In the opening scene to cult British movie, Trainspotting, the film’s protagonist, Renton (played by Ewan McGregor,) launches straight into a nihilistic, yet perversely uplifting, tirade against the spiritually bankrupt materialism that had triumphed in Britain throughout the Margaret Thatcher years.
“Choose life,” advised the now-famous monologue. “Choose a big fucking television, washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers,” it continued, before descending into a dressing down of the consumerist condition.
It was a perfect diagnosis of the state of the nation as 18 long, brutal years of uninterrupted Conservative Party rule drew to a close, and it would be remembered forever as a pop cultural epitaph for this defining period in British history. Then in January 2017, a full 20 years later, Trainspotting got itself a sequel.
Set two decades after the original, it was accompanied by yet another Renton rant that had been updated for the modern era. “Choose life,” it went. “Choose Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and hope that someone, somewhere cares.
Choose looking up old flames, wishing you’d done it all differently,” then lining up an assortment of other modern malaises. Although it fails to live up to the original, and the social media angle has been dismissed as “superficial” in certain corners of the internet, I can’t think of anything more appropriate for 2017.
A decade since the mass-proliferation of Facebook, I challenge you to name a single development that has shaped mass culture in that period as much as social media.
It has changed the way we communicate, it facilitated the victory of Donald Trump, has separated us into reality-distorting bubbles, elicits an addiction-like response in the human brain, and threatens to destroy the news industry.
Listing all the ways that it has altered our world is a fool’s errand, as is tracing all of its side-effects, but there is an argument that I will make: it has turned an entire generation into vapid narcissists.
From deceptive selfie angles that make average-looking people appear attractive, to curating your Facebook feed so it looks like you’re having more fun than you actually are, social media has taken neoliberalism’s self-centered mantra and pumped it full of cocaine-laced steroids.
While Thatcher and Reagan may have promoted greedy self-interest that Renton lampooned in the original Trainspotting, social media has bloated humanity’s capacity for self-obsession to new extremes.
Silicon Valley tech barons and Snapchat-obsessed teenagers who rarely venture outside of their bedrooms might argue that social media makes the world more interconnected (and no one can deny that it does), yet those connections shouldn’t be mistaken for any sort of collectivism.
All social media platforms are comprised of a mass of individuals competing against each other for followers, likes, retweets, favorites, and whichever other show of approval exists out there rather than any sort of collective goal.
Sure, this isn’t its only purpose, and plenty of benign interaction occurs without any sort of agenda, but there are masses upon masses of people who utilize it as a means of projecting an idealized version of themselves out into the world – an avatar of the person that they wish they were, rather than who they are in reality.
It’s logical that such an extreme focus on the self has a tendency to spill over into self-obsession, but this goes far beyond people taking too many photos of themselves and treating every action as a hashtagging opportunity. Every life event, however irrelevant to their social media audience, becomes a source of self-promoting content.
Consider the utterly ridiculous phenomenon of people wishing their parent a happy birthday even though that parent isn’t on Facebook.
I doubt that anyone would be able to explain why they do it, because it’s likely a reflexive behavior: they’ve learned that sharing gets them validation, which feels good, so they continue to share. Every like and retweet gives the brain a small rush of dopamine comparable to a tiny hit of coke.
This is why people pathetically attach #tagsforlikes #likeforlikes and #likes4likes to their Instagram photos. The yearning for validation is so pronounced that it has spawned an entire exchange economy where people pimp themselves out to the world, offering to repay insincere engagement with equally insincere engagement. The sentiment doesn’t matter as long as that little ego-affirming notification bubble pops up on their screens.
The cynicism that social media has fostered is staggering. As you might know, Highsnobiety is based in Berlin. In the December of last year, an Islamic fundamentalist drove a truck through a Christmas market in the west of the city, killing 12 and injuring 56 in the process.
Facebook – with its long, all-reaching finger that’s constantly on the pulse of global events – added a check-in feature that allowed its Berlin-based users to let everyone know that they’re safe, so they don’t have to reply to worried friends or relatives individually. I’m not going to dispute that this was helpful, but it’s what happened after that made me groan.
The more avid social media users in my feed (you know the types, they’re usually the same infantile clowns that use Snapchat’s dog filter) all rushed to give their take on the tragedy, to tell the world how they felt about it.
I struggle to remember everybody who did this and I’m not going to go through the feed of everyone that I know, but I will use the example that sticks out most in my mind. One of my Facebook friends wrote: “I’m okay, but at least nine people aren’t. And that’s not okay.”
Yes, mass murder is not OK, just as the snow is cold and the chemical formula for carbon dioxide is CO2. What purpose does this serve apart from confirming to other Facebook users that you’re not a sociopath? The response, of course.
The ego-validating likes. The comments. The attention. There are no doubt people reading this right now who would label me a cynic, but I think the real cynicism is how human tragedies have been converted into content for Facebook and a promotional opportunity for the people using it.
Others would dismiss as normal human behavior what people have always engaged in: conversation, collective mourning, the voicing of opinions. The only thing that separates it from a post-funeral wake, they would have you believe, is the medium.
Superficially, yes, they are correct, but there’s a fundamental difference here: before the digital era these were behaviors we engaged in discretely with people who have direct relevance to our lives. Social media is a very public forum.
The Facebook user who I quoted above wasn’t simply voicing their condolences for the people who died, they were placing themselves within the context of the tragedy. The focus wasn’t solely on the dead, but also their feelings or thoughts on what happened.
The same thing happened after the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, when Facebook enabled users to layer a translucent French flag over their profile pictures.
Its purpose was to send out a hollow show of solidarity with those who died, their families and all the French people that survived either through chance or geography.
I remember getting into an argument with one self-absorbed twat who genuinely believed that his one-click display of empathy could somehow make the next-of-kin feel a tiny bit better after having their loved ones murdered.
As if anyone at any other point in history would have thought to themselves “God this is horrifying, but I would feel a little bit better right now if I knew that millions of people around the world were draping my country’s flag over their faces.” Yes, because the best way to distract from emotional anguish is with unimaginative jingoism.
But is this really any different to the age-old practice of leaving flowers and candles at the scene of a tragedy, as people did here in Berlin after December’s attack? Yes, because that requires physical engagement and quantifiable investment into said tragedy.
There’s almost a religious aspect to the pilgrimage that you have to make to the location, even if it’s just across the street from where you live. There’s a tiny element of sacrifice to buying a candle or a flower that demands more effort than simply typing out a Facebook status or a tweet.
It’s an anonymous ritual because no one can tell who left what. It’s the polar opposite of grief on social media, which is vulgar herd behavior that siphons attention away from the dead and redirects it to the “grieving;” behavior that is, as I established earlier, rewarded with the currency of engagement.
Furthermore, old-school, analog grief can’t be monetized by some tax-dodging Silicon Valley conglomerate that created these features not out of sincerity, but because they serve their business model.
Now I don’t want to shame people for what is instinctive, almost unconscious behavior (and if that Facebook friend of mine that I quoted above happens to be reading: nothing personal, you were just the most memorable example) but that’s the point: these tech giants have quietly crept into our minds and rewired our brains.
They have engineered a generation of self-obsessed narcissists – us – while we were distracted by our search for Kony. Registration might be free, but long-term use quite evidently comes at a price.