Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Social media has distorted our true sense of self

Social media can be a powerful force, but Priya Virmani is perplexed when the supposed organic reactions to posts turn out to be engineered.
Social media might seem organic but is often manipulated. Fayez Nureldine / AFP
Social media might seem organic but is often manipulated. Fayez Nureldine / AFP

It’s early morning and the birds are atwitter. The sun blazes in through my windows as I pick up my phone and see I have a missed call. I return the call and hear an effervescent voice that turns pleading: “Priya, please do comment on my latest Facebook post. I’ve written the piece myself and it’s just become really popular – everyone’s liking it and commenting. A comment from you would mean so much.”

The lady in question is an acquaintance who is a Facebook friend. When I get on to social media later that morning I check her page. As she rightly pointed out, her post has attracted a barrage of comments. I wondered why then was she so insistent on yet another comment? Her post is long – I decide to read it and comment later. But she calls again: “You have not commented yet?” I’m baffled and tell her to “give me some time please”.

A few weeks later I am chatting to a mutual friend. Our conversation meandered to a common experience: we were both called on the same morning by the same Facebook friend asking us to comment on her post. The great response to her musings, the litany of comments, which had seemed organic, were in fact, engineered.

Social media has allowed us all to engineer the image of ourself that we wish the world to see. No longer is image engineering the preserve of celebrities and their PR firms, who work assiduously to construct a public persona. However disconnected a celebrity’s private life can be to their public persona, their survival is dependent on adoration and consumption.

Image making is all about giving people what they want to see before the release of a film, book or election. Media appearances – talk shows, magazine covers and the like – become ubiquitous in the run-up to a major release or event. Carefully selected details of a celebrity or personality’s private life are revealed. Just enough detail to endear them to the people, so there’s some identification that whets the appetite. The relationship between the general public and celebrity is consummated in the purchase of a cinema ticket or in the casting of a vote. Authenticity then has never been the name of the game here.

This was the case until technology democratised image making, bringing it into the domain of the ordinary man, who can now transform himself into something extraordinary. “Being” is now less important than “being seen” on social media.

A friend of mine tells me how the trust in her marriage is a charade, how their union was a cold business calculation made by their business families. Each time I hear her, I’m saddened. Then she posts a cosy profile picture with her husband on Facebook and gets visibly upset at me for not adding my like to those she has already collected.

Is the process of human relationships, the minutiae of their sustenances and the rigour of love relegated to the domain of “construction” for public consumption?

Are they no longer about companionship? Are our most fraught relationships taped together simply for social media? With talk of scientific research soon to enable the engineering of designer babies, will the spontaneity of life disappear?

When engineering comes to the fore, spontaneity regresses. The engineered is measured, controlled, made to precision. Creation – whether of life, art, literature or culture – has been born of spontaneous flow. Outside of spontaneity and creation, falls its tougher by-product – manipulation.

And manipulation, in its supreme self, only belittles and makes brittle the human experience. 

Priya Virmani is a commentator on politics and economics based in London

Updated: May 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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