In a recent classroom discussion concerning the extraordinary attraction of digital social networking, and the possible significance of that attraction, one of my students (among many astute observations made throughout the class) noted that there was something about social networking that suggested that people felt that their personal experience wasn’t valid somehow unless it could be shared on Instagram, Snapchat, Pinstagram, etc. This is a strikingly significant observation, and I would like to pursue it further here.
That large numbers of people in a media-saturated era should feel the need to share and broadcast their experiences in order to “authenticate” (or more fully realize) them, is not at all surprising. After all, with the advent of the cinema—and the celebrity system that accompanied it—a century or so ago, the prospect of having one’s being expanded, both literally and figuratively, on a big screen became one of the key attractions of mass culture. “Celluloid heroes never really die,” as Ray Davies has put it, and their lives take on dimensions that transcend those of ordinary folk.
But with the advent of social media, anyone can broadcast oneself—can, that is to say, become a subject of the mass media, and while a hundred “friends” on Facebook” and a handful of “followers” on Twitter doth not a celebrity make, the feel of mass media fame is there for the taking, and hundreds of millions of people have jumped right in and taken it.
There is clearly something intoxicating, and even addictive, about living one’s life online, in posting oneself through an image or a tweet or a comment and eagerly awaiting the response. I believe that this desire to be acknowledged, to have one’s experience validated, as it were, is a key part of the attraction of social networking. It is a very basic human need and is a central component of that social characteristic called “hetero-directedness.” To be hetero-directed is to live your life in relation to what others think about you. Children and adolescents are especially hetero-directed, but so too are adults ambitious for fame or who purchase things according to their status value (what Marx calls “commodity fetishism” is a form of hetero-directedness).
When we look at American history, we can find prominent examples of hetero-directedness, especially among the Congregationalists (better known as the Puritans) who settled the New England colonies. For the Congregationalists life was lived not only in relation to their God but also in relation to everyone else within the congregation. Indeed, it was the responsibility of every Puritan to demonstrate to others the signs of their salvation in order to be admitted into the congregation. In more recent times, the intense pressure for social conformity in the 1950s can also be described as an especially hetero-directed era.
With such a history, one might say that hetero-directedness is an American mythology, a social value, and that the advent of digitally-enabled social networking is raising that mythology to new prominence in the era of the global “hive.” But as with so many American mythologies, there is a contrary tradition in our history—one that we can associate with such voices as Emerson’s and Thoreau’s—which values individualism and self-reliance, and that mythology appears to be declining in relation to the resurgence of the mythology of hetero-directedness.
Is this something that we should care about? Well, of course, the answer depends upon one’s own ideological inclinations. Both hetero-directedness and individualism have their attractions, and both have their problems. A hetero-directed society, for instance, can be a socially responsible one, a society where people care for and take care of each other. But it can also be a place of compulsory conformity governed by a tyranny of the majority. Indeed, as actress Ellen Page put it in a recent speech, hetero-directedness— living too much according to the expectations (and judgments) of others, can lead to a loss of self and authenticity.
An individualistic society, on the other hand, can be a site of freedom and opportunity, but it can also devolve into anti-social anarchy and even socio-pathology if taken too far. There are plenty of signs of the latter in the current environment, and they are no less a concern than the specter compulsory conformity.
So, we have two conflicting mythologies. Are we compelled to choose simply one or the other? In my own ideological view, the answer is “no,” because there is another American mythological tradition that is often forgotten in these highly polarized times. This is what could be called the “mythology of the middle,” the belief, voiced in the eighteenth century by St. John de Crevecoeur, that America is a land where the extremes have been flattened out, where people sought economic “competence,” not luxury, and where the ethnic, religious, and class differences that polarized societies elsewhere were reconciled here in the shaping of a new identity, that of the American.
Crevecoeur’s belief, of course, like so many cultural mythologies, clashed with the realities of his times. It was a goal, not an accurate description of America. But as a goal it offers a highly worthy mythology for our fractured times, and it can be applied to the conflicting visions of individualism and hetero-directedness. Maintained in a dynamic balance, the two can complement each other, accenting what each has to offer while muting their dangers when taken to extremes. Put it this way: it’s fine to post something up on Instagram now and then, but if you can’t take a walk by yourself in the woods without your smart phone, busily posting selfies while exchanging tweets and text messages, perhaps it’s time to think deeply about what you are doing.