Social media and René Girard’s memetics

OK, among people who’ve heard of anthropologist turned radical theologian Dr. Girard, I’m probably the last guy to realize this. But the big social media outfits (FB, Twitter, Instagram, the usual suspects) make their money by exploiting the “I’ll have what he’s having” streak in human nature.

The old joke:

Russian waiter: What would you like, sir?

Diner: Tilting his head at a fellow at the next table  I’ll have what he’s having.

Waiter: Picks up that fellow’s plate and puts it in front of the diner.

By Girard’s lights, that’s a mean and dangerous streak in human nature. It makes us willing to make each other suffer — to be violent — to get the thing the other guy has.  Not having that thing makes us anxious. Collectively it makes us angry and helps us form into violent mobs. The jargon for it is mimetic desire.

Here’s a review of a bunch of books about social media by John Lanchester. He points out that Peter Thiel, a Girard fanboy who’s more into Nietzsche than Jesus, invested in FB because he saw the potential to exploit mimetic desire to build a business.  Obviously, FB isn’t the first business to profit from mimetic desire: people famously killed each other to steal Nike Air Jordan shoes in the late 20th century, and the Spanish trashed Central America to steal their gold for a period of hundreds of years. But still, FB has drawn in many people.

Now look: Girard struggled to understand how mimetic desire is a dark tendency in human souls. He struggled to understand how we, individually and collectively, might transcend that tendency. The point of his work was to show a path beyond that human morass. I’m not sure the big social media companies are motivated by that. I fear the opposite is true, and they disguise it with platitudes about making people more connected.

This web site’s tag line is “social media for the life of the world.” I can only hope the influential social media companies can do a little bit to push that goal. I fear the obsession people have with keeping up on FB and Instagram is, simply put, “social media for the death of the world.”

To put it in orthodox Christian language with a Girardian angle: When Jesus said, “take up your cross and follow me,”  he meant something like this. “Be willing to lay aside your envy and anxiety about whether you’re better than the next person.” There’s nothing glamorous or desirable about the cross.  Quite the opposite. It’s ugly, nasty, and the opposite of enviable. When you’re willing to carry it in public, you’re saying no to the culture of glamour, envy, and violence. You’re saying “I don’t care about that stuff.” When you’re willing to carry it in public, as Jesus did, you’re a witness saying the culture of glamour, envy, and violence has no power.

The life of the world thrives when people see that the culture of glamour, envy, and violence has no power.

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