Zak Witus: Why we enjoy social media

By Zak Witus, Columnist
Published March 22, 2015

Why do we enjoy social media? What attracts us to it? What do we find enjoyable about it?

Maybe the obvious answer is that social media sponsors a new form of voyeurism — that is, watching someone without them knowing that you’re watching them for pleasure (especially sexual pleasure).

But what attracts us can’t only be social media’s voyeuristic capabilities, because social media also allows us to interact with other people. Inter-subjective interaction with the sex object used to be antithetical to voyeurism, but that’s no longer true with social media. Social media has created a new kind of voyeurism — interactive voyeurism. Social media has thus created the possibility for high levels of fantasy previously exclusive to our dreams. We can now enjoy peeping on people without them knowing while simultaneously interacting with them (e.g., messaging with a person before, after or while viewing photos of them without their knowing).

Overall, though, the way we interact with people over social media — take Facebook, for example — is not so unlike the way we interact with people in “real life” (by which I mean ordinary, non-digital intersubjective/interpersonal social life). Critics often want to condemn social media as pseudo-interaction or pseudo-communication, but it does, in truth, operate on the same basic principles as any other form of interpersonal human interaction.

In our ordinary, non-digital life, our mind constructs virtual representations of people. We never deal with the person per se, only the mentally processed (or post-cognized) person. How do we mentally process people? Our mind censors lots of information about a person when it creates virtual representations of him or her, especially what we might call the “undesirable” or “impolite” information.

When I’m conversing with my friends, I’m interacting with a virtual representation of them that consists in their faces, maybe their clothing, what they’re saying, etc. But what isn’t included? Gross/disgusting stuff like their bowel movements, their sweat, their saliva, etc. — these elements often don’t come into my conscious awareness. My mind filters out all this “disgusting” information automatically before I perceive the person (more precisely, before I perceive my virtual image of the person). And it’s not like I couldn’t have access to the censored information if I so desired. If I thought about it — that is, if I made a concerted effort to bring such knowledge into my conscious awareness — I could integrate the gross/disgusting stuff into my virtual image of the person. For example, as the children’s potty training book taught me, “Everybody Poops,” I know declaratively that all the gross/disgusting stuff is going on, but I have an unconscious psychological censor that keeps me from actively thinking about the gross/disgusting stuff, and thus keeps this knowledge from entering my (conscious) virtual reality.

When we interact with people over social media, we are already interacting with these sterilized or cleaned-up versions of other people — that is, their virtual selves. Social media expedites the censorship or filtration process. It does so in two ways: (1) the user puts forward the virtual image of themselves that they want to represent them, and thus the burden of censorship is reversed and transferred to the gross/disgusting individual, not the person interacting with him, her or them. (2) The social media provider (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) limits the expression of its users by defining what virtual representations of people are possible such that only clean, virtual versions of its users can exist within the social media. Through these two complementary cyber processes, the social media platform, along with other people/users, expedites the work of censoring the undesirable elements of themselves and constructing clean, virtual versions of people for us to interact with.

In short, social media is the device of the lazy fantasizer. We still have to do some work compiling the often fragmented images of people — and by images I don’t simply mean their photos, rather the full spectrum of components of users’ virtual (social media) self-representation — but largely, the work of fantasy production has largely been co-opted from the individual psyche and reallocated to the given social media paradigm and its users.

Apart from these two main processes of the construction of social media’s virtual reality, there is the element of the user’s individual choice of the content he or she encounters. I, as a Facebook user, can, to an extent, choose what content I want and don’t want. I can’t choose beyond what the social media paradigm allows me to choose, and if I choose to include other users, I often can’t choose which of their posts I see and which I don’t. But, I can choose who I am friends with on Facebook, who I follow on Twitter, what pages I “like,” etc. And so, in this way, I, as a user, exert more control over my virtual reality than I often can exert in everyday life, where images and information flow at me chaotically — that is, my encounter with them is often beyond my control. This greater element of control in the virtual world over the “real” world gives me pleasure. As a result, I may enjoy social media’s virtual reality even more than “real” virtual reality and therefore, in this sense, prefer it.

Bottom line: We enjoy social media because it offers us a stable, sterile, prefabricated virtual reality through which we can “peep” on other stable, sterile, prefab “people” or users. We are always alone even when we are with other people, but when we are with other people through social media, we are even more alone with even more people. In ordinary, everyday conversation, people can disrupt our virtual representations of them by, say, farting or otherwise drawing attention to the elements of themselves that our mind automatically and unconsciously censors. But through social media, it is more difficult to disrupt our virtual reality or fantasy.

Social media allows us to be alone with other people like never before. We can enjoy our fantasy world with sterile, virtual users kept clean, tidy and at arm’s length much more easily than we can anywhere else (except, perhaps, in our dreams, which is the ultimate place where we can be alone with people). Social media allows our fantasy to be constructed for us and to go on with relatively little interruption.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.