Somewhat strangely, social media seems to have come under a renewed bout of criticism in recent weeks. The focus for such criticism has been what social media itself is calling “image-crafting” and FOMO (see links).
It seems that the most heinous of crimes one can commit on social media is that of trying to cultivate an inflated online profile of oneself. This includes jealousy-inducing posts about one’s career, relationship, etc, as well as the “humblebrag”, selective photograph tagging, making private communications public (giving off the appearance of being popular) and even posting philosophical quotes and proverbs (“look how intellectual I am!”) Image-crafting is practically impossible for any regular social media user to avoid.
But why this strange backlash against ‘image-crafting’ now? Image-crafting is not the latest hobby for a self-obsessed youth but a necessary and continuous way of life for us as socialised beings. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Erving Goffman explicates the process we go through when we interact with one another, of performing a role for our audience which we know to be at least a partial façade “to the degree that the individual maintains a show before others that he himself does not believe, he can come to experience a special kind of alienation from self and a special kind of wariness of others.”
Much of the appeal of social media comes from its capacity to sculpt a more impressive self and put it on public display. But what is different now is that in the realm of online hyper-reality we find ourselves engaging in a sort of hyper-analysis of this process, in which it is as if we have already read Goffman, and know that what we are doing, and yet somehow find another way to trick ourselves in the process.
Like Goffman’s dramaturgical model, we are performing to our audience according to how we would like them to view us. We cut and we edit, deleting drunken statuses, un-tagging bad photos and profile-picturing good ones, until we have the perfect identity. But we are all aware of each other’s online behaviour and interpret it according to our knowledge of social media. Every “like” or “share” carries with it a load of unread data which we can interpret according to the “social reality” of the internet as we know it.
The end result is a deeply scrutinised exchange of communicative action between individuals. Unlike face-to-face interaction you can withdraw at any time by ‘appearing’ to go offline. During this time you can cross-check details by scrolling through old conversations, you can ask a friend for their input, you can acquire academic knowledge of conversation topics via a Google search, or you can simply analyse, perhaps subconsciously, through your own ever-developing frame of reference, before you respond.
Of course, your recipient is aware that you have the means to do this, and that they do too. So they may, in turn, deconstruct your every word and ponder your motives; they may never express them directly to you, but their inferences will shape their response. This hyper-analysis could lead to the questioning of the smallest of details, creating a constant suspicion and paranoia. Paranoia leads to more analysis and vice versa. It is this process that we want to feel that we are masters of, as if we are the one who can see through social media the clearest, judging and working out everyone else, the same drive that produces the articles linked above.
What drives this backlash against those who ‘image-craft’ is not a sense that the guilty party is not being true to themselves (a concept we are all at least unsure of anyway) but the fact that they are acting in a way we can easily see through, and our fear that our own actions should be seen through too.
What we are left with is a new version of the “alienation from self” and “wariness of others” that Goffman described. The perfect self we create is not the one we project to others but the one we imagine is capable of the highest level of analysis, seeing though all this social media jargon to the truth of things. The weariness we feel from others is not that they will see the real us beneath our profiles, but that they will notice something we haven’t, making us the one guilty of something easily analysed.