Are we slaves to our online selves?



Public anger over revelations that governments snoop on our internet activity comes partly from a sense that our online selves are not entirely in our control. The more networked we are, the more our selves are ‘out there’, online, made public and transparent to a million eyes.

On the one hand the global interconnectedness of the internet gives us a feeling of euphoria - we are joined to humanity! We are Liked! On the other hand, we get sudden pangs of paranoia - what if all these online strangers don’t wish us well, what if they are stalkers or con-men or bullies or spies? How are we coming across? Are we over-exposed? Does our bum look big in this?

Growing up in today’s online world must be difficult, because every adolescent experiment, every awkward mistake, is preserved online, perhaps forever. This makes me glad that I was a teenager in the 1990s, before the internet could capture my adolescent fuck-wittery for posterity. Depressingly often these days, we read about a teenager who has taken their own life because someone posted an unflattering photo or video of them online. They feel publicly shamed, desecrated, permanently damaged.

There is a word for what the internet and social media have done to us: alienation. It means, literally, selling yourself into slavery, from the Latin alienus, meaning another person's possession. The concept has its roots in ancient Greek philosophy, particularly in Plato and the Stoics, who warned that if you place too much value on your reputation or image, you enslave yourself to the fickle opinion of the public. You raise the public above you, turn it into a god, then cower before it and beg for its approval. You become dispossessed, your self-esteem soaring or crashing depending on how the public views you. This is a recipe for emotional sickness.

You can end up caring more about your image or reflection than your actual self. You replace actual loving human relations with the fickle adoration of the public. How many times do we see people sitting with friends or family at a pub or a restaurant, ignoring them while they anxiously check on their online selves? Our actual selves end up shriveled and unwell, while our unreal mirror selves sucks up more and more of our attention. We can even turn our loved ones into props for public approval. Your fiance proposed? Share it! Everything is done for the public, for strangers, for people who don't really care about you at all.

I remember seeing a family at the beach, in Venezuela last year. The mother was a rather curvaceous lady in a bikini, and she insisted the father take endless photos of her, standing by the sea in various outlandish poses. He took literally hundreds of photos. They completely ignored their little daughter, who gazed on her mother in confusion. Occasionally the daughter would come up to get the mother’s attention, and she would be given a little shove to get out of the shot. It was like some grotesque fairy-tale. The mother was so obsessed with her online self, yet so palpably ugly inside.

The internet has become a vast pool, into which we gaze like Narcissus, bewitched by our own reflection. Our smart-phones are little pocket-mirrors, with which we’re constantly snapping ‘selfies’, trying to manage how the public perceives us. It’s like we have a profound fear of insignificance and nothingness, so we check the pocket-mirror every few minutes to re-assure ourselves that we exist, that we are loved. We mistake Likes for love. We look to celebrities with a million followers, and beg them to follow us. Because then we’d be real! Celebrities do this too, tweeting about the other celebrities they hang out with, to create a sort of Hello! magazine existence for the public to gape at. Everything becomes a pose, a selfie.

I’m probably worse than the lot of you. I worry that extensive use of social media over the last decade has re-wired the way I think, so that I now have ‘share’ buttons installed in my hypothalamus. No sooner do I have a thought than I want to share it. In the old days, perhaps individuals quietly spoke to God in their hearts. Now I find my thoughts instantly forming themselves into 140-character epigrams. Sublime sunset? Share it. New baby? Share it. Terminal cancer? Share it. Let’s live-blog death, find eternity in re-tweets.

How much of our selves we offer up to the god of Public Opinion. How devotedly we serve it. How utterly we make ourselves transparent to its thousand-eyed stare, until we suddenly feel over-exposed and try to cover ourselves up.

What is the antidote to alienation? The Greeks thought the cure was simple: don’t put too much value on your reputation or image. Recognise that it is out of your control. Remind yourself that there is not a direct correlation between a person’s image and their actual value, that the public is not a perfect mirror, that it distorts like a circus mirror. And try not to gaze into the mirror too often. Instead, tend to the garden within, to your deeper and better self, even if it doesn't get a hundred Likes on Facebook.

This is not an easy thing to do. No sooner did I think of this, than I immediately thought, good idea: share it! Pin it! Reddit! My over-networked self needs to be reminded of the value of disconnection, of silence and contemplation, to let deeper thoughts rise up. With that in mind, I’m off on a retreat this week in the Welsh countryside (not a re-tweet, a retreat), in search of a deeper way to connect, a better Cloud to sit on. I just hope they don’t have Wi-Fi...