Chapter 15Intro and table of contentsChapter 17

Chapter 16   –   Of Life in the Hive

Our Canaries in the Coal Mines

Zuboff starts her analysis by scoping a certain population to analyse: children and young adults. Positing that social media was originally invented by them and for them (think of the Facebook origin story), she now turns her attention to how high schoolers and students react to the absence of that online hive to participate in. And the results aren’t pretty: feelings of isolation, signs of addiction, and emptiness all around! Around 40% of generation Z people are “almost constantly” online on social media, and researchers say that they are adopting a different way of looking at themselves (from the outside-in) than previous, non-digital native generations, always comparing themselves, feeling compelled to create a “personal brand” for themselves. They undergo tremendous social pressure as their behaviors are nudged in the name of instrumentarian goals.

The Hand and the Glove

Social media is principally molded to the psychological structure of adolescence, when one is naturally oriented towards the “others,” especially towards the rewards of group recognition, acceptance, belonging, and inclusion. Facebook’s design principles – engrossing, immersive, immediate – are reminiscent of what was perfected in the world of gambling and casinos: engineering the impossibility of the user to look away, to spend as much time as possible interacting with the device. With the main difference being that gambling is forbidden to minors.

On top of this, Zuboff describes a trend among researchers to isolate a newly observed documented stage of developmental evolution in people: where childhood became adolescence, and adolescence became adulthood, another stage has immisced itself in between the latter two. They call it “emerging adulthood,” and they characterize it as a period where the individual is on a quest for “self”, differentiated from “others.” The quest for a durable sense of identity, which used to consist mostly of introspection and personal experimentation, has suddenly gotten much more complicated: one has to understand how to become the author of one’s own life in a world where they are thrown against the images of successful “others” at every turn.

Proof of Life

As those emerging adults learn to build themselves by looking at the mirror that “others” offer them, they tend to validate themselves mostly based on how these others judge them. Their relationships with others are their proof of life, they define them. Social media becomes a nightmare, as they become easy prey to manipulation, social pressure, etc… As they grow older, emerging adults learn to formulate a personal vision for who they are, what they believe, and what they think, through an inner work accelerated by structured reflection, conflict, dissonance, crisis, and failure. Nowadays, these processes happen inside the operations of surveillance capitalists, away from the eye, and in the midst of an ever-growing social complexity.

The Facebook Like button is a strong example: obtaining likes enables emerging adults to get social proof, where others are telling them that they must be doing something right when they post and get many likes, in a process of reinforcement. Similarly, the Facebook News feed took their social activity and broadcast them in front of others, creating a situation where not being on others’ news feeds was equivalent to social invisibility.

Zuboff describes a “fusion zone”, which is where vulnerable emerging adults interact almost symbiotically with a platform as they are seeking fusion with the group (“others”), at a time of their life when they are constructing themselves, in a feedback loop designed to keep them engaged with the platform at the detriment of their own development. 

The Next Human Nature

While an evolutionary normality built over millennia of social interactions, social comparison took a turn for the worse with the appearance of TV. Before then, people would mostly be able to compare themselves to those around them, who would be roughly similar to themselves, but TV opened their eyes to the fact that widely different levels of wealth and apparent success exist in society. Social media brought this new-found uneasiness to a whole other level, with what Zuboff calls “Profile Inflation”: the over-emphasizing of desirable traits and characteristics aimed at increasing a person’s sense of self worth as opposed to others. As a result, heavy social media users tend to experience intense FOMO, fearing that they are not as worthy as their peers. Studies among teens and young adults show alarming trends:

  • decreased life satisfaction for those who were exposed to the Facebook profiles of successful people over those who were shown profiles of less successful ones,
  • more Facebook use was linked, regardless of gender, to more body surveillance, more obsession about one’s appearance,
  • social media use is increasingly linked to symptoms of depression and feelings of social isolation.

Homing to the Herd

One could say that youth always had to face trials and tribulations, and that this new wave is just like previous ones: the kids will be alright. But Zuboff argues that this time, it’s different: the system is designed to not let the kids get away, because surveillance capitalists want their eyeballs engaged at all times. There is no respite from the hive. Constant social comparison is becoming the de facto setting, for everyone, with no possibility of exit for the individual, condemned to live in a reality that was built to rob them of their behavioral data and where they have no say. 

No Exit

The idea of each of us having a “backstage” that they can retire to in order to compose themselves, recharge, be alone, and generally just “be themselves,” is commonly accepted. But today, the backstage is shrinking: when is one ever fully away from Big Other? Researchers find that participation in social media “is profoundly intertwined with the knowledge that information about our offline activities may be communicated online, and that the thought of displeasing ‘imagined audiences’ alters our ‘real-life’ behavior.” We are always performing!

Chapter 15Intro and table of contentsChapter 17