I’m interested in seeing the film Catfish after reading A.O. Scott’s review. Still, Scott’s references to familiar examples of online deception coupled with his welcome awareness that literary and cultural fraud is an old and established part of American life got me thinking.
Public debates often get locked into two polar exaggerations, both because there’s a certain rhetorical economy to extreme shorthands and because various interested parties to such debates benefit from painting the conflict in dramatic, zero-sum terms. So in the case of social media, digital publication, and online discourse, when the talk turns to cases of deception, fraud or false identities, we end up talking about really dramatic, spectacular and horrific cases, and then the defenders of new media often end up insisting that these cases are highly unusual and that the typical use of social media is constructive, supportive, community-building and so on.
It’s true that there’s some spectacular examples of fraudulent self-presentation online. It’s true that many users of social media are engaged in rather banal, inoffensive sociality that differs very little from their everyday presentation of self, that these technologies merely extend or enhance existing communities.
In between, though, I think one of the things that has happened through digital media is the massification of self-performance, of crafting a self through the publication of text and image. It’s not that we’ve been delivered into a brave new world of spectacularly predatory frauds and newly vulnerable victims, nor been gifted a utopian tool for social formation. Instead, it’s everyman a Lord Byron or George Eliot, if he or she wants to be. The crafting of gentler fictions of selfhood, performative shadings and experiments of our everyday personalities, through disseminated publication, is now a widely distributed possibility.
I’m always a bit surprised when I encounter a humanist scholar, cultural critic, or writer who doesn’t see the connection between the modest crafting of public personas through social media and the way that literary figures in the 19th and 20th Century shaped their public selves through writing, letters and interviews. This certainly includes the darker side of such invention, that such performances sometimes became creative and psychological prisons for their creators, or that they obscured or enabled private hypocrisy and ugliness.
What’s the difference between the memorably hyperreal masculinity of Hemingway’s public persona and the kinds of shadings and craftings of personality that many social media users indulge in? Isn’t the distance between the public Lillian Hellman and the figure that Rosemary Mahoney’s memoir revealed the sort of thing that’s happening every day in the blogosphere or on Facebook? (And isn’t it just as sad and confounding a question of whether it’s even worth it to strip away the illusion, or when public selves deserve to be compared to private realities?)
The problem with our public conversation about new media is just that adjective: new. It invites confusion about just what is actually new here. What’s new is massification of a practice which was previously restricted to a small cultural elite. This is a very meaningful change, much as the massification of commodity production at the end of the 19th Century was for material culture.
But just as in the rapid spread of mass consumption over a century ago, the rage and fear of many dismayed critics is as much about the displacement of their claim to social distinction as it is an analysis of the likely consequences of massification. If everyone can make a literary self or cultural avatar who stands in for them in the public sphere, then crafting a memorably exaggerated literary self like Norman Mailer or Mark Twain or Jonathan Franzen is not in itself anything remarkable. If millions are doing it, most of their inventions will be banal, confused or generic, but there will be enough whose reading of the zeitgeist leads to some memorable performative response so as to demonstrate that past literary lives were less special or extraordinary in their inventions than their celebrants have so often proclaimed.
Less is not nil, and even if invention is massified, it remains still. Moreover, once the public wailing and gnashing of teeth by the newly dispossessed gives way to resignation and sentimentality, some good can come of it. Nostalgia for a cultural world that never truly was often stimulates the creation of future culture which is better than the imaginary past which it seeks to recreate. I don’t think anybody ever really ate like Slow Food in a pre-mass production food culture, but Slow Food’s sensual inventions in the name of that gustatory neverworld are cultural progress, an enrichment of the way we are now.
So maybe we’ll get to a point, when we grow up and get over the polar caricatures of our present conversation about digital media, where those who imaginatively dream about and prize a past world of writerly self-invention, of public literary selves, will find their own version of Slow Food to stand against the everyday self-performances of mass social media.