Facebook Works Because of Hegel

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

Well, it’s not exactly like that. Facebook works because of something Hegel discovered about human nature: we need others to recognize us and esteem what we do. The feedback we get from others plays an essential role in defining who we are. Oddly, much of what we do appears to be pointless. Or is it?

In Hegel’s day. Napoleon was rampaging across Europe, conquering Venice one afternoon, taking Sardinia the next. Why? It’s not because France needed the extra Lebensraum. No, Napoleon was in a fight to the death for glory, or, as Hegel would put it in the Phenomenology of Spirit, recognition.

hegel-phenomenology
Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, probably thinking about someone thinking about him

Strange as it sounds, Hegel realized we are all in the same fight Napoleon was, although we lead much quieter lives. Hegel believed we become consicious of ourselves as human persons only through a series of relationships defined by mutual recognition: first as a recepient (and eventual giver) of familial love, then as a member of a society free to effect contractual relationships, and ultimatley as a citizen of a liberal democratic state.

For Hegel, we do not become conscious of ourselves as human persons unless we have other humans around to project images back onto us that tell us how good (or bad) we are. We are, to a mysterious extent, constituted by what other people think about us. This is Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness. (It’s also one of the pillars of what would become postmodernism, the idea that there is no “I” at the center of the self. But that’s another story.)

Nietzsche painted a fascinating picture of Hegel’s idea, calling humans “the beast with red cheeks.” What he meant was that humans, alone among animals, are capable of aspiring to excellence and feeling pride when we achieve it, shame when we fall short. But why the red cheeks? Can’t we just keep our compsure as we court admiration, keeping score internally? No, because people are watching, and we need them to be. The people around us help define the standards of excellence to which we aspire and, to an even greater extent, attribute virtue or vice to us when we succeed or fail, as the case may be. According to Hegel, we can’t do this scorekeeping all for ourselves. There’s no emotional payoff to it.

But here’s the really shocking thing Hegel said about our need for recognition: it is not just a nice-to-have; we are actually in a fight to the death for it. Now this sounds crazy until you reflect that most of us, relaxing, sipping a drink, and browsing the Internet, have been bathing in recognition since day one. We probably zipped right through Hegel’s three levels of mutuality and don’t even know what it is like to go without the kind of recognition that creates persons.

It is only when you look at cases of stunted personhood that you start to appreciate that Hegel was right about the fight-to-the-death thing. Who hasn’t heard of someone committing suicide over being jilted by a lover? How many gang murders happen because one gang member is dissed by another? Road rage homicide?–It is basically a very brief, but thermonuclear demand for recognition. Aristocratic gentlemen no longer duel, but when they did, it was to attain “satisfaction” that they were honorable and–this is crucial–that they were seen to be honorable.

So what does all this have to do with the wild success of Facebook? I think you probably know by now, but I’ll spell it out the way it occurred to me yesterday as I was out trail running.

I was toodling along, outlining a blog post I want to write about nominating a dead Austrian philosoper for President of the United States, when the remainder of my run started to unfold before my mind’s eye with remarkable clarity. I was about 20km into a 30km run, feeling good, and estimating how much longer I would be at it. Within about five minutes’ accuracy as it turned out, I pictured reaching my car, fumbling with my phone, and posting my performance to Facebook.

Why? Every Sunday I post more or less the same squiggle on a map of the Odenwald announcing to my Facebook friends that, once again I heaved and clambered my way up and over my favorite hill. Why go through the motions of this petty appeal for praise? It’s just the same damn thing every week.

I wouldn’t say the answer came in a flash, but it sort of developed as the prize I won for three hours of trail-running toil. I make those posts because I am in a fight to the death for recognition, and because this recognition is so important–if Hegel is right, it is part of me–I am greedy for it even in the smallest quantities. It doesn’t even matter if it is shamelessly elicited by a Facebook signpost that says, “Look at me!”

I think this must be why we are all in it. Facebook has democratized our elicitations of recognition. How easy it has become just to like someone’s crochet project, bike ride, new porch, kids’ photos, and so forth. Now, more than ever, there is someone out there who will recognize you, who will raise you up and make you fractionally more of a person than you were before they hit “like.”

It is a thought for another day to consider what this democratization of recognition might be doing to us. All economists will tell you a commodity must be scarce to be valuable. What happens once we can all find recognition all the time? I’m sure Zuckerberg would be the first to admit he doesn’t really know what he has stumbled upon by creating Facebook, but he should read Hegel to get an idea of where it is going, and to discharge some of his philosophical debt.

 

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