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Social Media, Love, and Sartre’s Look of the Other: Why Online Communication Is Not Fulfilling


We live in a world which is more connected than ever before. We can now send messages to a friend or colleague with a touch of a button, can learn about other’s interests before we even meet them, and now leave a digital trail behind us—whether we intend to or not. One question which, in proportion to its importance, has been asked quite infrequently since the dawn of the Internet era involves exactly how meaningful all of these connections are. To what extent can we love another if we only communicate via social technology? What value does visiting a friend have which e-mailing him or texting him does not? “Social Media, Love, and the Look of the Other” attempts to answer these questions by applying the framework of social communication established by Jean-Paul Sartre to the realm of social media. Sartre writes that in all communications with the other, we face the look of the other—or our own perception of how the other judges us. The direction in which the look points determines, to a large degree, the character of any interaction with others. How does social media affect the nature of this look? Particularly, this inquiry seeks to discover the nature of the object to which this look points—and what implications, in cases where the look is not directed at ourselves, this has on our ability to develop and share concern for others.

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  1. With consideration to Luna Dolezal’s distinction in “Reconsidering the Look in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness,” when referring to the capitalized Other, I am intending to describe a point of view which is not my own or someone or something which can judge me, whereas when referring to the other, in lowercase, I am describing the person who holds this point of view (2012, p. 19). Though it is not necessarily the case, in most examples within this inquiry, the Other represents the viewpoint of the other, and correspondingly, the other looks from the viewpoint of the Other; they are embodied in the same way. However, it is important to note here that the other is someone who can actually look at me whereas the Other is someone whose look I can only perceive.

  2. Here I am using the term “social media” as a concept, rather than referring to the sum of its content; whenever I refer to social media in a singular way or as an adjective, I am referring to the concept of social media. To better grasp this idea, consider the following usages: (1) Facebook is a social media website. (2) Facebook is a form of social media. I sometimes refer to the social media in a plural way; in these cases, I am referring not to the concept but to the media themselves.

  3. This does not include marketing e-mails.

  4. This will be further explained in Section 3.

  5. This inquiry is not a response to any particular point of view which suggests that relationships are sustainable in online-only relationships—despite the fact that this idea is quite prevalent in social media advertising and in the thinking of the younger generations. Rather, this paper was inspired by the work of Nicholas Zingale and attempts to expand his work by means of a phenomenological perspective.

  6. Johann Gottlieb Fichte, in Foundations of Natural Right (2000), offers a different approach to the problem of intersubjectivity in which the Other initially apprehends me as a subject, rather than as an object. However, due to the nature of social media—namely, due to the fact that the other can interact with me without actually communicating with me, a feature which is necessary for Fichte’s summons—I believe that Sartre’s approach is a better fit to this study, and thus, I will perform this synthesis using Sartre’s approach to the exclusion of others.

  7. This only needs to be discussed once, as it is a merely expository work and does not change in relation to the type of media being discussed.

  8. More specifically, I will examine Sartre’s views in Being and Nothingness. In “Sartre on Authentic and Inauthentic Love,” Gavin Rae notes in his reading of the Notebooks for an Ethics that after a process of conversion, a person can engage in a relationship in which “each lover recognizes and respects that their beloved has independent interests and rather than try to usurp or constrain this independence to capture their beloved’s freedom, each respects their beloved’s independence and seeks to contribute to the realization of their beloved’s independent projects” (2012, p. 83).

    Though Rae ultimately disagrees, I do not think that his reading of Notebooks for an Ethics is incompatible with a certain reading of Being and Nothingness, at least for the purposes of this inquiry. Citing a difficulty for Sartre’s work in the Notebooks for an Ethics, Rae examines Adrian Minerva’s argument that “‘conflict of a positive sort is crucial for friendship and authentic relations in general’… Through this positive tension, each lover challenges the other and so opens him/her up to new experiences and perspectives on the world” (2012, p. 84). He responds by stating that “however, this challenge cannot go so far as to nihilate either lover, belittle him/her, or generally usurp the beloved’s freedom” (2012, p. 84).

    In Being and Nothingness, though one lover may be a subject and the other an object at any given moment, as I discuss further in footnote 10, his subjecthood, while phenomenologically annihilated at a particular moment, is not ontologically annihilated. The other recognizes that what applies to me regarding social relations applies to him as well, and even when I am an object, the other must correspondingly acknowledge my subjecthood, and correspondingly my freedom. Even a lover acting in the most self-interested manner and whose pre-reflective project has not yet undergone conversion would acknowledge the other’s subjecthood, if acting prudently, as he knows that there is a time in which his beloved will become the subject and himself the object. Whether or not he acknowledged the other’s freedom in his own moment as subject will become a part of his facticity at this moment.

    Nonetheless, even if Sartre’s views in Notebooks for an Ethics are not compatible with his views in Being and Nothingness, the post-conversion relationship is still not sustainable through social media. In fact, this sort of relationship would be even more difficult to sustain online than the subject-object relationship of Being and Nothingness; to do this would require that not one but both of the participants be a subject at any particular moment, and as I will argue, neither of the participants are capable of full subjecthood in social media communications.

  9. While an analysis of social media could extend from many viewpoints, one could ask, at this point, why I have chosen to analyze Sartre’s conception of love rather than any other for the purpose of this inquiry—when it could easily be considered unfulfilling and necessarily results, for at least some period of time, in the suspension of a person’s subjecthood. Additionally, one could ask why the look is necessary to promote love. I will first respond to the second question, and in doing so, provide reasons why Sartre’s conception of love is fulfilling to the development of the human being and make a distinction between the ontological annihilation of subjecthood and the phenomenological annihilation of subjecthood—demonstrating not necessarily that Sartre’s conception of love is more accurate than every other, but rather simply that it merits further inquiry.

    The look is necessary to promote love because in love, we seek to be able to see ourselves the way the Other sees us. Given that the look represents the very possibility of seeing ourselves in this way, it is ultimately something that we do, in some sense, seek from the other. Because the look inherently involves vulnerability, it is sometimes avoided, as there is a certain risk that the other will continue to view me as an object—and that he will use me for his means. However, this vulnerability can invoke a certain unique benefit as well. Because the Other sees the world differently than I do, it is in understanding the Other’s judgment about ourselves that we perceive new possibilities we have not previously thought of—possibilities which we can later invoke when we become subjects in the same (or other) relations. It is in this way that Sartre’s conception of love, despite its difficulties, plays a fulfilling role in our positive development. Love may, as Sartre claims, be doomed to a masochism of offering ourselves as an object for the other, but this does not mean that this masochism does not benefit ourselves later as subjects. It is from this objectification by the Other that we gain a greater awareness of who we are and what we can do when we are on the other side of the look, with other people—as a subject.

    Love, though a relationship between two subjects in the long term, is not a relationship between two subjects at a particular moment; rather, at a particular moment, it is a relationship between two beings, one a subject and the other an object, whose subjecthood and objecthood rapidly alternate throughout the extent of the relationship. As Sartre notes near the beginning of “Concrete Relations with Others,” “everything which may be said of me in my relations with the Other applies to him as well” (340). Thus, in the same way that I seek to apprehend someone whom I love as a subject, someone who loves me will also intend to apprehend me as a subject. In the immediate moment, I seek the destruction of my subjecthood in order to present myself as an object to the other and apprehend the other as a subject. However, in the longer term, if the love is reciprocal, then the other will do this for me as well. Consequently, my subjecthood, in the longer term, is not destroyed. In order to learn to improve my subjecthood in ways suggested by the other, I must temporarily suspend it and be an object for the other. However, even in the moments in which I am an object for the other, the other, if he truly intends to apprehend me as a subject, will acknowledge my interests, intentions, and the essence of my subjectivity as components of my objecthood. Thus, even when my subjecthood is phenomenologically annihilated, it is not ontologically annihilated.

  10. In the section “When Social Media Is Dynamic”, I will present (1) and (3) in the reverse order—by first beginning with an explanation of why dynamic social media does not allow us to apprehend the other as a subject and then proceeding to causes of this in discussing gaps in communication and their impact on the look.

  11. More specifically, on page 240 of Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre states that “I apprehend my possibilities from outside and through [the Other] at the same time that I am my possibilities, somewhat as we objectively apprehend our thought through language at the same time that we think it in order to express it in language… He apprehends it in me in so far as he surpasses it and disarms it. But I do not grasp the actual surpassing; I grasp simply the death of my possibility.”

  12. On page 238, Sartre states that “I accept and wish that others should confer upon me a being which I recognize. Shame reveals to me that I am this being, not in the mode of ‘was’ or of ‘having to be’ but in-itself.” Specifically, my shame is not the content of the Other’s judgment but rather the content of my own judgment of myself when it is recognized by me that the object which the Other is judging is indeed me.

  13. On page 233, Sartre makes clear that the look can arise wherever there is a possibility of a look—even if another person is not physically looking at me. He states that “what most often manifests a look is the convergence of two ocular globes in my direction. But the look will be given just as well on occasion when there is a rustling of branches, or the sound of a footstep followed by silence, or the slight opening of a shutter, or a light movement of a curtain. During an attack men who are crawling through the brush apprehend as a look to be avoided, not two eyes, but a white farm-house which is outlined against the sky at the top of a little hill.”

  14. In “Reconsidering the Look in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness,” Luna Dolezal analyzes the look by dividing it into three semi-independent components: the epistemic component, the self-reflection component, and the ontological component. In this work, I am primarily concerned with the self-reflection component, as my focus is on whether social media can sustain not only relationships but also fulfilling relationships. It is the self-reflection component of the look which allows us to develop as individuals, and this development is what allows the look to be capable of providing fulfillment. Dolezal notes that “in the evaluative case of the Look, the Other’s Look is not about being literally seen by another person, but rather, it is about seeing oneself from a distance, as though through the eyes of another” (2012, p. 19).

  15. This is not meant to signify that the virtual look is not a look but merely that the virtual look is a different kind of look.

  16. I need not know who this Other is; rather, I must perceive some signs that a concrete Other is in my presence.

  17. Even if I am able to access a count of page views or the other leaves some indication that he has visited the page, it is only after the other has already looked at my page that I realize this to be the case.

  18. In this manner, the virtual look has a similar effect to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, as described by Michel Foucault (2005). On page 201 of his work, Discipline and Punish, he states that “it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need of in fact being so.”

  19. On page 235, Sartre describes the vulnerability which we feel when being looked at. He states that “what I apprehend immediately when I hear the branches crackling behind me is not that there is someone there; it is that I am vulnerable, that I have a body which can be hurt, that I occupy a place and that I can not in any case escape from the space in which I am without defense—in short, that I am seen.” He continues by noting that the look is internal—namely, that it is “first an intermediary which refers from me to myself.”

  20. On page 339 in Sartre’s chapter “Concrete Relations with Others,” Sartre describes two attitudes by which I can encounter the other. The first of these attitudes is my attempt to reject the other’s subjectivity and to objectify the other—more specifically, “in so far as I am fleeing the in-itself which I am without founding it, I can attempt to deny that being which is conferred on me from outside; that is, I can turn back upon the Other so as to make an object out of him in turn since the Other’s object-ness destroys my object-ness for him.” The second of these attitudes is one which Sartre later considers to be necessary for love—namely, that I seek to apprehend the other as a subject. In the second attitude, “in so far as the Other as freedom is the foundation of my being-in-itself, I can seek to recover that freedom and to possess it without removing from it is character as freedom. In fact, if I could identify myself with that freedom which is the foundation of my being-in-itself, I should be to myself my own foundation.” In the second attitude, I “incorporate that [the Other’s] transcendence within me without removing from it its character as transcendence.”

  21. Similarly to the previous citation, Sartre notes, on page 343, that “the man who wants to be loved does not desire the enslavement of the beloved… the lover does not desire to possess the beloved as one possesses a thing; he demands a special type of appropriation. He wants to possess a freedom as freedom.” Namely, the lover desires the Other’s look and desires to apprehend the other as a subject—while at the same time desiring that the Other include himself in the Other’s organization of the world.

  22. Specifically, on page 343, Sartre notes that the lover “wishes that the Other’s freedom should determine itself to become love—and this not only at the beginning of the affair but at each instant…”

  23. In order to love, according to Sartre on page 347, I must at times seduce the Other by revealing myself as an object to the Other—for only when I am an object can the other be a subject. Here, Sartre states that “in seduction I do not try to reveal my subjectivity to the Other. Moreover I could do so only by looking at the other; but by this look I should cause the Other’s subjectivity to disappear, and it is exactly this which I want to assimilate. To seduce is to risk assuming my object-state completely for the Other; it is to put myself beneath his look and to make him look at me; it is to risk the danger of being seen in order to effect a new departure and to appropriate the Other in and by means of my object-ness.” I will emphasize, here, that the notion of assuming my object state completely is a critical condition in this process, as without revealing myself completely, then the object which the Other is looking at is not, holistically speaking, me, and I am being, in this regard, deceitful to the other. The idea of completely assuming my object-state will have important implications to the possibility of loving others by means of social media.

  24. If the other, according to Sartre’s idea of love, loves me as well, then the other must desire to apprehend myself as a subject as well. Thus, by influence, I am only referring to influencing my possibilities not changing or manipulating them according to the other’s interests—as in these cases, the other is attempting to objectify me rather than attempting to apprehend me as a subject.

  25. By intimate relationship, I am referring to any connection I have made with another in which I intend to love the other, according to Sartre’s definition of love. Roughly, this includes all social ties with the exception of connections made only for the purpose of doing business.

  26. In referring to social media communication, I am still not including private messages; however, I will examine this more closely in the next section.

  27. While it may seem that a phone call or a private message would solve this problem, ontological gaps occur in the remote sharing of any information, as described by Nicholas C. Zingale. I will explore this idea further in the section “When Social Media Is Dynamic.”

  28. An example of this might include a person returning to his hometown for the weekend; Facebook here offers several easy methods for arranging an outing with one’s friends.

  29. I shall posit here that a friendship, in Sartrean terms, is a form of a loving relationship.

  30. The distinction between the logical and phenomenological communication of information is examined in greater detail following the treatment of Zingale in the section “When Social Media Is Dynamic.”

  31. An example of this might be someone one has met at another conference who lives in another city.

  32. One could state that art, due to thrownness and to the laws and customs of the culture in which it is presented, is also bound by social norms. However, it is bound by social norms in a different way than social media. While we are indeed thrown into a culture, this culture has fairly broad social norms which apply only within specific domains. If I am thrown into the American culture, I can become a philosopher or a machine operator, a New Yorker or a Georgian, an urbanite or a countryman, a radical or a traditionalist. Though I could not speak or display certain works of art everywhere, the contexts which define this are often regional. For example, a naked statue might be acceptable in a shopping mall at Columbus Circle, New York, but may be unacceptable if positioned to face the Washington Monument. The only norms which, in person, apply nearly universally are those which would imply the loss of agency of others—restrictions on actions such as murder, rape, and robbery. Cultural norms, by their very definition, are not universal, and despite a person’s thrownness, he may come to discover and accept cultural norms which are not consistent with the environment in which he was raised. The problem with static social media is not that it is structured on social norms but that it, due to its structure as a database, must inherently make social norms universal where they are not considered to be universal in in-person interactions—whether via categories in the case of YouTube, aggregation in the case of Twitter, or the delineation of data fields in the case of Facebook. In order to store data, any database must put data in a particular format in which it can be ordered by particular fields. Fields may have a generic reference to distinctions and categorizations which are given merit by a majority of people; however, this does not mean that all people see the world in this way. For example, while religion and philosophy are considered different fields by most individuals in the West, for some, particularly in the East, they are not. Moreover, the free form of art leaves one free to make an attempt to redefine these categorizations, whereas the structured form of a database does not.

  33. Both Isaac Levi (1999), in his book Hard Choices: Decision Making under Unresolved Conflict, and Carol Rovane (2004), in her article “What is an Agent,” discuss the possibility of a group collectively acting as an agent in pursuit of ends or values.

  34. José Marichal (2012) describes, on page 37 of his work Facebook Democracy, a concept called “Zuckerberg’s law,” in which the amount of sharing on Facebook is expected to double every year. Marichal goes on to note that “Zuckerberg’s law…is more than a philosophical musing, but a market necessity for Facebook… Companies are in an all-out battle to figure out how to use this information to encourage more consumption.” However, as Marichal also notes, it is not merely the maintenance of a certain amount of sharing which makes Facebook’s business model sustainable, but the growth of this sharing. On page 48, he states that “the main purpose of all of this connecting and disclosing is not for public ends, but is rather for the ultimate purpose of commodifying information.”

  35. Facebook may offer me fields such as “Religion” and “Philosophy,” even though, in my organization of the world, these fields are not distinct. Similarly, Twitter tweets are categorized via hash tags—which, though created by individuals on the site, become a part of Twitter in-itself.

  36. This is true even more so if I apply the site’s format to my organization of my world outside of the site itself—for example, by asking whether a couple is “Facebook official.”

  37. Luna Dolezal notes that the capitalized Other in the self-evaluative case of the look “denotes a point of view from which the world is apprehended; it is not a ‘concrete and individualized being’, but rather it is simply a point of view which is not my own. This point of view can belong to a particular person, and in this case the ‘Other’ can become ‘other’. However, it must be stressed that this point of view is not necessarily bound to any particular body or set of eyes.” (2012, p. 19).

  38. A more thorough definition can be found in the introduction.

  39. Zingale, Nicholas C. (2013) “The Phenomenology of Sharing: Social Media Networking, Asserting, and Telling,” p. 296. This citation refers to the work of Alfred Schulz.

  40. A more extended version of this thought experiment can be found on page 292 of Zingale’s (2013) article and reads as follows: consider “two people dangling their feet in the same water. One might say to the other, ‘The water is too cold.’ Such an assertion would be predicated on the concept that the water is representational to swimming. The other, experiencing a similar condition, can choose to agree or disagree with the speaker’s assertion. In this interaction, both individuals find themselves in a similar situation, under similar conditions, within a similar social construct. There is a shared experience from which a hermeneutic assertion is pointed out, predicated, and communicated within a common situation. This is quite different from an individual sitting alone dangling his or her feet in the water and then typing a message to a friend halfway around the world that ‘the water is too cold’. The friend, far removed from the experience at hand, can only consider the concept of ‘water being too cold’ from within the function predicated on his or her own experience; he or she may choose to agree or disagree but does so without the experiential context of being in the situation… The person de-situated from the experience can only offer a responding assertion within the imaginative context of what the other person might be experiencing based on the predicated characteristics communicated, rather than from actually experiencing something for himself or herself.”

  41. In reference to Martin Heidegger (2008), Zingale (2013) notes on page 293 of the aforementioned article that “when fully absorbed in a situation, what is at hand is not objectified (out of hand) but rather fully present (ready at hand).” By contrast, when I am not in the other’s situation, there is no manner by which the other’s complete set of circumstances can be ready at hand for me.

  42. Though this particular example applies to the dynamic aspects of Facebook rather than of text messaging itself, José Marichal (2012) notes, in his work Facebook Democracy, that Facebook games and invitations succeed because of “the sense we as human beings have to not offend those within our social networks. From personal experience,” he states, “a refusal to accept a FarmVille gift from a loving aunt might be met with an icy glare over Christmas dinner.” This same motivation, however unfortunate it may be, clearly applies, in at least some cases, to text messaging conversations.

  43. Speaking from the perspective of common sense, I would likely also consider it a matter of disrespect on the part of the other if the other were focused on other things while speaking with me.

  44. There is an exception here; namely, in the case where one sends a text message such as “Would you like to talk now?”

  45. For example, I cannot send my friend my cat but only a picture of my cat.

  46. At least, as it concerns my possibilities.

  47. Marichal, José (2012). Facebook Democracy, p. 48. He goes on to note the absurdity of this by illustrating an example in which people had left comments to the community in honor of a deceased woman—where “this intimate disclosure of deep pain and sorrow seems out of place somehow, particularly when there are banner ads in the corner of the page” (55).

  48. In the year 2200, unless the Internet has been abolished completely, it will be as difficult to envision the pre-Internet world as it is to envision today a world without industrialization. Without sharing this world by means of experience, aspects of its phenomenological character will certainly be lost.

  49. Unless, of course, I constantly text message to others while I am at his house.

  50. Gemeinschaft indicates a society-by-community, in which people interact due to concern for others—as opposed to Gesellschaft, which indicates a society-by-association, in which people interact for the exclusive purpose of furthering their own interests. As I pose this distinction, consider two bagel shops of equal distance to me, with equal-quality bagels, and equal prices—but one is owned by someone in my community and the other a chain. In Gemeinschaft, I will go to the local bagel shop because I know the owner, care about his well-being, and want to see him run a successful business. In Gesellschaft, there is no difference to me which bagel shop I choose, as each will give me exactly the same product for exactly the same cost.


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Lopato, M.S. Social Media, Love, and Sartre’s Look of the Other: Why Online Communication Is Not Fulfilling. Philos. Technol. 29, 195–210 (2016).

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  • Social media
  • Internet
  • Jean-Paul Sartre
  • The look of the other
  • Existentialism
  • Ethics