she deems too boring. She is constantly comparing her physical life to the curated performance of people on the internet showing their life. This never-ending performance of life can not be good for your mental health and can, in my experience, have detrimental effects on the way you view what everyday life, relationships and happiness should look like. The worst part about all of it is, we are stuck, social media and the internet are not just things that we interact with sometimes, it is a secondary place of living, maybe even the primary one for some. Quitting social media altogether is an act of privilege that not all of us can afford and thus an endless performance and consumption of our and other people’s lives is inevitable.

Living through companies

Although I’m aware that I’m coming across as overly negative, I don’t mean to imply that engagement with social media is an inherently evil or bad thing, I think it gives an opportunity to many of us to make and share art, to communicate with each other and to widen your knowledge. It is not the people on the platforms that I have an issue with, it is the way that the platforms and media work as well as the lack of regulation for these platforms that leads to problems. Because social media platforms are made by companies whose ultimate goal is profit as well as the fact that governments are way behind on anything digital especially the regulations thereof, there is no limitation to the ways in which companies try to keep you engaged, no matter how damaging for your mental health these strategies might be. (Bo Burnham vs. Jeff Bezos – Video Essay; The Social Dilemma) As ‘The Social Dilemma’ told us, algorithms are not there for your own viewing pleasure, they are primarily there to keep you engaged the longest, to make you watch the most advertisements, to collect the most data about you. Infinite scrolling and constant notification work to keep you engaged the longest and to make the most profit off of you. I think people often forget that social media is not ‘free’, you are paying with your time, data and attention and social media is manipulating you into giving them more while you gain less because that is how companies make a profit.

Anyways, social media is inevitable and god is dead. Thank you for listening to my rant and I’ll catch you next time!