Facebook, Kierkegaard, and Self-Abstraction

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

The following post is an academic paper I wrote during the final year of my undergraduate degree in Humanities. This project was my first thorough investigation of the impact social media places on our abilities in self-definition, self-expression and relationship-formation. 

In The Present Age, Kierkegaard describes his society as an apathetic, static, disconnected and homogeneous populace in which no one exists as an individual. He asserts that individual identity has been engulfed and repressed by “the public” – a flexibly imagined concept of collective society that is both authoritative due to its status as the voice of the majority and unaccountable due to its lack of attachment to any specific autonomous agents. Although “the public” only exists as an abstract force (and not as a physical body of people), it still somehow succeeds in assimilating real human beings[1].  In assimilating with “the public”, a person becomes an abstract idea in and of her/him-self. (S)he forfeits all of her/his distinguishing characteristics and becomes an average equivalent of everybody else. Kierkegaard refers to this sort of assimilation as “the process of levelling[2], the end of which he describes as “the victory of abstraction over the individual”[3].

Although Kierkegaard wrote of mid-nineteenth-century Danish society, the observations he puts forth in The Present Age bear an uncanny resemblance to many patterns I have traced within my own culture (present day North American society). One contemporary venue in which Kierkegaard’s notions of “levelling” and “the public” can be seen at play is Facebook. This paper will examine the ways in which Facebook users abstract their identities and engage in methods of levelling within this phenomenal, age-defining social network.

Before beginning this discussion, I will first explain the slight revisions that I have made to Kierkegaard’s terms.  Apparent in Kierkegaard’s vision of society is the stark binary between “the individual” and “the public”. In this model, where both ideas are presented as extreme absolutes, one must either imagine a person existing as a pure individual or having been entirely homogenized by the all-powerful “public”. The two-dimensional nature of this model is problematic for anyone trying to apply the philosophy of The Present Age to an actual context.

In his defence, it has been suggested that Kierkegaard exaggerated the contrast between these two ideas as a rhetorical means of alerting his reader to the existence of their individuality and warning them of the dangers in adopting a group identity[4]. If we follow this suggestion and imagine “the public” in terms of group identity or, as Graham Smith describes, as “the general characteristic of association in modernity”[5], we can conceive of a multitude of publics, rather than the absolute public that Kierkegaard describes. In this case, a public can be any popular fad, political view, social movement, or community that people effortlessly and inconsequentially associate themselves with and base their identities off of, without any sense of commitment.

Richard Stivers likens assimilation with the “public” to the conformity a person undertakes in adjusting to a peer group, drawing attention to the “transitory norms of taste” a group will cycle through as well as the ambiguity in group power-relations.[6]  While Kierkegaard would agree that a peer group participates in levelling, he would not equate it with “the public”, on the grounds that a peer group is still a tangible body, and thus “only the first movement of an abstract power within the concreteness of individuality”[7]. If, however, you broaden the parameters of the peer group and weaken your commitment to it, as you do, say, with the sorts of “imagined communities”[8] you engage with on the internet, the peer group can come to exist as a public. I will later discuss this particular notion of a public in relation to the extended network of “friends” that one accrues on Facebook.

Whereas Kierkegaard describes the public as one mass body that assimilates the entire populace, I propose that there are various publics that appeal to different demographics and that different people will choose to assimilate with different publics. In addition, I propose that people can assimilate with multiple publics simultaneously. If this revision of “the public” seems to contradict the notions of “levelling” and loss of identity that are put forth in The Present Age, consider levelling as a process in which a person forfeits possessing an individual identity by assimilating with a group. In The Present Age, this group is the all-encompassing “public”. In my model, there are a variety of groups to choose from.

One might argue that because I propose it possible for a person to assimilate with a variety of groups simultaneously, my model allows for individual identity to manifest itself in the unique combination of a person’s group associations. This argument does not work for two reasons. First, the guise of individual identity that people achieve through assembling their “own” personal set of group associations is merely a fragmented collage of self-abstractions. Kierkegaard would assert that to define yourself in terms of a group that you are associated with is to rely on the characteristics of the group for your sense of self and to equate yourself with the other members of this group[9]. To repeat this process with multiple group associations simply adds multiple dimensions to your abstraction.  Second, I have defined publics as networks so broad that you can hold no strong commitment to or affiliation with them. The inherently transient and fluid nature of these sorts of associations precludes the formation of a stable identity. If we look to The Present Age, Kierkegaard describes this same transience and lack of stability when he cautions against aligning oneself with “the public”:

“Whilst, therefore, no majority has ever been so certain of being right and victorious as the public, that is not much consolation to the individual, for a public is a phantom which forbids all personal contact. And if a man adopts a public opinion today and is hissed to-morrow he is hissed by the public.”[10]

Kierkegaard pictures the individual forever trying to align himself with the sporadic, ever-changing “public” and losing himself along the way. I picture the individual forever updating him-/herself to consist in the most desirable combination of associations. The individual’s notion of desirability is informed by his/her particular social circumstance and is thus always adjusting in relation to the constant shift in circumstance.

The reason for which I have dwelled on this clarification is that the element of variety in this method of identity-assemblage deludes people into thinking that they have formed a unique and meaningful personality for themselves. People tend to overlook how generic and temporal the signifiers they choose for their identities are.  We will see how these misconceptions fuel “the levelling process” when we examine the manner in which people depict themselves on Facebook. The abstraction we subject ourselves to in using Facebook is in many ways “disguised” as a form of self-expression. I use the term disguised lightly because the common person will at least partially realize the necessary conformity that comes with engaging in such a structured form of social networking. Nonetheless, the general Facebook user-base does not fully understand the extent to which their efforts towards communication and self-expression are restricted, and, to a degree, determined by the format of Facebook and the various unwritten social rules that their particular network of “friends” is constantly developing within this format.

This being said, I’d like to examine two forms of levelling at play within Facebook: first, the inherent abstraction of individuality that comes from constructing a personality for oneself through the template of Facebook’s profile page; second, the methods of abstraction that individual Facebook users initiate of their own accord, in particular disabling walls and hiding tagged photos.

 Abstraction and the Profile Page

In creating a profile page on Facebook, the general intention is to put forth an image of yourself to the Facebook user-base that you are connected to. All the information that you post on your profile page, — be it your taste in music, your present field of study, or your place of employment — you post for the sake of saying something about who you are. Even if the information that you include is nonsensical or flippant, even if what you are including is the absence of information, you are still trying to say something about yourself. For example, in the category of “Books”, you jokingly include Twilight: you might have done so with the intention of exemplifying your sense of humour or your disdain for the novel; if you leave this section empty, perhaps you are demonstrating your lack of interest in reading, or perhaps you are advertising the sorts of values you uphold in regards to privacy of information, or, perhaps still, you are demonstrating your apathy towards the opinions that other people hold of you. The possibilities in constructing your Facebook personality are seemingly endless.

There is, however, a very stringent restriction surrounding the sort of persona you can develop on your Facebook profile. As is the case with all venues on Facebook, if you want to say anything, you must speak through its template. When you do so, your expression necessarily surfaces as a reduced, less-accurate version of what you intended to say. In the case of the profile, you have reduced yourself to information, which, in relation to the complexity of your self, is actually quite a scarce amount of information.  If we consider this reduction of personality in relation to the function of stereotype, we can begin to understand the immediate typecasting and abstraction that you subject yourself to upon entering Facebook. Ania Loomba describes stereotyping as “a reduction of images and ideas to a simple and manageable form; rather than simple ignorance or lack of ‘real’ knowledge, it is a method of processing information”[11]. If we consider Kierkegaard’s description of levelling as “the negative unity… of all individuals”[12], with this account of stereotype in mind, we can see how stereotype functions as a formative step in the process of abstraction: individuals are unified by means of being reduced to information that is simple enough to process and categorize.

To give an example: if we were to study a random group of people in an attempt to “make sense” of their demographic, we would reduce or simplify each individual in the group until there began to appear tangible connections or patterns between the individuals. If we continued to simplify, our ability to draw connections between these individuals would increase. Simultaneously, each individual in the group would gradually cease to possess an individual identity. If this process were to have an ultimate end, it would be for us to define the group as a sample of “humanity” and nothing else.

Applying this concept to the context of Facebook: by reducing yourself to information that can fit within the framework of Facebook’s profile template, you make yourself immediately susceptible to the process of stereotyping. In a sense, you have already completed half of the stereotyping process: you have simplified yourself into a manageable set of information that is ready to be compared, sorted, and grouped with all the other manageable sets of information available on Facebook. Consider the reliance that so many research groups have on Facebook and the ways in which your profile information might be used as statistical data.[13]Facebook further enables this sort of grouping by putting a hyperlink on each piece of information you include on your profile, which connects you to a list of the Facebook users who have posted that same piece of information to their profile.

Imagine each hyperlinked piece of information as a public. For example, you list Nirvana under the “Music” category. In this case, the Nirvana fan-base is a public. By putting “Nirvana” on your profile, you have associated yourself with the Nirvana fan-base and have consequentially assumed the characteristics that are ascribed to this group. Now consider how easy and inconsequential it is to change your profile information. You have no real commitment to this virtual Nirvana fan base: you can disassociate yourself from them whenever you like, and without any sort of repercussion. In this way, you are always able to update and reinvent your Facebook persona. Studies in the internet’s impact on the modern conception of identity suggest that we have begun to think of the self in terms of multiplicity as a result of our ability to “build a self by cycling through many selves”[14]on the net. What Kierkegaard would argue is that this built “self” is far too transient, non-committal, and instable to be considered as an individual identity[15].

Ressentiment” and the “Levelling Processes” of “Wall”-disabling and Photo-hiding

This section will focus on two currently trending methods of self-abstraction that Facebook users initiate in attempts to avoid competing with the superior Facebook profiles of their “friends”: disabling the wall and making tagged photos invisible.  As I have asserted that there are various publics that appeal to different demographics, I acknowledge that I am writing from within my own variety of publics and that the particular forms of levelling that I am about to outline will not apply to everyone’s experience with Facebook.

Both of these trends stem from the extreme self-consciousness that Facebook breeds by encouraging its users to constantly compare their Facebook selves to those of others and to constantly imagine their profiles from the perspectives of others. This sort of self-analysis draws people into extremely neurotic processes of self-editing. These processes include deleting wall posts, removing recent activity from one’s profile, and untagging photos. The impetus to self-edit is reasonable: we are competitive beings and wish to put forth the best possible image of ourselves. Nonetheless, there is a very negative stigma surrounding these types of behaviours. This stigma is directly linked to Kierkegaard’s concept of “ressentiment” – the urge to debase any form of greatness that might pose a threat to one’s own self-worth[16].

Self-editing is looked down upon within Facebook as it involves effort, which, in the mindset of “ressentiment”, is often the first point of weakness that we attempt to identify and attack. Consider this passage from The Present Age in which Kierkegaard imagines how the ice-skater’s feat is to be belittled at his celebratory banquet:

Even at the height of the banquet, when the applause was loudest, the admiring guests would all have a shrewd notion that the action of the man who received the honour was not really so extraordinary, and that only by chance was the gathering for him, since afterall, with a little practice, everyone could have done as much.[17]

It is easy to degrade effort due to the common conception that it is accessible to everyone. For example, whereas not everyone can be innately brilliant, everyone can try hard at school. If everyone can exert effort, everyone could have exerted effort. Whatever greatness a person achieves by means of hard work is dismantled on these grounds. Within these circumstances, people are inclined to avoid making any conspicuous effort towards their achievement of greatness.

In the context of Facebook, people desire to perfect their Facebook image while simultaneously trying to conceal the amount of effort they have put into creating this image.

This is the circumstance that motivates people to disable their walls and hide the photos that they are tagged in: if they can’t be effortlessly popular and beautiful, they can disable the venues in which their popularity and beauty would have (“could have”) been displayed.

The sentiment behind these strategies is to debase whatever distinction that can be achieved within these venues, which aligns well with the idea that “ressentiment not only defends itself against all existing forms of distinction but against that which is still to come.”[18]To fully secure this self-defence, however, the Facebook user is forced to not only demean the expression of distinction or greatness within these venues, but to altogether eliminate the venues for him-/herself. By doing so, he or she perpetuates a process of levelling in which Facebook users are encouraged to forfeit an element of their individuality for the sake of avoiding competition with the Facebook users who might appear more effortlessly popular and beautiful than themselves. As more and more Facebook users within one’s network eliminate these venues, one becomes more and more distinguished and alienated as a Facebook user who has not eliminated these venues, and is thus compelled to do so. In this way, we see how the Facebook user’s initial “ressentiment establishes itself [in] the process of levelling”[19].

——————————————————

I now address anyone who can admit to themselves their status as an active Facebook user. If we each begin to think of our Facebook network as a public – or, more accurately, as a convergence of several of our publics – we can learn to use the site as a tool by which to become better acquainted with the processes of “levelling” that are functioning within our own particular social circumstances. I am speaking of the social circumstances both inside and outside of Facebook – for if “levelling” is at play within Facebook, it is most certainly at play without Facebook.

Take note of the linguistic trends within your network and be wary of the way in which you structure your wall-post composition in relation to these trends. Then notice the speech patterns within your various peer groups and be wary of the ways in which these patterns influence your particular choices of diction.  Take note of the wall posts that have earned you numerous “likes” and examine carefully whether or not the positive response from public opinion has influenced you to model your subsequent posts after this well-received fashion. Have you happened to rework the content of your most well-received posts into subsequent topics of conversation?  Have you happened to fashion a particularly well-received joke into a subsequent wall-post?

These are the sorts of questions you must ask yourself if you are to accept the revised, multi-dimensional vision of “levelling” with “the public” that I have presented in this paper. Here, conformity is not a generic process by which everyone adapts to assume the same uniform identity. For this reason, it is more difficult to identify “levelling” as it occurs. Acknowledging the tremendous extent to which it does occur, then, we must become as aware as possible of the various publics that inform our identities and scrutinize the way we present and conduct ourselves, bearing in mind the individual influence of each of these publics.

Works Cited

Kierkegaard, Søren. The Present Age, translated by Alexander Dru. Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2010.

Lewis, Kevin and Andreas Wimmer, “Beyond and Below Racial Homophily: ERG Models of a Friendship Network Documented on Facebook,” American Journal of Sociology 116 (2010): 583-642, doi: 10.1086/653658

Loomba, Ania. Colonialism/Postcolonialism. New York: Routeledge, 2005.

Smith, Graham, “Kierkegaard from the point of view of the political,” History of European Ideas 31 (2005): 35-60, doi:10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2004.08.002

Stivers, Richard. “Technology, Character, and Personality” in Shades of Loneliness: pathologies of a technological society, 9-31. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.

Turkle, Sherry. “Aspects of the Self” in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet, 137-232. Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 1995.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, trans. Alexander Dru (Toronto: Harper Perennial, 2010): 36.

[2]. Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 23.

[3] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 24.

[4] Graham Smith, “Kierkegaard from the point of view of the political,” History of European Ideas 31 (2005): 50, doi:10.1016/j.histeuroideas.2004.08.00.

[5] Graham Smith, “Kierkegaard from the point of view of the political,” 51.

6 Richard Stivers, “Technology, Character, and Personality” in Shades of Loneliness: pathologies of a technological society (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004): 14.

[7] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 32.

[8] Ian Buchanan, “imagined community,”  A Dictionary of Critical Theory (2010),  <http://www.oxfordreference.com/views/ENTRY.html?subview=Main&entry=t306.e347&gt;

[9] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 23.

[10] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 35.

[11] Ania Loomba. Colonialism/Postcolonialism (New York: Routeledge, 2005): 55.

[12] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 24.

[13] For example, this particular study bases its data set on the social ties mapped on the Facebook pages of a cohort of students, using profile information such as a student’s previous school to determine his socio-economic status. Kevin Lewis and Andreas Wimmer, “Beyond and Below Racial Homophily: ERG Models of a Friendship Network Documented on Facebook,” American Journal of Sociology 116 (2010): 583-642, doi: 10.1086/653658.

[14] Sherry Turkle, “Aspects of the Self” in Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 1995): 178.

[15] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 35.

[16] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 20-23.

[17] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 9.

[18] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 23.

[19] Kierkegaard, The Present Age, 23.

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