Facebook’s Newsfeed, Recognition and Friendship

On Facebook’s newsfeed people often post everything from pictures of themselves and their food, to news articles and videos, to facts about their daily lives and seemingly profound quotes. In this sense the newsfeed on Facebook serves as medium of self-disclosure wherein people choose to share facts about their lives, their thoughts on politics or simply their taste in cuisine. The question that this raises is what drives people to disclose themselves in this way through the medium of Facebook’s newsfeed? It seems that one reason for these forms of activity is that people desire to be valued by others. The desire to be valued by others, or put differently the desire to be recognized as valuable is not inherently problematic, but posting to Facebook’s newsfeed because of this desire is problematic as it constitutes a form of disrespect for others.

Typically on Facebook, people have many contacts which range from close friends to relatives to distant acquaintances. Generally, the vast majority of ones “friends” on Facebook are merely acquaintances with which one shares very little connection. Anything one posts to one’s newsfeed will show up in all of one’s “friend’s” newsfeeds. As a result of this fact when one posts to the newsfeed one is sharing not only with one’s actual friends, but with the broad range of contacts that one has collected as Facebook “friends.” Consequently, it seems that, in some cases, a legitimate explanation for why people disclose themselves through posts to their newsfeed is so that they are seen by others in a particular light and in turn valued by them. For example, there is little difference between talking about your recent breakup on Facebook’s newsfeed, and talking with a cashier who you are acquainted with about your breakup. In the latter case we would say that the person needed someone to hear them out in order so that they felt valued by others. So, in the former case (Facebook’s newsfeed) it seems that we should also think that the person is searching for valuation by others. Consequently, I think it is plausible to think that in many cases posting to Facebook’s newsfeed indicates a desire to be valued by others; in such cases we expose ourselves to others in hopes that they see the post and come to recognize our value.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the recognition that we look for while posting on Facebook’s newsfeed is not the desire to be recognized as a human being with dignity, because someone can accord this to another, without valuing any particular features of the individual. Consequently, we can recognize another as having equal human dignity if we think that all individuals should be treated with respect, even if we do not value the particular nature of certain human beings. This is clearly not the kind of recognition we seek through posting on Facebook’s newsfeed. Rather, the recognition we seek in the context of Facebook’s newsfeed is to be seen as valuable not as a human being in general, but as a particular human being with particular features. For example, we may want to be recognized because of our profound intellect or our exquisite taste in music, or some other particular feature. For the rest of this post when I refer to recognition I mean this latter form of recognition of particularistic value.

The problem with posting to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to achieve recognition is that this act seeks to achieve recognition without any interest in forming a deeper relationship with the others who are being asked for recognition. When one is forming a friendship one discloses oneself to others in hopes that they will recognize the particular value that you have, but you also have an interest in forming a relationship with that person and sharing in their life in some way. When we post to Facebook’s newsfeed in order to gain recognition on the other hand we do so to get as much recognition as we can, but without actually taking an interest in developing deeper relationships with those who we are asking for recognition from. In this case, there is a tendency to see the others that we are asking for recognition from as a source of “likes,” rather than as other particular individuals. We want these others to affirm our value, but we have little interest in forming a consequential relationship with them, whether it be a friendship, or simply a spirited sharing of interests. Seeing others as mere sources of “likes” or recognition in this way is deeply problematic as it objectifies the person who is being asked for recognition, and consequently disrespects them.  Now it is true that objectification is a large part of most elements of contemporary society. We are objectified in our work place as we are “resources” rather than persons. We are objectified by the store owner who merely sees us a source of money, but nonetheless we need to take a critical eye to all forms of objectification, if only to better understand if it is a necessary element of all developed societies, or if it is something that we can overcome.


Edit: April 20 – 5:43 MST


3 thoughts on “Facebook’s Newsfeed, Recognition and Friendship

  1. As always, a very insightful essay on the problematic aspects of a common social practice. There were a wide range of thoughtful ideas presented here, but I only want to comment on the Kantian undertones of, what seemed to me, to be the main critique in your last paragraph – that sharing certain types of information via Facebook uses persons as means to one’s ends of recognition, whereas sharing that same information (more) privately creates bonds of friendship that treat that person as an end and not merely a means.

    I point to this Kantian reading (from the second formulation of the categorical imperative) specifically because I was reminded of it when you noted that the shopkeeper sees the shopper as a source of money. For the shopkeeper to see the shopper only in this way would be immoral because it is treating the shopper merely as a means, and not as an end – a human being worthy of respect and dignity in virtue of being a rational agent having goals. But Kant thought that such social/economic interactions could occur without the occurrence of immorality if the shopkeeper does not treat the shopper as a mere means. The shopkeeper is not immoral to see the shopper as his means to financial profit so long as he recognizes that the shopper has their own end goals, and in using the shopper as a means to his ends he does not unreasonably prevent the shopper from acting on their own ends – such as by not overcharging them and providing them with the appropriate product or service. (I hope this hasn’t come off as patronizing, I know you know your Kant, I just mention all of this so my comments are not out of context for your readers who might not be familiar with Kant).

    Now the question emerges whether posting something in order to receive accolades for one’s interests is using persons as mere means, in the sense of not treating them with respect as rational agents. It might seem like it doesn’t, as it could be said that no one’s end goals are actively hampered by my act of posting a video of obscure hipster music. But because more and more of our lives occur on the internet our concepts of social influence need to account for less direct, but still forceful, interactions. In light of this, we should see the act of posting media that shows one’s musical or intellectual complexity and prowess as asserting “I am valuable because I value (enjoy) what is valuable”, which is at the same time to claim that “Those who do not appreciate what I value lack value for not valuing what is valuable”. Posting such media, then, does not treat persons as ends, because the act is tantamount to declaring that persons who do not value such media have the wrong end goals, that is, they value the wrong things. This entails that they should change their ends, but if this is so, then the act of sharing media for “likes” is not to treat persons with respect as rational agents as it denies that the end goals of some persons are valuable ends, and introduces doubt into their mind in such a way that does hamper their acting on their ends out of concern that their ends are not valuable.

    All of this is to say that I agree with you about the problematic nature of socialization via Facebook, and my intent has been to offer a Kantian argument in support of one of your arguments. I am indebted to you for positing some very interesting ideas that spurred this Kantian tirade.

    • Thanks for the comment. You make a very insightful set of points as always.

      You are correct that Kant did not see commercial transactions as immoral as they can be pursued while avoiding treating people merely as means. However, I think that developing the habit of seeing another as a source of money tends to encourage us to treat that other with disrespect, because valuing people instrumentally (ie as a source of money) can encourage us to forget that we need to treat that other as an end, as phenomenologically, that other becomes a mere object in our consciousness.

      I find the argument in your third paragraph very elegant and attractive, and while initially I was not trying to make that argument, I think you make a compelling point. Yet, the argument poses a difficulty for me because what accompanies your argument is that simple acts of free expression, which do not seem to violate other’s rights, can constitute disrespect for others. I agree with this thought, but it raises the question of how we can combine a commitment to free expression, with a commitment to respect for all. I don’t think these values are irreconcilable, but they do seem to come into conflict in particular situations.

      • I can certainly agree that too frequently seeing people as means can lead to seeing them only as means.

        As for the last paragraph, I tried to push Kantianism as far as it would go and the results surprised me. If our intuitions tell us that such expression is not as wrong as this Kantian perspective tells us then perhaps we should alter the moral theory rather than try to shape our moral sensibility to fit the theory. The relevance of moral epistemology to normative theory gets tricky here. Still, we might note that the values are not irreconcilable even on this strong Kantianism, as you say, if we keep in mind that the intentions of the agent in sharing media are relevant to the moral status of sharing them. If the agent does not intend to share the content to show off his good taste but rather to share something that he thinks other people would enjoy because they do have good values — such that he wouldn’t be telling people that their values are wrong like in the immoral case above — then it is hard to see his action as treating other as mere means. Such a case would seem to involve treating others as ends, in fact, as his action would suggest that he values the person enough to share good music with them.

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