Mimetic desire and social networks, and what binds us

You may not have realized it, but navel gazing can be a social activity after all. You need only direct your gaze towards the navel of another. There’s pleasure in autonavelgazing and in othernavelgazing, but scale it up, add fashion brandnames, put it on the air and run a campaign, and wa la, you have fashionnavelgazing and tube tops to boot.

If you think I’m nuts you may still be right, but I’m not talking out of my a posteriori here. Listen to Rene Girard, philsopher and grand theorist (and proud to say, of my alma mater, Stanford) and soon-to-be inductee into the
Academie Francaise
, on the air with his theory of mimetic desire.

Our desire is not for an object, but for the desire that another has for that object. Two boys pursue the same girl as much out of their mimetic (imitating) desire as for their desire for the girl. That is not to be confused with their desire for each other — that’s not what it is. Mimetic desire involves a fundamentally social motivation, and seeing others do something is what inspires our mimetic acts.

Social networks seem to function in much the same way. We copy others, and that viral mechanism propagates and proliferates a choice, a preference, interest, or a desire. Media make for great carriers, and one might argue that our Friendsters, MySpaces, Tribes and so on are but internet-based versions of mass media in which people are content, and their communication is the medium’s information.

If that is the case then, there’s nothing that interesting about social networks but that they are very good at repeating the same choice, albeit a choice (for the same) made anew by a different person each time. I download U2 because you did too.

Listen to Rene. He’s fantastic, and I have to say I’m convinced when I hear him that mimesis can indeed explain social phenomena. But as a fan of sociology and of communication theories in particular, the troubling implication of mimetic desire is that it suggests that we are bound to one another by repetition. Where would that put difference? The theory implies that social phenomena actually tighten relations around a sameness, that difference has no communication power of its own. We can “communicate” only what others can already here, or worse, communication succeeds only when others desire the same.

Communication theories suggest that information is selected, that either agreement is reached between individuals based on understanding of linguistic statements, or that information is accepted or rejected (this doesnt involve agreement). But a communication theory in which the basis for interaction is information and reason, validity claims, truth conditions, and so on, tastes a bit too dry, doesn’t it? Where is desire in that? Where is the experience of being together, of longing or reaching out, that we know is real?

There would be consequences for theories of social networking were one to suggest it’s only mimetic desire at work, an endless chain of repetition and sameness but highly motivating. And consequences if it involves a communication of information grounded in speech, conversation, and interaction. Which matters more: showing members of a community what everyone’s up to? Or providing clear lines of communication (better discussions, chats, talk technologies)…

I love it that we can even bring Girard into this. The thinking cap’s going to have to come out now.

What do they say on KFOG? If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own? Or is it go out and do what he did?


See Rene Girard here.


  • Anonymous

    You have overlooked negative mimetism.

    One does unlike what the Crowd is doing. It is still taking the Crowd or a Group or someone as a model.

  • adrian

    Good point anonymous. And the person acting out rebelliously and thus with negatively mimetic motives is still trying to get the attention of the crowd? But do they notice?

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