In today’s world, we are bombarded with bad news. Murders, holes in the ozone, wars, people who are starving, people who are homeless, bad unemployment numbers, shaky governments, and so on. It’s no wonder that humans are looking for something grand, something full of affection and validation. What is different about this time period versus times that have passed is that all we have to do to start building illusions of grandeur is create a social media account.
Consider this. If I had gone up to you in say, 1995, and said, “Guess what? There are about 7,000 people who follow things that I say, and often they share or respond to those comments,” would you have congratulated me? Probably not. More likely, you’d have thought I was some crazy drug addict who was riding a high. But today, this is commonplace. Indeed, there are people who can say that they have a million followers on Twitter. There are people who write blog posts and it immediately gets acted on THOUSANDS of times.
In the online world, we can create whatever image of ourselves we want. Our gut reaction to this fact is to say, “Well, I’m authentically who I am.” But that’s not 100% true for any of us, is it? The online world offers us a place where we can get an entire thought out without being hissed at, disagreed with, interrupted, or ignored. In the online world, we can say something and people, if we are lucky, will say, “Wow, that was really smart.” How often do we get that in our real lives? How often do you talk to a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, or a friend and hear in return, “That’s a fascinating way to look at things. I’m going to tell 500 people you said that,”? How many times do you hear, in the offline world, “What you said really made my day?” How many times is your day made by what someone says or does? The online world is a heady place. If we want to, we can believe that having a lot of followers, a lot of connections, means that what we are saying is 100% important all of the time. Everything we are saying has deep meaning. Everything we do is improving the world. Our online world may become more rewarding than our actual lives, though most people would shudder to think of such a thing.
I just watched a documentary by Vikram Gandhi called Kumaré. The story is fascinating and could easily be translated into a parable of the online experience. Gandhi grew up in a family that wanted to instill in him his Hindu roots even though he was growing up as an American citizen, in the “melting pot,” as so many have called it. The more Gandhi was exposed to gurus and other spiritual leaders, the more convinced he was that the whole host of them were rubbish. Although he does not pointedly say that gurus can hurt people in obvious ways, he clearly feels, at the beginning of the documentary, that people put far too much trust into such people.
To help fight this trend, Gandhi creates for himself a Guru character called Kumaré. He sets up shop in Phoenix with two friends acting as his first disciples (and PR associates). Ultimately, Kumaré becomes increasingly real. People start telling him their darkest secrets and their deepest fears, and while he remains fully cognizant that he is not really equipped to help these people, he does not reveal his true identity until the very end, about 4 months after he leaves his enclave and 14 disciples. Through the course of teaching people that they don’t need an external guru, Gandhi, as Kumaré, actually benefits all of the people he has adopted as students. One woman loses 70 pounds. One man starts thinking of ways, every day, to make his wife happy. Another man is working on letting go of his anger. These are all great things. But when Gandhi reveals that he himself was a hoax, you get a sense that even the people who experienced these massive positive changes now feel stupid. They entrusted a person with their hearts, and the person turned out to be a fiction.
Does this, however, mean the improvements in their lives are less real? They may feel betrayed, but if they hold on to their new habits, was it all bad? Was it all imaginary?
If a person who is going through a depression finds comfort in the online world, does that make their comfort any less real? If a person who feels ignored at work gets a lot of responses to their content in the online world, is that confidence boost a bad thing, or is it just a 3D figment of our imaginations? Pragmatism suggests we should not worry about how we find contentment so long as we get there, but if our happiness begins to depend on 2-dimensional avatars of people we will never see offline, is that a good thing? Is online acceptance less real than a high school clique?
Social Media gives us an opportunity to become a guru and to follow gurus. We can define these words however we like. We can manipulate people so easily. It’s easier than what Vikram Gandhi did. He faced people every day for months as he lied to them. All we have to do is find a picture of someone else, someone else’s house, someone else’s family, and say that it’s us, our own. When we get uncomfortable with our hoax, we can turn the computer off till we get our courage up again. Most people, hopefully, do not go to this extent to create their illusion of grandeur, but we know it happens. And it happens in lesser degrees far more than we’d like to admit.
Is social media a help or a danger? Are these feelings of affection and validation good or an evil masquerading as something beneficial? How do we define all of these words? Perhaps it depends on the individual.
Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xerones/446970097/via Creative Commons