We currently have a common conceptual model that divides the online world into two categories: “social media” and “the internet”. The first group calls to mind the big names like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Instagram, that essentially allow users to share various media, both publicly and privately. Any platform that lacks this capability is generally lumped into the second group.
Despite surface differences, I believe that what these groups have in common is even more significant, and that in fact the term “social media” refers more accurately to the entire phenomenon of the internet, rather than just several recently created locations within it.
Firstly, the criteria for what constitutes social media is fundamentally based on the act of sharing information, which limits how we think about media in general, and also how we think about our social habits, tendencies and nature.
Secondly, the way we think of sharing within the context of social media, is different from the way we actually receive and transmit information in practice. The idea of a social media platform as being a specific place dedicated to information exchange, not only limits the concept of transmission to deliberate acts: “I upload this”, “I watch that”, it also confines that practice to custom designed sites who advertise the sharing concept as such.
The first concept I shall use to examine this new definition of social media is the supernormal stimulus, or the superstimulus for short. Explorations into the superstimulus began when biologists discovered that various animals could essentially be tricked into displays of heightened response towards man-made objects that resembled exaggerated versions of their natural counterparts. For example, by making a fake bird’s egg larger and more brightly-coloured than usual, the female birds would pay more attention to, and thus take more care of it.
The cuckoo is the most well-known example of such trickery, as the female deliberately lays her eggs in the nests of other birds, where they will appear comparatively more eye-catching and important. The twist in the tale however, is that once the cuckoo eggs hatch they attempt to push the remaining eggs or chicks out of the nest, ensuring further still, that they occupy all the attention their unsuspecting surrogate mothers.
Superstimuli in the modern, human environment are simply exaggerations and prosthetic versions of natural objects and phenomena that we have deliberately created.
In the epilogue to the 2007 edition of Robert Cialdini’s book “Influence”, he remarks:
“With the sophisticated mental apparatus we have used to build world eminence as a species, we have created an environment so complex, fast-paced, and information-laden that we must increasingly deal with it in the fashion of the animals we long ago transcended.”
This is a fairly bleak outlook and end to a book that is often cited as a classic text on the psychology of persuasion and cognitive bias, which doesn’t bode well for the future of humanity.
Many aspects of social media can be seen as superstimuli and replacements for characteristics of social life in the real world. The “like” is an ongoing and permanent record of praise, that matches quite closely a sense of recognition, whereas view counts help contribute to the online concept of achievement. Upvotes on comments signal acceptance, and help form a sense of belonging to a particular group with a particular outlook. Subscribers, followers, friends and connections in the virtual world are obvious analogues for the real thing, except that in real life no sane person ever kept a running tally of all their friends, and they certainly never before had the power to peek into each one of their lives at the touch of a button.
But not all superstimuli are limited to social media, and television for example, caters to many natural urges for social interaction while remaining offline. The light, sound and visual movement of having other humans beamed into our living room goes a long way to artificially replacing their presence, with exaggerated and incomplete copies. The distance implied by the word tele-vision hints at the disconnection between the subject and the object, between the viewer and that which is being viewed. As with the cuckoo eggs, the subjects of television may appear brighter and more attractive than in the real world, but the nasty surprise is that they are not what we think, or rather, feel them to be.
Media has become the mediator of many of our interactions with others, so much so that it has quietly taken on the many roles that our face-to-face relationships once had.
Every interaction with human-generated information is a social interaction. The internet is nothing new in that respect, it’s just that now the journalists, radio presenters and newscasters are all migrating to where they can reach us easiest: through our handheld devices.
The portable, multimedia nature of the internet makes it a super-superstimulus of sorts: an aggregator and diffuser of multiple superstimuli, through a seemingly endless supply.
The human face is the poster child of the internet.
When we understand the internet as being the “global village” as Marshall McLuhan forecast, its fundamentally social character can no longer be restricted to so-called “social media” alone.
If we look at technology as being the root of human problems; if we think that fashion magazines cause young women to become vein, self-conscious or overly-concerned with their appearance, and if we think that internet pornography has sparked an unnatural interest in sexual imagery, then not only do we fail to see that technology simply offers us a platform to express and act upon existing desires, but we also fail to acknowledge those instincts and their long evolutionary history. We develop a faulty narrative that puts the tail in charge of wagging the dog, and hence we unknowingly demonise our own nature, which puts us in a dangerous position should we ever discover how a dog actually works. Burning cognitive bridges leaves us with no possible line of retreat.
We didn’t create the written word, the printing press, the photograph, the record, the radio, the television and the internet and then convert them into vehicles for social expression after the fact. We are a social species that manifests this through the creation of various methods of expression and exchange.
All media is social because what we call “media” refers to records of human activity that have become more complex and lifelike over time, while acting as replacements for their originators. Written words replaced spoken words and their numerous functions and contexts. Books became guides, teachers, and wise elders that lead us through a multitude of stories and lessons, both technical, practical and philosophical. The narrator and the various characters in the book played internally by each individual reader, took the place of the external characters and story-tellers, who all possessed their own volition, and were unbounded by their listeners: their friends, family and other tribe members.
Books became a new kind of dialogue that had never existed before written language. They contained ideas, feelings, people, places and sentiments: they were container objects whose contents could be brought alive or transferred to our heads, or more specifically, the heads of the literate, and only there. This fictional world of phantom dialogue was a direct result of the recording process that simultaneously captured and killed its subjects, leaving them unable to pass on to the next life, trapped in a paper purgatory.
We transitioned from the real world to the world of the unchanging story (fixed fiction), and finally to the smart story that changes in real time and in response to individual preferences and profiles – choose your own ending (not to be confused with having someone else, or some algorithm choose it for you).
Improvements in technology allowed for the recording of more and more lifelike copies. To words, pictures and sounds were added, and eventually moving images that also increased in clarity and resolution. In this way, the social aspect of media increases proportionately to its ability to imitate real life, and to the extent that this fictional world has greater allure and influence than the real one, it is a superstimulus. Thus the spread of social superstimuli is a direct consequence of improvements in technology.
In the 90’s and early 2000’s the capabilities of the internet were limited by connection speed, and the idea of streaming live video was unimaginable for most users. In the beginning the internet was relatively static, not just because of speed restrictions, but also because of its relative lack of users and inability for them to easily contribute and personalise the space. Relying on dial-up connections meant that we had to choose between using our phones or using the internet. Now how about that for a story to tell our children? It also meant that in some ways we were back to square one, to a time when we could only communicate through low-resolution, low-bandwidth means. The birth of the internet was the dawn of our second civilisation, and we had only just discovered fire, but were already beginning to play with it.
Technology not only increased access speed, but it also continued to improve and democratise the different means of producing digital recordings of all kinds, that we would go on to share with the rest of the world through the use of increasingly ubiquitous, portable computers. We also solved that minor issue of having to choose between using either our phones or the internet, and in true social media style, we were able to incorporate use of our built in video cameras at the same time.
The internet came alive. We successfully colonised the digital, fictional space, spreading our disembodied facsimiles far and wide, ensuring that signs of life permeated each and every corner, just as we had done in the real world. Without so much as an eye blink, the internet quickly evolved from a nerdy quagmire of inhospitable fan pages, inhabited by lone weirdos and computer savvy savages, to the clean cut, tourist guidebook model of a modern metropolis where everyone wants to be. The internet is the city of lights, the signs of life that illuminate the darkness and draw us in with endless promises of companionship, belonging, success, health, wealth, happiness and a sense of meaning and accomplishment: the global village is where everyone lives, and consequently, this is where all the opportunities lie, and where all the fun is to be had. Everything of interest is happening here. Everything you ever need is here. But everything about this new civilisation is a super-stimulating version of the original, meaning that while we are more drawn to this world, it is significantly different in substance.
The ease of access to this new world plays a superstimulating role in itself. When we were once separated spatially, this was first overcome by horse-drawn transport, boats, railways, and then the democratisation of the motor vehicle, and affordable intercontinental air travel. But all of these methods were rendered archaic by the internet, which succeeds by performing this miracle in reverse: by bringing the world to us at our command. The natural restrictions that have been imposed on us for millennia have been lifted within a single lifetime. Rarity and scarcity have been replaced and rendered mundane by frequency and ubiquity. Convenience is the mother of all superstimuli, and it is this characteristic which is built into all technology, however, the degree to which it is present in our second civilisation is unprecedented.
The second concept that provides its own unique framework for understanding this new definition of social media, is the idea of simulation that has arisen from recent psychological studies on the effects of literature on its readers. In a 2014 paper published by Maja Djikic and Keith Oatley titled “The Art in Fiction: From Indirect Communication to Changes of the Self” the authors suggest that:
“literary fiction is simulation of selves with others in the social world; that taking part in this type of simulation can produce fluctuations that are precursors to personality changes; and that the changes occur in readers’ own ways, being based not on persuasion but on indirect communication.”
The authors note a difference between literature, that is, artistic works, and factual, non-artistic ones. The better the narrative, the greater the immersion in the simulation, and thus the greater the effect on the emotions, with the latter, factual texts eliciting comparatively less reaction and change.
If we accept that the written word is a basic simulation, then returning to our earlier idea of technological progress, we can see that the internet as a collection of words and images, both still and moving, as well as clearly recorded sound, over a very short period of time has become a much richer and more vibrant simulation than the relatively simple media of a book or any single medium in isolation.
What is simulated by the internet is every conceivable type of social interaction through the bias of superstimuli. Our online, social behaviours are the perverse ghosts of our physical lives. Most things don’t occur in real time on the internet, but are instead records of our passing, presence and existence. A bustling comment section is really a mirage in which we stand alone, mumbling to ourselves. The strength of the simulation is so powerful that we fail to even question it.
The superstimulating version of the map is more powerful than the territory.
The fictional world of the internet is at the same time more chaotic and more orderly than real life, while operating by a completely different set of rules. The simulation changes according to our own biases as well as those of the system, whereas in real life our biases are much more constrained, and others have significantly less influence over us.
There is a cost of entry to every simulation; some are physical (we are often required to remain immobile for long periods of time for example), but most are psychological. In any simulation however, a certain amount of control must be relinquished (suspension of disbelief), as the whole point of the simulation is to be placed in a scenario that we cannot conjure for ourselves. In that respect, the simulation is normally an implicit agreement between its creator, and those who choose to enter it.
In offline simulations such as traditional media, the creator has limited opportunity to affect us because these stories are locked in time, and therefore unable to change as we experience them. Secondly, these simulations are one-way experiences, meaning that the participant, their personality, preferences and reactions cannot affect the simulation in a way that is specific to them, or at all.
These two elements form an effective and tacit barrier between audience and creator that ultimately benefits both.
The opposite is true of the internet. The participants enter into an agreement that they neither understand, nor that protects them, and in fact does the inverse at a time when they are most vulnerable.
If we imagine a traditional horror movie that behaves according to the rules of online simulations, the result is something akin to psychological torture. Such a movie would not only know our greatest fears, but when and how to represent them. The intensity of the movie would vary according to how we felt, and would be optimised to scare us maximally across time through fluctuations in its content. Being unable to exit this simulation, or worse, differentiate between it and the real world is a nightmarish scenario.
The slow, arduous, tried-and-tested methods for shaping our world through natural selection have been finally trumped by human volition. In theory this is a necessary and welcome change to our trajectory, and in certain areas of practice too, we have greatly benefited from intervening, however, this isn’t universally true.
With the power to filter and give ourselves more of what we want, and less of what we don’t want, technology serves to magnify our biases in an algorithmic feedback loop. But even worse than just accidentally falling down the hole of our innate weaknesses, the primary creators of the simulation are shaping our experiences for the purposes of exploiting our vulnerabilities. If we hand over our wallet to a magician for use as a prop in an illusion that he will perform, we expect not only to get our wallet and its entire contents back at the end, but we also expect that he hasn’t cloned all of our personal information in the process, for use at a later date, or to sell to a third party, and that he hasn’t installed some apparatus for tracking and recording our movements.
Consent is of utmost importance when engaging with and navigating within simulations, and as previously discussed, in order to make good decisions, and eventually the best decisions, we need to have access to, and the ability to understand the relevant information. Failure to access or to understand means that there can be no proper consent, but more importantly, it means that we must default to our biases for guidance, which is exactly the mechanism that is being used against us in the first place.
What the internet lacks is a warning notice before entry, or a reminder to users that what they are about to experience is in many ways a simulation, but that the emotions and feelings will very much be real.
If recording practices allowed us to remove the social elements from things such as musical performances in order for the individual to be able to listen to them alone on their personal stereo, then what social media has done is to re-socialise these practices by making appreciation of the recordings a group experience, or at least make it appear to be. We can access video recordings of concerts, lectures, and almost anything imaginable, in order to watch them in a context that no longer feels as if we are simply watching alone. The shared experience is more powerful and more meaningful than in isolation, and so just as technology enabled us to decouple the event from the necessity of being there in order to experience it, more recent technology has made certain amends for the less salient but equally important aspects of performance that simple records fail to capture.