Social Media : A Psychopathology

Chris Bravata

8 minute read

This was written for my Design Research course in the final year of my undergrad.  It underwrites my capstone research that will occur this spring.

To the unfortunate need of western desire, we feed ourselves nuggets of validation; seen as vital components of a healthy lifestyle. While the need for validation is true, such abundance and subversion has caused detrimental damage to the identity of the human, as creature and mode of intellect. We, lost in our digital presence, cannot resolve a moment without an ulterior system providing subverted psychological nourishment.

As people, we are born with a wide range of capabilities; running, loving, communicating, and more.  When brought together we form friendships, cliques, communities, and societies often founded upon a common trait.  In early civilization, these commonalities were geographically limited - confined to our villages, towns, or cities.  As technology grew so did the ability and range to network; connecting more and more people.  First the postal services expanded, then the dial-ups connected, and now the internet puts everyone in your virtual meeting room.  Now, more than ever, we have every facet of our lives available at the touch of a glass panel or plastic keycap.  So, why are our farthest fantasies in science fiction not being realized overnight?  As Oscar Wilde puts it, not getting what you want and getting everything you want are the two tragedies in life.  Between those, the latter is worse.

Knowledge from the farthest reaches of the planet, skills from the best of the trade, friendship from the coolest of people; all are readily accessible from the internet.  How does it feel to have everything you ever could want, readily accessible within the purview of the internet?

It feels like a void infinite in value so guttural that we have to cut ourselves off from it; just like a drug. It should feel easy, empowering, and confident; but it does not.  Our sense of agency in this information dense world is being held hostage by feeds and algorithms, a necessity (or so we believe it to be) given the vast spread of the digital realm.  Our ancestors navigated their communities and spaces with feet, carts, horses, and the like - across the plane of land that we call earth.  In the internet, there is no open expanse; no Grid for us to wander.  One must have an address, an exact pin-point of where to end up.  Without such accuracy, we're left to decipher what errors 401, 404, or 504 means.  In this dense expanse platforms such as Google and Bing have volunteered to be our navigators.  And when we seek more personable connections, social media platforms have bridged the gap.  These platforms seek to be the 'friend who knows everyone', connecting us with long lost friends from early school years to past jobs.  Since we are helpless in our own devices to navigate the digital realm, we place a great deal of trust into these platforms to provide us with the connection that we seek.  However, when Americans spend almost an entire hour on Facebook in a given day, its hard to believe that these platforms have our best interests at heart.  These platforms have engineered feeds and algorithms to anticipate our interests and intentions; a modest intention when the purpose is to connect the world with others.  It is when these intentions are not bound with morals do they become societal concerns at the expense of our mental well-beings. And in the day and age of 2022, “we kinda have to be on social media”; but in doing so, Fabrizio Rinaldi notes “we bombard our brains with unessential news, flashy but unmemorable content, countless notifications, [and] an addictive and endless stream of (mostly) noise.”

As elaborated upon in the opening to Max Fisher’s talk at this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, humans came to domesticate themselves through the invention of language.  This domestication occurred because the society was able to communicate and understand that certain individuals, particularly the alpha males of the community were not suitable for the longevity of the society in some capacity.  Through that communal understanding, the community took an act of aggression for the betterment of the society.  This act of aggression is the byproduct of what is known as moral outrage, an anger sometimes acted upon that one feels on behalf of a community they feel belonging to that was socially transgressed.  The reason outrage was the signifier for domestication was because outrage is the most stimulating emotion for the human psyche.  In this, the community took an action to remove a less favorable element; thus grooming the society at a genetic level.  When combined with the many communities that we associate ourselves with by way of the internet, outrage becomes the driving emotion in online platform engagement.  And conveniently, platforms such as Twitter know this.  According to a 2021 study from Yale University, Twitter weighs tweets with content that prompt moral outrage higher than those that do not. The “amplification of moral outrage is a clear consequence of social media’s business model, which optimizes for user engagement” states Molly Crockett, associate professor of psychology at Yale.  What’s important to note about this study is that it does not consider whether such moral outrage is a benefit or detractor for society.  Regardless, it cannot be ignored at how crucial of a role it does play in social and political change. These platforms “…have the ability to influence the success or failure of collective movements” that can permanently affect our society.

At what point have we lost the agency of ourselves?  Have we become so swept up in the algorithmic stream that we are coerced into believing that we are still independent thinkers?  Tobias van Schneider, designer from NYC speculates upon this in his newsletter DESK of van Schneider.  In his words, “you don’t see that you’re not living your own life because it seems to be acceptable.  It’s how everyone else around you lives, after all.”  We live our lives in the shadows of everyone else; a life of conformity bound by the unwillingness to go further from society and risk being on the wrong end of someone’s moral outrage.  We wear the same brands and scents, vacation in the same five cities seen last on our stories, do similar activities and share music.  The essence of popularity is stems from the fear of being removed from society; we want to fit in.

“Camera eats first!” shouts my friend at the local pub, taking photos of their food with some faux photographer stance.  A nudge left, adjust the focus, snap.  Switch to the zoom lens, turn on the flash, snap.  “A few more” they claim, as I sit there - eager to devour my meal.

We all have done this at one point or another, and I cannot claim innocence either.  We work hard to make our online presences show ourselves in the best light.  However doing so leaves out our shadows; and for a photo to truly capture the subject, there needs to be a balance between the highlights and shadows.  So how many of these curated highlights are genuine, truthful, and reflect who we really are?  Where are the shadows?

This begs a greater question on who we understand ourselves to be, and how that is perceived to others.  Think of your closest mate; a person who’ve you come to trust on a deep level.  Consider who you are from their perspective; maybe loving, caring, supportive, or funny.  Now think of your boss; a person who leads you and your team, but also holds the keys to your paycheck.  Now consider who you are from their perspective; hardworking, reliable, communicative, and responsive.  Now, when you overlay these two perspectives of the idea of you, you get yourself.  However, your mate is likely not your boss, and vice versa.  They are separate people who have experienced a side of you, your personality, work ethic, and care.  Neither have experienced the same ‘you’ despite you being only one person.

Now consider this in the context of social media.  Platforms have profiles, stories, and other means of spaces to post content that are bound to your identity. Those who add you on these platforms only see the idea of you from your @profile, on that platform.  If someone were to view your Instagram page without ever meeting you, how ‘authentic’ would that depiction of you be?  What about seeing your Snapchat story?  Maybe closer to the ‘real deal’, but still - only a sliver of who you truly are.  So in the rawest form; who are you?  Can we truly understand ourselves from this lens; or is the essence of who we are forever a fragmented truth that we cannot piece together?

So, how much of ‘our’ identity that we portray to the world via social media is truly independent of others thoughts?  Consider those wrapped up in the realm of Apple’s technological lifestyle; with a profound appeal for a space without clutter, attachments, or fuzz.  It is merely the device itself, and the millions of possibilities that each unit unlocks through its tech-gadget-wizardry.  Any semblance of intelligence, interest, or curiosity of the world is not permitted to exist in this minimalist empire.  In a way, it is heralded as this place where we, people of the platform, can be anything, freed of the past the burdens us down.  But by associating ourselves with these minimalist ideologies and ways of living, are we minimalists internally?  Does possessing this artifact of high class make us a participant of the high class; is this status symbol something that we simply have to buy into?  "People are always seeing and being seen,” this is the root of communication, judgement, and evaluation.  Through this, we determine right from wrong, good health from bad poison, and what is acceptable from what is not.  We leverage the identity of the products we purchase to help define the identity and character of who we are.  Designers gravitate to Apple for its minimalism and refined design, and campers gravitate to Patagonia for their camping culture and moral mentality.  Both made the conscious decision to associate with that brand identity, which becomes an extension of their personal identities. To Naomi Klein, author of No Logo, these brands are doing mental damage the common public, colonizing the mental space and whittling away at the scared private selfhood.  If we are to remove all of our branded associations, what are we left to be?  No Versace, Nike, Green Bay Packers, Apple, Trader Joes, or Starbucks.

To wrap things up, I want to relate this all to my practice and why I design with a smile in mind.  This practice may appear as cliche at face value, however it bears great complexity when you go deeper than the surface.  Validation and emotion are key tenants to how we see ourselves, and experience the outside world.  In order to design for a specific emotion, I must understand who smiles, as a person and as an identity.  In that pursuit, understanding the identity becomes challenging when the very construct that defines it is under attack from brands, algorithms, and the fear of being ostracized from society.  In solving for a smile, understanding these places of originality that are shrouded among the convolution of brands can, and should serve as a point of resolution and a jumping off point for creating pockets of joy.  These are the points that can truly allow us to connect with people on a level that brands, algorithms, and others cannot reach.  This is where we must begin to design with a smile in mind; a place of genuine connection.  From here we can build meaningful interactions that are conscious of the affect brands, society, and other people have on each other.  In the words of Fabrizio Rinaldi, “powerful connections with people all over the globe… [are the reason why I am] part of the biggest tribe humanity has ever known.” It is a sad reality that social media has accelerated the connections that we have made across our planet with reckless abandon.  However, this is our opportunity to act with care, compassion, and draw connection that is genuine.

It is here that we can design with a smile in mind.