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How Social Media Thrives on "Ugly Feelings"


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In Real Life magazine, Stefan Higgins dissects how social-media platforms like Facebook and Twitter are designed to reinforce negative emotions rather than positive ones, contrary to the claims of tech evangelists like Mark Zuckerberg. As Higgins writes, “ugly feelings” like anxiety and despair are more profitable for social media companies because such emotions call for alleviation or resolution. We often to seek this resoultion is social media itself, which instead offers up more anxiety, which we then seek to resolve with further social-media use… Check out an excerpt from Higgins’s analysis below.

Because ugly feelings are confusing, and because that confusion motivates a desire in us to “feel better,” negative emotions are actually productive of action — a productivity perfectly suited to information-gathering, capital-accumulating platform corporations. Sianne Ngai argues that “insecurity about one’s place during periodic innovation, fear of losing recently gained privileges, and anxiety over being ‘left behind’ translate into flexibility, adaptability, and a readiness to reconfigure oneself.” This perverse functionality is manifest in a “desire to overcome” obstruction, impassivity, and suspension. So we say to ourselves, “With one more ‘refresh’ this algorithm may recommend me something decent.” Perhaps, on Instagram, I have seen pictures of yet another influencer on vacation at the top of my feed. I am irritated because I had logged on while at work in the hope of seeing friends posting “stories” about their day. Maybe I feel envy that someone else is on vacation, irritation at their privilege, or anxiety about my own salary. Regardless, rather than closing Instagram, I attempt to overcome those unpleasant feelings by refreshing my feed. In this instance, I have functionally overcome suspension; the only problem is that what arrives is another, newer feeling of suspension. On platforms, every update, regardless of content, mainly serves the purpose of necessitating further updates.

Just as algorithms are concerned only with their own reproduction — that is, the update — ugly feelings “operate” in the same way. Anxiety, irritation, and envy have a remarkable inability to be resolved. Ugly feelings mirror the platforms that enable them. In the grip of endless updates, every advent of the “new” can seem to offer the possibility of overcoming ugly feelings at the same time as each update simultaneously re-creates them.

Image by Sam Wolff from Phoenix, USA - we swarm, CC BY-SA 2.0. Via Wikimedia Commons.