(She just realized nobody liked her new profile picture)
The setting: walking around the Louvre with a friend. Enter the halls of history and have a look at the past. In a room full of French paintings from the 14th century, there are scores of portraits of random people. Well, random wealthy people.
Contemplating these old images made me wonder: What was it like for those who couldn’t afford to commission a painting? Socio-economic considerations aside, it was considerably more difficult (not to say impossible) for the average person to leave their “mark” or their contribution to the world. Mind you, with the famine, plague and war that marked the end of the middle ages, I guess there was not much time left for pondering about legacy. A friend jokes at this point: “I guess that’s why we didn’t have existentialism until the 19th century!”
Coming from a time where people take a picture only to rush to post it on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or whichever platform they fancy, I can’t help but wonder what kind of paradigm we’re developing.
Existentialism is already hard enough to define, much harder to understand. But we can all agree that it emerged as a reaction against the then-prevailing systematic philosophies. Existentialists just couldn’t relate to them. Indeed, one of Kierkegaard’s propositions is that the task of giving meaning to life should be left to each person, who is to determine how to live it “authentically”.
That rings familiar to me when thinking of the emergence of the so-called Web 2.0 and social media. It is not the task of certain people to create content, but everyone’s. We are no longer passive viewers but contributors. And now it’s the moment where I have fun, by analyzing the main subjects of existentialism in the light of social media:
Warning: this is not to be taken too seriously.
L’existence précède l’essence
Well, clearly, this is the case. When it comes to social media, existence comes before essence. Without overextending the already vast creative license I have given myself with this topic, it is obvious that when producing content we care more that the content is out there rather than whether it should be. This is the reason why we get so many “Good morning everyone!” tweets or “Can’t sleep again” status updates. Seriously, who cares? Over the hundred thousand topics you could write about, you chose your breakfast? Thanks Sartre, you just ruined the Internet for everyone.
Now seriously, the first notion proposes that we all exist before anything else, and each individual performs an act of self-creation. Authentic existence is thus the need to find that identity. This has never been easier than now, when we have so many platforms to express ourselves. Eventually, most of us discover what our true voice sounds like, even though some prefer to become echoes of their time. But, hey, that’s freedom.
Once we’ve discovered that unique voice that defines us, that’s it. Right? Well, no. Then comes the dread or anxiety that comes with trying to live coherently within all the aspects of your life. You have too much freedom. Say hello to your good ol’ friend, Existential Angst.
How does that translate into social media? Well, first of all, the conflict between the responsibilities to others and to ourselves can be evidenced through the fact that we keep separate profiles for different audiences. The LinkedIn profile with a professional picture of myself for my employer, my Twitter account where I rant about my employer, and of course the Facebook account where I post pictures of myself drunk. Not all of us are like that, but enough of us. We compartmentalize our online image in order to have fun and stay consistent.
This is the state where one loses everything that defines one’s identity, having nothing else to rely on. This condition is typically related to the loss of something so significant it shakes to the ground the meaning of your own life and any hope to finding new significance. Like when you break up with your long-time boyfriend, or lose that job that was so important to you, and it puts everything into question. In other words, it’s when we discover we have the wrong conception of ourselves.
But, thanks to social media, we are able to quickly create an image of ourselves, modify it, and make it whatever we want. We strive to create that vision and then hold on to it for dear life. So we are no longer ourselves (whoever that is), but that image we’ve created. You are that profile picture, which looks nothing like you. Those posts which portray you as the happiest couple, even though you’re miserable. That website which accounts for your inexistent success. How can we lose our identity when we already live with one that does not correspond to whom we truly are?
This is an issue probably as old as humanity, and social media gives it an all-new meaning.
But then, after all, even the existentialist had to admit that even if we do find meaning to life and to ourselves, that still doesn’t mean that this constructed meaning corresponds to the real thing. The world is whatever you define it, and is therefore meaningless.
So at the end of day, you can create whatever image of yourself you want to show the world, depict yourself anyhow, and it will be real. No one can tell the difference.
So carry on, my children.