If Hell is Other People, What is Facebook?

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This is a picture of me, reflected in the glass of the staircase of the Carpenter Center. It looks like it could have some connection to the idea of the self and authenticity. It’s also on my Facebook. So there we go.

So remember that sort of brutal class I had on existentialism? Well, it’s over now, along with all my other classes and my Freshman year of college (‽). It’s summer now, I’m home (California feels unreal), and it’s all over. For now.

But, though I conquered the existentialism class in the end, it certainly didn’t go down without a struggle. It took the cake in terms of finals, throwing a final presentation (I & Thou, Martin Buber), a final paper (Facebook and the construction of an authentic identity), and a final exam (do not even talk to me about the 56 pages of single space block text which made up my study guide) at me. All this coupled with an 8 page final French paper on identity in 20th century French lit (can we have multiple identities—multiple mois—or can we have only one true identity? Conclusion: we are onions), a 7-9 page paper for Film on Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, and a take home exam for English (pick it up at 9 am, turn it in at 5 pm, figure to how to write 3 essays pulling from 14 different novels in that time), mean that Hell Week was pretty damn Hellish.

But enough about that.

Let’s talk about Facebook.

The Title of the Paper is Actually the Title of This Post but I Wanted a Title Here

Opening up Facebook and clicking my way to my “wall,” I’m immediately presented with what my Facebook friends see when they search my name. The page is headed by a photograph of an empty Parisian street (my “cover photo”) to the bottom left of which is a high contrast black and white picture of me looking at something out of frame. A cursory glance of the space just below that will tell you that I’m from Los Angeles, attend Harvard University (past: Polytechnic School), am in a relationship, have 385 “friends,” am on a crew team in some capacity, belong to several groups (Varsity Softball ’12, Oxford Tradition Summer 2011, Harvard Class of 2018), am twenty years old, and am currently unemployed. From all this information, a picture of me emerges: I probably fancy myself to be a bit of a hipster (black and white profile picture, empty Parisian street); I’m sociable, but not terribly so (on a crew team, but only have 385 “friends”); I probably enjoy sports, played softball, and was pretty good at it (crew pictures and “Varsity Softball ’12”); I probably get decent grades (Harvard); and apparently I was in England in the Summer of 2011. Seems reasonable enough, to be sure. But is it?

I was only in softball for two days in my junior year in high school. I wasn’t good at it.  But for some reason I am still listed in the group—apparently the team captain never removed me. And I’m not particularly athletic—I cox for the crew team, I don’t  row. So, already there are discrepancies between who I actually am and who I appear to be on Facebook. And as superficial and silly as these changes are, already a Facebook reader’s perception of who I am has shifted. You, in looking at my Facebook wall, are using established formulas to build me out of the various bits of information Facebook reveals about me: building me up piece by piece, seeing what fits and what doesn’t. And I am not passive in this. The image you have of me based on my wall is a curated one, whether consciously or not. That hipstery profile picture tells you as much about me because it is black and white and artsy as the fact that it isn’t a blurry snapshot from a party last Friday night. Perhaps neither of us participates in this creation consciously, but in every piece of information I feed to Facebook and every attempt at synthesis you make in constructing “me” from these disparate elements, the two of us are engaging in creating an identity for me.

The question, then, is how authentic this Facebook-created identity is. Am I as I appear to be, barring the occasional misinformation regarding softball teams? Is my Facebook self really me? Or is this self just as much an avatar as a screen name on a site like Tumblr might be? The tricky thing when it comes to Facebook and identity is precisely that Facebook is supposed to present us just as we are; it is precisely because it is supposed to represent our identity that it seems and feels authentic. But this “authenticity” I’m speaking of is not the authenticity meant by accuracy or reliability, but the authenticity of a spiritually and emotionally appropriate mode of life, true to one’s spirit and character. People usually do not come across other people’s Facebooks accidentally, as often happens with blogs or twitters or Instagrams, but only through searching for that person purposely, with the full expectation of finding an accurate representation of who they are. Inarguably, we find a representation of the person we searched for, but is this their authentic self, or something else that we find? And once there, whether projecting ourselves, or discovering someone else, are we genuinely connecting—or are we simply engaging with artifice, experiencing an avatar, as opposed to a genuine encounter with others.

Rather than using Facebook to build new connections—that is “meet” people as one does on many other forms of Internet social media (though theoretically one could use Facebook this way)—Facebook’s purpose lies primarily in maintaining connections which one already has in real life. It makes it easy to keep in touch with a friend who has moved away, a former classmate one hasn’t seen in years, distant relatives you only see every other Christmas. And all this it does and well. However, Facebook has taken on another role in our lives: that of becoming a means for projecting and curating a self image, both consciously and subconsciously, particularly through the “profile picture” and “profile” functions. When one creates a Facebook, immediately one is presented with a set of factual questions regarding one’s demographics and interests, all of which work to create the image another user gets of you when they view your profile. This information has nothing to do with maintaining existent connections and, whether we like it or not, our answers to these questions say a lot, not only about us, but about how we want the world to see us.

In his Being and Nothingness, Sartre describes “the Other”—in Facebook’s case, the Facebook friend—as a being the awareness of whom colors the way we see ourselves. Because our Facebook profiles do not exist in a vacuum, unlike the information one submits to subscribe to an online magazine or puts on the “About Me” page of one’s tumblr, the information we upload to Facebook will be seen by real people, and not just random people, but people we know and who know us. And we know this in submitting it. This knowledge is Sartre’s “awareness of the Other” and as far as an authentic representation of our self is concerned, this knowledge of the Other can only be detrimental. According to Sartre, “by the mere appearance of the Other, I am put in the position of passing judgement on myself as an object, for it is as an object that I appear to the Other” (Marino 392). In other words, knowing that someone can see us makes us see ourselves through their eyes—they become the “mediator between myself and me” (392)—and we judge ourselves as the Other would judge us, not as a person, but as an object. Implicit in everything we put on Facebook is this awareness of the other: every photo, every status, every detail in our profile has an audience and that audience will judge us. And, accordingly, we react: “the Other has not only revealed to me what I was; he has established me in a new type of being which can support new qualifications,” (Marino 393); the Other literally changes the makeup of who we are and so we are incapable of representing ourselves as we are for ourselves in their presence; everything we represent is for the Other.

However, were the information we choose to display on Facebook uploaded without any awareness of the Other, Sartre would still condemn the authenticity of the identity we present. By nature, Facebook categorizes people, both in obvious and non-obvious ways. Our profile categorizes us overtly: are we single or in a relationship; employed or unemployed; a student or otherwise. In responding to these questions, we make a choice in how we represent ourselves; even a non-answer conveys an above-average concern for privacy. However, we categorize ourselves in less obvious ways as well, perhaps most obviously through our profile pictures. Profile picture selection is a tricky business; one of my roommates had such a crisis of confidence over changing hers one night that she simply took down all her profile pictures and went profile picture-less for upwards of a month. And no wonder: your profile picture is the first thing anyone sees when they search your name or read a comment you wrote; it is the thing you choose to encapsulate your identity, convey who you are in a flash; it accompanies your every move on Facebook. In short, it is the quickest and most direct access to your identity Facebook offers and, since it is generally accepted as being a real representation of you, your choice in it matters. A yearbook headshot means something vastly different from a smiling wedding photo. A wedding photo of a bride and groom together is again different from a close-up of the bride’s face. An iPhone picture of a blurry Polaroid from a dark party is an entirely different thing again, as is an action shot from a sports game. Even the choice not to use your own face categorizes you: use your dog and you’re automatically a pet-lover; a drawing and you’re an artist or an art-lover; your 2-month old baby says you’re a proud parent; and a meme lets everyone know you’re an idiot. Whatever we choose, we are choosing to represent ourselves one way rather than another and in so doing we establish a role for ourselves. However, like Sartre’s waiter, we are not that role and to pretend otherwise is self-deception: what Sartre calls bad faith. The waiter only “plays at” (Marino 386) being a waiter and so too we only “play at” being a baseball player if our profile picture shows us at bat or decked out in a catcher’s gear. According to Sartre, we are “never any one of [our] attitudes, any one of [our] actions,” (Marino 388) and to believe that we are any one attitude, action, or thing is deceiving ourselves.

So then, it’s clear what Sartre would think of Facebook: bent as it is on pigeon-holing people and locking them into what are merely roles for them to play, it encourages not only the deception of others, but the self-deception that comes of believing that one is one’s role. Facebook itself might not be all bad (indeed, Sartre would probably approve of its many capabilities for protest and social change), but its potential for bad faith is too great to be forgiven; it should have no role in authentic self-representation. After all, Sartre does define sincerity as the necessity “that a man be for himself only what he is” (Marino 385). Even if we represented ourselves entirely accurately on Facebook, we would still not be representing ourselves authentically, because on Facebook we represent ourselves entirely for other people, never for ourselves, missing the vital first part of Sartre’s definition.

One might expect this from Sartre, though. He is the one, after all, responsible for the claim that “Hell is—other people” (Sartre 47)—why should he ever approve of a social networking site? To better understand Facebook’s relation to authenticity, let us examine it from the point of view of another thinker, whose views on other people are somewhat more charitable. Martin Buber is famous for his conception, in I and Thou, of a dialogical philosophy in which “I require a You to become” (62)—that is, that a person, in order to become fully a person, fully themselves, needs another person, whom they view not as an object (an “It”) but as a full person in their actuality (a “You”). This idea of the necessity of a relationship to becoming oneself is completely contradictory to Sartre’s understanding of the self, wherein a person isolates his consciousness in order to determine his self. Taking Buber’s emphasis on the necessity of relationships, Buber’s philosophy sounds rather like it might work hand-in-hand with Zuckerberg’s creation, whose mission statement is, after all, “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (Facebook). Greater connectedness is, essentially, what Facebook boils down to, an aspiration of which, I think, Buber would greatly approve.

However lofty Facebook’s goals though, it falls down when it comes to their execution. Because for Buber, the simple fact of a connection is not enough. For Buber, there are two types of relations in the world: I-It and I-You relations, both of which are essential to human life, though the latter of which is, perhaps, more important to concentrate ourselves on, as it is the one which gives our lives meaning as well as allows us to become fully ourselves, fully human. I-It relations are analogous to a subject-object duality, the I being the subject and the it the object. They are one-sided, have space-time coordinates, can never know the actuality or the whole of something, and represent the overwhelming majority of our relations in the world. I-You relations, on the other hand, acknowledge the other part of the relation in its actuality, rather than breaking it down into its constituent qualities, allowing the I of the I-You to know the You in full and recognize its subjectivity.

The connections of Facebook, though they might seek to approach the level of the I-You, fall woefully short. The connection we have with all of our “friends” is not the connection of an I to a You, in which both sides know the other in its actuality, outside of time and space, participating in one another, but one of the I-It. Through Facebook, we collapse the people who are our “friends” into pure facticity; we render them objects, which we act upon through experiencing them. We do not know them in their whole or their actuality on Facebook, even if perhaps we do in real life, because we see them entirely in terms of their qualities. On Facebook, they are reduced to a sum of the facts on their “About” page, their past profile pictures, their statuses. They cannot transcend these disparate elements, transcend their facticity as Sartre would say, and become a whole in our eyes and so we view them as an “It.” Our Facebook friends are little more than things to us—often little more than numbers. (Everyone knows a few people who will do anything to have more Facebook friends than the rest of the world. These people are usually bores.)

That Facebook’s connections are merely superficial and of the I-It type has repercussions with regard to an authentic representation of ourself. Since the “I” of the I-It relation is nothing more than a subject for a sentence and cannot ever achieve the actuality of selfhood, our representation of our identity on Facebook cannot achieve the authenticity of selfhood either. As in Sartre’s comprehension, our relation with the Facebook friend—whether as the Other” or as the “It”—renders us no more than an object, unable to transcend ourselves. So, though for Buber “all actual life is encounter” (62), the encounters of Facebook are not strong enough to form the basis for a self, let alone what Buber calls a “true community.” Through Buber, it becomes obvious that, though Facebook’s commitment to connection is admirable, there is a difference between connection and relation, and connection is simply not enough to form the basis for an authentic self.

So, then, neither of these two thinkers, representative of two extremes of Existentialism, would hold with what passes for an “authentic identity” on Facebook. Rather, both would contend that in terms of finding and representing one’s true identity, Facebook should play absolutely no role at all. While Facebook has its uses, it is fraught with the potential for bad faith and does not succeed in creating true encounters; resultantly it should play no part in the creation of an authentic identity nor in the truthful representation of that identity. As when testing a theory, we have tried two extremes and, determining that Facebook is satisfactory for neither of them, we can safely say that neither Existentialism and Facebook nor Facebook and authenticity go hand-in-hand.

In the end, Facebook is rather like that Second-Empire drawing room of No Exit: it doesn’t look half bad upon arrival—maybe a little busy, but on the whole not too hard on the eyes; full of things one doesn’t really need (a bronze ornament, a constant update of what your friends are liking), but after one spends a little time there, one begins to feel trapped. There’s a way out—an open door, standing unguarded: one need simply close the browser to put a toe out the door; log out to stand outside; delete to be fully free. But one feels, staring at one’s “wall,” that this is impossible. We can never leave the constant updating of Facebook: it pings notifications to our phones round the clock and seems to open of its own accord first thing in the morning or the moment our attention strays from the papers we’re meant to be writing. Because it is ever-changing, we are constantly tied to it, always checking it. For Facebook is nothing more than a room populated by other people—their gazes fixed eternally, unblinkingly on us, our every movement, making us hyperaware of ourselves and how we represent ourselves. In this sense, yes: Hell is other people. And Facebook is most certainly Hell.


Buber, Martin. I and Thou. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996. Print.

“Facebook: About.” Facebook. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 May 2015. <https://www.facebook.com/facebook/info?tab=page_info&gt;.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Being and Nothingness.” 369-409. Rpt. in Basic Writings of Existentialism. Ed. Gordon Marino. New York: Modern Library, 2004. Print.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage Books, 1955. Print.


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