The Exhibitionist Economy

When former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen leaked thousands of internal company documents to the Wall Street Journal in September, it led to another cycle of acrimonious allegations of corporate irresponsibility. “I’ve seen a bunch of social networks,” Haugen told 60 Minutes in an interview, “and it was substantially worse at Facebook than what I had seen before ... Facebook, over and over again, has shown it chooses profit over safety.” Haugen’s disclosures inflamed an already feverish debate about online privacy and the desirability of attempts to curtail the reach and influence of the most powerful tech companies.

But lost amid all the blame-casting has been any proper consideration of the responsibility social media users bear for the loss of their own privacy. As “Big Tech” assumes the role of corporate super-villain, its users absolve themselves of personal responsibility. And while it is true that these companies are fuelled by our data, how they got it and why we relinquished it in the first place also merit reflection.

Yes, Silicon Valley’s race to the profitable bottom has always traded on our privacy. But while valid concerns about app-tracking, facial recognition, and police surveillance remain a legitimate topic of political and journalistic interest, the other half of the debate is being neglected. The emergence of new cultural norms has seen citizens broadcast aspects of their personal lives that had hitherto remained out of public view. Missing from the latest eruption of public outrage targeting Big Tech and Mark Zuckerberg is an acknowledgement that we voluntarily agreed to surrender our privacy and that we may never get it back.

“This is America,” declared American Idol host Ryan Seacrest in 2010, “where everyone has the right to life, love, and the pursuit of fame.” The rise of reality TV had ushered in a silent but dramatic shift in cultural messaging that social media was now poised to exploit. At the beginning of the smartphone revolution in 2007, UCLA researchers were already noticing that “fame was the number one value communicated to preteens on popular TV.” That same year, a Pew report found that 18–25 year-olds ranked “getting rich and being famous” as their single most important goal. Sixty-four percent of those sampled ranked affluence as their most important life goal, while only four percent selected “becoming more spiritual.”

In 2012, researchers led by Jean Twenge found that, compared to baby boomers or GenXers, college-age millennials considered “extrinsic values (money, image, fame) more important and those related to intrinsic values (self-acceptance, affiliation, community) less important.” These findings corresponded with declines in concern for others and civic orientation. The same year, another Twenge-led team examined over 750,000 books, TV shows, and song lyrics published between 1960 and 2008 and found “the use of first person plural pronouns (e.g., we, us) decreased 10 percent[,] first person singular pronouns (I, me) increased 42 percent, and second person pronouns (you, your) quadrupled. These results complement previous research finding increases in individualistic traits among Americans.”

The twin sister research team of Pelin and Selin Kesebir arrived at similar conclusions by drawing on a large corpus of books. They found that rising American individualism had led to a decline in “general moral terms” including decency and conscience and a 74 percent decline in “virtue words” such as honesty, compassion, and patience. A 2019 poll commissioned by LEGO, meanwhile, found that the most desirable profession among American and British kids was no longer astronaut but vlogger/YouTuber. Similar surveys found those numbers to be even larger. A report from Morning Consult found that “86 percent of Gen Z and millennials surveyed would post sponsored content for money, and 54 percent would become an influencer given the opportunity.” A 2018 Pew poll investigating “Where Americans Find Meaning in Life” revealed that, after family, the most cited sources of purpose were career and money. These goals supersede spirituality or friends and substantially outpace health and learning.

The proliferation of smartphones and social media has accelerated underlying social trends and transformed prevailing cultural norms of personal privacy. “Our views on what should be kept private have changed in the culture as well as the courtroom,” observes Katrina Gulliver in Reason. Today, she contends, “we celebrate such openness. Revealing your personal history is now seen as ‘brave.’ Things once held to be shameful are now accepted, even lauded, and those who don't want to share the details of their personal lives are portrayed as uptight or weird.”

Individuals began battling to differentiate themselves across social media in ways that mimic Silicon Valley’s competition for our attention. Reality TV allowed us to peer behind the curtain, but Instagram and TikTok tore the curtain down and threw it away. And as our cultural moment increasingly esteems self-promotion by way of selfies and thirst traps, synchronized dances and mukbangs, who are we to judge? The Wild West of digital marketing and the attention economy have been tamed and we are all eager to lap it up.

Social media normalized what Jonathan Haidt calls a “prestige economy”—a performative culture in which people compete for social status. Under these market conditions, privacy—withholding our drunken antics, beach bodies, breakups, shower thoughts, and uninformed political takes—was the road to social irrelevance and nonexistence in a world measured by outrage and shrinking attention spans. “If you’re not online,” a City Press headline advised in 2018, “you don’t exist.”

As the tech companies reached down humanity’s brainstem to keep us hooked, we matched their appetites with our own. In the battle for eyeballs, that meant showing skin. Last year, the authors of a study examining “Instagram influencers, porn chic, and the monetization of attention” wrote an article for the Conversation in which they worried about “a continuum of pornified self-representations” among nearly 200 female Instagram influencers, and that “a higher number of followers were associated with a more explicitly pornified aesthetic.” Influencers became “personal brands” who leverage their platforms to entice followers to buy into whatever they’re selling. Some redirected patrons to an OnlyFans profile while others flogged “protein powder, gummy vitamins, or detox tea.”

The user-bases of Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat, and Pinterest skew female, but men who congregate on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter, and Reddit have shown themselves to be just as vulnerable to the appeal of superficiality. Whereas women post pictures featuring direct eye-contact, men prefer “more full body shots that include other people.” Boys and men were also more likely to share drunken escapades and risk-taking adventures. An investigation by Vice recently found that Snapchat has even become a popular forum among status-seeking young men for the promotion of violence and murder.

The unhealthy extremes of male social media behaviour coincided with the rise of “hustle porn,” a termed coined by Reddit co-founder, Alexis Ohanian, which he defined as “the fetishization of people overworking themselves.” In an article for GQ, David Smiedt explained, “[W]orshipping at the altar of Musk and Jobs, the hustle lifestyle ... spawned the sub-branches of hacks. Life hacks. Bio hacks. Time hacks. Anything to give you those few extra minutes a day to, like Fiddy says, get rich or die trying.” Hustle porn produced its own offshoot known as “flexes”—ostentatious displays of wealth such as excessive collections of luxury watches, cars, gadgets, and suits.

All the while, we grew comfortable baring all in the name of entertainment and attention. Today, we all live on Instagram. From cradle to grave, a vast and growing segment of humanity has willingly forfeited personal privacy in pursuit of likes and shares. The notion of a “private sphere” now seems quaint and archaic—a term that harks back to a distant era in which a person’s privacy began at their hedgerow.

Parents now fret about when to give their children smartphones—on one hand, they worry about the effect of social media use on their wellbeing, but on the other they fear their kids will face social ostracism and exclusion if they are not allowed to participate in their friends’ activities online. And while some commentators have recommended that minimum mandatory ages should be implemented, the foreseeable reality is that restricting teen behavior is nearly impossible. In 2018, Pew reported that 95 percent of teens had access to a smartphone and 45 percent said they were online “almost constantly.” That means the window of life insulated from the vagaries of Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, has become vanishingly small. Within their first decade, classmates will be logging on to social networks creating a tragedy of the commons in which others feel forced to join or face missing out.

We have walked into a privacy cul-de-sac of our own making. A person’s entire educational and employment history is publicly available on LinkedIn; Facebook offers access to their friends and family; Twitter showcases their political beliefs; Instagram reveals their tastes and interests. We no longer have to walk out of our front door to know our neighbours, we just need to know their names. Thanks to cancel culture, intolerance excavators can now scour digital footprints for breadcrumbs of missteps which are, unsurprisingly, easy to find.

Upcoming generations will not thank us for gifting them a world devoid of the concept of personal privacy. We have left them an exhibitionist social economy in which status is conferred upon those who exchange their privacy for standing and prestige. And during the hue and cry of our latest crusade against Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, that should give us pause.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/10/15/the-exhibitionist-economy/
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Great essay. It is worth noting that where the older virtues of hard work, social responsibility and patience are pursued, the results in education can appear somewhat miraculous:

Newham is the second poorest borough in London. It has perennially high crime, well above the London average. Over half of the Brampton Manor Academy students qualify for free school meals, and they are outperforming Eton in terms of Oxbridge acceptance, which costs £42,000 a year. The UK university system is far more orientated towards grey matter and academic attainment than its US counterpart- almost entirely meritocratic in its placements. I doubt the students have much free time to spend on social media.

The other problem with social media is that unlike many areas of economy, the attention economy is zero-sum. Many tend to skew their views in order to gain attention and likes, and this even extends to legacy media, which Matt Taibbi details in his book Hate Inc. There are those in the more reasonable independent news media space who are beginning to wonder whether the Facebook whistleblower may be a deliberate plant, aimed at pushing an agenda which advocates a return to the manufactured consent of the corporate media landscape of CNN, MSNBC and Fox.

If so, they are sorely mistaken- corporate media is in its death throes, and the insiders know it- Rachel Maddow is moving to a streaming service and Fox has tried Fox Nation. They just don’t understand- millennials, independents and many others no longer trust them as sources of news. Both Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow have had lawyers argue in court that no reasonable person could imagine that their programmes constitute news content.

Given a choice between corporate media and no news at all, most people would happily opt to stop following the news altogether. And the growing partisan hatred that we see throughout the West isn’t caused by the likes of Ben Shapiro or Kyle Kulinski’s Secular Talk, it’s caused by the way the social media algorithm’s silo people off into groups based upon political and cultural affinity. When your only social media representation of the other side of the political argument comes from the shared social media content of the absolute fringes of political extremes, it’s little wonder that people develop grossly distorted caricatures of the other side.

Let’s play a thought game. Imagine you invited one of these more ideological Twitter denizens into your home- would they angry if they found alternately Ayn Rand or The Communist Manifesto on your bookshelf, Thomas Piketty’s Capital or imagine you were a transphobe for reading Douglas Murray’s The Madness of Crowds? That’s the real problem- ideas can be bad or good, but imagining that people must be bad for possessing bad ideas is delusional. The social media landscape creates a Manichean illusion- life is not a battle between good and bad people, but rather the struggle to grasp the outline of truth in a landscape beset by an all-pervading thick fog.

As usual, my essays are to be found on my Substack, which is free to view and comment:

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This seems like a massive exaggeration. There’s far more to legacy media than opinion shows on the cable networks, which I agree actively make viewers stupider.

I completely agree. I encourage people to actively seek out sources that challenge their existing views. It can be painful, but that’s the best (and probably only) way to come closer to the truth.

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Yeah, not a pretty picture. Eventually, you have to think most of these people will grow out of that, though, right? Young people tend to be narcissistic, and social media certainly helps them indulge those tendencies, but I tend to think people will continue to grow out of that as they age.

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I hope you’re right, but the child is the father to the man. Young people who are shaped by the hyper-narcissism built into the current wave of social media are likely to retain at least some of that quality throughout the lifespan.

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I tend to look at social media a different way. We know enough about addiction to understand that these platforms are addicting. By aiming them at the young, software companies go after those least able to understand that.

It’s not just social media, it’s the entire point-and-click environment. Most of us know (or are) people who spend an inordinate amount of time playing on-line games. Even games as seemingly normal as Solitaire, for example. Click-reward-do-it-again.

Phones and computers make the action effortless and instantaneous. (A lot like nicotine, which is notoriously difficult to quit.) Addictive behavior becomes hard-wired.

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But is social media the real cause of exhibitionism or is its adverse usage a symptom of mass insecurity like the availability of drugs & alcohol isn’t really the cause of addiction. Perhaps it exacerbates an already present mental health condition hence there are just as many if not more moderate users. More effective solutions may lie in looking closer into how to manage the underlying causes of these insecurities as well as better forms of regulation.
The self responsibility angle seems a bit of a typical absolvement of social responsibility. Firstly, children can hardly be considered fully responsible as can those with mental health issues. Secondly its adverse affects of me culture have broader societal consequences of which society has not agreed to.
At the bare minimum upping the age limits & proof of identity should be required. But most importantly the ‘like’ button must go for non organisation & business accounts.

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Well OK, but it is coming- at least generationally. All of the corporate news media perform poorly in the key demo, even to the extent that social media users tend to avoid them in favour of news sites that they trust more. CNN and MSNBC are usually the default news on most social media, and young people still don’t want to watch them. Our age group is probably the last that will watch them in significant numbers.

CNN could have stood the test of time. Although they were taking a beating from more partisan media, getting squeezed in the middle, they still had a historical reputation for unbiased reporting. But according to sources Jeff Zucker was more worried about the quarterly viewing figures. He decided to go fully partisan and embrace the short-term gain, incurring long-term pain and loss of reputation.

Apparently, there were several high profile journalists who were quite angry about the changes. They saw the reality that people would get angry with the daily distortions of stories and the selection bias to support particular narratives- and they were right, it just took a few years for the exhausted middle to come to their senses and realise they wanted broader coverage without a political slant. It’s what explains the popularity of sites like Allsides.com.

There is certainly room for a more unbiased news source in the centre, but the only way I can see this happening is if Forbes/Reuters set up a free streaming service (with advertising) which you could watch through your TV/Firestick. It would have to abandon the 24 hour new cycle which has been so disastrous for news- but I think there is lot of room for a more heterodox news service, which also hosts PBS-style documentaries and more intellectual debates.

One thing the media got wrong for years was the idea that the American people were dumb- yes, there are large segments who like to watch RealityTV, but even the students I used to share a house with when I was at uni used to like that shit, as well as soaps! But what YouTube has exposed is that there is a real hunger for longer form discussions. A part of me wonders whether the dumbing down of television and news in particular was deliberate- it’s far easier to maintain manufactured consent when people are ill-informed.

“If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you do, you’re misinformed.” I heard Denzel Washington quoting this recently- of course, it was Mark Twain.

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OK. I’m admittedly biased because the only time I see cable news is when I’m in an airport waiting for a flight – I’ve never taken those stations seriously as a source of information.

Agreed. Zucker decided to become part of the “resistance,” perhaps as penance for his role in creating the Trumpenstein monster.

This would be a welcome development. It would, of course, be a niche product, because virtually everything (with the apparent except of Squid Game) is a niche product in our hyper-fragmented media environment.

Good point. I don’t watch YouTube but I listen to dozens of different podcasts. However, I suspect that the audience for these long-form conversations remains very small compared to the number of people who consume entertainment fluff. Only a small percentage of citizens follow the news in a serious way and make a conscious effort to stay informed. I’m not suggesting that being a news junkie is necessarily virtuous, given how little impact individuals have on issues they claim to care about. Political hobbyism is, arguably, part of the problem in our dysfunctional political systems.

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Interesting article on political hobbyism. The only thing I would disagree with is the language requirement. Countries with more than one language in common usage, tend to bake-in inequality to the extent that it becomes almost a caste system. Many Latino parents in Texas and California have recently been disenfranchised, because the influx of added language requirements has led to the dropping of the AP Maths they fought for years to get.

Many politicians seem to think there is some form of racial solidarity in play in relation to the Latino vote and immigration- quite the reverse, most (especially the more recently arrived) seem to possess similar sentiments to African Americans- more sympathetic, but more likely to see further immigration as a labour threat. Data from the UK shows that the most likely to be economically displaced by further migration, are those who have most recently arrived.

Ari paints a leering late modern picture of hell in which a society is dissolving itself in acid, as first its boundaries and then its heartlands turn to mush, which is a 50-70 year end game for a consumer society that has deregulated and privatized its social mechanisms to the point of incoherence, like some Dalian or Boschian nightmare pastiches of barely recognizable organisms that are blighted by satanic mechanisms of abstract industrialized torture and chaos.

The unhinged quality of Ari’s narrative gives it an almost unreal quality, as the bizarre becomes the reality. And it would be extremely surprising if this existential landscape could just keep hemorrhaging infrastructure indefinitely before it actually either falls to bits or falls on itself in bouts of internecine strife.

The kind of loss of compass and grounding that a crisis of faith causes leaves rationality floundering in its own rootless and faddist opportunism, that is the perfect milieu for the kind of back-to-basics fundamentalism that is emerging out of all the major global ideological traditions, including the once secular and liberal Enlightenment one.

Up to half our net worth is built into our cultural software and it can bankrupt itself in the same way as any other industry, and when it does, the same sort of shit hits the fan as if it were the conventional economy going down the drain when it can’t deal with an accumulated 250 year ecological invoice. Nature is not an economic externality, anymore than our domestic and social reproduction industries are…

In early 1914, there was an uneasy calm in which business-as-usual continued to operate, until a minor prince was assassinated in a town hardly anyone had heard of. I get the ominous feeling we are moving into a rather similar space, where something seemingly small suddenly becomes big…and life becomes cheap, for fundamentalism does not do rational and polite so much as the proverbial wrath of God.

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