The Win Condition
Can our entanglement with online life be redeemed?
My grandmother carried a book with her for as long as I can remember: The Lives of the Saints. She was deeply religious, a devout Catholic, and would often read to me from the book in the evenings. The story of Saint Barbara, patron of miners, was the one she treasured most. It helped her make her peace with the perils my grandfather faced working in one of Romania’s most dangerous coal mines. The powerful example of Barbara’s equanimity and martyrdom got her through three major mine collapses, including one in which my grandfather was trapped under the rubble for over a week, had his back broken, and was thought dead until he was miraculously pulled out from next to a ventilation shaft. He had to go back into the mines a few months later. Throughout it all and until the day she died, the figure of Saint Barbara was a comfort and guide to my grandmother.
Though veneration of the saints seems like a world away from most of our current preoccupations, it speaks of a universal human need. This need has been best crystallized in the ideal of the imitation of Christ, but in our time it has been highlighted and explored by thinkers such as René Girard, who propounded the idea that humans are fundamentally mimetic creatures—that our desires are not our own, but the product of the desires of others. We see others seeking an object, a partner, or a lifestyle, and we are entranced. The need for role models, patterns of life, and aspirations are all natural outgrowths of our humanity.
Recently, instead of the saint, the more controversial figure of the “influencer” has swooped in to fill this need for human patterns. Online influencers present, in dazzling color and intimate detail, who they are, what they desire, and how it would feel to inhabit their world. Girard scholar Luke Burgis frames the consequences this way: “While we tinker with design changes (‘human-centered design’ etc.) that might make our apps less neurologically addictive, we have overlooked our real addiction: to our neighbor’s desires. We are addicted to mimetic models.”
After the advent of social media, the internet moved from being a useful tool in the age of email and the AOL/Yahoo Homepage to becoming an omnipresent veil through which we look at our own experiences. The new applications tapped into a deep human demand for seeing and being seen by others, completely reshaping the internet into a massive engine for mimesis. Never before has it been so easy to find kindred spirits, explore hidden facets of humanity, learn new things, and be inspired or thrillingly horrified.
Social media and online communities allow us—by choice, serendipity, or algorithmic nudging—to gain access to models that have nothing to do with the places or cultures we came from. This threatens traditional modes of being by letting foreign ideas, often hostile to the status quo, infiltrate communities unnoticed. This has been happening for a long time, of course, even before the internet, through movies, music, advertising, and print media. It has been an important factor in the transition of Eastern European countries from communism, to name a more positive example, but also a major ingredient in the fracturing and turmoil we see between political factions, generations, or simply denizens of opposing corners of online space. The world has both expanded and flattened. Next-door neighbors can be farther away than strangers from the other side of the world.
Today, being part of virtual communities is, for most, inescapable. From work-related Slack or Teams messages to the high school buddies' WhatsApp group and the bodybuilding vitalist Twitter chat, we are immersed in a new way of interacting. Virtual spaces have become both the public square and the intimate salon. If the entertainment value that lures us into these spaces is a kind of game, it has a win condition. Some ways of winning and attaining status will have a positive impact on yourself and others, and some will not. The best way to gauge the health of the virtual communities to which we belong is to look at the conditions for winning the games that emerge from them.
It is the game-like nature of social media, in addition to mimesis, that makes this new world so compelling—more immediate than “real life.” Jon Askonas makes the case that there is little difference between an alternate reality game and an online native movement like QAnon: There are mysterious characters, hidden clues, and social rewards for uncovering them, leading a hierarchy of players to emerge. Askonas writes:
Unlike role-playing games, in an alternate reality game, you play as yourself. Part of what’s so much fun is the community that forms among players, mostly online. For devoted players, status accrues to finding clues and providing compelling interpretations, while others can casually follow along with the story as the community reveals it. It is this collaboration—a kind of social sense-making—that builds the alternate reality in players' minds.
The incentives set by social media allow this dynamic to overflow from the world of shadowy conspiracies into the stuff of everyday life. A platform like Facebook or Reddit is a hive of theme-based groups with their own rules, lore, and hierarchy. Likes, retweets, ratios, upvotes, and, above all, followers are all ways to quantify how well you are doing at this game and how you stack up compared to others.
A platform like Twitter is somewhere between a neutral news feed and the equivalent of Call of Duty for highly verbal people. Maybe much closer to the latter. At the same time, few people try to “win at Twitter” as a whole. They are trying to shine in a particular sub-group. You can see how important this dynamic is when you look at the output of an account like the now infamous Libs of TikTok, where honest attempts at gaining in-group clout in liberal circles are simply reposted in a different sub-group, in this case, as entertainment for conservatives. A simple switch in context and audience is enough to create a culture-warping smash hit.
This parallel agonism is also an important reason why Twitter remains so popular and why all the attempts at leaving the platform for either explicitly conservative alternatives such as Gab or Parler (or the much-vaunted liberal journalist exodus to Mastodon after Elon Musk’s Twitter acquisition) did not amount to much. A vast amount of Twitter’s most engaging content is represented by fights between sub-groups, both at different poles of ideology and those very close to one another, clarifying contested points of doctrine or establishing who is the true inheritor of an ideology, and, therefore, leader of the group. Without the outgroup, and the blatant lunacy the adversary is putting out, there is much less to rally around, less to unveil to sharpen the outline of the ingroup. Who we are is revealed in contrast to who they are.
This is nothing new: Tribal instincts are as old as the human species. The innovation here lies in the fact that this is far removed from the domain of life and death in which tribal warfare occurred in past ages. The stakes are low, the attachments loose, and although what is debated are often core aspects of who we are and how we should live, for the most part, it is entertainment.
We shouldn’t undersell the value of this entertainment, however. Even though the internet seems like a universal solvent, the other side of the social media coin is the emergence of new mimetic models that try to reverse this trend. An increasing number of online communities composed of people who have grown tired of life in liquid modernity have emerged, and they are growing. From the discovery and revival of movements such as traditional Catholicism and a new appreciation for the Latin Mass, to the spread of Eastern Orthodoxy in places where it was unheard of, to movements such as homesteading or permaculture, to the many variants of localism that have popped up, there is a reaction afoot online.
These are the children of the children of the ’60s, and their native traditions are either few and far between or closer to the divorce and latchkey pattern. Having witnessed, and often painfully experienced, the outcomes of a society without guardrails where the enjoyment of the self-creating individual is the only guiding principle, they long for something more substantial. And because these longings are relatively rare or hard to communicate with the people around them, the internet offers a good place to congregate.
The main question we need to ask about the virtual communities we participate in: Do they lead to positive real-life outcomes? Does spending time online inspire or dull, does it open up new ways of thinking or new connections, or does it turn us away from basic reality? There are many ways in which we can let the ideas we encounter online haunt us. For someone like mass shooter Adam Lanza, whose online life and affiliation to an online movement called EFILISM has been carefully documented by Katherine Dee, this was a path to annihilation. Millions can find metaphysical dead ends, soul-numbing vicious spirals, and information hazards online. But millions more can find community, love, absolution, and hope.
Getting lost in reviewing true crime narratives about serial killers from the ’70s, or playing Tetris, can provide much entertainment, but is a barren pursuit in reality. Meanwhile, getting competitive about “poasting physique” can trigger a cascade of positive effects—from a return to a more embodied existence and better health to friendship for the socially isolated, improved dating prospects, etc. Seeing images and examples of healthy family life with more than 1.6 children, blooming gardens, and frolicking baby goats sets the win condition accordingly. Many people who write to me in my capacity as a podcast host covering these web-enabled movements and new narratives tell me that these have been instrumental in changing their lives for the better. They have more meaning and more purpose because of the online community they found and because they chose to play the game.
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It has never been easier to lay out a blueprint for life, complete with captivating aesthetics and charismatic leaders, than in the age of social media. But, as noted by many religious traditions, not all worship is the same. The speed, superficiality, and incentives for signaling doing instead of actually doing, and lack of real-world accountability in online communities, are a problem. Cargo cults of virtue are easily mistaken for the real thing. It is often unclear if you are looking at the artifacts of a real homesteading movement or the equivalent of the golden calf, complete with two stuffed chickens served on AstroTurf. This is a profound challenge, and it comes directly from a social media platform's incentive structure. The only consolation now is that we are early at this; both the internet and our tools to engage productively with it are in their infancy.
We will adapt, as we always have. A popular joke on the internet is “Another day of staring at the big screen while scrolling through my little screen to reward myself for staring at the medium screen all week.” This is truly the nature of the trap. And while many are rightly concerned about the effects of this immersion in the internet, a return to strict Luddism seems hard to imagine outside of a Unabomber-flavored fever dream. It is our responsibility to understand where we find ourselves and orient these technologies back toward the users and the communities they are embedded in. Technology has taken a lot from us, but it is within our power to, in the words of James Poulos, “catechize the bots.” It will involve knowing what we stand for, what we believe the true, the good, and the beautiful are, but it is possible.
Avoiding these games altogether seems like a potential way out, of course, but the mechanics of allowing ourselves to be haunted by faraway patterns of life have been put in motion at least since the printing press. Some communities manage to hold fast, like the Amish and the more strict corners of orthodox Judaism—they may still inherit the earth. But there is a possibility that we will find ourselves emerging through the hall of mirrors to something new, something rediscovered and revived. An exhaustion with the fruits of unbridled self-creation must develop into larger and more interesting movements and communities. They may reach escape velocity and find themselves turning into real life soon enough, planting seeds for things we can’t yet imagine.