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Objectifying humanity: the social theory behind social media

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OCTOBER 04, 2022

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts”

Although many of us may have stumbled through Shakespeare in high school, this quote is beloved by us all. It has survived the test of time because of its validity: Our world is but a large theater, where we all interact and play the roles we were born to play. 

This fascination with entertainment — either being entertained or playing the role of the entertainer — has permeated human social culture. We live, we work, we get bored, we seek out outlets to relax. This is exemplified in the digital age, as the newest contender of the communications field enters the scene: social media.

What makes social media different from other forms of entertainment? Some media and entertainment consultants claim we are entering the age of a new world economy, where “culture, demography, and technology are all pushing us towards one goal: extracting the last drop of fun out of every experience’’ as described by M.J. Wolf in a research paper. But that’s not anything new. Humans like to have fun — so what?

Maximilian Weber was a prominent sociologist in the early 20th century. Considered one of the founding fathers of sociology, he characterized a portion of social theory known as social action, or an individual’s interactions with other individuals or groups.

Weber’s theory of social action provides clarity into the reason for social media’s popularity as well as its harmful effects. The internet provides validation of actions; it is the final judge of the acceptable, the beautiful and the “canceled.” 

Passing judgment in particular, is an example of one of Weber’s ideal types of social action: affective action. Affective action can be defined as the emotional response we have when we interact with the individuals around us. We practice “cancel culture” on the internet as a tradition, and we deliver judgment through our emotional output. 

Cancel culture, or the mass withdrawal of support of a particular individual, has become so intense in today’s society, largely because of the rapid dissemination of information on social media. The ability to get mass groups of people to jointly reject another individual is something that is only possible in the modern age. Never in human history have we collectively been able to express such extreme distaste over a single individual. 

The social networks created by the internet are so intricate that we are rapidly able to give our opinion on every topic possible. According to some studies, this may be due to the nature of the social media platforms itself. Popular social media platforms often foster ideological rigidity or content out of context. 

We are instantly able to deliver our emotions and broadcast it to everyone. Weber’s theory holds even more true for the internet than it does for the “real world” he was trying to characterize. Unlike in the virtual realm, it is impossible to pass judgment on people we don’t know personally in the real world. 

Psychologically, this level of emotional behavior can be overwhelming. We’re basically reducing people into two-dimensional creatures: you can be good or evil, black or white, heads or tails. This binary perspective of humanity promotes a sense of depersonalization. 

We rarely psychologically view people on social media as human beings. Rather, they are just objects to be judged or criticized with no repercussions. Our very lives are a commodity on social media; the content we post is the main unit of consumption. Social media companies profit off of our lives. 

When you reduce humans into units of consumption, you objectify humanity. The consequences of removing our humanity are incredibly detrimental to the mental health of a population. 

What we have achieved as a society is something that we could not have even imagined. Over the span of just two decades, we have managed to revolutionize the way we interact with people all over the world. We’ve made significant strides in communication and coming together as a collective human society. 

There’s no doubt about that. 

But remember when you’re rage typing your next tweet, you may be reducing someone’s life to a binary perspective. Your life isn’t a commodity to be consumed and neither is anyone else’s. Shakespeare said there are many parts an individual plays in their lifetime. What’s your next part?

Contact Aarthi Muthukumar at 

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OCTOBER 06, 2022