Social Media And The Distorting Of Time
How social media interlaces past and future in an endless knot
If the time we spend on social media were laid out, end to end, we could make a rope to the moon.
But social media doesn’t lay out time end to end. It circles and spirals, knots around itself, weaves through the nooks of our minds, in the treetops of our expectations.
Our habitual experience of time is as a linear sequence: one moment passes and another follows on. To be more precise, as conscious beings we are aware of change and movement, the succession of states of things across intervals. We see a person walk across a room and are aware that it has taken them a duration of time to do so.
Once you begin to think about how the conscious mind experiences time, the sense of temporal intervals — gaps, interims, distances —become apparent everywhere. I made breakfast this morning: one moment I was taking out the cereal boxes and bowls from the cupboard, the next moment I had eaten my breakfast and was washing up. Events that were in the future move incessantly into the past, like a train shunting past a station platform.
Social media asks us to occupy a different groove of time. Future, present and past are not pinned. Old events are reawakened and made present again. Future events are slotted into the past. Duration is determined by the attention of eyeballs.
When we take a selfie and post it online, for instance, we report on ourselves from the present. The odd thing about selfies is that we often take them for the sake of future gratification: we cast our eyes upon ourselves as if in mid-flow, mid-deed, attuning to both the experience first-hand and the appearance of it as we imagine it might appear to others at some future moment.
We check ourselves for the facade of spontaneity whilst at the same time plotting the image within the library of our past and future catalogues. So seamlessly integrated into the flux of our everyday lives has this type of behavior become that we have grown adept at playing the dual role. The construction of an image intended for posting on social media is fraught with the contradictions of performance, those of sincerity and pretense melded into one.
So the post goes online and the moment in time is fixed in place. Then, like a car nudging into a traffic jam, the moment adopts a new forward dynamic not under its own control.
The present moment is subject to a strange contortion: as the responses and comments feedback, interlacing backwards and forwards, they disarrange the linearity of sequenced events into more malleable forms. A moment from last week suddenly becomes present again. Or else we bring a present moment into someone else’s future. Timelines, newsfeeds, refreshes, notifications: all these systems are able to loop around themselves so that chronological order becomes more or less irrelevant.
The exchange of information with others becomes a shared digital gaze, a power-split that ebbs and flows between users over different durations. The chronology is malleable. Social media — and the technologies that thread through it — constitute a stretching of experience over fluid parentheses of time and geography.
To be sure, everyday human consciousness has the tool of memory that allows it to trace past moments and bring them back to the present, temporarily reinstating them in the forward-flow of linear time. We also have the capacity to feel past-oriented emotions. Remorse, satisfaction and shame. And future-directed emotions too through fear, dread and hope.
But the time-zone of social media does something else too. It places us within a flow of time that is not our own but is dependent on others to confirm its flow. If a timeline doesn’t update, time freezes. If a post left for dead, unliked or uncommented on, time freezes. If the void that we speak into is silent, time stands still.
The past- and future-orientated emotions occur as if they are part of the present moment. Not simply as memory does, but as vital instances of now. Remorse, satisfaction and shame, fear, dread and hope. These co-exist in the same moment and overlap, like the earth’s shadow across the moon.