Commodifying the Human Experience
An Existential Perspective
One evening, a young man I’ve never met put on an old shirt belonging to his father who passed away when he was a baby. The young man planned to wear the old shirt on a date with his mother, who teared up once she saw it. He gave her a big, heartfelt hug. I can tell you about this seemingly private moment because it actually wasn’t so private. He held his camera phone to his mother’s face as her emotions welled up, then held the phone in “selfie mode” as he pulled her in for a hug. After documenting the experience, he went on to post it to Twitter, where it went viral.
Upon watching the video, now also featured on a popular Instagram page, I felt conflicted by the simultaneous warmth and exasperation it evoked in me. Warmth, because it was unquestionably a sentimental moment. Exasperation, because it almost felt as if the moment was manufactured for the sole purpose of attempting to become viral. Was it still a sweet moment between him and his mom? Of course. And I’m not condemning him for posting it. But now the full story is that it was a sweet moment shared by him, his mom, me, you, and the hundreds of thousands of other Instagram and Twitter users who liked and shared the video. Does that reduce the value of the moment? I don’t know, probably not. But it is worth attempting to understand why some of us feel the need to document and share personal experiences like this.
Remember when you were little, and one of your parents whipped out that bulky video camera to record your first soccer game? You would go on to dig up that footage years later and reminisce about your childhood. It feels good to have that documentation because life is so fleeting. Many of us tend towards taking photos and videos of our lives so as to never forget these special moments. Taking photos and videos almost feels like attempts to desperately grasp at time and make it stop, so we can hold onto special moments and imagine that we’ll live forever.
My generation (millennial) has mastered the use of home videos. We excel at commodifying human experiences. In a literal sense, successfully popular recorded moments can actually generate money for some people. Sometimes we literally commodify human experiences. What I am interested in, however, is what else do we gain by all our excessive posting? Before jumping into my thoughts, I want to note that I am not trying to pathologize or condemn us. As a therapist, I am always trying to understand why people behave in the ways that we do. People are smart- people do things because… reasons. These reasons are often complex. I sought to answer this question with a psychological framework that hits close to home for all of us.
Modern Freudian psychologists believe psychological problems come from unresolved conflicts from one’s past. Humanists think that people are prevented from reaching their full potential when conditions are placed on their personal worth. Existential psychologists are concerned with the nature of being human and they believe that suffering occurs as a result of the unfortunate knowledge of “existential givens”.
Existential givens are an inescapable part of the human condition. These givens are: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness.*
- Death- the inevitability that everyone you have ever known and loved is going to die, including you
- Freedom- autonomy; the fact that each of us is responsible for the creation of our own world
- Isolation- each of us will enter and exit this universe alone
- Meaninglessness- we crave to find meaning in a universe which is inherently meaninglessness
Existential psychologists believe that no matter what, these givens are true for all of us. That’s why they are called givens. Living with the knowledge of these givens or spending too much time dwelling on them may lead to tremendous suffering. I believe one way that some of us cope (often subconsciously) is by manufacturing recorded moments from our lives and sharing them for many people to see.
There is research that describes what occurs in the brain when we have a positive social interaction, and the release of dopamine that occurs is comparable to what happens when you take a hit of cocaine. What about after receiving a notification such as a “like” from social media? There is emerging evidence that physical changes in the brain occur due to social media usage, but what do those likes represent for us on an existential level? Perhaps they represent the abstract things humans constantly seek out in order to reduce our existential suffering. Connection. Belonging. To love and be loved. Most people are born craving these things, but unfortunately, it is impossible to ever really verify that we actually have them. Social media serve as the systems through which we can quantify love, belonging, and acceptance in the form of likes, reactions, follows, etc. Previously abstract, these phenomena have become tangible because now we can informally measure with new currency. Likes, views, and shares now allow us to measure the formerly immeasurable.
People seem inspired now more than ever to capture moments from their lives and post for the world to see. Existential givens such as isolation and meaninglessness are deeply ingrained in our subconscious, therefore any attempt to mitigate the absolute panic that these givens cause will be excessive. And that excess is what I see on my social media feeds, including most of my own social media profiles. Some of us impulsively capture content from our life to share, because it helps us to get by in this life. Perhaps these online snapshots of our life events serve as a record that they actually happened, and perhaps the digital currency attached to them serves as proof that it’s not all for nothing.
We shouldn’t blame ourselves. The very nature of our existence is tragically paradoxical. As existential psychiatrist Irv Yalom once put it: “We humans appear to be meaning-seeking creatures who have the misfortune of being thrown into a world devoid of intrinsic meaning”. So what do we make of that? Philosopher Albert Camus may or may not have actually said this famous quote: “The literal meaning of life is whatever you’re doing that prevents you from killing yourself”. Sounds morbid, but I think it’s safe to say it’s pretty accurate. I think whatever encourages us to keep on living should be…whatever encourages us to keep on living. And that’s the meaning of life.
Upon reflecting on my own relationship with social media I likely won’t change much. I post content and get that dopamine hit when y’all like my posts and feel disappointed when it doesn’t get enough social currency for that day. I rinse and repeat. Sometimes it’s fun and sometimes I need a break. I think it’s important to simply practice self-awareness and compassion to determine when it feels useful and connecting, and when it feels unhealthy and isolating.
The main thing I personally do to protect myself from existential givens is to make it my life’s work to do what matters the most to me. I chose a career in counseling psychology so that I can continue to find personal meaning in fostering human connection and helping my clients find meaning and connection in their own lives. Ironically, being in a Ph.D. program for counseling psychology has limited my ability to maintain the number and depth of relationships I would like, because I work excessive hours and am tired all of the time. I am working on gratitude and recognizing human connection in all its forms. Human connection manifests in the more obvious ways, like special moments with my family, friends, or therapy clients. But also may be appreciated in less obvious ways, such as enjoying banter with the barista at my favorite coffee shop. Or chatting about hockey with the kid I did IQ testing with last weekend. Or sharing a moment with the fellow Black woman who complimented my hair today. We just need to make sure that we take the time to notice these moments.
One day I was on my way home from work on the bus, and I was feeling particularly alone and forgettable. I forgot to pull the “stop requested” string, but the bus driver stopped at my usual stop anyway. He yelled back to me “Are you getting off here?” and he was right; I was supposed to get off there. This affected me more profoundly than I would have expected at that moment because he remembered me. I fit a small role in his story, and he knew a line from mine. For some reason, this small acknowledgment of my routine from a stranger was enough for me that day. And it was a reminder for me to recognize human connection- no matter how small or fleeting- whenever I can.
I don’t have a prescription for how we should cope with our existential givens. It is not my intent to discourage posting online, rather, to better understand why it is that many of us feel the urge to do so. Is it really helping? Or is it simply a convenient way for us to convince ourselves that it’s helping? Are we even aware that we need help? Do we even need help? Reflecting on this topic only left me with more questions. Self-reflection is all we can do to know what our own answers to those questions may be.
*This is a crude introduction to existential psychology. For more, check out writings by Irv Yalom, Viktor Frankl, or other existential psychologists.