Fly on the Wall—Are we Ever Really Ourselves when we Click the Like Button?

Fly on the Wall—Are we Ever Really Ourselves when we Click the Like Button?

Being here on earth, ideally for a good time and not only a brief time, means that the hours we spend doing things by choice matter deeply.  For humans, as for all beings, play is core to our socialization and sense of self.  The reason for this is arguably quite simple: creatures who succeed at seeking pleasure in fleeting dalliances that don’t seem to matter in terms of survival will concurrently find success in those vital aspects of life that really do matter.  Birds have their plumage dances and we in 2024 have, well, memes snarky and profound.

Behind all life is a silent yet inexorable clock, a beacon of existential truth that ominously chimes with a dull thud: tick-tock.  Online platforms replete with maddeningly-charming videos presented absent of a timer in the bottom corner that would allow us to see how long we will be under their thrall, and that prevent us from zipping ahead to the end to see how things end, are by no means a matter of mere play.  Scientists have uncovered some general realities of the social media experience: “Social media companies have created services being highly immersive, aiming to capture the attention of users as long as possible.  As a result of a prolonged user stay, social media companies obtain deep insights into psychological features of their users, which can be used for microtargeting purposes.  Such immersive platform design also likely drives users with certain characteristics into problematic social media use or problematic TikTok use (addictive-like behavior), but this aspect relating to TikTok use is understudied.”  Within the literature of psychology, social media functions within a paradigm of “insights from uses and gratification theory” – a reminder, as parents know all too well in any generation, that play is not always harmless.  Often play teaches youth how to achieve rewards and what goals are desirable, and what mentalities convey appropriate aspirational realities.

In America, serious political chit chat and actual action have led to threats to ban the app Tik Tok from the country unless, that is, its political minders in the Chinese Communist(Maoist) Party turn ownership over to some domestic counterparts.  Tik Tok, like the rest of the netosphere, gathers a lot of data and affects a lot of minds, while influencing us at the behest of our greatest economic threat to our way of life.  But surely we can make up our minds about what we enjoy during our precious leisure time?

Our culture tends to assume that if we had our druthers we’d all prefer to make our own choices and, blessed with the faculty of a mind untrammelled by propaganda, that we will make choices that are in our own best interest.  However, shopping mall food court garbage bins stuffed to the brim with fast food outlet packaging suggest that even in the freest of free markets our human decisions are led by the tail or tummy by our monkey brains.  So too with our time, the most valuable resource we can imagine – our lifetime being our own private eternity without which time ceases to matter.  So there’s a reason, perhaps, that malls have as few clocks on their walls as Tik Tok videos have timers: we lose ourselves ever so easily in play—even, and especially, when we think we are making our choices under the auspices of our cherished sense of free will.

Herein lies the ironic crux of the matter: all of culture, from entertainment superficiality to those whose job it is to keep the drains running on time (that we may be liberated from a faulty sewer or septic system) begins with ideas and proceeds outward from there.  Occasionally the core concepts that guide this or that societal system are presented in a clear manner.  When we go to the texts themselves, the words made by those creating content, we get a sense of the goals on offer.  By studying quotes by Tiktok’s guiding policy minds, experts claim that TikTok, that bastion of short attention span entertainment, is essentially a form of mental warfare, the better to make us compliant to the whims of the Chinese government’s political desire to disable our resistance to their unrolling machine of globalization.  It’s all about marketing, where a product takes up residence in our metaphorical skull such that we claim that there’s is the product for us.  Zeng defines the “cognitive space” as “the area in which feelings, perception, understanding, beliefs, and values exist” and argues that this is where the battle for North American minds can be won.  To that end, Zeng said, Beijing must use “information and popular spiritual and cultural products as weapons to influence people’s psychology, will, attitude, behavior and even change the ideology, values, cultural traditions and social systems.” According to Zeng, these cultural tools, including apps, video games, and films, should be used to “target individuals, groups, countries, and even people around the world.”

It remains up to us, if we’re capable and willing, to decide for ourselves the degree to which we, er, kowtow to the Tik Tok platform entity of the many-tentacled and human rights-adverse Beijing regime.   After all, the phrase bread and circuses began two millenia ago when Roman emperors sought to distract their populace from a marked decline in life circumstances and hopes of a better future.

As a post-script, it’s worth remembering a danger for we in university: by developing our critical inquiry muscles we may become insufferable purveyors of ironclad certainties and truths as pertains to hallmarks of cultural presentism.  Without a heavy dose of humility, telling ourselves that not even we in our ivory tower minds possess infallible faculties of critical thought, we’ll easily miss the elephant in any chat room: ideology functions best when, like a well-lubricated suppository, it slides into our being through the mother of all backdoors: the realm of common sense.  However, while we’re at it, avoiding the obvious pariahs of our internet time, we just might discover a few other realms of so-called entertainment that do more than just give us a chuckle or a chortle or a moment’s respite from the vagaries of daily life.  We can, after all, think and have fun at the same time: play is stimulating rather than stultifying, running amok rather than napping supine!

Hamilton, K., Schweizer, P., & Zeng, H.  (March 10 2024).  ‘Chinese Government Documents Reveal Detailed Plan to Subvert American Culture Using Tech and Hollywood to Target American Children’.  Retrieved from
Montag, C., Yang, H., Elhai, J.D.  (2024).  ‘On The Psychology of Tik Tok Use: A First Glimpse From Empirical Findings’.  National Library of Medicine: National Centre for Biotechnology Information.  Retrieved from