Six years ago, you probably already had a Facebook. Look back at your photos from 2013, and try to see yourself as any of your several hundred friends might. Have you portrayed yourself honestly, or is it carefully curated? Millennials have grown up with the expectation that they should craft an image of themselves online that’s worth watching. We aren’t TV stars, but increasingly, we have an audience, and feel compelled to perform. Philosophy major and former Cipher editor Gracie Ramsdell questions as to whether our “true” selves are stifled by the social media age.
I have a penchant for kitschy little phrases, one-liners waxing wise. I did not choose to be one of those people. In fact, I do not even like those people. Like most things in life, I thank (blame) my mother. Instead of saying, “Don’t take it personally,” my mom says, “Put on your raincoat,” the implication being that I ought to whip out my metaphorical poncho, down whose synthetic material cantankerous behavior would slide like droplets. Two of her other favorite idioms are “Speak your truth” and “Be the captain of your own ship.” They say the same thing in two ways: be yourself.
That is what this article is about. It is about that mightily cliché phrase that always urges us to “be ourselves.” The point is not that you should do this, but rather my very real fear that it is becoming increasingly difficult to actually do this. That sounds a little histrionic though. I admit that I have a flair for the dramatic when it comes to my writing (I experience phases in which I will only write in Andale Mono—only Andale Mono), but if you find that there is strength in numbers, perhaps you will reconsider your scoffing judgment when I tell you that others have expressed this same concern in various ways—others who write in all sorts of fonts.
The late David Foster Wallace is regarded as one of the most important American authors of the 20th and 21st century; he also happened to look pretty good in a do-rag. In his 1986 essay, “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young,” Wallace bitches about a lot of things, including the emergence of a generation of young writers with a proclivity for ultra minimalism and the whiplash that has occurred in response to this style. A common narrative probably includes some combination of the following: hot young cosmopolitans living in emotionally stark luxury, biding their time on the credit cards of absent parents, rich-smelling sex and coke-induced nosebleeds, typically described by a narrator whose voice is as desolate as the lives he describes. In discussing the way in which this manner of writing has come about (referring to three categories that are as clever as they are cavalier: Neiman-Marcus Nihilism, Catatonic Realism and Workshop Hermeticism), Wallace posits that these writers and their work are naturally subject to the influence of pervasive 21st century popular culture and fashion.
It is in examining the nature of mass media culture that Wallace points out the underlying element that makes all television appealing to its varying audiences: the characters share the quality of being entertaining. He writes, “We, the audience, receive unconscious reinforcement of the thesis that the most signiﬁcant feature of persons is watchableness.” Keep in mind that Wallace was writing this essay in 1986; imagine what he would have to say in 2013, when the primary objective of social media vehicles such as Facebook seem to be the experience of being seen, specifically as something worth seeing. Though social media certainly aids in the dissemination of information and keeps acquaintances “in touch” (however detached), I think that it is rapidly becoming a venue for ego affirmation more than anything else. Wallace describes the way in which the line between life as portrayed in television and life as lived becomes increasingly blurred to the average viewer, resulting in an expectation that our daily lives ought to be as interesting to watch as those of sitcom stars. In becoming absorbed in the lives of this fiction, Wallace refers to a “shift from an understanding of self as a character in a great drama whose end is meaning to an understanding of self as an actor at a great audition whose end is seeming, i.e., being seen.” Who are the people in your life: supporting roles, or audience members?
And Wallace had yet to receive a Facebook notification, Tweet, or Instagram “like.” Fast-forward almost 30 years, and the advent of social media has raised the stakes even higher. Perhaps I should have warned you before that I am a philosophy major; I will now subject you to a taste of what I swim in. In his 1954 essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” philosopher Martin Heidegger defines technology in simple terms, consisting of two main qualities: its being a human activity and its being a means to an end. If this seems overly simplistic, I urge you to consider how narrow our conception of technology has become by only referring to it as that which we experience as virtual. Heidegger’s use of this broad definition makes room for all technologies, such as rakes, shoe racks, clotheslines, cars, windmills and so forth. In examining the nature of technology, Heidegger says that the use of technology is manifest in the act of “enframing,” wherein “everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a further ordering.” It is through the process of enframing that objects are transformed into “standing reserves.”
Let us think of the example of a tree; when man chops down a tree to use for lumber, he renders that tree standing—reserve for man’s utility. At this point, the tree is no longer appreciated for its essence—its “treeness”—but rather for what it can do for man. The question, then, is whether or not this definition of technology applies to the modern technology of social media. I think that it does. And I think that, in a very real and very scary sense, it has rendered humans as standing-reserves for the approval and affirmation of the other. While we rely social media to tell us about our own personas, so too do other personas rely on us to tell us about them—in this way, social media pushes back on us, forcing us to respond as we sit by as standing reserves.
Not only has social media perpetuated the desire to be “watchable” and garner approval, but it has given us a universe in which we attempt to be entertaining to all types of observers simultaneously. In sociologist Joshua Meyrowitz’s book "No Sense of Place," Meyrowitz explores the concepts of “offstage” and “onstage.” Meyrowitz situates these ideas in the scenario of a play. When performing a play, there is the offstage world behind the privacy of the curtain in which the actors may simply be, and there is the onstage world exposed to the audience in which the actors must present. However, there are instances in which a “middle region” emerges—that is, when the audience sees an actor off-stage, perhaps when the curtain flutters and reveals backstage activities.
This dynamic is not an uncommon occurrence when applied to real-life scenarios; consider a professor who sees one of her students at the grocery store. When taken out of the familiar setting, the professor may be confused as to whether she should re-assume the habitual role of a professor, or if she should act somehow differently, perhaps like a friend. Rather than adopt either persona, the professor may transition into a middle region in which she attempts to satisfy both identities. This can be hard to maneuver. The self becomes confused, unable to reconcile the two personas.
It is easy to relate this phenomenon to the experience of social media. When on a social networking site, a person must try to appeal to all of the roles implicit in his respective relationships with “friends” on that site, including family, classmates and professional relations. Furthermore, there is always the knowledge that one is being watched. Even when one is not accessing the site at a particular moment, there is the constant awareness that one’s profile is “live” and subject to the scrutiny of peers. The social media terrain can be hard to define—is it a place for the personal or the performative? Should I post my feelings and endless photos of my newborn niece (you know the ones), or should I make it a place for self-promotion and political posturing? As social media is neither fully onstage nor offstage, we are prone to the emergence of the middle region. It is clear that you are both someone’s friend and someone’s child—the distinction is that you assume these roles in particular environments. The world of social media is all environments at once. As a person attempts to appeal to all of the identities he possesses while online, it is my belief that the self runs the risk of becoming confused and fragmented.
But in what does the true self exist? In his book The Maturational Processes, psychoanalyst David Winnicott writes about the True and False Self. The False Self is something of a superficial persona that takes over in situations in which the True Self feels threatened. It would be a long and arduous process to explain in full, but what it comes down to is this: The True Self seems to be found in spontaneity. I’m not talking about spontaneity in the way it is used in typical colloquial language, as impulsiveness; I’m not talking about waking up and deciding to have ice cream for breakfast. Rather, I’m talking about the manner in which one expresses oneself without filtration, without debate or consideration before words escape the mouth; it is the knee-jerk reaction, the response that seems so automatic as to have actually come from within us.
Consider, again, being on Facebook. When asked about an opinion on a particular matter, it is not necessarily that you would lie, but perhaps you might examine what you believe and then consider what kind of answer the other is hoping for, then customize your response in a manner that is honest, but measured. This capacity for careful consideration leaves little room for spontaneity and the True Self. Without the True Self, meaningful and authentic bonds are beyond one’s grasp.
There’s only so much academic chatter I can spew at you before we both wish I was talking about my mom again, so I’ll leave you with this: if you ever have an unnerving sense of not being quite “real” in certain circumstances, of experiencing a sickening sense of phoniness, perhaps you might ask yourself why. In an age in which we are increasingly self-conscious and hyper-aware of the way we are perceived by our peers, I think that there is real merit in being genuinely concerned about the survivability of the individual’s True Self.
Archival Issue | March 2019