The caption in this New Yorker cartoon seizes upon an existential predicament that our social media has exacerbated: the gap between the performative self and the authentic self. Micah Meadowcroft writes eloquently about this predicament in his New Atlantic essay, “The Distance Between Us“:
In a studio somewhere, amid the smell of roses and cigarettes, bright air spills in with the breeze from a high and open window — the light is good for skin — and a beautiful young man sits for his picture. Outside, bees talk amongst themselves as they flit between the yellow blossom chains of a laburnum. Inside, the dull throb of London electronic music drowns their voices. And the model, who is not a model exactly, but an “influencer,” and in charge here as artist and subject both, has to shout for the camera so he can see the photographs.
Clicking through the portraits, a smile and a blush of color come to his face, and he pauses. One is chosen. Out comes the aluminum laptop, sleek and blank. The picture is loaded. There is subtle editing to do, filters to be applied like varnish on a painting. Now it is time to share, time to be seen. Done with his upload, the comely form reaches for the iPhone from which it is never apart. A thumb finds and summons the icon before it has been told.
Instagram launched in 2010, some hundred and twenty years after Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. The slender novel is a fable of a new Narcissus, of a beautiful young man whose portrait ages and conforms to the life he has lived while his body does not. Dorian Gray, awakened to the magnificence and fleetingness of his own youth by an aesthete’s words and the glory of his picture, breathes a murmured prayer that his soul might be exchanged for a visage and body never older than that singular summer day they were portrayed. By an unknown magic his prayer is answered, and the accidents of his flesh are somehow severed from his essence so that he may live as he likes, physically untouched and unchanged. But this division of body and soul leads Dorian to ethical dissolution. For by the fixed innocence of his appearance, the link between action and consequence is severed.
We run the risk of ethical dissolution, too, for although we cannot sever our essences from our appearances, we can indeed create a distance between them. For this we do not need Dorian Gray’s incantation. We have the witchcraft of social media to answer our own prayers — prayers that we might seem to be whatever self we wish to represent, the truth of ourselves hidden away. These mediating social sites and screens dissociate us inwardly, detaching the self from a performed image. And they dissociate us outwardly, detaching us from others by eliminating physical proximity — allowing us to forget others’ humanity, to remove ourselves from the shared scene in which we are all ethical actors.
These dissociations are not limited to Instagram, of course. The self-presentation, and corollary self-obfuscation, of social media persists across platforms. It is as fundamental to text-based online societies as to those made of images. Add the capacity for anonymity that shapes the Twitter experience of so many and we see the matter even more clearly. The whole game is one of playing a character, embodying a chosen ethos, habituating oneself to certain modes of interaction: troll, shitpost, be funny, be right, do not get Mad Online.
The characters we perform on screens, the scripts we write for ourselves as willful acts of self-creation in the void of the Internet, do not possess the contexts that enable us to act ethically in meatspace. Here, in flesh, I am a singular collection of roles and limits: son, brother, neighbor, co-worker, American, some six-foot-one, about ten pounds heavier than I would like to be, the possessor of eyes that need assistance to function, a sinner saved by grace. All these, along with countless other little realities, chosen and unchosen, make my character and unite an I and its image. Of all those things that I bring to Twitter or another social medium, more are a choice than in almost any other setting. And so that which is projected, my identity and appearance to the world online, can be made distant from the real I, the soul and self that are shaped by what I do in that abstracted space.
We escape solipsism by knowing the mind of another. We know the mind of another by comprehending its activity and so apprehending its presence. Relating to another’s outward manifestations — hearing his words, watching his facial tics, experiencing his physical presence — we attend to signs of what we are aware of in ourselves, of deliberation, choice, will, and action, and so we recognize a person.
At its worst, social media disrupts this relationship, so that we see not people, but discrete statements, abstracted ideologies, and caricatures. A tweet, comment, post, picture, fave, like, or share is served up as an act of the mind so distinct from anything else that there is no natural, no tacit, comprehensive awareness of the mind behind them. Instead, we — ourselves scattered into so many little bits and bytes — interact not so much with a scene partner as a singular datum. We may say someone is wrong online, but it is not the person we are focused on but her wrongness. There is to you no mind on the other side of the username, or, at least, no mind worth thinking about.
In some sense the heart of social media’s distortive power is that of mass media technology in general: a separation of life’s unity of time and space. We as human beings are that strange phenomenon aware of phenomena, apprehending movement in both halves of spacetime, and that union seems somehow essential to the humane: Chronos, time cold and alone with his sickle and hourglass, is a dread old god. But kairos, the opportune time, the time for actions in space, is propitious and alive in the world.
It is kairos that mass media makes almost impossible to discern, distorting the relationship between speaker and audience, actor and act. We see this in politics, when the rhetoric of those who should govern by deliberation or decision is aimed not at their peers in their chambers but at anxious television spectators far away. In war we sever power and responsibility with drones and missiles and other means of destruction at a distance, so as to minimize the human element in the fight, although it is solely the human that can be ethical. And in the everyday we see it most online, in the whiz of information that seems to just be sitting out there, distributed to such a degree as to be nowhere but now.
Crede, ut intelligas, “believe so that you may understand.” St. Augustine’s account of knowledge as a gift of grace and an act of faith may be our only means of retaining the human, and therefore the ethical, in life online. We must believe and choose to affirm that the other is an other, a mind like ours, a person with a story, a scene partner on this world stage. The charitable graciousness needed for discourse will come no other way, for the systems we have built machinate to scatter and distance us, to prevent the normal means of apprehending a personality and comprehending a person.
We cannot observe, even by credo, the capacities we do not exercise ourselves. Dorian Gray reconciles his life and his image, the severed essence and appearance, by stabbing his portrait and so killing himself. In death his ever-youthful beauty is stripped to reveal a body fit to his soul, “withered, wrinkled, and loathsome of visage.” Perhaps we can be less drastic, for there are good things the platforms that frame our lives do seem to facilitate, fruitful information and genuine conversation we otherwise might not have. Perhaps the self-portraits we paint online may be preserved if we cut out all that is false in them. If by radical honesty we minimize the dissociation of self and image, if we act truly and well, conscious of all our given circumstances, especially those unchosen, then perhaps we can still use social media as associative forums, still behave in them as ethical characters. But if we cannot, then we should consider our souls, and log off.