Are Social Media Phony By Default?

“The world will be better if you share more.” That’s what Mark Zuckerberg claims. And it’s part of a general philosophy of many fans of social media: that they help us to be more “social”, friendlier, cooperative, collaborative…in other words better.

But what – in truth – is the default mode of social media? On the surface, one would think “social”. That can’t be true though, for no technologies have social implanted in them – by definition, human-social belongs to humans.

So when I dip into my Twitter stream, for instance, I see huge volumes of people saying nice things, quoting positive aphorisms, replying to each other with accolades. If you didn’t know any better, you might conclude these are conversations between people who’ve know each other for decades.

The reality of ‘social’ however isn’t all happy and conversational and collaborative. The truth of our human nature is complex and contrary. Anybody who is happy all the time, who never expresses a dark thought, who never stands up against what’s clearly wrong – or just plain stupid – is not being honest.

These media, however, do make us want to behave as if we’re all brothers and sisters. Nobody – except terrorists and people with childhood issues – wants these media to be anti-social.

So here’s the danger, the threat to our sociability: if the default of these media is to force us into particular frames (140 characters, video, audio, etc.) then how honest can we be – might we be automatically ‘phonyfied’ – regardless of our intent?

For if we are all brothers and sisters among these media, what happens to the elders? What happens to a civilization which no longer looks upward, but only horizontally?

I, for one, don’t want to see a world where everybody’s treated as if they’re clones, where nobody expresses themselves, where we’re all dictated to be social but in fact relegated to being alone.

The phrase itself – “social media” – should be a red flag. It’s not unlike Brave New World, or Orwellian Newspeak: the very words which claim “solidarity”, “security”, “community” hide the very nature of the State: discord, violation, fragmentation.

By inverting our notion of social media to phony media, we at least stand a chance of being who we are – which is what we want, right?




  1. Hello Phil,
    When Zuckerman said: โ€œThe world will be better if you share more”, I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean that every excruciatingly boring status update on Facebook would somehow make the world better. Or did he?

    Interesting research out of Australia last month about narcissim and Facebook users. It’s not that everybody on social media has narcisstic tendencies – it’s more like those who do absolutely love Twitter, Facebook et al because these sites make them feel important and recognized.

    Does this make them “phony”? You decide. More on this study at “Why Narcissists Love Facebook” at:

  2. Good point! Both areas can be, and no doubt are exaggerated. And there also can be no doubt the media shape the message–like you said about McLuhan. He sure seems prescient now, doesn’t he?

  3. Funny you mention the Ludwig’s Tractatus – if you read his propositions, they almost look like a Twitter stream ๐Ÿ˜‰

    2.19 The logical picture can depict the world.
    2.23 In order to discover whether the picture is true or false we must compare it with reality.
    2.224 It cannot be discovered from the picture alone whether it is true or false. [emphasis mine]

    Perhaps, we return – once again – to McLuhan’s medium-is-message. His conception may be a better ‘picture’ of the true nature of social media – that it is neither social nor phony, but just pure medium.

  4. Yup – lots to think about.

    Concerning people spewing vitriol – that too could be ‘phony’ in the sense that the medium may not reflect what the true nature of a personality. In other words, it could go both ways.

    I’m not sure either that the media are ‘phony’, but the media definitely shape how a person is conveyed.

  5. Hi Phil

    I suppose it has a lot to do with who we hang out with ๐Ÿ™‚

    Ricoeur reminds us that human action can only be narrated, within the social web or anywhere else, because it is always already symbolically mediated by the signs, rules, and norms that filter our lived existence as we picture it (although I’ve made that sound more like Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, but never mind).

    If my social brother/sisterhood consists mostly of dissenting voices, then I suppose that is their (and my) reality, and forms the locus where our virtual and IRL conversations elide. We bring our discontent to the social web, and perceive it to have a latent potential to (hate to use the word, but I’m keen to reclaim it) disrupt.

    It is perhaps that sense of real – not phony – discontent with facets of actually existing human arrangements and their outcomes (say, in the lousy design that hobbles the delivery of healthcare) that make us seek out other voices in order to hear echoes of our own, and to subsequently call upon each other collectively to let change speak out in the world, through us.

    Thinking happy thoughts,


  6. Wow. So much to chew on here I hardly know where to start. I do notice quite a bit of upbeatness & niceness on Twitter–keeping in mind it’s my individual stream, of course. That sense of community is the last thing I expected when I finally jumped in. I can see where we might have the urge/feel peer pressure to be our best selves. But a) I don’t feel like I’m not being myself out here; I really am one of those glass half-full types and b) I think some take it too far in the other direction and use SM as an excuse to spew vitriol at anyone who challenges their belief systems. (I see that more on FB & in blog comments.) I’ll take nice over vicious any day.

    So, I don’t necessarily agree it’s phony media. But I couldn’t agree with you more that we need to speak up against what’s clearly wrong or be willing to swim against the tide in other ways. Some of my favorite people online do just that.

    Good stuff, I’m going to be thinking about this for awhile. Thanks!

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