The Social Construction Of Unreality
The ubiquity of virality makes it seem as though one can fit in only by spreading oneself indiscriminately. Social media sustain a measurement system that makes “more attention” seem always appropriate and anything less insufficient. If your appropriated content is not circulating ever more widely, then you are disappearing. This can feel like total exclusion: You are adding nothing to the social bottom line. You are not inspiring anybody. But it is also a confirmation of the other sort of “authentic” self that must disappear to actually exist. – “Me Meme” by Rob Horning, The New Inquiry, April 26, 2014
Over the past few days, I’ve written some pieces on the struggles within the United Methodist Church over the status of sexual minorities. A Facebook friend of mine – a phrase to which I shall return – posted a link to one of these in a group filled with people hostile to full inclusion of sexual minorities. After one member of that group managed to mangle my identity, I received permission to join, and became involved in discussions on the matter. Until today.
I realized, with an emotional exhaustion not made easier by my current state of mind, the game I was playing. One of the main reasons I have closed this site to comments is the Internet is increasingly toxic. I erased my Twitter account for precisely this reason; if any place on the ‘Net demonstrates our social dysfunction and the ubiquity of our collective malaise, it’s Twitter. In an effort to improve my state of mind, along with pharmacology and counseling, ridding myself of things that make me by turns angry, sad, frustrated, and sick at heart is part of trying to make myself better.
Yet, here I found myself, once again, engaged in precisely the behavior I deplore! This was more than hypocrisy on my part, although Lord knows there were heaps of hypocrisy swirling about. Far more than being a hypocrite, I was playing the very thing Rob Horning describes so well in his essay, “Me Meme”, the last paragraph of which appears as the epigraph above. I was trying way too hard to make myself “real” by engaging others on social media. In the process, playing a game whose rules are rigged against all involved from the get go, I was losing the very thing I should be working overtime to save and rebuild – my self.
Oddly enough – or perhaps not odd; ironic? not sure that works, either – the position I was “arguing” was that “internet arguments” are meaningless; that I was not making an argument at all; that I was, rather, trying to get people to understand that the abstract language of The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church is insulting, dehumanizing, and that placing adherence to something as abstract as Christian doctrine ahead of the mission and pastoral needs of clergy and congregations destroys the very essence of who we are supposed to be as a Christian denomination. Blind to the futility built in to the exercise I was attempting, I continued on, feeling vindicated with each reaction I received to whatever I wrote last.
Then, in an instant, the pointlessness – no, more: the unreality – of the entire thing hit me. Here I was, arguing that I wasn’t arguing; insisting I didn’t care what people said about what I wrote even as I eagerly checked to see what they wrote about what I’d written previously; claiming that real human lives were more important that abstract arguments on social media, all the while typing this on social media. Enamored of my wordplay, I got lost in the unreality not only of the particular argument in which I was engaged. I got lost in the unreality that is social media. The self I should be working overtime to piece together with tender care was set to one side as “I” became entangled in the virtual unreality of arguments on social media.
I do not blame the person on Facebook who placed my article on the group’s site. I do find it odd, and more than a little sad, that the phrase “Facebook friend” not only exists, but is meaningful, at least to some. Which is not to say the person to whom I am referring is not someone with whom, under other circumstances, I would become good friends with. It is just that social media is falsifying so much of our reality that we can use a word such as “friend”, a word freighted with such meaning that Aristotle spent time talking about its importance in his Nichomachaean Ethics 2500 years ago, in such a casual way about those we have never met, and more than likely will never meet.
Writing is, and will continue to be therapy for me. Even engaging in occasional controversy if I find it necessary. I need to remember, however, our online actions are, by and large, unreal. The “me” you read here bears only the most tenuous relationship with who I am. The “me” on Facebook is so constructed that I’m not even sure I recognize the person out there. That I became lost in a stupid, pointless online argument that changes nothing, something I know is pointless, only shows how seductive the unreality of social media continues to be, even for those who understand it (although certainly not as well as Horning understands it!).