The Hug Machine
Or, How the Attention Economy is Turning Into a Relatibility Economy
Want to make something successful on the net today? Here’s the secret ingredient: make it relatable.
Go ahead and take a look at the top stuff here at Medium (or anywhere else). It’s usually mostly “How I Learned to X”, “What I Did When Y”, “How I Survived Z”, and so on. Me me me, mirrored in you you you. Long, heartfelt personal essays, secret intimate reflections, little memoirs, and so on. The hottest stuff on the net today is relatable.
We used to have an attention economy. Now we have a relatability economy. The stuff the most people can relate to, see themselves in, invariably rockets up the charts, earning the plaudits of fans and critics alike.
Relatability simply means stuff people can relate to. That reflects peoples’ own experiences and feelings and beliefs back at them like a mirror. And thus it answers needs for affirmation, approval, and belonging. It says: you’re one of us, because I’m just like you.
But. I don’t think its good for us. As people, as a society, or as an economy. I think we’ve begun using the net in a strange and empty way. As a substitute for genuine relationships, which offer us the possibility for growth, through true intimacy. Here’s why.
Relatable stuff has three components. It’s personal, about an “I”. And so it’s subjective. It’s narrated in the first person. And so it’s usually narrow. And it’s sentimental. In a relatability story, which is always about personal emotions, the hero always wins, and the emotions they feel are always good ones, ultimately.
Hence, it feels like a hug.
Imagine a bunch of people standing in a square, offering free hugs. Who’s really benefiting? Maybe the people that own the square. That put ads around the square. That serve drinks in the square. But the huggers aren’t: they’re just getting illusory, meaningless short term emotional gratification, empty of actual caring. Neither are the huggees: they’re also getting hollow validation and approval from perfect strangers. But both should probably be seeking better in genuine relationships instead.
If you go home happy because you got a free hug, but three hours laters, feeling even emptier, you’re desperately swiping right for a hookup, are you better off…or worse? If you’re giving free hugs instead of nurturing and loving people in truer ways, what’s the point? Who’s winning this game? No one. Some people are getting a little bit richer, but only at everyone else’s expense.
Congratulations, you just understood the Hugconomy.
From an economic point of view, the problem with the relatability economy’s simple: It takes a lot of effort to create relatable “content”. Relatable content usually comes in the form of long, heartfelt personal essays. But the media industry can’t sell valuable enough ads, because digital ads are effectively worthless. So how is it going to compensate people who spend their lives writing said long, heartfelt essays? It isn’t.
Hence, no one’s really better off. The problem of media turning into a volunteer industry is fuelled, not mitigated, by relatability. There are winners at this game. But unlike yesterday’s, they make thousands, not millions. And the losers, not just in financial terms, but psychological and social ones, are you and me.
Relatability is the Enemy of Possibility
Relatability’s like a hug. It’s warm and comforting. It alleviates our anxieties and relieves our tensions. We can all use more hugs these days, right? The world’s a scary, cruel place, riven by the needless suffering caused by failing economies and fracturing societies and poor leaders. But the price is that exactly by comforting us, numbing us, relatability doesn’t elevate us into possibility, but traps us forever seeking approval, validation, conformity
We can only relate to stuff that speaks to who we are, not who we can become, right? So to choose stuff you can relate to is also not to choose stuff you have to struggle with, grasp for, learn, wrestle uncomfortably with. But then we don’t develop into us.
Relatability is like a rom com of the human spirit. That’s fine. We all binge on rom coms and pizza once in a while, even (especially) me. But contrast watching a rom com with standing in front of a Francis Bacon or Picasso. What makes it great? That you can’t relate to it. Not simply or immediately anyways. You have to think, feel, learn, wonder, imagine. It takes reflection, dedication, time, effort. You are challenged, confronted, provoked, maybe even repelled. But that’s exactly why they make you grow.
To say that you can “relate” to something is to say that you can see your own experiences in it. But that’s precisely why what’s relatable doesn’t challenge us. It costs us struggle, rebellion, and defiance. And if we’re not challenged, how can we grow?
Some Things Should be Commodities. Approval Isn’t One.
What does the relatability industry really create? Approval. Everyone wants it. Especially in a world that tells us we’re never good enough, rich enough, perfect enough. Relatability says: see? You’re just like me. I approve of you. Youre OK with me, I approve of you as a human being.
We all need approval. But what’s different about digital culture is that we can now seek it whenever, wherever we want. All the time, endlessly, instantaneously. It doesn’t have to be earned, given, and treated with gentle respect. It’s just a tap away. Available in infinite amounts. So now it’s something more like a drug and less like a social reward. And we can, and do, overdose on it.
Why do you think the Internet makes us unhappy, generally evil, and pretty awful? It’s not the rage. It’s the approval. When were told by the relatability industry that every foolish choice we make is ok, great, wonderful, I’ve made it too, we’re going to keep making foolish choices.
The flipside of overvalidation is ego inflation. Too much approval too fast makes us little narcissists. People with swollen expectations — yet without the courage to truly pursue them. When those swollen expectations are pierced by reality, the result is rage. I didn’t get the perfect girlfriend, boyfriend, job, and so on, that relatability told me I should. Now I’m enraged. Approve me!
There are things that should and shouldn’t be commodities. Approval probably shouldn’t. It should stay truly social. Precisely because we should have to earn it, by being better human beings. If it’s endlessly available to us for free, our incentives to stay decent humans shrink.
Fulfillment Isn’t Just Knowing Your Weaknesses. It’s Conquering Them.
When we overdose on the drug of overapproval, then a toxic thing happens. We never grow. Instead of discovering, confronting, and struggling to mitigate our weaknesses, flaws, and mistakes, we make the fatal mistake of being comforted and consoled for them. That’s what overapproval tells us, right? It’s ok to be a terrible person — I am too!! It is ok in the narrowest sense: it’s human. But it’s not ok in a truer sense: the point of life isn’t just relating your flaws, but conquering them.
There is too much of a good thing, and the relatability industry provides it. Too much unearned approval creates ego inflation, which makes us less capable of being functioning humans, and limits us, instead, to being easily broken, ever frustrated narcissists who think weakness is strength and flaws are accomplishment.
They’re not. No one cares how relatable you are in the classroom, board room, or playing field. Sorry, that’s the hard truth. Yet when life doesn’t reward for our flaws and weaknesses the way that insta-approval does, then we grow frustrated, baffled, and finally outraged. How dare they not approve of me!! Don’t they see what a wonderful person I am?! I’ll turn back to the relatability industry. And so the vicious cycle goes on: relatability, ego inflation, dashed expectations, dissociation from reality, stunted growth.
Relatability Costs Us Relationships
The truth is that relatability costs us relationships, for all the reasons above. Free hugs from strangers are a perfect drug. We can seek them endlessly, but every instant we do is ine that will cost us true love, great passion, burning desire. We are better off earning approval because relationships reward us with gifts only real intimacy can give. Unless you think you’re in a passionate relationship with the relatability machine, in which case you’re probably either deranged or a stalker or both.
We’ve begun using the net in a strange and dangerous way. As a substitute for genuine relationships, which offer us authentic emotions, via real intimacy. Instead, using free hugs from strangers as an emotional crutch, we end up with the worst of both worlds. Fewer, lower quality relationships, and less possibility in ourselves.
We grow when are provoked, taught, contradicted, challenged. When we are taught to rebels, renegades, heretics. Relatability makes us little affirmation seeking conformists instead. Honorable, good people. But the good people are usually what stands in the way of better. To grow, we must do more than relate. Endlessly relating is a trap of the human spirit. We must learn to step outside our narrow, approval seeking selves, and begin challenging ourselves to understand what we can’t relate to. That is what great relationships do, right? When you say that your lover makes you a better person, you mean that they challenge you, not just coddle you.
So your challenge isn’t becoming a cog — or a gear — in the validation machine. It’s using it, maybe, once in a while, just like you binge on rom coms. But not letting it turn you into an addict of free approval. Because even free has a price. Instead, your challenge is challenging yourself. To grow past approval, beyond validation, so your highest and truest self can emerge at last.
So what am I saying? That culture should be a sterile exercise in data journalism? Nope. Remember the rom com versus the Picasso? You’re probably going to have to get your priorities right. A single truly great book, artwork, film, is worth infinite mediocre ones. To you. It will spark growth you, and they will simply stifle it.
And that’s really what we all need, desire, and hunger for. Not just free hugs, that console us when we are hurt. But understanding our suffering, giving it meaning, not just being granted relief, so that we discover, in our very scars, the beginnings of ourselves.