This Is Why We Cry: From “Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism”

LARB presents an excerpt from Geert Lovink’s latest book, Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism, which was released this month by Pluto Press.


“Solitary tears are not wasted.”
— René Char

“I dreamt about autocorrect last night.”
— Darcie Wilder

“The personal is impersonal.” 
— Mark Fisher

Try and dream, if you can, of a mourning app. The mobile has come dangerously close to our psychic bone, to the point where the two can no longer be separated. If only my phone could gently weep. McLuhan’s “extensions of man” has imploded right into the exhausted self. Social media and the psyche have fused, turning daily life into a “social reality” that — much like artificial and virtual reality — is overtaking our perception of the world and its inhabitants. Social reality is a corporate hybrid between handheld media and the psychic structure of the user. It’s a distributed form of social ranking that can no longer be reduced to the interests of state and corporate platforms. As online subjects, we too are implicit, far too deeply involved. Likes and followers define your social status. But what happens when nothing can motivate you anymore, when all the self-optimization techniques fail and you begin to carefully avoid these forms of emotional analytics? Compared to others your ranking is low — and this makes you sad.

Omnipresent social media places a claim on our elapsed time, our fractured lives. We’re all sad in our very own way. As there are no lulls or quiet moments anymore, the result is fatigue, depletion, and loss of energy. We’re becoming obsessed with waiting. How long have you been forgotten by your love ones? Time, meticulously measured on every app, tells us right to our face. Chronos hurts. Should I post something to attract attention and show I’m still here? Nobody likes me anymore. As the random messages keep relentlessly piling in, there’s no way to halt them, to take a moment and think it all through.

Delacroix once declared that every day which is not noted is like a day that does not exist. Diary writing used to fulfil that task. Elements of early blog culture tried to update the diary form for the online realm, but that moment has now passed. Unlike the blog entries of the Web 2.0 era, social media have surpassed the summary stage of the diary in a desperate attempt to keep up with real-time regime. Instagram Stories, for example, bring back the nostalgia of an unfolding chain of events — and then disappear at the end of the day, like a revenge act, a satire of ancient sentiments gone by. Storage will make the pain permanent. Better forget about it and move on.

In the online context, sadness appears as a short moment of indecisiveness, a flash that opens up the possibility of a reflection. The frequently used “sad” label is a vehicle, a strange attractor to enter the liquid mess called social media. Sadness is a container. Each and every situation can potentially be qualified as sad. Through this mild form of suffering we enter the blues of being in the world. When something’s sad, things around it become gray. You trust the machine because you feel you’re in control of it. You want to go from zero to hero. But then your propped-up ego implodes and the failure of self-esteem becomes apparent again.

The price of self-control in an age of instant gratification is high. We long to revolt against the restless zombie inside us, but we don’t know how. Our psychic armor is thin and eroded from within, open to behavioral modifications. Sadness arises at the point when we’re exhausted by the online world. After yet another app session in which we failed to make a date, purchased a ticket, and did a quick round of videos, the post-dopamine mood hits us hard. The sheer busyness and self-importance of the world makes you feel joyless. After a dive into the network, we’re drained and feel socially awkward. The swiping finger is tired, and we have to stop.

Sadness has neighboring feelings we can check out. There is the sense of worthlessness, blankness, joylessness, the fear of accelerating boredom, the feeling of nothingness, plain self-hatred while trying to get off drug dependency, those lapses of self-esteem, the laying low in the mornings, those moments of being overtaken by a sense of dread and alienation, up to your neck in crippling anxiety, there is the self-violence, panic attacks, and deep despondency before we cycle all the way back to reoccurring despair. We can go into the deep emotional territory of the Russian toska. Or we can think of online sadness as part of that moment of cosmic loneliness Camus imagined after God created the earth. I wish that every chat were never ending. But what do you do when your inability to respond takes over? You’re heartbroken and delete the session. After yet another stretch of compulsory engagement with those cruel Likes, silly comments, empty text messages, detached emails, and vacuous selfies, you feel empty and indifferent. You hover for a moment, vaguely unsatisfied. You want to stay calm, yet start to lose your edge, disgusted by your own Facebook Memories. But what’s this message that just came in? Strange. Did he respond?

Evidence that sadness today is designed is overwhelming. Take the social reality of WhatsApp. The gray and blue tick marks alongside each message in the app may seem a trivial detail, but let’s not ignore the mass anxiety it’s causing. Forget being ignored. Forget pretending you didn’t read a friend’s text. Some thought that this feature already existed, but in fact two gray tick marks signify only that a message was sent and received — not read. Even if you know what the double tick syndrome is about, it still incites jealousy, anxiety, and suspicion. It may be possible that ignorance is bliss, that by intentionally not knowing whether the person has seen or received the message, your relationship will improve. The bare-all nature of social media causes rifts between lovers who would rather not have this information. But in the information age, this does not bode well with the social pressure to be “on social,” as the Italians call it.

We should be careful to distinguish sadness from anomalies such as suicide, depression, and burnout. Everything and everyone can be called sad, but not everyone is depressed. Much like boredom, sadness is not a medical condition (though never say never because everything can be turned into one). No matter how brief and mild, sadness is the default mental state of the online billions. Its original intensity gets dissipated. It seeps out, becoming a general atmosphere, a chronic background condition. Occasionally — for a brief moment — we feel the loss. A seething rage emerges. After checking for the 10th time what someone said on Instagram, the pain of the social makes us feel miserable, and we put the phone away. Am I suffering from the phantom vibration syndrome? Wouldn’t it be nice if we were offline? Why’s life so tragic? He blocked me. At night, you read through the thread again. Do we need to quit again, to go cold turkey again? Others are supposed to move us, to arouse us, and yet we don’t feel anything anymore. The heart is frozen.

Social media anxiety has found its literary expressions, even if these take decidedly different forms than the despair on display in Franz Kafka’s letters to Felice Bauer. The willingness to publicly perform your own mental health is now a viable strategy in our attention economy. Take L.A. writer Melissa Broder, whose So Sad Today “twitterature” benefited from her previous literary activities as a poet. Broder is the contemporary expert in matters of apathy, sorrow, and uselessness. During one afternoon she can feel compulsive about cheesecakes, show her true self as an online exhibitionist, be lonely out in public, babble and then cry, go on about her short attention span, hate everything, and desire “to fuck up life.” In between taking care of her sick husband and the obligatory meeting with Santa Monica socialites, there are always more “insatiable spiritual holes” to be filled. The more we intensify events, the sadder we are once they’re over. The moment we leave, the urge for the next experiential high arises. As phone and life can no longer be separated, neither can we distinguish between real and virtual, fact or fiction, data or poetry. Broder’s polyamorous lifestyle is an integral part of the precarious condition. Instead of empathy, the cold despair invites us to see the larger picture of a society in permanent anxiety. If anything, Broder embodies Slavoj Žižek’s courage of hopelessness: “Forget the light at the end of the tunnel — it’s actually the headlight of a train about to hit us.”

Once the excitement has worn off, we seek distance, searching for mental detachment. The wish for “anti-experience” arises, as Mark Greif has described it. The reduction of feeling is an essential part of what he calls “the anaesthetic ideology.” If experience is the “habit of creating isolated moments within raw occurrence in order to save and recount them,” the desire to anaesthetize experience is a kind of immune response against “the stimulations of another modern novelty, the total aesthetic environment.”

Most of the time your eyes are glued to a screen, as if it’s now or never. As Gloria Estefan summarized the FOMO condition: “The sad truth is that opportunity doesn’t knock twice.” Then, you stand up and walk away from the intrusions. The fear of missing out backfires, the social battery is empty and you put the phone aside. This is the moment sadness arises. It’s all been too much, the intake has been pulverized and you shut down for a moment, poisoning him with your unanswered messages. According to Greif, “the hallmark of the conversion to anti-experience is a lowered threshold for eventfulness.” A Facebook event is the one you’re interested in, but do not attend. We observe others around us, yet are no longer part of the conversation: “They are nature’s creatures, in the full grace of modernity. The sad truth is that you still want to live in their world. It just somehow seems this world has changed to exile you.” You leave the online arena; you need to rest. This is an inverse movement from the constant quest for experience. That is, until we turn our heads away, grab the phone, swipe, and text back. God only knows what I’d be without the app.

Anxieties that go untreated build up to a breaking point. Yet unlike burnout, sadness is a continuous state of mind. Sadness pops up the second events start to fade away — and now you’re down in the rabbit hole once more. The perpetual now can no longer be captured and leaves us isolated, a scattered set of online subjects. What happens when the soul is caught in the permanent present? Is this what Franco Berardi calls the “slow cancellation of the future”? By scrolling, swiping, and flipping, we hungry ghosts try to fill the existential emptiness, frantically searching for a determining sign — and failing. When the phone hurts and you cry together, that’s technological sadness. “I miss your voice. Call, don’t text.”

We overcome sadness not through happiness, but rather, as Andrew Culp insisted, through a hatred of this world. Sadness occurs in situations where the stagnant “becoming” has turned into a blatant lie. We suffer, and there’s no form of absurdism that can offer an escape. Public access to a 21st-century version of Dadaism has been blocked. The absence of surrealism hurts. What could our social fantasies look like? Are legal constructs such as creative commons and cooperatives all we can come up with? It seems we’re trapped in smoothness, skimming a surface littered with impressions and notifications. The collective imaginary is on hold. What’s worse, this banality itself is seamless, offering no indicators of its dangers and distortions. As a result, we’ve become subdued. Has the possibility of myth become technologically impossible? Instead of creatively externalizing our inner shipwrecks, we project our need for strangeness on humanized robots. The digital is neither new nor old, but — to use Culp’s phrase — it will become cataclysmic when smooth services fall apart into tragic ruins. Faced with the limited possibilities of the individual domain, we cannot positively identify with the tragic manifestation of the collective being called social media. We can neither return to mysticism nor to positivism. The naïve act of communication is lost — and this is why we cry.


Geert Lovink is a media theorist and internet critic and the author of Zero Comments, Networks Without a Cause, Social Media Abyss, and Sad by Design: On Platform Nihilism. He founded the Institute of Network Cultures at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences and teaches at the European Graduate School. He stopped using Facebook in 2010.