Graphic by Janice Lin

Last Saturday at the Big House, I saw a sea of Maize-and-Blue — as it is often described whenever we convene at the stadium — complete with bodies packed and bleachers stacked in undulating exaltation. Hours later, a similar sea moving in a much faster fashion rushed ashore on the surface of my phone as one by one, post after post flooded my feed all in service to gameday.

But let’s be clear. Gameday photos are never a monolith. They exist in multitudes. There’s the tailgate pic at the pregame, the pic in front of the stadium, the pic inside the stadium whilst standing in the crowd, the stadium selfie, and the enduring pic exemplifying the view of the vast amalgamation of fans, players, stadium decorations, lights and iconography. Nonetheless, the feed dries. The game day hype (temporarily) dies, but I know with great certainty the wave will return, not just offline, but online too. 

Aquatic allegories aside, it’s no secret that social media and our use of it play serious roles in our lives. Many of us now recognize it as having a pathological character to it, as exemplified in documentaries like “The Social Dilemma” (2020) and psychological thrillers like “Black Mirror.” We can see a common critique of digital connection daily as we witness more and more the rejection of the online coupled with the glorification of the offline, leading us to demonize the former through our veneration of the latter. Yet this precipitous perspective, rooted in what social theorist Nathan Jurgenson describes in his book “The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media” as digital dualism, creates a false separation of the online and offline world. This false separation fails to take into consideration the vastness and variety social media and online platforms offer to us as human beings and spiritual entities. Indeed, our preoccupation with social media suggests that there is something profound to be found in the digital mediation of our lives. 

Our soul’s desire for life in documented form manifests itself in a myriad of means. Journals, letters, diaries, scrapbooks and social media platforms all mediate our memory and lived experience into a materialized entity. French film critic André Bazin, in his text “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” likens the documentation technology of photography to the embalming of the dead. In taking a photo, a formerly transient reality earns an eternal quality. The moment is not mourned. Instead, death is transgressed and the instance is immortalized. The past is preserved in the present, and what’s fleeting is now fodder for the future, forever. Photos freeze a place and time into eternity. Evidently, our souls crave to make that which is transient transcend time and space. Yet with our near-omniscient power of preservation, this documentary impulse is easily exploited, leaving us to ponder what is and what is not worth documenting. Jurgenson maintains that our everyday participation in social photography restructures our minds so that our life is “experienced in the service of its documentation.” With an audience always at our disposal, we see the world through the lens of others. This compulsion for documentation and the making of media has heavy implications for our memory. As José van Dijik, distinguished new media professor, discusses in her book “Mediated Memories in the Digital Age,” media and memory are not separate from each other, but constantly intertwining, as the former intensifies, contaminates and even usurps the latter. When what we remember from the past is primarily based on the curated collection of content created for the sake of others, we’re left to wonder what that does to our sense of self. 

As American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley’s theory of the looking-glass self espouses, we have a tendency to base our sense of self on the perception of others. Critics of social media claim that its performative nature erodes the expression of our authentic selves. Success theater and status posturing, as Jurgenson describes it, do play a role in the cultivation of our Internet personas. Yet Jurgenson argues that these conflicts between the authentic and performative selves transcend social media. He believes the assumption that the performative self is based on non-truth often implies that the authentic self, or the act of being true to oneself, assumes there is truth in the self to begin with. 

Everyday life, with its persistent perception on behalf of others, ensures that the self is largely a performance. In this vein, it makes sense that social media is also performative fiction. Beyond our souls’ desire for documentation is the desire for performance as well. This does not necessarily mean performance in a theatrical sense, but much of the soul of social media can be found in its theatrics. We see evidence of this in the aesthetics cultivated in each application, the need for evoking imagery that is pleasing to the eye, as well as the employment of the body as a site for exhibition. As French literary theorist Roland Barthes states in his text “Camera Lucinda,” “Once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of posing, I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform in advance into an image.” The particularities of posing, the postures and the physicality involved in creating social media content convince me to believe that there is, indeed, a performing artist inside of each one of us, awaiting its opportunity to take the stage. 

Turning the lights up on this stage allows us to see that there’s always more than meets the eye in every social media photo, video or post. All content invites us into a world of imagination and mystery — hallmarks of the soul, according to Jungian psychotherapist Thomas Moore. Social media carries with it an infinity of imaginative elements. As French philosopher Georges Bataille believed, any accumulation of knowledge is also an accumulation of non-knowledge. A single post contains as much ignorance as it does insight, if not more. Jurgenson notes that there is an obscenity to our online personas in the desire to reveal and expose details of our everyday lives, but also a seduction in which we “strategically withhold knowledge to create magical and enchanted interests.” One photo, tweet or status update can raise a continuum of questions — who we’re with, what we’re doing, how we’re doing and where we are — all centered around the object of interest. We become intrigued and seek to intrigue others in the details of our day-to-day lives. Anyone who has ever had a crush on somebody knows the feeling of going to the profile page of their newfound interests and marveling at the mystery inherent in the media. Our souls have strong desires for attachment to people, places and objects; social media allows us to preserve our attachments with very little effort. 

Both the follows we give to folks we’ve just met in a fleeting moment at a function and the mutuals we maintain throughout the years materialize as an intimate connection. In his book “Soul Mates,” Moore asserts that our soul is always “wanting to be attached, involved, even stuck because it is through such intimacy that it is nourished, initiated, deepened.” This might explain why we still follow that friend from high school that we haven’t had a conversation with in years. The act of digitally unfollowing someone who we don’t contact anymore or with whom we’ve had a falling out may on a soulful level feel as if we are actually detaching ourselves from them and thus deconstructing the connection with that person. Nevertheless, Moore states that there is “something in every relationship that is eternal, that goes on forever that wants to be exempted from the life decision to cut ties.” 

Nowadays, conversations and connections have an ancillary function for our feeds. Much of social media takes place as a two-way conversation, with features such as direct messages, comments and photo-tagging. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our interactions with others were (and still are) largely mediated through the Internet. With this in mind, the conversations we have with others online carry critical importance. Talking to another person on the Internet is seldom just talking to that person. What we say in a direct message or in a Snapchat has the capacity to be seen by anyone outside of the intended recipient, and most messages these days can easily be saved for posterity. We carry on conversations with this in mind, consciously or more often subconsciously, and paradoxically endow our online interactions with an intimacy of their own. The intricate experience of holding a continuous conversation with just one person, which can at any time be exported to anyone else via screenshot, imparts an intimacy that is ostensibly impossible to replicate offline. There’s always some disconnect between what the person with whom we are conversing is conveying and what they are actually feeling, doing and experiencing behind the screen. It is a mystery that we often find ourselves engulfed in. Our soul’s fixation on this mystery — when they will respond, what they will say and how they will say it — can be seen in our physiological reaction to the liminality of the three dots or the left on “read” and “seen” symbols. 

Anyone who’s felt the thrill in the midst of mystery and the anticipation of a response knows it’s an incredibly visceral sensation. This physicality gives rise to Jurgenson’s notion of our digital reality as a “constant inter-penetration of the offline and online.” What we see on our feed has the potential to produce a physiological response. Especially when we consider how much content is centered around bodies — bodies which are often transgressing norms, evoking the erotic and displaying the depth of human sexuality. Our propensity for willingly exposing ourselves to inspection through photography and social media platforming suggests that there’s something deep within us that delights in the deliberate display of the self, especially for the consumption of others. Likewise, our soul’s desire and the pleasure derived from being the inspector of others is intensified by social media. In fact, almost all of social media can be reduced to the consensual act of inspecting and being inspected, or in other words, exercising our capacity to open ourselves up to being examined by others, doing the examining ourselves, inspiring and being inspired to wonder, ponder and inquire. 

Additionally, the entertainment social media provides for the soul via conversation and connection cannot be overlooked. As Moore claims, “humor can be defined in part as enjoying a multiple viewpoint, so that even tragic and unhappy events can be seen from another angle, liberating us from the tyranny of narrow vision.” A trending topic can beget a bounty of comedic tweets, even if the subject matter is serious. The reverse holds true too. Each social media platform is a labyrinthine nexus, and every feed is a continuum of culture, presupposing principle, ideology and belief. 

While it’s clear that in the social mediation of our soul, social media plays a prominent role, it’s not so clear at what point our use of it becomes pathological. It’s no secret that social media has the capacity to be addictive, antagonistic and outright antithetical to our authenticity. In her book “Reclaiming Conversation,” social science professor Sherry Turkle relates digital connectivity with an erosion of attention, a decrease in capacity for solitude as well as impaired creativity and expression. But it’s easy to moralize over social media use. It’s even easier to promote what Jurgenson describes as a “fetishization of disconnection.” He claims that the lines between the online and offline are already so blurred, we can never truly log off for good and “the camera is never absent.” This rings true when much of our schooling remains either online or involves some sort of virtual aspect. Jurgenson goes even further to say that our reality is already “mediated, augmented, documented” and that we have “no access to some state of unmediated purity.” Those who pride themselves in being disconnected, demonizing everything electronic, fall victim to the digital dualism that leads us to separate our experiences on the Internet from our everyday life. By doing so, we neglect to understand that our online lives have the capacity for as much nuance, intricacy, and intimacy as our offline lives, and incessantly intersect. 

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be cautious of our social media use. Jurgenson suggests that with our terminally online tendencies and dominating documentarian impulses, we may need to “take some time to experience life rather than concern ourselves with its documentation.” If we’re operating every day from what social psychologist Erich Fromm refers to as the “tourist gaze,” always looking for photo opportunities everywhere we go and viewing every experience as something to be commodified, consumed and documented, we may need to step back and reconsider our motives. Freud’s notion that a display of a thing is a sign of its lack might explain why the compulsion to post is so strong for some. Saturating our feeds with documented experiences could indicate that the experiences we’re having are lacking in quality. If we’re more focused on curating our experience to an audience, then we divorce ourselves from reality as we focus less on the experience itself. In this vein, the feed becomes a fantasy, and we, the authors of a (fictional) story. 

Clearly, our use of social media holds within it a cornucopia of contradictions, and this is without even touching the implications of capital, surveillance and influencer/celebrity culture which pervades these applications. The platforms we peruse add meaning and mystery to our relationships, making them wet with richness and wonder. Much like the wave, we’re invited to dive into the depths of these everyday applications — it is only then can we discover their soul. 

MiC Columnist Karis Clark can be contacted kariscl@umich.edu