Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, November 18, 2016

vicious circles: identity and anxiety

Last year I published an essay here at The New Atlantis called “Miss Marple and the Problem of Modern Identity.” Would you be so kind as to click that link and read the first few paragraphs? Feel free to stop at this sentence: “All you know about them is what they say of themselves — this is, in a nutshell, one of the core problems of modernity.”

In that essay my emphasis was on how we think of the people around us: how, if all we know about people is what they say of themselves, if there are not communal bonds that help us to situate those among whom we live, we can struggle to perceive them as neighbors and instead are tempted to consign them to the category of other. But let’s turn around and look at this another way: in the absence of those strong communal bonds, how do I know who I am? In such a context, identity becomes performative in multiple ways. I perform my self-understanding before others through a variety of display behaviors: how I dress, how I speak, the jobs I take, etc. And much of this performative work today is done through social media: what music or literature or television or movies I talk about and link to, what political causes I support.

In the aftermath of the Presidential election, a handful of explanatory matrices have come to dominate, and one of the primary ones involves decrying the influence of identity politics. This is basically what I’ve said, once, twice, who knows how many times. I’ve seen two further articulations of the same stance just today, both in the New York Times, one from David Brooks and one from Mark Lilla. Most versions of this case, including my own, tend to emphasize the uncomprehending hostility that people in one ideological camp for people in any other, and the hostility is certainly there, but I wonder if I haven’t missed something — something that underlies the hostility: anxiety.

Think about those people in your Twitter or Facebook feed who post and repost the same beliefs, the same talking points, over and over and over again. Why? What’s the point in this seemingly mindless repetition of the same damned ideas? I am coming to suspect that I have not taken seriously enough the felt limitations of social media as venues for display behavior.

Sorry for the ugliness of the phrase, but that’s as concisely and clearly as I can put the point. Think about it this way: if you spend your days fully embodied in the life of a community, people know who you are. They may like you, they may dislike you, but they know. Embodied community has a lot of bandwidth; communication is enabled through multiple information streams. Consider, in comparison, how thin and weak the interpersonal bandwidth of social media is. You can’t even shout to be heard; every tweet is as loud as every other tweet, and as for Facebook posts, you don't even know whether they’re showing up in your friends’ timelines. And as Information Theory 101 teaches us, when there’s some doubt about whether a message is getting through, we employ redundancy.

So I’m looking at a causal chain like this:

(a) weak social embodiment leads to

(b) a compensatory investment in social media as a way of establishing and maintaining identity — proving to people that you are indeed who you say you are — but

(c) the intrinsic bandwidth problems of social media lead to anxiety that those media aren’t doing their identity-proclaiming work,

(d) which in turn leads to ceaseless and repetitious performances of identity-marking,

(e) which reads to others as mindless, head-butting-against-the-wall hostility towards any deviation from The Approved Positions, and

(f) which can over time, thanks to the mind-coarsening effects of such repetition even on people who are originally repeating themselves not out of anger but out of anxiety, produce the very hostility it was perceived to be, leading finally to

(g) a fractured republic.

So read Yuval Levin’s book, friends, and face the simple but daunting fact that if we don't work hard to repair the mediating institutions that give people a sense of security and belonging, people will turn instead to social media to do work that those technologies just aren’t equipped to do.


  • This is a great post, and in particular, it seems to me that the "bandwidth problems of social media" is a rich vein. I think there's more to be uncovered there. We have these systems, these world-historic marvels of communication… that place almost comical limitations on communication.

    Context collapse fits into this too, somehow. And I suspect the anxiety you describe is contagious.

  • Also important to bear in mind greater levels of reflexivity in modern identity. Social media is akin to the introduction of a new form of mirror within which we must constantly regard ourselves. Not looking in this mirror (at our performative selves) can feel like failing fully to apprehend ourselves and our actions (I must post my holiday photos on Facebook, or my holiday will somehow have fallen short of full reality). It isn't just a replacement for something that is lacking elsewhere. I've commented on this a little here.

    See also this recent post over on Cyborgology.

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