Our Fake Selves Will Kill Us All
What happens when we start believing our internet fantasies are us?
At dusk on a gloriously warm evening last summer, I came upon an old-fashioned sight down at my local oval: two teenage girls, maybe 15 or so, running through a series of sprinklers.
It was an idyllic scene. In the fading, golden light, they shrieked and yelled; they pulled ridiculous dance moves; they laughed so hard their legs gave way from under them.
After a while, one of the girls pulled out a smartphone, and they started shooting each other. Very soon, their expressions changed. They grew more serious, their moves more arch and self-conscious, the abandon gone. After a while, they stopped running around and lay down on the grass, looks of studied concentration on their faces, to go over the footage they’d taken of themselves.
The girls’ shift from enjoying the thing to wanting to capture—and, presumably, share—the enjoyable thing was a familiar one. Over the last few years, roughly the same amount of time I’ve been using social media regularly, I’ve noticed the same impulse in myself. It’s something akin to a cut-rate out-of-body experience: first, I find myself enjoying a fun or interesting or strange thing and then, at a certain point, as if some invisible switch were flipped, I suddenly notice myself wondering the best way to communicate the moment to other people, typically via something you can do on a smartphone. Invariably, when I attempt to return to the moment, it’s gone.
These days, when we spend as much time on social media as we do interacting face to face, this is what we are told fun is: capturing and ‘sharing’ ourselves doing apparently fun things. Witness the ads on television, with their shiny young things and upbeat indie pop, their magic hour vibes and aspirational heft, the shiny young things taking pictures of themselves and poring over them in a way that says These precious moments will last forever, now that we have captured them. Go to any fun park or low-rent tourist dive, where, activity done, you’ll be sold photos of yourself participating in said activity, as if these are the point. Or view the ‘fun’ hashtag feed on Instagram, which is actually 70 million + photos of people pouting into the phones on their cameras, and very little else.
But, for me at least, approaching experience as something to be presented, rather than had, is the opposite of fun. It requires a narrowing of awareness, a constant harried inwardness that masquerades, poorly, as a desire to share myself with others. In this mode, we barely have time to notice What fun I’m having running through this sprinkler! before we think I need to show everyone how much fun I am having running through this sprinkler! and What is the best way to convey the fun I am having running through this sprinkler? Then comes the worry once said fun is actually presented—Do I look stupid running through the sprinkler? Everyone looks so much better than me running through sprinklers—and on and on, until what started out fun (or mysterious or beautiful or awe inspiring etc.) becomes decidedly not so.
Most of what we capture of ourselves is designed for social media. Social media lets us curate and control a version of ourselves, and in doing so allows us to perform a feat that’s extremely difficult in ordinary life: to project the person we’d rather be, sans the anxiety and confusion and aberrant behaviours present in our actual characters, and have people believe this is really us. Life, a kind of hall of mirrors anyway, now becomes doubly so, as we try to exist as two things: our actual selves, toiling away at the mundane business of life, and our nebulous and ever-evolving personal ‘brand’, a kind of aspirational mirage that requires constant feeding.
Such pre-occupation with ourselves cannot be healthy, and recent studies bear this out. Last year, a poll showed a quarter of Americans surveyed felt they’d missed out on an important event in their lives because of the desire to capture and share it on social media. A UK study, by the University of Salford, found that more than half the social media users it surveyed felt that using social networks made their lives worse; two thirds of respondents said they had trouble relaxing or sleeping after visiting these sites. Other studies have shown strong links between social media use (Facebook in particular) and narcissism.
When it comes to those generations young enough to have grown up in a social media–saturated world, the signs are particularly grim. US Professor Jean M. Twenge, who coined the term ‘Generation Me’, writes in her latest book that, in data collected from 37,000 U.S. college students, ‘narcissistic personality traits rose just as fast as obesity from the 1980s to the present.’ Disturbingly, Twenge has found that many young people are now unconcerned about narcissism, even finding it ‘laudatory’. She noted, “They say, ‘We have to be this way because the world is more competitive.’ But the problem is that narcissism doesn’t help you compete. It blows up in your face eventually.”
Social media, of course, hasn’t magically turned us into narcissists. Neither has the rise of personal technology, in and of itself. The desire to idealise and gaze at ourselves is likely as old as our species; it’s a constant in our myths and fairy tales, our literature and art. But never before has there been such a vast, accessible and addictive array of tools and platforms encouraging our self-obsession. Under the guise of keeping us ‘connected’, the ever-expanding social web and related personal technologies are fostering the very traits—social competitiveness, an unhealthy focus on fame and wealth, unchecked vanity, morbid curiosity—that prevent us from closeness and community. As Andrew Keen, author of the books Digital Vertigo and The Cult of the Amateur, observed, we’re now trapped in a cycle in which obsessing over our online selves has become both cause and cure. ‘The more we self-broadcast,’ he writes, ‘the emptier we become; and the emptier we become, the more we need to self-broadcast.’ With the vast majority of kids these days growing up compulsively using smartphones and social media, without any memory of what life might have been like without these things, we’re now seeing generations of people ever more fixated on illusory versions of themselves, and suffering the results.
So what’s to be done? We could, as Keen and many others have suggested, just up and quit social networks altogether, along with the more crack-like forms of personal technology. But such undertakings, while no doubt edifying and freeing, are highly unlikely to catch on. We’re in too deep. At the very least, Keen argues we need to practice more self-censorship online, raising the bar for what we feel is worth sharing so together we’re creating a social media that’s interesting and worthwhile and actually social, rather than a ceaseless torrent of what-I’m having-for-breakfast drivel. Keen also points out that we need to better understand the larger aims of social media systems and their keepers, which, for all their starry-eyed talk about changing the way we communicate and share information, are mostly about creating data for corporate monoliths and returns for venture capitalists.
Beyond this, though, I think we need to start talking, frankly and openly, about the epidemic of self-obsession in our midst. What’s enabling it? How are we participating in it? And what’s it doing to us, to our thinking and desiring and experiencing? What murky parts of ourselves do our online selves sublimate or bring out or make worse? Could it be that the current spate of exhibitionism is just the self-serving voice in all of us, writ large?
Such questions are not easy to answer. But if we can try to at least talk about them, I think we’ll quickly see that we’re all acting from a common, though seldom articulated, inheritance. From birth, a couple of very powerful ideas about being alive get imparted to us osmotically by advertising and celebrity culture and the whole self-glorifying apparatus of late capitalist living. Everything is about you, we are told. You only live once, so make it count! Making it count, of course, not really meaning some lasting contribution to humanity but as big a mark as you can muster, of whatever kind (see: Reality TV)—your ‘argument with history’, as David Berman once put it. Some of us take this message on more than others, but I’d argue that we all internalise it in subtle ways.
Indeed, our fantasy selves are really just our response to this imperative—the way we convey the things we feel make us desirable and unique, the way we show off the sanitised and orderly existence we have somehow conjured from the mess of real life. But we can’t live as these made up selves. Even if we create some ideal version of ourselves and manage to attract the things we want—validation, confidence, desirable sexual partners, attractive and powerful friends, a better job—we still have to deal with these things in our actual lives. (An illuminating example of the great divide between the two worlds came last year, when American ArLynn Presser embarked on a mission to meet all her Facebook ‘friends’ in real life. Two dozen ‘friends’ refused to let Presser visit them; one, who lived in Turkey, demanded a computer, among other things, before she’d agree to meet her). Eventually, no matter how vast a façade we’ve constructed, we’ll be outed for who we are, as bland or unusual or unpleasant as our actual selves may seem to us. Ask anyone who’s taken a lot of drugs: there’s no getting away from yourself.
Such unpleasant realities are unlikely to slow, much less stop, our gallop toward total collective self-absorption. After all, such an orientation makes us a dream to market to; crucially, it also keeps us from noticing, much less worrying about, the perils we’re facing as a species. As our scientists keep telling us, we’re rushing headlong into a grim and different future, one that is much more likely to be defined by scarcity and upheaval than it is by comfort and connectedness. Perversely, this, for a while at least, will only make the lure of our fantasy selves stronger. But eventually, when we may have to learn things like which weeds are safe to eat, and the best way to siphon petrol out of other people’s cars using only a hose and our mouths, we might come to realise, with great shock, that this well of knowledge we’ve built up over the years about how best to project ourselves is, for the future facing us, about as useful as a VHS Friends boxset.
The road ahead requires a markedly different set of skills to the ones we’ve been developing in the digital age. Whatever the future holds, we can be fairly certain that, to survive in it, we’re going to need a much greater awareness of what’s physically around us, an ability and a desire to engage with each other face-to-face, and a capacity to forget about ourselves so we might focus on more important things. All of this we’re going to need to foster in one another, in the awkwardness and difficulty and joy of real human relationships. And there will be joy in it. What a relief to only have to deal with our actual fucked up selves, and not some menagerie of internet-dwelling, disembodied fucked up selves. What a relief to not have to make our actual existence subservient to some invented one. And what a relief to be able to enjoy ourselves, simply and often, without the need to tell the world.