The categorical imperative for social media

At the beginning of summer I decided to detach myself from Facebook—no longer would I 'like' or comment on public posts, though I did keep up a bit with certain closed groups for stuff I was doing over the summer. And yet, since most of my friends are still posting on Facebook, I still look at it. This detached observation lends itself to philosophizing, as I looked at the nature of posts in my news feed and wondered: Is there anyone working on an ethics of digital public conduct?


Certainly the ethics of physical public conduct go all the way back to the foundations of philosophy, all over the world: what constitutes the good life, what duties do we owe to others, and so on. And seeing what gets posted, from a meta level, sparked my curiosity in this Facebook IM discussion with a friend(my comments in bold):
It seems like the mocking impulse comes from a similar place to the cult mocking impulse

Like, these people think they've found a deep answer and the conventional wisdom is wrong, they look somewhat silly doing it, it's all they'll talk about for a while

Any gains are likely obtainable through conventional means (like scientology's personal organizational techniques)

My reaction to seeing stuff like "the keto diet is great!! omg" is roughly the same as "im truly #blessed!!"

Mild exasperation? :P

Like, it's cool you're doing well, but it's still a little cringey if you apparently don't have a very good understanding of the actual causal process, and apparently think you're doing well just from your membership in a group

And conversely, it's similarly cringey if you post a photo of gluten-free facial cream with the caption "lol rubes" and apparently think you're doing well just from your non-membership in a group you're actually confused about

Yeah exactly

The impulse towards pure lifestyle signalling is already strange to me

Ha, it's like a social media categorical imperative: post things that treat your friends as ends in themselves, rather than means to an end (i.e., likes, favs, RTs)
Before I flesh out that last notion, allow me to review the literature.


The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a page on the ethics of social networking, because it's the SEP and has a page for everything. But most of the philosophical work so far seems to be focused on social networking and alienation, or how social networking will affect democratic processes, or (closer to my interest here) issues of authenticity:
The messy collision of my family, friends and coworkers on Facebook can be managed with various tools offered by the site, allowing me to direct posts only to specific sub-networks that I define. But the far simpler and less time-consuming strategy is to come to terms with the collision—allowing each network member to get a glimpse of who I am to others, while at the same time asking myself whether these expanded presentations project a person that is more multidimensional and interesting, or one that is manifestly insincere.
As for my specific concern about personal conduct in digital space, and by extension what demands digital interaction places on physical behavior, there seem to be far more questions than answers:
Edward Spence (2011) further suggests that to adequately address the significance of SNS [social networking services] and related information and communication technologies for the good life, we must also expand the scope of philosophical inquiry beyond its present concern with narrowly interpersonal ethics to the more universal ethical question of prudential wisdom. Do SNS and related technologies help us to cultivate the broader intellectual virtue of knowing what it is to live well, and how to best pursue it? Or do they tend to impede its development?
There's a growing notion that something is off with digital society, with a seemingly inexhaustible focus on vapid clickbait and shares-over-content. Alain de Botton, a Swiss philosopher who has some pretty dumb ideas on atheism (*cough* giant black temple *cough*) and religion (*cough* they got education right *cough*), nevertheless seems pretty on point in this Washington Post interview where he says:
We need relief from the Twitter-fueled impression that we are living in an age of unparalleled importance, with our wars, our debts, our riots, our missing children, our after-premiere parties, our IPOs and our rogue missiles. We need, on occasion, to be able to go to a quieter place, where that particular conference and this particular epidemic, that new phone and this shocking wildfire, will lose a little of their power to affect us – and where even the most intractable problems will seem to dissolve against a backdrop of the stars above us.
Chez Pazienza has been trying to stop Jimmy Fallon's implacable Buzzfeed-ification of network TV for several years now:
The key to Fallon’s overwhelming success — that working formula — is viral transmission. The Tonight Show has basically become a living, breathing Upworthy, with Fallon carefully and manipulatively crafting at least one moment each night guaranteed to be shared all over social media the next day.


In other words, if you were born at any point between, say, 1950 and 1980, there was something on The Tonight Show this week you could point to and say, presumably with a smile, “Hey, I’m aware of that thing’s existence.”
All of Fallon's viral bits trade heavily on nostalgia but aren't particularly enlightening or transformative. And he's not alone; just recently SkepChick ran an article about the "I Fucking Love Science" Facebook page, and how it has veered away from fact-checking in favor of clickbait:
But [Elise] Andrew [the owner of IFLS] fails to grasp what both credentialed scientists and science enthusiasts alike know:  Fervor doesn’t necessarily make good science communication. Conveying scientific findings accurately does. While passion is great, it’s just icing on the cake. Let the recent criticism help IFLS reclaim the real science that once fueled its content and commitment. Andrew has done great things with IFLS, but she could be teaching her vast audience about the power of the scientific method, of accuracy, and of science’s most raw purpose:  to perpetually seek the objective truth.
(Note that while Rebecca Watson jumps in—"Upon being made aware of this article, I reached out to Elise Andrew for a response. (In full disclosure, I consider Elise to be a friend). Here is her point-by-point rebuttal to several facets of this piece"—Andrew's "rebuttal" doesn't actually address the substantive claim of fact-free reporting. Oops.)

Then there's this Gawker piece about the Christian vlog community:
The Shaytards are a Mormon family of seven from Idaho who post daily vlogs about their suburban activities with vague, exclamatory titles like “CHEERLEADING MOM!”, “BRIBING CHILDREN”, and “YOU BETTER STOP THAT!” Shay estimates their channel brings in $771,000 per year.

In an interview with Variety last month, Shay described the family’s “content strategy” thusly:
I believe intrinsically family is our greatest source of happiness. My wife is prettier than most moms, and I’m probably funnier than most dads—that helps—but ultimately, it’s the family. What viewers really want to see is my wife and kids together. We get happiness from families, because people need that hope.
It’s a strategy that Sam and Nia and hundreds of other Christian vloggers are desperately trying to mimic, right down to video title construction. (Some recent Sam and Nia hits: “OUR HOUSE JUST GOT FUN!”, “SPICING UP OUR MARRIAGE!”, and “SISSY GOT HURT!”)
The irony that Gawker, a house built whole-cloth out of clickbait, would run this story is not lost on me.

This isn't a new trend, obviously. Wired ran an article in 2013 about the rise of 'racy' headlines among online media aggregators:
In its revived form, the headline is finding relevance far beyond news media as it becomes a key weapon in fields like politics and business. No longer the exclusive province of copy editors, it is now the cornerstone of emailed political appeals, the fulcrum of crowdsourcing capital on Kickstarter, and arguably the basis of an entire communications medium, the all-headlines microblogging system Twitter.
There's even a similar phenomenon emerging in conservative politics, as the 2016 Presidential primary campaign for the Republican Party seems stuffed to the gills with self-promoting self-branding grifters rather than serious people who want to, you know, govern. As Gin & Tacos so eloquently puts it:
The system has become so ridiculous and the idea of personal branding through social media has become so pervasive and potentially lucrative that it is now impossible to determine who is running for president and who is running to build an empire of dolts easily parted from their cash. It is relatively easy to spot a career narcissist like Trump and wonder aloud if he is dumb enough to think he can win or if this is all an elaborate publicity stunt. That skepticism needs to be applied more broadly, though. 90% of the people running are suspect on that criteria.
And a cursory glance at online news suggests that for some people, it's easier to throw up a hashtag campaign and garner national attention (that is, marshal Internet outrage on your behalf) than to deal with the situation directly.


So that's the state of the field. Sharing-for-sharing's-sake is a very seductive strategy for organizations, brands (er, #brands), and individuals (er, #brands). Philosophy, or at least philosophy-as-seen-in-the-Stanford-Encyclopedia, hasn't caught up yet. To which I humbly advance my own categorical imperative for social media:
Post content that treats the recipients as ends, and not merely as means to an end.
I call this the "categorical imperative" because I'm borrowing the language of Kant's Categorical Imperative (second formulation), which goes like this:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.
Now, I'm no Kant expert, not even a Kant amateur, and pretty much not generally Kantian—I think that I would probably tell the Nazi that there are no refugees in my house, because "fuck Nazis" is a more universalizable maxim than "never lie," thank you very much—but this formulation always seemed like a decent enough maxim. It seems better, in general, to treat other humans as fully-actualized individuals and moral agents... and to expand that notion by degrees, to include other beings with sentience and rich emotional lives, but that's another post.

With regards to social media, I can make my categorical imperative a bit more blunt: please stop thinking about your online behavior in terms of "brand engagement." Avoid it like the fucking plague. Someone might ask: why? And let me count the ways...

Wikipedia tells us that Brand engagement is the process of forming an emotional or rational attachment between a person and a brand. Note the distinction. A commercial brand like Target or Old Country Buffet is not self-actualizing; it has no personality or executive function beyond one imagined by its followers—which they piece together from content, ah, imagineered by employees of the company. It's strictly metaphor: these entities are agents only in the legal sense, the legal fictive sense, as a concession to the courtroom and the tax code. So when people say things like "Coca-Cola has a friendly personality," it's a delusion—perhaps a conscious one, or a happy one, but it's a delusion.

A personal #brand is not equivalent. Individuals are just that: individual. Where corporate brands fail to reduce to a single physical presence, people do, in some sense. And while personality cannot but be socially constructed—at least in part—it would be silly to refuse to point to an individual to whom a given personality belongs. Personality is inherent to individuals: that's why corporate branding has to create the illusion of an individual agent called "McDonald's" or whatever.

So what's the point of personal branding? Well, I can think of a few reasons, in descending (partial) order of seeming legitimacy:
  • You actually "are" a business—freelance, contractor, etc. So you actually do need to curate a sort of "business" personality for potential clients or employers or customers. This is a funny one because it's both personal and commercial branding. The classic example is an author using a pen name, or an actor using a stage name.
  • Offline life is sufficiently hostile to certain aspects of your personality that you can basically only express those aspects online. Hostility can mean anything from "I'm an angsty teenager so everything seems hostile and I need to try out new identities and find myself" to "I will literally be abused or injured or killed for expressing this offline." This isn't exactly branding as much as refuge in pseudonymity but it sort of counts, and is important. I don't mean to come across as "Your online and offline lives must match exactly," that's stupid.
  • You have a rather generic name and want your content to be found on search engines. Hey, that's me! I don't actually do commercial business online but "Stephen Peterson" is common enough that I needed to call my online identity something different. And thus StephenMeansMe (because it does!) was born: my online "brand," which I manage in the sense that sometimes I don't post stuff online.
  • Micromanagement of social interaction, or "playing to type," or "being gimmicky." That's in order of how transparently obvious the strategy seems. This used to be reasonably common in forums where there wasn't the fiction of names and profiles matching "real" people. The classic pathological example is the "teh penguin of d00m" copypasta. Or maybe boxxy. Or probably the entirety of "Vine celebrities." *gag*
  • Narcissism. I mean actual psychopathology here, not just in the colloquial sense of merely being a self-absorbed idiot.
I don't claim for this list to be exhaustive; nor do I claim that each step in the ladder represents an equal negative ethical gradient. The last couple steps, in my opinion, are far worse than the first couple. And for what it's worth, I would probably rate my own behavior as slightly ethically negative: however much I sort of have to do some personal brand management because of how search engines work, I still think it's faintly stupid.

    Can a person do some personal brand management and not violate my categorical imperative for social media? Post content that treats your contacts as ends, and not merely as means to an end. Note: Not "merely" as means to an end. It'd be really hard to treat other people strictly as ends, unless one were uniquely virtuous and also completely lacking all human needs.

    An example of tech-lifestyle-thinkpieces getting it wrong: Stop saying technology is causing social isolation. It's a Medium post so a self-indulgent tone is just part of the package deal (just be glad it's not Thought Catalog), but I think it makes some important, if dubious, points:
    Part of the commentaries I’ve seen criticizing this whole issue also touch on social media, since it is so integrated with our usual smartphone usage. For example, I see lots of people complaining about people who take pictures of the food they order at restaurants for posting them on Instagram or wherever. I don’t get that. Is it wrong to create a permanent memento of an otherwise temporary experience, to capture in a photo the work of the people back in the kitchen who made an effort to make the food look attractive? To me, those complaints allude to a lack of understanding of how modern social media works.
    Yet this rebuttal seems to also lack an understanding of how modern social media works. It's simply naive to think that "permanent memento" is even remotely near the feature priorities of social networking services. They're not for storage, they're for sharing. For engagement. And that's sort of opposed to permanence: corporate brands cannot stay static if they want to remain "relevant" and continue to occupy consumer mind-share.

    The article quotes a Tumblr user:
    I’m happy seeing my friends take photos of their food. I like taking photos of my food. Because there is a chef in the back of the kitchen who works hard to plate things beautifully and in any other situation, people dive in immediately and ruin that image. We take photos to preserve that image and who the fuck knows, if I was the chef I would be digging through instagram hoping to see my plate on there. We’re celebrating someones hard work, work that is generally temporary.
    Because not only does one need to compliment the chef, one needs to demonstrate to their followers that they've complimented the chef. Merely writing a note of praise on the receipt, or saying something out loud, or tipping well—these will not do, because these are, if not private, then unshareable. By the way, I invite probability estimates for the case that the Tumblr user was unware how desperate and FOMO-anxious "if I was the chef I would be digging through Instagram hoping to see my plate on there" sounds.

    Of course, because Tumblr, the user concludes:
    Technology isn’t bad. You’re just upset with yourselves for having a lack of self-control. You hate that people connect through technology. And maybe, you just don’t like seeing people love themselves, enjoy life, and feel joy. That’s your problem, not technology’s.
    Right. To draw a far-too-extreme and hackneyed analogy, it's not that people "just don't like seeing people love themselves, enjoy life, and feel joy" high out of their minds on party drugs. One should still question the ethics, meaning, ideology, in short the philosophy of that sort of behavior.

    The Medium author concludes in a spectacular self-important fashion:
    So, stop feeling superior for making fun of other people because they’re using their smartphones, stop pretending our lives and society would be better without them, stop blaming technology for natural human behaviors. If you see an image like the ones I referenced here, the ones trying to show how we are “letting technology ruin social interactions and pleasant experiences”, stop and reflect on why people are actually using their electronic devices. Furthermore, stop romanticizing the past, believing life was better without all of this ubiquitous technology like in some form of “neo-ludism”. Consumer technology is good. It enables us to connect in amazing ways as humans. It is not replacing real interaction. It is augmenting it. Embrace it.

    Should you be surprised that the author is "a Multimedia Engineer focused on human-computer interaction at the intersection of art, tech, science and culture"?

    Moreover, his is a weak-man sort of argument: yes, there are people (mostly older) who scoff and harrumph about Those Darn Millennials, or more generally Kids These Days, and how "technology" is making us lonely or whatever. I've written against that sentiment before and I stand by it.

    But I'm not saying all technology is bad. I am saying that, rather than stopping at "but my social network is so big now!" we should be evaluating the quality and nature of those interactions. 140 character limits (Twitter) or a user interface dedicated to rapid resharing (Tumblr) can't have zero effect on discourse.

    I quit Facebook but I didn't stop doing what I used to do there: I still post links, just in blog form. I still talk to my friends on Messenger. But I thought about the mindset that Facebook engenders and I just don't like it.

    In other words, empirical facts cannot stop a conversation about values.