Branden Hunt '14

Hometown: Maryville, TN
Major: Philosophy
Senior Study Title: “Social Media and the Existential Task of Existence”
Advisor: Dr. William Meyer

Thesis Abstract

Philosophy Research by Branden Hunt ’14 Links Social Media with the Task of Being Human

Branden Hunt ’14 has a good idea of what Martin Heidegger might say about our daily focus on likes, followers, hashtags and status updates.

Although the German philosopher passed away in 1976, Hunt would argue our contemporary enthusiasm for social media crosses paths with an idea Heidegger put forward.

That idea is “technological enframent,” the process by which we distill our emotions and “selves” into frameworks that are capitalistic, quantifiable and systematic in nature.

"The seven-second Vine video, the comment box of Facebook, and the hashtags in Twitter and Instagram push us to exhibit our internal self as a packet," said Hunt, who is a philosophy major and business minor. “It is this undercurrent that leads social media to superimpose upon the user a framework wherein communication becomes a parcel: a highly liquid unit of capital within a system of rewards constructed from likes, followers, views and comments.”

Close Collaboration with Professor

When Hunt’s advisor, Dr. William Meyer, read his student’s work, he was soon convinced a copy belonged in the College’s library.

“Technology is not just a tool, Branden rightly argues; rather, technology subtly and powerfully changes the way we live, the way we understand ourselves and the way we relate to others,” he said. “It does all or most of this without us even noticing what is going on.”

Meyer praises Hunt’s unique “philosophic voice and style” and says his student has demonstrated a high level of skill in philosophical and analytical thinking.

“I knew that it was an ambitious topic but a very important one,” he added. “Facebook seems to turn everyone into their own PR person. That is, we don’t live a life. Instead we ‘self-present,’ subtly marketing ourselves to others to get ‘likes’ from them. There are numerous philosophical issues raised by the implications of social media, and Branden’s excellent thesis has made a valuable contribution.”

An Original Idea Meets with Success

According to Hunt, the idea for this research came to him during his junior year in a class on contemporary philosophy.

“Given my life situation as a member of Generation Y, it hardly is surprising social media turned up as an aspect of life fascinating enough to interrogate,” he said. “As far as I have been able to determine, there has previously been no sustained treatment of social media from an existential viewpoint transformed through the heritage of Martin Heidegger.”

Although Hunt focused primarily on Heidegger, the work of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard also plays a major role in his study. Kierkegaard, however, passed away in 1855. As such, his work is far removed from today’s social media reality.

“One process that stretched me to my limits - even beyond - was the task of extending the habits of mind displayed by Heidegger and Kierkegaard into the realm of social media,” Branden said. “Both authors were long gone by the time social media came unto the cultural horizon.”

Technological Determination of Self-Expression

Social media is part of a technological advancement potentially no less significant than the invention of the printing press. Hunt asked himself what effect this new technology is having on individual human beings.

He offered the example of mass-marketed greeting cards to demonstrate a phenomenon with similar properties.

“Have we forgotten that the words evoked organically from love are something different than those stamped in mass by a printing press, even if they are the exact same words?” he asked.

In searching for authentic human experience in the mechanistic world of social media, Hunt encourages questioning and thoughtfulness.

“What place does this new media have in your life, and how does it fit into who you are?” he asked.