It’s Okay That Social Media Isn’t Cool

I’m just starting to figure this one out, but I wanted to post my initial thoughts here and see if any discussion emerges.

One of the great sociological concerns (and concern trolls) about the Social Media Age is “authenticity.” (Much theoretical debt to @robhorning and @nathanjurgenson to follow.) Since social media quantifies all social posturing and makes it conspicuous, others can collect and scrutinize it. This gives us clearer ways of assessing how “real” or “fake” someone is.

This creates new implications for a social problem at least as old as consumerism: the acquisitive desire for “coolness,” the desire to be desired without desiring. “Realness” is an essential element of “coolness,” so “cool” people must be “real” people. People can also position themselves for greater “coolness” by pointing out another’s “fakeness,” which is often identified by calculated efforts to increase “coolness.” Pretending to be cool is not cool.

The thing is, the standards for all this were developed for offline “coolness,” where there are no metrics, where the template for identity is not standardized into the fields on a profile page, and where there were no easy, prescribed buttons on every action to suffice as a reaction.

That is, coolness standards developed in a realm where explicit social signaling about changes in relative “coolness” in the group was necessary. You couldn’t just look at someone’s Timeline and see whether they were a faker. You had to check with your peers, and you both gained coolness by verifying for one another. But I think social media have changed things enough to warrant a reevaluation of the coolness standards.

In the Social Media Age, only the cool survive. I don’t mean that in an abstract sense. Fast-forward five years. If the entire group formerly known as the middle class is working as Uber drivers and TaskRabbits and eBay peddlers, scraping together income in unpredictable chunks as at-will contract labor continues to gut traditional employment sectors, those people have to appear cool on social media to make ends meet. This is already pretty true. Coolness on social media is increasingly a prerequisite, even for “traditional” jobs.

As has been the case since consumer taste began to define social identity, a very small number of people are effortlessly cool. We hate those people, but we also love them, as their social media metrics clearly indicate. For the rest of us, coolness requires effort. Fortunately-ish, because social media provide standardized templates upon which to build an identity, techniques for appearing cool can finally be studied and understood. The problem is, that democratizes coolness. If lots of people appear cool, something is wrong. Coolness is supposed to be difficult and rare. Widespread coolness means that some people — lots of people — are faking it, and that’s not cool.

So authenticity crusades in the Social Media Age are largely about outing someone as a fake cool person. People seeking coolness are incentivized to scrutinize other people’s profiles and root out inauthenticity. This can happen in full public view, especially on Twitter, where the viral media industry and its workers identify vulnerable targets to exploit for the day’s news cycle. It can also happen privately amongst colleagues or friends, or even to oneself — especially through the practice charmingly known as “Facebook stalking” — because knowledge of someone’s inauthenticity can be used for coolness gains even in subtle ways.

As was the case before social media, authenticity crusading has obnoxious social and psychological side-effects. But unlike before, now that social media has industrialized our relationships, it may also be economically counterproductive. Now that we all have to be cool to survive, the destructive outing of strategies to fake coolness creates some systemic risk. Everybody’s doing it, so sacrificing someone for it threatens everyone.

Wouldn’t it be better to work for solidarity amongst coolness workers? It seems to me that protecting collective online coolness is more likely to result in positive social and economic returns than more socially destructive strategies. If you tear down others while promoting yourself, those others or their sympathizers are just going to come for you in retaliation. Why not forgive their labored coolness as an economic necessity instead? Would that result in anything but widespread relief? It would also seem to confer a new kind of coolness on one’s tendency to celebrate and promote others online, not just oneself, which sounds nice.

It seems like forgiving people for trying to be cool online should be the cool thing to do. Survival in this economy might require some calculated inauthenticity in certain social spaces. That doesn’t feel like a major loss. After all, there are still plenty of social spaces that are free from the awkward games imposed by the dominant online social networks. Doesn’t manufactured coolness online pay for our offline freedom, as well as our freedom to participate in spaces that aren’t attached to our official identity? So we should admit that and move on from judging people’s manicured Facebook lawns. What a waste of energy that is, anyway.

The more I think about the human-like identity nodes and Personal Brands™ I interact with on a daily basis, the more I see this: the only ones who feel uncool to me are those who conspicuously pretend they aren’t faking it.

And as always, the ultimate privilege is to be above any concern for coolness. The charmed classes can let the interns deal with that.