Your Spouse is Using You: Facebook and the Effects of Unemployment on Divorce
In a recent article, “Facebook is Using You,” professor and author Lori Andrews delivered an ethical criticism of the social networking hub based on its practice of making its users personal information available for sale to advertisers. This illuminates a frequently exposed social wound most people carry with them, a gash left by having been at some point judged, criticized, condemned, and rejected for something personal. That a media object’s proprietors might be using us should be neither surprising nor especially scary. We use them, after all, both in ways they were and weren’t designed for, and so it can’t be too surprising to learn they have a use for us too.
The fear of being turned into a utility has become endemic in the last decade. As the internet surrounded us with more and more widgets and toys to use the suspicion that we might be turning into some reduced plug-in for an advertising empire intensified. Not coincidentally, a culture of sarcasm appeared, debunking the self-evidently false personae of those who appeared to us through the media as discarnate apparitions. Gawker hurled stink bombs at celebrity, feeding the impulse to immediately interpret in the worst possible way the sometimes bizarre and sometimes humiliating things a person might do or say. The Daily Show and The Onion satirized the mannequin artifice of the news-making industry, as well as the ghastly veins of thought that could slip past a person’s eyes when framed with the right vernacular.
Yet, we can’t honestly say this is an age when we suddenly became aware of the media’s superficiality. Shakespeare never tired of questioning whether daily life was itself a theatrical hedge maze; George Bernard Shaw invented Eliza Doolittle as a reminder of our susceptibility to manipulation through carriage and appearance. And once the thrill of seeing moving images from far away places wore off, most people carried a pinch of skepticism about things they saw in film and television. Whatever was happening in front of the camera, there was always something happening behind the camera that went unseen.
No, this is not an age of media awareness but one of self-reflexive anxiety wherein we have begun to fear the media’s capacity to distort us against our will. The scandals and indignities are fueled by a secret fear that we would appear just as bizarre, inadequate, grotesque, or pathetic when transformed into a keyhole miniature. As we have begun to leave a caricatured trail of ourselves across the world’s server farms, enmity and paranoia have sprung up alongside the realization that the formerly anonymous me-and-you are also visible in these warping pools of coerced hallucination. It is as if we are watching ourselves become ghosts, and it is scary.
This effect has an eerie socio-political mirror, with the entrapping net of social fantasy selves coinciding with a decade of jobless stagnation in which corporate productivity accelerated to the financial diminution of most, a circumstance which was covered over by a slackening of lending standards. The compulsion to see one’s self as a thing that could be reinvented in a new hub or home, one’s consumption affiliations carefully curated to deliver an impression of desirability was widespread. In context, it was a compulsion that we could not honestly have acted on without accepting on some level it was self-deception. At a certain point the credit-leveraged effort to remake ourselves becomes a ploy that is more about manipulating other people into accepting our hollow coquetry as truth.
When we find in the media a tool to humiliate others for having been disingenuous in the creation and curation of their personae we cheer the loudest, unironically, and en masse. This burbling vitriol only further desocializes us. Paradoxically, our sneering indignation makes social networks seem less intimidating places to experience friendship and company. A recently published study from the University of Waterloo measured the self-esteem of a group of college students using a questionnaire. They found that those who had the lowest self-esteem were most likely to think of Facebook as their preferable way to socialize, giving them more control over their identities and statements.
A selection of 10 status updates from these low self-esteem candidates were shown to an anonymous group of evaluators and compared against those with higher self-esteem, who tended to view Facebook as less ideal than face-to-face interactions. The lower self-esteem subjects’ status updates were rated as the least likable and most off-putting. In essence, those most susceptible to taking Facebook as an ideal way of socializing are those least likely to appear likable through its exaggerated lens.
We could consider the rapid growth of Facebook as a parallel to the credit economy that reached a bursting point in the the mid-2000s, an environment that encourages anti-social behavior by making the implements of identity creation cheaply available. After the subprime collapse decimated the American economy in 2007, divorce rates dropped, as did the number of new marriages per year. Likewise the number of births dropped alongside the falling employment percentages, according to the 2009 U.S. Census. If marriage and parentdom are the two most fundamental identity shifts a person can make in society, the declining economy made people much more reluctant to commit to major social changes. Another study from Scott Hankins and Mark Hoekstra, “The Effects of Random Income Shocks on Marriage and Divorce,” found that women who experience positive income shocks were six points less likely to marry during the following three years.
The suggestion that marriage, the metaphorical standard bearer of our most commonly repeated social ideal–love is all you need–depends on money and circumstance as much as it does affection and magic will not surprise anyone. We know we are lying to ourselves when we talk about lifelong monogamous relationships as the optimal affirmation of civilized society. Certainly, life-long monogamous relationships are possible, but the idea that they are optimal, that the costs are outweighed by the innumerable benefits, which cannot be translated into a currency transaction without being desecrated, seems undercut whenever the flow of life-changing accoutrements is made freer. The trick of marriage is not to fall in love, but figure out a way to keep the love you have for a person from being crushed in the social vice of the institution itself–to participate in the marriage while admitting that, no matter how dramatically it might change your outward appearance, it does not make you a different person in essence.
Or rather, the security of having declared your identity, through a vow, or a carefully selected profile image is only temporary, an act whose comfort begins to dissipate almost as soon as we have finished it, requiring a constant stream of magical thinking to maintain. Is there any way to not respond with anger and mistrust, then, when someone brings up the fact that Facebook is using us? Our spouses are using us too, and the children perhaps most of all. But wasn’t that part of the agreement from the outset?
I’ll use you, you’ll use me–but let’s both agree to never let that compromising fact become the primary characteristic of our relationship. The more we recoil from the awkward truth of our circumstances, the more we try to smooth over our own self-images with objects we’ve taken on-loan, the more vulnerable, we become, guilty, secretly expecting the worst to happen at the first utterance of a simple truth that no one could deny having known from the start. Sell my Internet searches to advertisers, surveil my hodgepodge of pictures, decontextualized quotes, and social froth and draw from it whatever conclusion you’d like. You’re wrong about almost everything, it shows in your banner advertisements, and every other stab out into the ether you make, straining to make a sale before you’ve even said hello.
*Images via weelakeo
** “Facebook is Using You” via New York Times
“Facebook Is Not Such a Good Thing for Those With Low Self-Esteem, Study Finds” via Science Daily
“Household Formation: Divorces, Births Correlated with Unemployment Across States” via Rortybomb
“Home Economics: Marriage Rates and the Lottery” via Slate
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