Culture & Society / Short & Sweet

Commodifying the Human Experience

By Gaby Leung

It infuriates me seeing an entire group of friends on their phones instead of talking to one another. With bowed heads and fingers flying, they make me wonder what is so important on their devices that they can’t take the time to interact with each other for more than a few minutes. Social media connects people across the globe and allows them to interact in ways that were never before possible; it also makes me want to chuck my phone across the room, flee into the woods, and immerse myself in a Thoreau-like experience until the end of time. I understand that social media and technology allow us to communicate and share experiences almost instantaneously, but they also detach us from the present moment. Whether we want to or not, we end up partaking in the events of other people’s lives while also feeling the need to share portions of our own. There’s a certain kind of pleasure in showing people a sliver of our lives. Isn’t there something about the perfectly crafted Instagram post, the amusing Snapchat story, or the witty Tweet that fills us with pride? We want people to see our posts. And when they do, these people are also responsible for giving them value.

And this is where I find things to be problematic. The saturation of technology and media has begun to dictate what is of importance in our lives through the commodification of social media posts. In 1867, Karl Marx introduced the concept known as commodity fetishism, a theory that defines the relationship between money, labor, and the product. According to this theory, as soon as commodities are put onto the market and given a price, the amount of labor behind the making of the products disappears. The commodity acquires value through the act of exchange, and its underlying labor and utility instantly diminish. The connection to the actual hands of the laborer ceases to exist in the public eye as soon as the object is connected to money. Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism is mainly a critique of the capitalist state and how capitalist societies ignore the amount of real labor that was put into creating a product, treating commodities as objects in which value already exists. Just as one views a commodity as a final product that has inherent value devoid of the labor that went behind making it, one sees a social media post as an encapsulated experience that is disconnected from the labor that went on before it was uploaded. These posts then become commodities with intrinsic value.

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Art by Jael Goldfine

We have found a way to post ourselves—a true version, a crafted one, a little bit of both—on social media. Whether it’s Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, what we are doing, thinking, and saying can be posted for others to see. But what I’ve realized is that as soon as we post a picture to Instagram or upload an album to Facebook, we have transformed our true actions and experiences into something that obtains value by the amount of likes and favorites it gets or the number of times it is viewed. A prime example of this new fetishism is Instagram. The single picture that is uploaded on the app seems to capture an entire experience. No one knows what happened before the picture was taken, what the context of the situation was, or who the people were behind the scenes. No one knows how many attempts it took to take the photo or what went into the making of it. Just as the labor put into the making of a commodity vanishes as soon as the commodity is put on the market, the labor put into the photo vanishes as soon as it is posted. The “value” of the photo (and thus the experience, person, or object it portrays) is determined by the amount of likes it gets.

However, the way in which we view posts on social media extends beyond just the idea of commodity fetishism that Marx describes. The labor behind the creation of posts does in fact disappear as soon as it is presented on social media, but more importantly, a human’s connection to that particular experience is lost. The emotions, sensations, and feelings connected to what we post are not recognized because they are presented on social media as contingent on what society, acquaintances, and friends deem “relevant.” The personal, individual feelings associated with an experience are erased when something is posted on social media. A caption or photo, constructed and posted, can only get across so much. People’s lives consist of a continuum of moments that are impossible to capture and upload for others to see. But our posts are beginning to be seen merely as things that can be given value by the public instead of as real human experiences. People are not products whose value lies in the amount of time and effort put into them. Experiences have value because humans have real, emotional connections to them. And in today’s society, social media has stripped these experiences of their humanness.

It seems difficult to escape the way fetishism shapes our lives. It is subtle and seemingly harmless, which is exactly where the danger lies. Social media is—and will be—an important platform that allows people to communicate and share experiences from all over the world. But our lives cannot be contained and described by a few posts on social media, and what they portray does not capture the human experience. What we really value is found in the experience, not the post.

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