Social media, through our acting out of the ‘fantasized self’, helps us suspend our immediate reality in order to escape our urgent existential crises.
I’m always intrigued, if not plain stupefied, by the fact that no one has really ever raised the question of the likely side effects caused by social media’s superficial cycle of affirmation.
It is even surprising that no one’s come out and said “I’d love to pray for Paris but I also need a prayer for some of my more pressing quotidian issues”.
That one can pour out so much emotion for events – like the coup in Turkey – which are as remote as to be nearly nonexistent, is equally befuddling.
Most people who flooded our timelines (TLs) over Turkey didn’t even know a single fact about Turkey or Turkish politics, yet on that evening they couldn’t “believe what was happening to Turkish people”.
Some learned only after the fact about Recep Erdongan’s oppressive regime prior to the attempted coup.
This, as I watched my own TL, pricked my interest in this idea of the ‘fantasised self’: a projected social media self that is meant to care about the things you don’t really care about in order to take part in the social mediated cycle of superficial affirmation and faux-human connection.
Soon after the Turkey incident #2016in3words began doing rounds.
The thread that went with this hashtag was part masochism and part sad.
Social media users, especially Twitter users, are what one might term ‘pain exhibitionists’.
This idea involves exposing one’s wounds or humiliating yourself in order to accumulate a self-esteem, which comes as a result of faux-recognition and affirmation from social media people/avatars that pretend to care.
The thing is, we can safely generalise that behind each avatar is a person dealing with his or her own urgent pain and anxiety about life, which renders their recognition of your pain indifferent at best.
It is one’s own existential crisis that makes near impossible to truly extend genuine empathy to an online personality with whom one doesn’t share a personal relationship.
It is hard enough extending that sort of sentiment for a colleague.
However, we do send words of comfort on our TLs.
But, and this needs to be stated, it is not our true selves that are expressed in the 140 characters of compassion, this is our fantasised self, coming from a sense of split in personality that is encouraged by social media itself.
This split occurs because we need to animate our social media avatars with material that closely resembles a human self, judged on the average human response to, say, a tragic event, a happy event, etc.
Now, most people, of course, like to pretend that this material stems from an authentic autobiography of who they are offline, but this is scarcely the case.
If you’ve ever been in a taxi or a room or a party where folks are glued to their phones, frantically typing away, you begin to get a sense that the split in personality occurs from a sense of trying to escape the immediate reality.
This is not so bad for as long as the social media user is aware that what they’re, in fact, engaged in is dissociation where they get to suspend their immediate reality, even substitute it with a digital one.
This is why, I guess, it is instructive to understand social media through the lens that Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) cultural anthropologist Natasha Dow Schull uses to identify gambling: social media facilitates escapism through engagement that obscures the larger existential crises.
How much exposure will it take, then, until the social media user is completely dissociated from their immediate self and begins to self-identify only through the fantasised, social media self?
How would one know, if the material one pours into these avatars resembles that of an authentic human self?
Who would doubt anyone’s sincerity when one sees the words #PrayForParis in the aftermath of a tragic event?