Social media users are lured to voluntarily let themselves be determined by others.
René Girard, a French cultural anthropologist, coined the term „mimetic desire“ to describe the phenomenon of people desiring what others desire. According to Girard, people are not guided by inner needs, but by what others, especially those of their own reference group(s), like or aspire to. People´s behavior is guided by the desire of others, says Girard. In the case of digital natives, imitative behavior is linked to the desire not to stand out from the peer group. That is why they dress up like their peers, buy similar things, prefer the same brands, listen to the same music, admire the same stars and vote for the same party as them.
German-American investor Peter Thiel once complained about conformism, both on the web and within the startup scene. Yet he has benefited financially from the mimesis effect to the greatest extent and has decisively promoted it. At Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley, Thiel was a student of René Girard during the 1990s.
Thiel became a great admirer of the anthropologist and founded the mimesis research institute Imitatio in Girard´s honor. The nature and effect of mimetic desire fascinated him. Thiel immediately recognized its economic potential. Before other investors had even heard the name Mark Zuckerberg, it was clear to Thiel that Zuckerberg´s idea of connecting friends digitally could be monetized big time. The shrewd investor correctly assessed the dynamic that is unleashed as soon as people befriend each other online, compare each other´s looks, tastes and behaviors and develop a desire in the same direction.
In 2004 the Girard devotee was the first investor to put half a million U.S. dollars into Zuckerberg´s startup Facebook.
Girard´s conception of mimesis opens up opportunities for tech companies that are far from being fully exploited. With ever new opportunities for comparison online – via rating, recommendation or editing tools… – the operators of platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Twitter, YouTube or TikTok are inciting users to adjust themselves to external standards.
The user´s effort to conform to certain looks, standards, opinions or principles, has two effects. Peers are becoming more alike and companies in the consumer goods, advertising and tech industries are making large sums of money thereby. That in an electronically networked global village, individuality is abandoned in favor of a collective identity, was predicted by media theorist Marshall McLuhan back in the early 1960s.
Not few digitally connected people are eager to resemble their prominent role models and the star members of their peer groups in their appearance and habitus. The mechanism of assimilation and the simplification that goes with does not only affect outward appearances. Opinions are also becoming increasingly uniform. People from the same community develop identical views on political and other issues which is reinforced by machines.
Thanks to algorithmically generated filter bubbles, members of a certain online peer group no not make contact with the viewpoints of another (peer) group. Algorithms do not deliver dissenting opinions, but merely cement the existing ones. Within opinion bubbles digitally assigned to them users circle around themselves and each other. There is neither the urge nor the need to break out.
If users do not get dizzy it is because they have already got used to this technologically induced rotation. And as the virtual world increasingly superimposes the real world, virtuality becomes a new reality. In the process human perception is changing.
Consumer technologies are hijacking brains and bodies. There are two parties involved in this overpowering, the companies that develop new technology and the people who use it. Both benefit from it – yet in completely different ways.
Black hat hackers and propaganda bots do not need a theory of „mimetic desire“. They are meant to make their targets play specific, previously defined mimicry games. The easiest to be duped are users who play these games blindly.
Except for the last three sentences this text is the translation of an excerpt from the preface of my latest book.
Source/Quelle: Schmalz, Gisela (2020): Mein fremder Wille – Wie wir uns freiwillig unterwerfen und die Tech-Elite kassiert. (“My Alienated Will – Why we choose to surrender while the tech elite cashes in”) Frankfurt am Main: Campus Verlag.