Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Of Alternate Realities

While researching and reading on something entirely different, less-than-perfect search results led me to this paper. And I couldn’t help reading it, because the content of this paper is something that I have often thought about.

I know I sound like a stern middle-aged matron with her hair in a severe bun, with tight lips and narrowed, scowling eyes framed with thick catty glasses when one reads this post – BUT, I want to believe I am not exactly such a severe, prudish person...

I am not really sure why I need to type this out or even post it, as this brain dump of mine has been languishing in my draft folder for several months. As with most of my posts, I don't see the point it would serve if I posted it, other than perhaps hurt, anger or irritate people. And worst of all, I know I come across sounding bitter, caustic, and judgmental, when I (hope and think and believe) am not holding onto any such emotions. I am merely voicing because I understand myself and my thoughts better when I do. In a way this blog is my narcissistic attempt to mainly understand and help myself. 
Social networking serves many purposes - mainly useful, heartening, positive functions of bringing people closer, comforting those in need of social support, quickly and efficiently promoting products and services, and voicing out issues that need to be heard and spread.

But to the majority of us, the majority of the time, they are distracting indulgences that subtly and deeply latch onto our insecurities and vices. I have seen this shift in me, and it has scared me; it still scares and disturbs me, so I am not judging. It's an observation - something that many can relate to and are already aware of.

Social networking sites are also a means to carefully construct one’s identity and reality – with narratives that frame idealized versions of how we want our lives and our self to be perceived. It’s a meticulous snapshot (well, sometimes, or most times, a relay) of who we want to be known as, not necessarily, who we are. It’s a tireless attempt at competing for and maintaining this idealized version – always thinking about the next best picture to take, how to take it, how to post it, how to caption it; what smart, witty, and nonchalant observation to make about trending news; how to turn a mundane activity into x number of likes, etc. And this surely encourages a form of narcissism that’s a blow to any attempt at truly realizing and accepting our inner-self – of who we really are and of who we want to be. Worse yet, it robs one of those many many moments within the present, because they cannot be captured through a post or a picture, and hence are lost from observation or enjoyment. Like when a person concentrates very very hard to take that perfect (clichéd) picture of wine glasses “casually” arranged around plates of fancy-looking Hors d'oeuvres while also capturing a hint of the background scene to make it look just the right amount of hip, cool, “elite” and sophisticated. After 10 or more attempts with the camera and 5 or more minutes of missed conversation and good food, the person is still focused on posting the picture online to frame the narrative of their elite lifestyle on weekends, and is eagerly checking their status to see the first series of likes and comments. If this is not an obsessive need for validation, that too for merely projecting an identity that one wants to step into, I don’t know what else is. If one fails to ignore the interpersonal connections within the present and tries to seek it through digitized, sometimes mindless, notifications that assuage their notions of identity, isn’t it a cry for help?

And selfies just bring up so many more hidden layers about one’s need for approval and validation on so many aspects, ranging from vanity, body-image issues, self-esteem to perception of social popularity. Sometimes, the insecurities that bleed from a selfie are too embarrassing to ignore. Why would one want to take so many pictures of themselves so frequently and with such calculated precision that makes it seem casual? I think gone are the days when we relied on mirrors to reassure or spike our insecurity. Now, everyone whips out their phone camera (sometimes in front of a mirror – the irony) and relies on the picture rather than the reality staring them in their face to understand how to feel about themselves. And after several attempts with angles, poses, and lighting, when that perfect selfie is taken, what is the point of sharing it? To share what exactly? Of how effortlessly pretty and put-together they look almost every hour of the day? Of how their days are filled with a ceaseless flow of interesting activities and people that want to be near them, hug them, and smile with them? Of how happy they are with their partner, seemingly all the time, wherever they go, and whatever they do? Like several others, I am no stranger to seeing couples that put on fake smiles for a selfie to craft an alternate version of reality. Sharing one’s happiness and special moments with people in our close network is something I definitely understand. But the compulsive need to share fake happiness and smiles to convince people time and again of something that doesn’t exist – is disturbing and sad. Or is it because the picture becomes authentic and “real” in our mind as it garners more likes and comments? Does it take a life of its own and grow into something that we want it to be when we release it within our network? Almost like planting an idea, a thought within ourselves because we want to believe in it so much?

And with all this careful framing and manipulation of reality, all that one does is to show how much they conform to the homogenous clique of people that eat similar kinds of food, that travel to similar places, do similar activities, and post similar kinds of updates. They make a statement that they are all similarly cool, happy, and even edgy. But with each post and picture, there is also an equally desperate attempt to show that they are also slightly, ever so slightly, different. And everyone is scrambling to establish their own “delta” of edginess and uniqueness with repeated attempts with their cameras and mental rehearsals of things to post. But to what end? As with most things in life, will superficiality and fakeness also level itself off at some point and will there be an equilibrium in and of itself within the online world? I think so. There will always be a point when alternate realities crumble and crack. And even within the hundreds of thousands of people that thrive with some measure of external digitized validation, a truly “needy” and "fake" person stands out, eventually. And they would need to start working on “damage control” if they want to be accepted into the pool again.  

I understand that most of us need to create our own haven of reality so that we can live through aspects of our lives that are less-than ideal. I get it. I am not immune to it. All of us have good reason to be selective of what we post and share, and how we choose to project ourselves to the world. Our need to look our best is rooted in our core. So this post of mine is not to chide or judge anyone, nor to make a sweeping, generalized comment on everyone that is active on social networking sites and that post or don’t post selfies. It’s about how destructive this indulgence can be, especially on individuals that are lost, on young adolescents and teenagers that are trying to figure out who they are through the lens of made-up profiles and superficial relationships. Maybe that’s just the next phase of our evolution. Maybe this is how people will make sense of the world and themselves, and this is the future (or rather the present) form of establishing and maintaining interpersonal relationships.If you can thrive on social networking sites while maintaining a reasonably healthy sanity - you are one of the fittest that has survived, or that will continue to survive.


Adarsh V said...

Wonderful post! I completely agree with you on the selfie culture, but I wonder if social networks boost our desire to be validated, or if they are just an avenue to express that desire. After all, the desire to be validated has always existed. In fact, I wonder about all this a lot. I believe that it is possible scientifically to fake happiness and end up being really happy. So, even when I get exasperated at people doing the utmost to project that they are happy and that they love their lives, cars, jobs, wives and children, I wonder if they are right and I am wrong.

Neeraja said...

Adarsh thanks for the comment and for sharing your thoughts!

You make a great point - can we fake happiness to the extent that it actually becomes real to us? It's something I have been thinking about too... not necessarily "fake" happiness, but to compel ourselves to recognize ways to make ourselves feel good. If we force ourselves to see things through colored lenses and if we are boosted with external forms of appreciation and positive messages, it does brighten our mood, even if it's temporary. Can many such temporary moments make us feel happier? I think so, but we will be addicted to the drug - the likes and comments - to sustain the feeling. Then we start living in this alternate universe, relying on it to make us feel better. Such dependence can't be good, can it?

I think if one treads the line carefully, they can indeed find much comfort and happiness, even if it is transient, through social nws. Sustaining it is another question. And if it makes them encourage their insecurities, one is surely heading down a path that is destructive to them in the long run.

Sorry, I am going around in circles! Just another dump of my thoughts!

Adarsh V said...

Not going around in circles. That is extremely well said. Sustaining such happiness is tough as you say. The same with money too. In a lot of cases, money can get us things that will make us happy, but sustaining it is tricky (but possible). In both cases, some people manage it very well though, and end up a lot happier than us "thinkers" who keep worrying about the World in general. One more interesting way to look at is comparing it to a gamble. In that case, I am just afraid to gamble, anxious about what will happen if I become too dependent on a transient thing. A few others gamble and win :)

SecondSight said...

Taking a slightly wider lens to the issue: A healthy dose of narcissism is a necessary part of your psyche for several reasons. Especially in India, given a heritage of altruism and sacrifice, it's easy to overlook this. Secondly, there are studies showing people who stay up late at night tend to be more narcissistic, or certain introverts are more so, etc. It's a long list, not always accurate, and most of all -- very easy for us to latch on to the ones we agree with :).

I do think "fitting in" to whatever cliques people belong to on their social networks is important to their happiness. And people become happy/ unhappy depending on the feedback/ exchanges within that network, not unlike in the real world.

Having said all that, to me, the rise of overly public social sharing trickles down to a less-connected society, people who are less fulfilled in their relationships, and most of all, less aware that these changes have occurred. Whether that makes them more or less happy is hard for me to say.

But the deepest loss of the selfie culture is that of introspection.
When everything can be published, liked, and validated in an instant, when every emotion in response to someone's opinion is represented by a "thumbs-up" or "favorite," we lose essential parts of our humanity, our connections with one another.

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