PsychBook Research

Collecting and analysing psychological research on the most popular social networking site in the world today.

The commodification of emotion: Celeb/rating

I read recently of an curious turn of phrase, which, as these phrases often do, belied an interesting idea – ‘commodification of emotion’ – which in itself had an interesting history. It came from the mouth of one Carmen Hermosillo, an early victim of cyberspace. Hers is a very sad story, which I could never do justice to telling, but I’d like to simply take that idea as a starting point to this discussion. At the outset though, it should be noted that she used that phrase fifteen years ago, a long time before the context in which I am to use it was even imagined.

What was at the heart of her original phrasing was the concern that when a person expressed themselves online that their emotions would be broadcast to a population who likely be entertained by it. This audiience would inevitably increase the more salacious or striking the content. The greater the emotions involved, the greater the traffic created. Moreover, after the persons involved died, their emotions would remain recorded in cyberspace, forever generating traffic for the companies providing the internet service – hence, the commodification of emotion. Irony writ large in the case of the late Ms. Hermosillo now that she’s dead, but let’s move on.

What does this mean in the age of Facebook? Now we’re not talking about a small clique of anonymous people, sharing common experiences on bulletin boards, but literally billions of named and identifiable people, logging onto social networks several times a day, ‘liking’ and sharing everything we see. Now it’s not so much the experiences that are being shared, but occurences. We are leaving breadcrumbs all over the internet, time-stamped and public, where our emotional expressions can be measured and itemised.

But what do they mean? Sure, a hearfelt story can drive more traffic, appealing images can increase click-through-rate, but what does it mean to the individual? Because we can be sure that the corporations will create a bottom-line calculation – that’s quite understandable in business terms – but what we mightn’t be sure of, and might be a little bit afraid of, is how this could be affecting us. Are we commodifying our own emotions?

I don’t know, but as I’ve said before, there’s a big difference between ‘liking’ someone’s status updade and telling them liked what they said – the medium is the message. What I do think is becoming more obvious is that social networking has, above all, given us several more levels of communicative sophistication, by which we can more discretely commodify the emotions which we express to one another. We can now be extremely precise in what we want to say to each other – not by what we say, but by how we say it.


Scale of relational intimacy

Let me sketch a little bit here, so that you can see what I mean, using an example of a message of fairly neutral emotional significance for illustrative purposes. Imagine simply saying ‘hello’, politely keeping up with someone – birthday wishes, for example – something fairly straightforward which you could say to anyone of whom you had at least some acquaintance. Let’s begin at a low number, as the most emotionally intimate, or closest, and working upwards (or outwards) to the furthest out. Each level will mean that a communication or message of a specific kind of emotional intimacy or closeness, with a qualitative difference between each level. You will probably disagree, but I hope you get the general drift…

0 – I’ll say that the zero level is something along the lines of walking into the bathroom, knowing that the other person is in there, without knocking! You can’t get much closer than that! Probably the only time anyone is going to be this close to another person to be able to say ‘good morning’ to them is probably between a parent and their toddler, or maybe, I don’t know a couple on their honeymoon. Doesn’t really work between boss and subordinate, in my experience…

1 – Calling over to their house unannounced. Between 0 and 1 there may well be a good deal of variation – knocking on the bathroom door, not knocking, bedroom door and so on – but I think that probably calling over to someone else’s house is qualitatively different. It’s also probably a more reasonable level of intimacy for most family members. Even if you arrive at a bad time, there usually won’t be a problem. This relationship is close enough to assume that you are allowed to interrupt the person: enough has already been invested in the relationship so as to be able to assume that it won’t be inapprorpriate, or that you know them well enough to have a good idea of what they will be doing at this time

2 – A posted letter, or a card. Again, between this and the last, there are probably several layers inbetween, but I think that, while rare and somewhat formal these days, the card or the letter is still quite intimate. It means that you’re close to the person you’re giving it to, in a way that subsequent levels are not. It takes a certain amount of effort to communicate in this way, the subtext of which means you are willing to invest time into the relationship and also willing to be, on some level, sentimental.

3 – The phone call. This is still quite close, but think about it: in the 21st century, you probably have phone numbers for a lot more people that you have postal addresses, let alone ones you’d ever use. A phonecall means taking a reasonable amount of time out of both of your days, but also being able to assume that you ‘aren’t calling at a bad time’. You can call someone at home, you can simply call someone up for a chat. This, and the levels above, are common, well-worn behaviours which civilisation has had for about fifty or sixty years at least.

4 – Text message. The functional one-hundred-and-forty character friend, saviour of the awkward situation, perfect for when you don’t want to go unscripted. Text messages we generally only exchange between people we know reasonably well, and so find a little bit strange to get from someone in a professional situation. There is an intimacy to the text message because you can receive it in your pocket. We expect people to react emotionally when one arrives. And we analyse them deeply, some of them purposefully saved as keepsakes. And we know the effect that one sent in error can have.

5 – The email. Another fin de siècle medium, and I suppose it’s debatable whether this could have come before the text message, but I believe, because you can so easily find a person’s professional email address all over the internet, not to mention the amount of spam out there, that it can’t be a very special form of communication. Can it be emotional? Of course. Is it more emotional than a text message? I don’t think so. But it is private, and it can represent a deliberate amount of time taken to communicate to one particular individual.

Now, we come into the 21st century social networking sphere, where quantification and categorisation is so much more precise:

6. The Facebook message, Twitter DM or other private message. These function like emails, as you can make quite private statements, and revelations, which can intensify a relationship, but they are of a lower order. You probably wouldn’t send one of these to someone you had a close relationship with, because you’d probably have their phone number, or email address. Or would you? They can be sent to people you have never, and will never meet, and have an air of the intangible to them which belies the icon which we often click on to write one: does anyone keep romantic DMs in an old biscuit tin under their bed?

7. An initial Facebook Wall comment, or direct Twitter @mention, or other unique public web comment. This is the sort of communication you might have with someone you have had a reasonably good relationship with at some point in the past, but no longer see regularly. You don’t have their email address, and importantly, you don’t send them a private message, because…well, you don’t have anything private to communicate. But you still like them enough to express some sort of affection publicly. You’ve remembered, and gone out of your way.

8. The major phatic communication: any subsequent Facebook comment or @reply. Like commenting on something on their wall, or adding a ‘happy birthday’ to someone else’s comment. This is less close because it’s not original. If you were actually close to the person, you wouldn’t have to be reminded to make a comment. Of course Facebook makes this easier now, by reminding you in advance of your friends’ birthdays – though only those who have that date publicly accessible (try switching it off and see how many write on your wall then!).

9. The minor phatic communication: Liking someone else’s comment. Retweeting someone else’s words. Obviously pretty lame, as you don’t feel the need to actually add anything to the conversation: because you don’t feel that you will gain anything by doing so. But it’s as good as saying ‘hi’ or giving the old eyebrow flash. It’ll be enough to keep a loose connection live, but at the same time, it is meaningful: what if someone you haven’t heard from in ages ‘likes’ a comment on your wall? what if a complete stranger retweets a ‘happy birthday’ message to you? It doesn’t mean much, but it does mean something.

10. Viewing. You see it, and you do nothing. You’ve looked at the person’s details, and you don’t do anything about it. You just don’t bother. Which sounds terrible, doesn’t it? But isn’t that what happens a couple of dozens of times every time you log on to Facebook? You see other conversations between people you know, some quite well, and you don’t write on walls, you don’t comment, and you don’t even like – you simply watch. And why? Because you have calculated, by means of some implicit scale like this one, that it’s not worth your while doing anything: losing nothing by remaining aloof, gaining nothing by taking part. It is the lowest level of communication, like perhaps a fan of a celebrity, reading the birthday messages which other fans write on their Facebook page.



There is an assumption that connecting people (how many telecoms companies cite it in their slogans?) is somehow a good thing. I’m not going to challenge that, but what I am curious about is the end of this process. It’s a great promissory note – ‘sign up to our price plan, connect, and make the world a better place’ – but what exactly has to happen, psychologically, along the way?

I mean, are we naturally able to be cognisant of billions of people? No, of course not. We’re really only capable of being mindful of a small village’s worth of individuals. We naturally understand the world an emotional and social way, which is competitive and calculating.

So, it must follow that, as more and more people become connected to more and more people, that certain psychological changes will inevitably take place. Our old ways of thinking will have to change. More acutely, our old ways of communicating will have to change. The question which deeply bugs me though, is what behaviours does the architecture of social networking make easier?

We watch other people’s emotional experiences, and decide how authentic they are. And by those, in comparison, we evaluate our own. It seems to me that an inevitable consequence of connecting billions of people together is that billions of people begin comparing themselves, not to those closest to themselves, either emotionally or physically or by any other sensible dimension, but with those most noticeable. With the speed of the tweet news cycle, this effectively means that we are now all either broadcasters, or stalkers – struggling to differentiate our selves, and our experiences, from a shrinking planet, on which there is nothing new under the sun: except that now, everything moves faster, and we have to adapt, to perceive, evaluate and calibrate our response to an evershifting scene.

Categories: Opinion