It used to be that unless you were certifiably “socially anxious” or a goofy adolescent, the problem of self-consciousness was a far-off one. With the advent of the internet, and the interconnective magic of Twitter especially, self-consciousness is now a mass product, readily available to all who want it, and even some who don’t. In fact, self-consciousness increasingly feels like the guiding principle of participation. You are either being watched, by lots of followers and the followers of your followers, or hoping to become more watched soon while mimicking the norms of the people you watch (hoping to become more watched soon). And the norms are not alright.
What does self-consciousness online look like? For better or for worse, self-consciousness is being innovated and disrupted all the time. Take the extraneous “lol” tacked onto any old tweet with a mundane observation or thought fragment. This is the “lol” of nervous laughter. Its writer realizes that the tweet is no work of intellectual or artistic genius, but they’re decisively compelled to share it nonetheless.
“Send tweet” is another construction explicitly designed to defray negative reactions and soften ambiguity. It acknowledges that you’re making the Twitter equivalent of very small talk and almost apologizes for that in advance.
Friends sitting at brunch don’t nervously “lol” after making their mundane or silly catch-up reports or lightly self-deprecating pronouncements to one another. Colleagues around the cafeteria table making small talk don’t “send words” and apologize for it in advance. Instead, they lock eyes and connect over matters large and small.
These are conversational technologies designed to mitigate Twitter’s impossibly mixed purposes: professional, personal, intellectual, even romantic. How could you not be self-conscious, when anyone in the world could be reading any statement of yours for any reason at any time? It’s certainly not impossible to actually connect with people on Twitter. I’ve done it very many times myself. But there’s a lot of digital noise and friction.
Last but definitely not least, take the “Literally No One” meme, a tweet construction and template that uses dialogue-style line breaks to acknowledge that the author’s opinion has been totally unsolicited. On the one hand, sure – Twitter is mature enough of a platform that only clueless naifs enter thinking that they can say anything anytime and be rewarded by dopamine hits for it.
On the other hand, though: hold the phone, it used to be totally normal to assume that tweets were unsolicited! I joined Twitter in 2009, and we were just casually sending pictures of our sandwiches off into the void without a care back then. Now, you’re invited to “join the conversation” that already bears whatever weird sort of reality. It already exists, and people are watching, and expectations are subtly higher too. If you’re standing in a digital corner talking to yourself out loud, then you can say anything. But rolling up to an animated (and opinionated) conversational clique mid-party is a different matter entirely.
Literally No One can also be used to dunk on someone who’s dared to just tweet their mind on something random. But many tweets, plucked from the context of a particular user known to her followers over time, look silly in this light. To some extent, the Literally No One dunk is like poking your head into someone’s private bathroom to say that their shower thoughts are dumb. Is Twitter for shower thoughts? Is it for finding a job? Is it for finding a mate? Yes and no.
A “garage-door-up” ethos among makers and creators has thrown further fuel on the self-consciousness fire. On its face, the idea that you can evolve in real time and show your work seems pretty much like an unqualified good. When people work and think with their “garage doors up,” they create more value to others around them, either object-level educationally or on the meta-level by demonstrating the value of curiosity, open inquiry, and non-perfectionism.
But this value, like all values, can become excessive or perverse. You don’t necessarily owe strangers any detailed account of your thoughts or actions. Either strangers are listening, in which case you’re likely to receive all kinds of responses both positive and negative and it’s right to be self-conscious or even performative about showing your work. Or, strangers aren’t listening, in which case you feel unnoticed but have also still borne the psychological costs of exposure.
You can try to become an unpaid or paid online teacher of whatever kind, if you want. You can even try to become a writer or, God forbid, a true public intellectual. But there’s an overblown insistence in the water that everyone’s on an important intellectual journey, or a journey about house painting or nail painting or breastfeeding, or towards truth and goodness and beauty that’s of high value to strangers.
This nascent worldview drafts us into half-enacting teacher or authority mode all the time, even when we aren’t necessarily willing or able to do the job. Conversing and debating with fleets of often-hostile strangers on the internet (in writing that the internet preserves forever!) was hard enough already, back before the well-intentioned egalitarian insistence that “everyone has something to share!”
It’s possible that the adults of the past simply had no opportunity to broadcast their mental alphabet soup so we don’t know about it. But, as every novice Twitter user soon realizes, it only takes some dabbling on the birdsite before you start experiencing the “real” world through a lens of all that’s fit to tweet. Being on Twitter isn’t just about sharing your pre-existing thoughts and experiences. It also shapes them in the first place. You can tweet anytime you like, but you can never leave.
Silence isn’t even good enough for maintaining your online social status quo. Saying nothing is at best a sign of being in a social coma, and at worst actively a reason to believe you’re a member of outgroup du jour. And so we find increasing examples of not just “brands” but individuals taking public but pointless stands on anything and everything that’s happening in the world today. It makes sense, now, to feel self-conscious over even saying nothing.
Users are therefore pressured to speak constantly, in a stream-of-conscious manner, but also what they say in their personal tweets is believed to be important, but it’s also recorded and with strangers (plus, cancel culture). What could go wrong?
Self-awareness is not necessarily some evolutionary vestige to be dispensed with tout suite, along with other alleged relics like jealousy or faith. Instead, it’s a gift that enables a rich social life. If you weren’t aware of how the other status-conscious monkeys were seeing you, then how could you ever decide what to do? But, like all gifts of human nature, self-awareness has not been evenly distributed. Those with an extreme deficiency of self-consciousness have “anosognosia,” as caused by physical brain damage. And those with a surplus are “self-conscious,” a lightly pejorative term for being aware more than seems useful and/or normal.
Down the evolutionary line here from the hunter-gatherers who must have first felt self-conscious, our post-industrial digital age has produced inequalities in everything: not just too-abstract “wealth” per se but also inequalities in free time, free attention, social connectedness, marital prospects, and even the prospective payoffs for positive traits like intelligence and conscientiousness. So no one should be surprised to notice stark self-consciousness inequality mounting, too.
Self-consciousness is a kind of multiplier of other traits. Losers who are un-selfconscious get new opportunities to display what losers they are online (though some of this comes around the other side as counter-signaling instead). Winners get the same – a few people may claim to hate their statusful displays, but it’s mostly just envy or the reverse dominance hierarchy showing.
Exposure therapy is a funny thing. Done right, being repeatedly exposed to a manageable amount of something aversive can desensitize you to it. But too much exposure can backfire, re-traumatizing and making your aversion worse. Highly un-self-conscious people are afforded new opportunities to expose themselves daily: seeing the negative remarks of strangers and brushing them right off.
Meanwhile, highly self-conscious people are further sensitized: even mild statements are prone to being interpreted in much too seriously of a manner. Mention that your wife likes working or not working? Get skewered by trads or feminists for making assumptions about women’s lived experiences. Stopped eating seed oils or meat? Show me the RCTs. Mention that you improved your mental health with an exercise regimen? Pharmaceutical-loving mental health destigmatizers have entered the chat.
Speaking of the mental health destigmatizers… well, some of this has certainly overshot its mark. Due to the public, multipurpose nature of comments that someone ought to “go to therapy,” they are not in fact primarily between-you-and-me suggestions but also disciplinary messages to bystanders: “If you think this, you’re sick.”
On the one hand, allegedly everyone is supposed to benefit from therapy. On the other hand, you don’t go around accusing strangers of needing therapy badly unless they’ve expressed something so objectionable that there’s no explanation apart from trauma or something else close to literal (mental) disease. And unless you are vested with a special authority to send someone to the counselor, then it’s a total power move. Therapy-suggesters attempt to make the equivalent of a digital “citizen’s arrest,” with a display of individual power to stop a (perceived) felony. Unlike a meatspace citizen’s arrest, it actually seems to work.
That the therapy suggestion simultaneously serves as a public display of the virtue and high-mindedness of the giver is patently transparent. And it doesn’t take a Foucault to notice that school counselors and therapists are not neutral agents of enhanced well-being, but embedded within institutions that have goals of their own.
Even freestanding counselors can’t be completely relied upon to provide objective or neutral assistance (if such a thing even conceptually exists). Counselors and therapists are partially beholden to professional organizations and often also beholden to health insurance companies. At the same time, though, the practitioner can’t completely neglect to develop a bit of “the customer is always right” attitude. Since therapy is rarely mandatory and clients choose their own providers, practitioners can’t necessarily practice tough love even when it seems warranted. It’s like all these restaurants who project an image of being upscale and healthy, when the nutrition facts read just as poorly as fast food.
Just the other day I received an ad in my Facebook newsfeed for online therapy apparently available outside of business hours, cajoling me to “do something for yourself after the kids are in bed.” Even if I had tried, I could never have dreamed up a better illustration of this unholy, incoherent alliance between self-care, moral obligation, the medical system, and startups. Does therapy treat disease? Or is it a treat, period?
However customer-driven and otherwise constrained regular counselors find themselves, school counselors are in a tighter spot, still. They try to make you think that the school counselor is just a counselor who happens to be inside the school. But we all know that these agents of authority will only really help students insofar as it’s consistent with the school’s goals. Getting kids into prestigious colleges is a win-win feather in the school’s cap. But working with students who won’t behave in class is less clear. That counselor might get the kids to stop being disruptive or highly disobedient, but surely there is more to wellness than that? I’m not sure there’s much room in the school counselor’s repertoire to, for instance, acknowledge when the student’s frustration or noncompliance was warranted by her teacher colleague’s own behavior.
At least when a fellow student tattles on you and you get sent to the counselor’s office, the pecking order is clear. The counselor and teacher are hierarchical equals who both report to the principal. You and the tattletale were equals until the incident at hand, which caused her to win the battle but lose the war (no one likes a tattletale). But when people on Twitter try to get you to turn yourself in to the partially therapeutic, partially punitive authorities, there’s no such background authority structure to end the tussle. Are they your equals? Who’s in charge of whom? Out in the Twitter wild, lacking priors about who should be following whose orders, the tattling just goes on and on. Each person may feel like she’s scoring points against the other, but there’s no quasi-objective scoreboard to reality check the whole thing.
Pick one: either conversational openness or conversational stakes. Low stakes and high openness is the domain of real friends and standup comedians (before they started getting canceled, too). Low stakes plus low openness is small talk. High stakes plus low openness is a job interview. Twitter has emerged as a de facto zone of high openness but high stakes, and it just isn’t stable. If you feel self-conscious… well, you should. It only takes a few belligerents, vocal chronic victim types, and tattletales to conjure the panopticon.