We all love to share the meal, but who will do the dishes? Legal aspects of the share economy

Also known as collaborative consumption, the “share economy” is a term that has become popular among media outlets and that seems to hold a lot of promise. Indeed, Time magazine named it one of the 10 ideas that would change the world in 2010. The idea has received so much hype that LeWeb, the biggest tech event in Europe, has chosen “Digital Hippies: Create a New Sharing Economy” as the topic for their next London edition of the event.

In a nutshell, this new paradigm of consumption allows individuals to rent out their personal property and/or living space, or even propose their services to a perfect stranger. Of course, this decision is not taken blindly, but with the help of different platforms that provide mechanisms to assert the identity and reliability of the other party to the transaction.

As for the economic impact of this new sharing economy, Bloomberg reported in 2010 of the hundreds of users who were able to dodge foreclosure on their homes thanks to the services of Airbnb. Indeed, Forbes estimates that the share economy will produce more than $3.5 billion in revenue this year, showing a growth of over 25%.

Airbnb, the star child of the share economy, offers an online platform that helps guests looking for unique accommodation within any given price range find the right host for them. According to the stats on its website, Airbnb has had over 10 million nights booked, with over 300,000 listings worldwide in over 33,000 cities, and in 192 countries. These numbers, plus the emergence of many other startups providing services in the same spirit, show a clear trend towards a new form of consumption.

Indeed, companies such as SnapGoods, which allows users to rent or borrow high-end household items from others in their area, could potentially disrupt the way we operate. No more need to buy a drill that will only be used for an average 15 minutes in its lifetime. Or, instead, you can make money off the one you already own. Either way, you save money while reducing your environmental footprint. What’s not to like?

But…

Having studied law and economics, and as a lover of technology and its applications, I live in a constant conundrum. Much like a parent looking at his child riding a bike for the first time, excitement and apprehension rush in all at once. And while it is a lawyer’s job to foresee everything that could go wrong, it is not our job to be an obstacle but a tool for business and innovation.

So what are the risks?

In the case of operations such as renting out personal property, a few risks that immediately come to mind include liability in case of damage, which, in the case of an object, might be affected by its state at the time the contract took place. When we share everything, everything gets used more, and thus breaks more often. And remember the person renting the item is probably someone like you or me, who may not have kept such item in top condition before each rental as a professional would. Cars, bikes, and high-end house appliances, all need a certain level of maintenance in order to keep them safe and avoid property damage.

When it comes to peer-to-peer pet boarding, it becomes even more complex if trying to establish negligence, damage caused by a pre-existing condition that the owner might not have been aware of, or even old age.

Other risks, but now dealing with the renting of living space, include legal action by landlords against their tenants for breach of contract, which actually happened to a former Airbnb user who wrote an article about the experience on Fast Company. For most users, it would be due to a clause in the lease that expressly prohibits this kind of short-term rental, or a provision that forbids subletting in general. However, some countries have tight controls over short-term rentals, or laws against the use of residential rooms as transient hotels. In Amsterdam, for example, an individual may legally use their home as a B&B as long as it’s registered with the city and only 40% of the living area is used for these activities. In New York City, which also forbids these “illegal hotels”, the mayor’s office of special enforcement has received over 3,000 complaints and issued almost 6,000 violation notices since 2006. These rules vary from one jurisdiction to another, and many users ignore that by engaging in this activity they are actually breaking the law, while authorities are becoming increasingly aware of these violations.

But aside from regulations and getting in trouble with the authorities, which is no joke, most of the risks involved in peer-to-peer online transactions are more or less the same as the traditional ones, except that now we have many companies who act as the middle-man, making information available more efficiently and thus helping the consumer make better decisions.

The sharing economy and the fact that it is carried out mostly through online intermediaries raises all kinds of issues and complications. As this article points out, will insurance companies be so keen about their clients regularly renting out their homes/cars? This is no longer a hypothetical question, but one that needs to be clearly defined. Laws governing peer-to-peer car rental have already come to effect in certain states, and more legislation of this kind is surely to come.

From a startup point of view, and as a mere intermediary, there are naturally contract clauses that limit or exclude liability. In Europe, according to Directive 2000/31/EC that regulates electronic commerce, a service provider can benefit from the liability exemptions for “mere conduit” when “he is in no way involved with the information transmitted”. But, would Airbnb’s professional photography program that provides hosts with free high-resolution photos be considered as modifying the information? Also, while most companies would match the “mere conduit” description, nowadays startups are getting more involved. Such is the case of companies such as DogVacay, who claim that their pet-sitters are “hand approved to ensure quality and safety”, and RelayRides, who performs “strict renter screening” and background verifications.

Besides, in the end nobody wants to pay. Be it the user or the company, the activity needs to remain profitable for all parties involved. So the point is not to avoid liability at all cost, but to make the consumer feel safe to use the product/service and reduce these casualties to a minimum. This is why these companies rely on giving the user lots of information, thorough user reviews, a damn good insurance policy and ultimately trust. We trust that these companies have our best interest in mind, because otherwise they would disappear from the market.

After all, sharing is caring.

Airbnb is no stranger to the shortcomings of the share economy. Especially after being involved in a huge scandal in 2011 where a host’s property got trashed down, threatening its reputation and leading the company to ultimately extend the guarantee offered to hosts for up to $1 million in property damage in 2012.

Despite the exceptional nature of these occurrences, other companies have also understood that users need reassurance when making this kind of transactions with virtual strangers. RelayRides, understanding people’s apprehension towards renting their own car, offers up to $1 million liability insurance. DogVacay pledges “all reservations include complimentary insurance, 24/7 customer support, daily photo updates, and a 100% money back guarantee”. SnapGoods has similar protection included in its guarantee, also relying on a system of security deposits of up to $5,000, determined by the owner of the good in question. In case of disagreement with regards to a claim, however, the company has the last word on the matter, assuring that customer satisfaction will always be their priority.

Of course, this isn’t the case for every company. Peer-to-peer bike rental site Liquid expressly waives their liability in case of personal injury and/or property damage. CouchSurfing, one of the earlier examples of the share economy, offers no protection nor guarantee whatsoever to its users. The CouchSurfing community, which offers a platform for travelers to meet with locals, find free accommodation and/or have a cultural exchange, warns in its terms of use: “You are solely responsible for your interactions with other members of our Service”. Yet again, this is a free service and those who are familiar with CouchSurfing know that it is really a cultural experience, at your own risk, and more than just saving a few bucks.

Of course, I could not talk about every single company, and there are for sure many notable examples that I have not mentioned here. For a better understanding, you can check out this book and this brilliant TED talk by its author.

The main lesson to retain here is that, in this new form of collaborative consumption, reputation will be our most valuable asset. What these companies are doing is actually empowering ordinary people to become micro-entrepreneurs (micropreneurs), with the help of communities that help build trust between strangers. As studies like this one have shown, trust is a determinant factor in online transactions and a currency in many ways. Some companies have caught on, with websites such as TrustCloud helping users make their reputation portable from one platform to another and many other websites adding endorsement features. Organizations have also understood that they need to be trustworthy as well, developing strong cultures and core principles embedded in their company.

Ultimately, we must not look at the share economy as a necessary evil of the economic crisis, but as a form of consumption more efficient than ownership and an endless source of business opportunities.

The soundtrack to our lives

Do you ever get the feeling, when you listen to a song you really liked in the past, that its momentum has expired?

You used to listen to it so often, that at some point (probably listen number 36) the music blended in with your life inconspicuously; it became synonym with whatever you were living at that moment.

Life is a continuum you can’t really split into chapters, but there are certainly some events that mark the end of an era, a turning of the wheel in a different direction, and those are the moments when music gets old.

It’s a process that happens so naturally, that you don’t even notice it until it’s over. And once it’s over, each note of that old song becomes an intruder in a moment that now belongs to a new song: the one you should be listening to.

That is unless you’re feeling nostalgic, of course. Then it’s okay to let the soundtrack to your life carry you through that bittersweet ride down memory lane.

Why bad books are good for you

So today, because it’s Sunday and all, I will write about something a bit less serious: why I think it’s necessary to read crappy books.

First of all, I think literature generally considered as “poor” has an undeserved spot in our society as something that is either frowned upon or a sign of stupidity. But when you analyze it, what makes a bad book? It’s a concept as personal as a good gift, or how you like your eggs in the morning.

Sure, we can agree on some traits that are common to all less-than-great novels: weakly devised characters, implausible storyline, artificial dialogue, incomprehensible writing and, of course, the typical grammatical errors/misspellings. You are sure to find those in any paperback you pick up at the super-market. Guaranteed.

Another emblematic slip of bad books is overwriting. That is, writing so many words it renders the phrase unintelligible. Cynthia Crossen from the WSJ hilariously quotes this example: “The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.” Huh? This quote actually won a contest as the third worst sentence ever published in academic prose.

The Twilight series is another example of literature commonly referred to as poor, if it is even called literature. Its author is a hopeless victim of what we call purple prose. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, purple prose can be best defined as writing that is characterized by sumptuous, flowery, exaggerated language. Here’s the example that epitomizes it, from Paul Clifford (1830):

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

If you managed to get through that paragraph, it is the infamous “it was a dark and stormy night” quote. Much like Stephenie Meyer’s style, which uses the word chagrin so repetitively it withdraws all literary meaning from it.

But we’ve all been there: stuck with that book you don’t want to finish but you still want to give it a chance, hoping that the book will pick up towards the end. Almost never happens.

There’s also the novel recommendation from a friend whose taste you respect. Sometimes the book turns out to be a catastrophe, but you finish it anyway because you are so puzzled by why your friend would enjoy something like this, and you are persuaded the answer is also towards the end. It never is.

But, if bad literature is so difficult to describe, defining good writing is an even harder task. One example that comes to mind is Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, a book I love despite its horrible prose. I swear, every time a character broke into a 20-page speech-monologue, I wanted to throw the book at my window. So, let’s just say it belongs to a gray area.

Likewise, Madame Bovary, often considered to be Flaubert’s masterpiece, is deemed as plain bad by a collaborator for the American Book Review. He even takes on The Little Prince and The Great Gatsby! No book is safe.

So how do we expect our children to develop a reading habit in the midst of all this confusion? That’s where crappy books come in.

When I was a little girl, my mom acquired a bookstore inside a university campus. So growing up I liked to spend my summer vacations helping out the family business, immersed in this world of books and ideas. There was no area that escaped my curiosity. Law, medicine, psychology; basically anything I could get my hands on.

But it wasn’t all textbooks. There was also a “best-seller” section with popular literature books. So naturally, my ingenuity led me to dive in the not-so obscure world of self-help books, romance novels, and the occasional literature classic. My passion for literature was thus developed thanks to books that I would probably be embarrassed to admit today.

I wish I could say it was a love-at-first-sight kind of affair with books and me. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the case. During our reading class at school, we would read some of the following novels:

  • Poem of the Cid, written sometime between 1195-1207
  • Lazarillo de Tormes, 1554
  • María, 1867
  • Platero, 1917
  • Bodas de Sangre (Blood wedding), 1932

These are great works and classics of Spanish literature. The problem was, I couldn’t relate to any of that stuff. Heck, I could barely understand it. Here is a timeline so you can have a bit of an idea of how foreign all this was to me:

That was until we read Platero, a sweet story about a donkey. Before that, the most recent novel we read was already over a century old. How do you expect a 12 year old to create a reading habit when you force him/her to read old books he/she does not understand?

I believe there is not a single person educated in Spanish that doesn’t know by heart the words that follow “Platero es pequeño, peludo, suave …”. Platero y yo was like a breath of fresh air in the midst of all this titanic literature from a past I couldn’t relate to.

Maybe the problem wasn’t that we started with the classics. Maybe we should have started with more recent ones. In my case, I’ll never know. But I will give credit where it belongs, and acknowledge the role “poor” literature had in my education.

So the next time you’re in the metro, wrapped up in the last chapter from that vampire saga you’ve been reading, don’t try to hide it under your papers: show it with pride.

After all, how can you know what good feels like if you’ve never experienced bad? How can you appreciate wealth when you’ve never been poor?

Don’t get me wrong, you should probably not read every novel that crosses your path. But my passion for literature was born and nurtured by doing so. Until I developed taste, and then a voice of my own.

Should legal practitioners teach?

Those who can’t do, teach” is a widely quoted phrase from popular wisdom. It stems from the belief that professionals who would have otherwise been a failure in their respective fields, wind up being professors. It is said as a critique to teachers who have no field experience and teach from a purely theoretical standpoint. But would a scholar who actually has professional experience be the silver bullet?

In other words, is it really desirable, particularly in the legal field, to have as a teacher someone who is gaining recognition in the academic world while at the same time defending private interests in court and thus directly affecting (to a certain extent) the law making process?

The first question we have to ask ourselves in order to answer the interrogations above is how influential are scholarly works when it comes to law making?

If there is one thing the main legal families (namely Common Law and Civil Law) agree on, is the feeble position of juristic writings as a source of law. While this is true, one cannot deny the influential role of legal literature. In this sense, let us not forget that Article 38 of the International Court of Justice’s statute proposes “the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists of the various nations, as subsidiary means for the determination of rules of law”. In plain English, that means a judge X from the ICJ can grab from his office library, let’s say, Malcolm Shaw’s International Law and perfectly draw legal rules from there. Shaw is a practicing barrister. Now, this is a bad example because International Law conflicts and private parties’ interests would rarely cross.

Let’s try a better example. It could happen that a judge in the United States has a complicated first impression case to decide on Patent Law, an area that has become increasingly chaotic. He is more limited in his decision than our ICJ judge, but he can definitely consult a book or two for inspiration. So he decides to take a look at treatise written by Poltorak, who is an IP Law scholar and by the way not even a lawyer, but who happens to be the founder of a patent licensing and enforcement firm. Whether his ideas are self-interested or correct is irrelevant at this point. The fact is that legal scholars could potentially have great influence in the emergence of new legal interpretations, while at the same time having the chance to tilt the scale in favor of their clients’ interest or their own. Seriously, every time I read an article by a lawyer stating that a Patent Troll is a term impossible to define, all I can think is “he obviously works for one”. It would probably be safe to assume that if a patent law scholar were to have so-called patent trolls as clients, he would then be inclined to support a severer patent system with regards to infringements as opposed to a lawyer who defends small companies who are usually the victims of such trolling. 

This situation could worsen in the case of small developing countries where corruption and network effects are even higher. The influence that could be exerted by a prominent lawyer who teaches at universities but maintains his clientele whom he defends at court is thus greater. He would seem almost irresistible in the eyes of a magistrate.

So even if the judge would act in good faith when deciding a case, could he find himself seduced by the ideas and prestige that surrounds said attorney? From my work experience as a civil litigation attorney in my country, I believe it is certainly possible.

At the end of the day, it is probably true that scholars with professional experience are better prepared to teach. But it is only by drawing attention to this potential issue that we can make sure that neither the students nor the judges are persuaded by an idea without knowing the other side of the story, or at least where the transmitter is coming from.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

I completely relate to this article, as I often oscillate between the two types of writer’s block you describe. The tough part is to wait without feeling like you’re slacking off.

Thank you Cristian for yet another great piece.

Overcoming Writer’s Block.

Where and how was the Bill and Hillary Clinton 1970s “hippie” photo taken?

This answer exemplifies one of the reasons why I think @Quora is amazing –

Answer by Michael Oates Palmer:

My father, Charles F. Palmer, a law school classmate of Bill Clinton, took the photo. I have a photo of the same exact place and time, with B and H in same clothes, but with my mother in the photo. Bill had given them a ride to the train station. Just uploaded it to my twitter feed: @oatespalmer

I originally posted this from my iPhone, but wanted to fill in a few more gaps now that I'm at my laptop.  My mother and father came to Yale in the fall of 1970, having dated and lived together in Berkeley and in Washington DC.  My father was in Bill Clinton's law class, the class of 1973.  (Bob Reich, the future Secretary of Labor, was also in their year.) My mother, Marylouise Oates, received her Masters of Divinity from Yale around the same time.  Hillary Rodham was in the Yale law class of 1972, even though she was younger than both Bill Clinton and my father – she went straight to Yale after she graduated from Wellesley.

Shortly after Bill Clinton was elected President, my mother found this photograph in a photo album somewhere and gave me a copy.  When Hillary Clinton wrote her memoir, Living History, I saw that the photograph of just her and Bill from Yale was on the back cover — and was credited only to "courtesy of author's private collection" or something like that.  I recognized it as likely being taken around the same time as the photo with my mom, and thought it could have been taken by my dad, too, but didn't really explore it.

Probably about a year ago, people were posting the "just Bill and Hillary" Yale photo on Facebook, and I looked close at the two photos side by side, and saw that they were clearly taken at the same time and the same place — same building behind them, and BC in virtually the exact same pose.  I posted the two photographs on my Facebook page. 

A few months later — and just yesterday — a friend who is friends with a Quora staffer sent me the link to this question.  I have always wanted to see my dad, now a Superior Court Judge here in Los Angeles, given credit for taking this iconic photograph of the two Clintons.

I have the photo of the Clintons and my mom framed in my house.  When I show someone the photo, I like to let them figure out who is in the picture.  They inevitably have one of two responses: "HOLY $#&$ LOOK AT BILL CLINTON'S HAIR" or they ignore the Clintons completely — not recognizing them — and instead say, "Check out the boots your mom is rocking!"

View Answer on Quora

How would you describe your language to someone who doesn’t speak it?

Answer by Erika Batista:

Ironically, I think it's easier to describe a language when you don't actually speak it, because you can't make sense of the words so you can only appreciate its raw essence. I'll give it a try.

Spanish is my mother tongue. I come from the Dominican Republic, and like every other Hispanophone country, we have a very particular way of speaking, even though we don't really have a "singing" to our accent like most Latin American countries.

Whatever we say, it seems like we are in a hurry to say it. Words pour out of our mouths at unbelievable speeds, and sometimes a whole sentence becomes one word. In order to achieve this speed, we must cut the 's' and 'r' at the end of most words, and even contract other words making then significantly different than their original spelling. We have mostly open vowels, and very coarse sounds. Even in a formal setting, we find it very awkward to speak in a correct way.

We are very influenced by American culture, so we use a lot of English words with a completely different meaning. "Heavy" becomes "cool", "full" is said when agreeing with someone, "charlie" is someone/something lame, and so on. 

We speak very, very loud. I've had Dominican friends visit me where I live in Paris, and can't help feeling embarrassed because of all the nasty looks we get while they're "yelling" at a cafe. My brother speaks so loud it actually gives me headaches sometimes. Finally, I had a friend whose neighbors in Paris called the police on him because of the noise him and his Dominican friends where making while chatting in his flat.

Dominicans are very cheerful. We are storytellers, so our language uses a lot of humor. We usually make fun of our hardships in order to make them more bearable. So our language contains a lot of slang, and it's hard even for a native speaker to keep up with the new vocabulary coming out every month.

People who don't speak Spanish are usually at a loss trying to figure out what language it is that we're speaking. When I speak Spanish to someone who is not Dominican, I feel as if I were speaking a foreign language.

So, to sum it up, our way of speaking is very loud, chopped up and separate words are sometimes indistinguishable. Still, it's a very charming humorous language.

View Answer on Quora

La couleur du temps

Time, that double-edge sword, treacherous friend, who turns into honey even the bitterest of memories. It tricks us into giving more value to things that would have otherwise been worthless. A newspaper clipping, 50 years added, will become an invaluable relic and a window to a distant past. A teenage crush is a passionate love in the heart of an old man. We worship magnificent castles that belonged to ancient tyrants, forgetting the many lives that perished under their rule.

Time is a painter whom with its soft colors almost imperceptibly decorates our memory. With its graceful hands every instant becomes a true chef-d’œuvre capable of inspiring the deepest emotions.

I am here, here as an adjective of time, standing at Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. I can appreciate this moment in its full splendorous beauty. I think not of the history of this place, nor the story behind its paradoxical name. I look at the sun as it descends, marking the end of a moment that will be later remembered. I am not a victim of time, yet.

But even I cannot deny that perhaps many years from now, I will be standing on this very spot, or maybe not even, and time will easily turn the contemplation of this moment into something even more stunning.

I can only hope that when it happens, my heart is able to bear such intensity.

Freedom, here, now

Image

One thing is to learn a new lesson, and another completely to grasp it.

Last year, when I made the last payment to a credit card debt that had been taking my sleep, I could only feel joy and relief. But it wasn’t until the following day that the true underlying lesson finally dawned on me: financial freedom has little to do with money, and everything to do with me.

It’s been over a year now, and even though I don’t necessarily have more money than I did back then, I certainly feel less restricted. On my journey to attain freedom, there were three things that I realized I had to leave behind. I have succeeded in some aspects, but it’s a work in process. I am referring specifically to financial freedom, but this could apply to anything, really.

Let’s start with the first:

1. Let go of your needs

Financial autonomy does not derive from your purchasing power, but rather in the absence of needs that restrain you. A “need” is something that must be satisfied, while a “want” is a rational choice. In order to be free, you must be able to distinguish the two and realize that, in fact, you need very little.

Let me tell you, it’s hard. We’ve been engineered to confuse our desires with necessities from the very beginning. Technically, you need water and sleep, but you don’t need that new pair of shoes.

That can be a very tough philosophy to live by, parting from the premise that you don’t need anything, and then work your way up from there.

But what if, we replaced the material things we so furtively long for with actions towards our desires on a deeper level? Instead of buying the latest smartphone, why not writing that short story you’ve had on your mind for months? Remember the time when there were no cell phones?

2. Less is more (unclutter your life)

As da Vinci said, and Steve Jobs made sure to repeat many times, “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”. Just think of the iPhone (ironic to mention that after I just told you to ditch your phone, but bear with me), so much functionality in a device with a single button, or Apple’s bold decision to ditch the floppy drive when releasing the iMac. These are the kind of decisions towards integration and simplicity that have helped their products perform better by getting rid of the nonessential.

On a more personal note, I will tell you about my most recent trip to New York City. Usually I travel with a large suitcase, so I can have the “freedom” to dress from a wider variety of clothes during my trip and have room to buy more things. That is in theory, since what actually happens is that I bring a bunch of clothes I never wear and don’t even have room for anything new. I’m sure many will relate to this. But this time around, thanks to the good influence of my husband, I did things differently. I traveled only with a small backpack, where I brought a few changes of clothes, some underwear and personal items. I was a bit afraid when I first got on the plane, thinking I would miss stuff, but at the end of our trip I thought I still could have brought less with me. I should probably mention that we were Couch Surfing, so it’s not like I was at a relative’s house where I could borrow an extra towel.

Think about it. A two weeks trip. One small backpack.

3. Forget your social status

Friendship is a great thing. Friends are always there to support you through hardship and failure, and to celebrate with you on those special joyous occasions.

But, friends are often the reason why you run out of cash. Quickly. Picture this: you just got paid. Three birthday parties and one wedding later, you find yourself completely out of money. Or, let’s say, your friend invites you to dinner and you feel the need to return the gesture. All that is nice, when you can afford it. But we live in a society where it’s very hard to say no, and most friends, as understanding as they can be, sometimes do not grasp the concept of being broke, especially when they are in a better situation.

Another common habit is to attend events simply because people expect you to be there. Living up to social standards is incompatible with financial freedom.

By forgetting your social status, you are able to make rational assessments, even a cost-benefit analysis if you will, but most importantly, you can be honest to yourself and your acquaintances, and as we say in the Dominican Republic “tuck insofar the blanket covers”.

***

These three things have made a huge difference in my life. If I could add a fourth item to that list, though, it would be to live in the present. But I’m putting it aside on its own, because it drifts away a bit from the main topic.

Sometimes I wonder if I really like what I’m doing, and then I get the craziest ideas: “go to hairdressing school, study linguistics, maybe even a major in some foreign language, no, study Latin! That’s what you have to do”. In the end we all want to be a big shot in some way, but the most important lesson I’ve learned this year is that all I need is to love what I’m doing right now, and that’s enough.

Identity crises come from not loving what you do, either because you have been constantly choosing something other than what you’re passionate about, or because you are desperate to attain success without doing what it takes or enjoying the path to get there.

To tie up the last part with the main idea of this article, if you love what you’re doing, all the sacrifices you need to make in order to get there will be easier to endure.

I must say my life has completely turned around in the last year, in a good way. I’m in a good place now. Hope this helps you get a bit closer to that good place of yours.

Is social media a new form of existentialism?

(She just realized nobody liked her new profile picture)

The setting: walking around the Louvre with a friend. Enter the halls of history and have a look at the past. In a room full of French paintings from the 14th century, there are scores of portraits of random people. Well, random wealthy people.

Contemplating these old images made me wonder: What was it like for those who couldn’t afford to commission a painting? Socio-economic considerations aside, it was considerably more difficult (not to say impossible) for the average person to leave their “mark” or their contribution to the world. Mind you, with the famine, plague and war that marked the end of the middle ages, I guess there was not much time left for pondering about legacy. A friend jokes at this point: “I guess that’s why we didn’t have existentialism until the 19th century!”

Coming from a time where people take a picture only to rush to post it on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or whichever platform they fancy, I can’t help but wonder what kind of paradigm we’re developing.

Existentialism is already hard enough to define, much harder to understand. But we can all agree that it emerged as a reaction against the then-prevailing systematic philosophies. Existentialists just couldn’t relate to them. Indeed, one of Kierkegaard’s propositions is that the task of giving meaning to life should be left to each person, who is to determine how to live it “authentically”.

That rings familiar to me when thinking of the emergence of the so-called Web 2.0 and social media. It is not the task of certain people to create content, but everyone’s. We are no longer passive viewers but contributors. And now it’s the moment where I have fun, by analyzing the main subjects of existentialism in the light of social media:

Warning: this is not to be taken too seriously.

L’existence précède l’essence

Well, clearly, this is the case. When it comes to social media, existence comes before essence. Without overextending the already vast creative license I have given myself with this topic, it is obvious that when producing content we care more that the content is out there rather than whether it should be. This is the reason why we get so many “Good morning everyone!” tweets or “Can’t sleep again” status updates. Seriously, who cares? Over the hundred thousand topics you could write about, you chose your breakfast? Thanks Sartre, you just ruined the Internet for everyone.

Authenticity

Now seriously, the first notion proposes that we all exist before anything else, and each individual performs an act of self-creation. Authentic existence is thus the need to find that identity. This has never been easier than now, when we have so many platforms to express ourselves. Eventually, most of us discover what our true voice sounds like, even though some prefer to become echoes of their time. But, hey, that’s freedom.

Angst

Once we’ve discovered that unique voice that defines us, that’s it. Right? Well, no. Then comes the dread or anxiety that comes with trying to live coherently within all the aspects of your life. You have too much freedom. Say hello to your good ol’ friend, Existential Angst.

How does that translate into social media? Well, first of all, the conflict between the responsibilities to others and to ourselves can be evidenced through the fact that we keep separate profiles for different audiences. The LinkedIn profile with a professional picture of myself for my employer, my Twitter account where I rant about my employer, and of course the Facebook account where I post pictures of myself drunk. Not all of us are like that, but enough of us. We compartmentalize our online image in order to have fun and stay consistent.

Despair

This is the state where one loses everything that defines one’s identity, having nothing else to rely on. This condition is typically related to the loss of something so significant it shakes to the ground the meaning of your own life and any hope to finding new significance. Like when you break up with your long-time boyfriend, or lose that job that was so important to you, and it puts everything into question. In other words, it’s when we discover we have the wrong conception of ourselves.

But, thanks to social media, we are able to quickly create an image of ourselves, modify it, and make it whatever we want. We strive to create that vision and then hold on to it for dear life. So we are no longer ourselves (whoever that is), but that image we’ve created. You are that profile picture, which looks nothing like you. Those posts which portray you as the happiest couple, even though you’re miserable. That website which accounts for your inexistent success. How can we lose our identity when we already live with one that does not correspond to whom we truly are?

This is an issue probably as old as humanity, and social media gives it an all-new meaning.

The Absurd

But then, after all, even the existentialist had to admit that even if we do find meaning to life and to ourselves, that still doesn’t mean that this constructed meaning corresponds to the real thing. The world is whatever you define it, and is therefore meaningless.

So at the end of day, you can create whatever image of yourself you want to show the world, depict yourself anyhow, and it will be real. No one can tell the difference.

So carry on, my children.

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