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OPINIONS

Stockholm Syndrome

The old-fashioned architecture of the Warfield Theater provides an ironic contrast to the hundreds of phones that immediately block general vision when the performer steps in. At my latest visit to the venue, I was appalled by the number of fans who tore their tickets apart by turning their backs to the stage as Janelle Monae walked in, just to catch the moment (with a delightful sight of their faces) on video.

While I do have some qualms with excessive attachment to technology, what bothers me most is not the phone itself but what it represents. Those videos, of course, were bound straight to Facebook. Full engagement with content of any form has been lost to our desire to share it. We do great things not for their pleasure or relevance, but to count more coolness points with our followers.

Why enjoy the show when all that matters is that my subscribers think I do?

Back home in Brazil this summer, I went to one of the many protests that took the streets of the country at the time. The same photo obsession was there.

Social networks are in great part responsible for the turnout of demonstrations like these for two reasons. The obvious one is they facilitate the organization of the protests. More interestingly, they also create an incentive. For a poorly informed and politically ignorant audience, there is no better way to instantly become a social activist than a picture of your smiling self in the rage of the #instaprotest.

The clash between real engagement and checklisting is not exactly new; it has been around since the advent of dinner conversation. However, as it became increasingly common to let Twitter know that you’re headed to the shower, the incentive otherwise provided by resume-building perpetrated surprisingly trifling moments of our life. Yesterday, we casually posted on Facebook a funny situation observed. Today, we cook up clever punch lines so that they look good on the Internet.

As every single bit of our life gains the potential to be immediately exhibited on a voyeuristic clothesline, we start living in a play. This constant acting brings the risk that we forget what goes on behind the curtains. And not without serious consequences, for example, for our mental health. Why care that I’m lonely and sad if I got 50 likes in this picture making a funny face?

The Facebook profile substitutes “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by doing its opposite. A hundred years after Oscar Wilde, our friends see our profile picture much more than they see us in person. We can afford to let ourselves decay as long as the relevant version remains immaculate.

The parallel entity that is the Facebook profile allows not only for a constantly perfect version of ourselves, but also for the rise of completely new personas. People assume an entertaining and unrealistic variety of “types” under their cyber identity.

There is the too-cool-for-school type. Aloof, he will ignore even the most affectionate of birthday wishes. He ain’t got time for you — or maybe you’re just not as close of a friend as you thought (that’s right, he has that many friends).

A thin line separates the too-cool-for-school from the clever type. The clever type will have an average 30-minute response time. Immediately after receiving a message, her brain will start working at full speed to find the optimally witty one-line answer. The delayed reply might come as a pun, a music reference, or even — lo and behold — a hashtag.

It is fascinating but not exactly surprising that these personas are only expressed in public interactions — “the wall” — as opposed to the private “in-boxes.” In need of an urgent answer from a clever type, a private message will do the trick. It removes the threat of public exposition of a potentially unwitty response.

The most intriguing of all features of social media is precisely that public messages are used at all. Faced with the choice between those and the private analogous message, one might expect that the last minute confirmation (“9 at Starbucks?”) could and should be delivered on the DL. I won’t even appeal to the increased possibility of kidnapping. One would think we have an instinctive desire for privacy. But not if we can casually let our friends know that we won’t be home alone tonight.

When George Orwell made the Big Brother his villain, he missed a major point. The prisoners would grow fond of it.

 

Contact Gustavo at gustavoe@stanford.edu