There are few more satisfying feelings in the world than seeing your emotions mirrored back to you. It’s what makes us fall in love, form communities, build anything that takes the work of more than one person. I’m not sure that anything matters more to humans than feeling seen.
Feeling seen is valuable. Finance knows it, marketers know it, fashion designers know it and the algorithms really know it. A switch flips when the outside world mirrors us back. The cold reality of being atomistic individuals dissolves just a little with the prospect that the other might not be so far away after all
This is why going viral on social media is such an ecstatic feeling for people. Being mirrored at mass scale is beyond pleasure and pain. Virality is existential. This fact is not lost on Silicon Valley and various expatriates of the culture and even current citizens question the morality. Creating virtual existential experiences feels wrong to us. And I can’t argue that the consequences of virality hasn’t done significant damage to the fabric of civilization. Facebook has more blood on its hands than a small government. But I’m not sold that synthetic experiences are morally worth less than natural ones. Social media replicates religious and cultural experiences but whether it’s “worse” than the other existential experiences is a bit like questioning if opium or fentanyl is worse because plants are morally superior to chemistry labs. The effect is the same more or less. Sure the dosing is what gets you but arguing scale gets you into a “good of the many or good of the one” debates and I’m not the crew of the Enterprise or Spock.
I can tell you that it’s probably best to be cautious about anything that can get you hooked if you know you are an addict. I’ve gone viral on Twitter several times in the past week and probably going on double digits now in the last year. Each time I get a new appreciation for how much it can feel like a god has messed with your reality. If it goes poorly you feel like you got hit by a bolt from the blue. Even if it goes well you worry if maybe Aries has decided to make you his tool. I’m a Christian so I’m no stranger to the feeling of surrender to a higher power, but watching a machine algorithm play like the left hand of God in your life is fucking weird.
By Silicon Valley standards I’m a minor clerical authority in some backwater. I’ve been initiated into the rights but I’m not close to the Vatican or Mecca. Being swept up in the miracle of virality makes some amount of sense to me and I appreciate the benefits of status that it confers. But I know it’s a ritualized way of bringing us closer to the divine that’s not about the individual and is ultimately about the institution. Fortunately I’m also a Calvinist so I have very few illusions about my place in the experience. I’m still a sinner and whether I’m damned or not hasn’t got much to do with human rituals. But I’m not immune to the awesome either.
So if you are inclined to use social media be careful what weight you assign to your actions and words. At any moment a miracle facilitated by the rites of machines can and will occur. I made a stupid joke about a monarchy in decline and a television show about a witch in a massive universe of superheroes. But 31,000 accounts decided to like it and a million discrete instances of it were produced to “others” willing to mirror it back to me. Which is about as stupid a thing as I can imagine happening and also as close to the random miraculously nature of God as I can possibly imagine. Just don’t read too much into it or your faith might have an existential crisis as well.