Analysing a New Media phenomenon through the eyes of Nietzsche

On: October 7, 2007
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About Pieter-Paul Walraven
Besides enjoying my MA New Media and doing research on Web 2.0 developments in China at the UvA I am working 2 days a week as a project assistant at KREM ( KREM is a web 2.0 oriented company which specializes in so called corporate social networks. Movies: Koyaanisqatsi, O Brother where art thou?, Amores Perros. When not studying: Golf!, running, traveling, China, Web 2.0. Books: Life of Pi, War and Peace, The World is Flat. Furthermore I am currently doing research on Web 2.0 in China and Chinese Web companies expanding overseas. For this MA thesis research I will travel to China on the 14th of April to interview the most prominent Chinese Web companies that have the ambition to expand internationally.


In this post I will try to show that Nietzsche’s thoughts and aphorisms are still relevant in a modern Web 2.0 world. I have chosen a quote which I think is surprisingly true in the age of internet and maybe became even more true when online social networks started to take flight.

“Der Irrsinn ist bei Einzelnen etwas Seltenes, – aber bei Gruppen, Parteien, Völkern, Zeiten die Regel.”
Madness can be rare in individuals – but in groups, parties, peoples, ages it is the rule.
Friedrich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 156

During the time Nietzsche had come up with and published this aphorism (1886) I think it was primarely a reaction on Christianity. It can be seen as a ridiculisation of religion in general even though it is rather broad. The book Beyond Good and Evil was a critical reaction on philisophers that had blindly accepted Christianity in their considerations thus it can be concluded that it was an indirect attack on Christianity itself. The subtitle of the book “Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future” emphasises this even more.

The goal of this brief research is not to work out what Nietzsche has meant with this aphorism but to do research on the relevance the qoute has in the current society while focussing on the whole phenomonom of people massively joining and being active within online social networks such as Facebook, Myspace and YouTube. The main question I would like to answer is; is this quote that originated in 1886 still relevant and if so in what way does this thought still excist?

First of all I would like to discuss the word ‘Der Irrsinn’ and see whether this term is applicable in the case of online social networks. Ofcourse madness is a very subjective term but by making use of some striking examples I am hoping to prove the relevance of the word when looking at social networks.
To put it in a different way; what characteristics of social network sites are Mad? When we look at the extraordinary growth rate that the most well known social networks have gone through this can be concidered at least exceptional and maybe even mad. The explosion of some of the social network sites was, according to research, mainly caused by the possiblity for users to continuously refresh user generated content.

Content wise a good example of madness can be found at YouTube, as discussed several times at the Video Vortex conference on the 5th of October this year in Brussels there is a huge ammount of videos on YouTube that are generally considered rubbish. A question that rises, is why do people post stuff like this ? What is the reason for people to collectively post their stupidest most low quality and amateuristic mad videos to share them with the rest of the world? To interpretate Nietzsche his aphorism mentioned above very literaly, the reason for the primarely rubbish content is the fact that a group has been formed and within groups madness is no rarety.

A third point I would like to raise concerning the madness that is related to online groups, concerns the madness of the commercial observers and participators of social network sites. I might be exaggerating a little but I think paying 1.65 billion dollars for an online movie community a rather mad deed indeed. Also paying 580 million for Myspace without being sure how this investment is going to pay itself back can be considerd at least exceptional.

The examples mentioned above show that even though the aphorism by Nietzsche is over a 100 years old, it can still be applicable even though the term and definition of “Irrsinn” might be different nowadays (I will avoid my views on Christianity and religious madness). Maybe the only change in relevance of the aphorism is the change of context; the internet with social networks has taken over Christianity (with Google as god?).

A question that rises after this quick and rather subjective dertermination of relevance of Nietzsche’s quote is why does madness rule in, in this case online groups? To formulate a more concrete question: why do people and primarely young people love social networks? According to Danah Boyd, youngsters need youth space, a place to gather and have to erge to see and be seen by peers. ‘Youth are repurposing new mediums in order to learn about social culture’. By making use of online social networks people are able to make friends, but we are also able to find out what the restrictions of online can be compared to off-line.

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