Winner of Warwick University’s Philosophy in the Wild Essay Competition
The psychological dimensions of social media have been explored practically to the point of cliché, as its mental and even physical repercussions have been intricately dissected. The conclusions? Primarily negative, bordering on detrimental. It is accepted as a natural fact that the parade of seemingly Utopian lives, plastic bodies and paradisaical first class vacations to tropical locations unite to create a dystopian mental life for teenagers when they are separated from the screen. Research has shown a cemented correlation between lack of self-esteem in millennial teenagers and an increased use of social media. However, there has been little philosophical focus on this need for self-validation and a concern with other’s lives. It is certainly a catalyst for vanity and narcissism which encourages one to compare their material life with that of a fellow human, often to the point of objectification. Yet, exactly how does social media serve as an expression of personal identity in philosophical terms when we examine the ‘self’ that is put forward by the individual account user? In this essay, I will examine the different aspects of the self one seeks to convey through platforms such as Instagram and Twitter as well as how this can be an imaginary expression of self-identity and knowledge.
Cartesian Mind/Body Dualism suggests that the mind and body are distinct and separable, contrasting the certainty of introspection with our doubtful physical knowledge to argue that thoughts (introspective objects) are ontologically distinct from physical objects. In contrast, contemporary materialists who do not separate the mind from the body attack his ideas on introspection to argue that although mental states may appear not to be physical, introspection is misleading and incomplete (Smart 1959).
If one asserts this materialist (and animalist) inseparability between the mind and body, one’s personal identity and self-knowledge lies in the body to a great extent because physical and material matter is the only existing thing (Mackie 1999). Thus, when we assert imagery of our physical being on social media, in whichever capacity we like, we are reflexively recognising ourselves (Nozick 1981) as both qualitatively and numerically different to other users we interact with. If we isolate ourselves from the power of the Other’s criticisms, perhaps we could utilise the images we post to learn about both the physical and ideological connotations we represent by shaping our bodies in certain ways. For example, rather than comparing our bodies to photo-shopped images which we recognise as different to our own, we could find a community with the other bodies similar to us (be it in shape, size, colour etc…) to promote confidence.
Furthermore, instead of utilising our bodies to parade expensive clothes and invite the Other’s gaze, we could depict representations of them in art forms such as paintings or abstract photographs. Likewise, one can shape their body to make ideological statements, such as rejecting gender norms like the shaving body hair. Of course, however, this metaphysical stance of personhood may, in the abstract sense, negate the value of social media due to the increased superficial eroticisation of representing ‘perfect’ bodies.
However, the all-encompassing act of social media is also to portray an image that translates to more than perceptions of one’s physical traits by creating an idealised image of oneself as an interesting personality beneath the surface. Locke placed greater value on psychological continuity by distinguishing between substance (soul), man and person. Human beings are animals with other bodies, however a person is a thinking, intelligent being capable of reason and reflection which distinguishes him from other beings. A person’s substance (the bearer of thoughts and conscious states), whether immaterial or material, is crucial to their personhood because consciousness is what creates the self and distinguishes man from other thinking things (Woozley 1964). Reason, reflection and self-consciousness are necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood; two men can be one person if they have the exact same memories, or one human can make two people (by forgetting their past). His theory argues that memory is the criterion of personal identity both in the epistemological and constitutive sense.
If we take the mind to be the defining essence of our personhood, then the self is not always expressed well on social media, what with the increased use of imagery, video and audio aimed at conveying illusion and false representations of reality; it isn’t particularly easy to convey your psychological continuity in six second Vine videos or memes. However, Youtube and Twitter allow meaningful words and images to be conveyed through verbal and aesthetic means. Likewise, the concept of memory can be explored through images with the implementation of ‘throwbacks’ where one can hark onto their past selves. Although material and corporeal matters are a huge concept of social media as an institute of aesthetics, if adequately used, social media can be a tool for relaying elements of one’s self, free for others to interpret. However, with the similarity between personalities, distinguishing your unique persona may prove difficult.
In conclusion, perhaps ‘narcissism’ should not be the only thing associated with the socio-political discourse of social media and ‘selfie culture’. Social media has the potential to unleash the ‘self’ from a multi-faceted philosophical view on personal identity and it should not be diminished to the simple reflective pool of water, or a mirror, which led to the destruction of the prideful Narcissus. While it can be used as a tool for expressing the material body (which materialists and animalists emphasise), it can also depict memories, humour and personality quirks that reflect the mind itself (philosophers such as Locke take this to be ‘the self’). Although the philosophical downfall of this cyber-sphere lies in the superficiality it inspires, it does have the muted power of functioning as more than a catastrophic time-waster or succubus of self-contentment. Our task, as philosophical millennials, is to unleash this potential for the sake of increasing self-knowledge in a world where traditional metaphysics may collide with technological innovation.
Mackie, D. (1999) ‘Animalism vs. Lockeanism: No Contest’, Philosophical Quarterly, 49: 369–376.
Nozick, R. (1981) Philosophical Explanations, Harvard University Press.
Smart, J.J.C. (1959) ‘Sensations and Brain Processes’, reprinted in D. Rosenthal (ed.), Materialism and the Mind-Body Problem, Indianapolis: Hackett.
Woozley, A.D. (1964) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, London: Fontana Library.
All images sourced from Instagram.