Desire and Addiction on Facebook

Harper’s magazine reviews a posthumous collection by Rene Girard, who was Peter Thiel’s professor at Stanford, and is “the godfather of the Like button.”

PUBLISHED NOV 5, 2023 5:15 P.M.
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Rene Girard, 'the godfather of the Like button.'

Rene Girard, 'the godfather of the Like button.'   Courtesy Johns Hopkins University

As you probably know, two weeks ago, California Attorney General Rob Bonta joined AGs from 38 other states in suing Facebook for allegedly willfully causing mortal harm to children. That same week, Harper’s magazine published an article about the man whose philosophical invention lies behind the weapon that caused that harm.

Rene Girard was a Stanford professor and the author of many books, including the recently published All Desire Is a Desire for Being. His controversial contribution to philosophy and social science was the idea he called “mimetic desire,” which is described in an 2015 Stanford News obituary thusly: “Our desires, he wrote, are not our own; we want what others want. These duplicated desires lead to rivalry and violence.”

Among Girard’s students at Stanford was Peter Thiel, the multi-billionaire investor (and prominent Trump supporter) who gave Facebook its first outside money. Armed with his mentor’s theory, Thiel believed the social media platform was tailor made to hook its users into the kind of addictive behaviors that Meta is now being prosecuted for inflicting on teenagers. 

From Sam Kriss’s review in Harper’s: “The business decision that most clearly bears Girard’s fingerprints is the $500,000 punt that turned Facebook into a behemoth. (Girard has been described as the “godfather of the Like button.”)

“What Thiel saw was Facebook’s potential as a vast petri dish for new strains of mimetic desire—and this is exactly what social media has given us. We buy the clothes that influencers wear on Instagram. We adopt the opinions that lunatics spout on Twitter. In a million rooms across the world right now, a million teenagers are silently dancing, alone, to the same choreography they’ve learned from TikTok.

“Thiel’s investment made him very rich. But it’s still an unusual thing for a Girardian to do. Girard spent his entire life preaching the deadly dangers of mimetic desire, this Satanic force that must be contained at all costs. His most prominent student seems to have come away with the impression that this mimetic desire is some pretty powerful stuff—and that you can make a lot of money by letting it rip. Thiel took a warning sign and turned it into a manual. His investment in the New Right seems to be along the same lines.”

Read Overwhelming and Collective Murder: The grand, gruesome theories of René Girard at Harper’s.

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