How many selves have you got?
If you use the Web (or someone uses it on your behalf) then you’re a galaxy of selves, each with its own – often very distinct – qualities.
Perhaps that’s a redundant thing to say because we all understand that these online selves that we create aren’t real selves, but do we? Which self is closer to our real self? Are we the self that exists online or the self that creates that self?
Our social self
Social networking and the Web distort the distinction between our physical selves and our virtual selves, often with our full consent. We’ve more opportunities than ever before to give life to, tweak, hone and, ultimately, kill off our virtual selves until we’ve moulded and polished the kind of peerless social self that we’re proud of and are happy to self-promote.
We co-exist with our online selves happily keeping them alive like tamagotchis until they become something close to an independent ‘I’ from which we struggle to disentangle ourselves – a bit like the ‘I’ in Borges’ parable Borges and I. In fact, I often wonder how many of us would rather communicate with others using our social self rather than our physical self ?
Which self is better?
Danny Boyle’s excellent 127 hours plays out this notion of a real self versus a constructed (or social) self with startling immediacy.
When, due to overzealous peddling and overgnarly trickery, James Franco’s character crashes his mountain bike on his way to a remote canyon in Utah, his reaction is curious. At first he’s doubled up in pain, agony writ large across his face but, within a nanosecond, he’s thought better of it and whips out his digital camera to capture his post-crash glory with him sprawled triumphantly across his bike, beaming from ear to ear.
He does this, of course, in order to maintain (by documenting) the self that he’d like on record, the self that he projects, confidently, to others. It strikes me that this is an early example of how we create our social selves through social networking websites and – had this been 2004 rather than 2003 – then it’s probably safe to assume that this image would’ve been bound for Facebook along with a complementary status update.
The diminishing self
Boyle’s protagonist (based on the real life experiences of Aron Ralston) is the epitome of a self that craves ultimate selfhood (in the form of self-imposed isolation) but whose experiences throughout the film’s titular time-frame make him realise that his sense of self only exists if it’s documented and verified using the impressive array of gadgets that he brings along on his otherwise sparsely-prepared adventure.
By the end of the film our protagonist has reached a secular epiphany: that the people around you (particularly those closest to you) are what make you realise you exist. They edify you by reflecting you (and who you are, what you’ve done, what you’ve achieved) back at you in a way that a digital presence never can.
Are we, by creating other selves and online personas, diluting our real selves? Is communicating with others through websites rather than face-to-face making us more self-assured?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that creating these online selves is a negative thing; what I’m trying to get across is that creating these selves complicates our understanding of ourselves and I wonder whether our psychology has quite caught up.