Social Media and the Death Drive

Perhaps the best lens to examine compulsive, unproductive, inexplicable use of social media is not technical, or sociological, or economic, but psychoanalytic.

This is the question asked by Richard Seymour in his excellent new book The Twittering Machine, which “confronts us with a string of calamities,” among them increasing depression, fake news, the alt-right, and fast-food brands tweeting on fleek. And yet, despite the obvious fact that it’s very bad for us, we, and about half the population of the earth, remain its inhabitants. Why do we stay on—just to pick an example—Twitter, while also referring to it as the “hell site”? “We must be getting something out of it,” Seymour writes.

What the Twittering Machine offers is not death, precisely, but oblivion—an escape from consciousness into numb atemporality, a trance-like “dead zone” of indistinguishably urgent stimulus. Seymour compares the “different, timeless, time zone” of the Twittering Machine to what the gambling-addiction expert Natasha Dow Schüll calls the “machine zone,” in which “time, space, and social identity are suspended in the mechanical rhythm of a repeating process.” You might say that “Twitter is not real life,” a line intended as a kind of cutting warning, serves equally as an advertisement for the platform. But what is at stake here is not “reality.” It’s time. Seymour compares the Twittering Machine to the chronophage, “a monster that eats time.” We give ourselves over to it “because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living,” but we do so at great cost. “Given the time this addiction demands of us,” Seymour writes, “we are entitled to ask what else we might be doing, what else we could be addicted to.”

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