Several years ago during the most difficult period of my life, the internet became the conduit for me to interact socially while at the same time enabled me to be protected by this simulated reality, where I could sit at home and remain behind the computer at a safe distance from people. It was only earlier this year that I realised I actually believed in this virtual reality, where words that were written online by someone somewhere half-way across the earth was real and I used that as a basis for creating a person in my mind. It was not them. It is not solipsism, they actually exist, but my interpretation of them was imagined and based on the words or the language being communicated between us. John Searle’ famous Chinese Room thought experiment sheds light on the theory of mind where he is sitting alone inside a room in front of a computer and outside there is another person who slips cards with Chinese characters under the door. Using a computer program, he interprets the Chinese characters and reiterates this to fool the person standing outside that he understands Chinese. While the thought experiment is primarily about the differences between artificial intelligence and the human mind, it also argues how we can simulate an artificial appearance of someone that is not really us using language to articulate a type of personality, and by manipulating a string of words that symbolise a personality for someone on the other side of the computer who believes we can appear to have type of character that we really don’t have. It is how we communicate with the external world in order to imagine that we are not alone or separate from one another.
This period of difficulty was primarily due to the loneliness that I felt and social media provided the platform to feel connected and enabled me to share narratives of my experiences to a small but supportive cohort of friends, helping me increase my self-esteem by feeling safe and comfortable to open up and share my experiences. It fostered social connections where I made new friends that influenced me to take a break from the continuous rumination I felt trapped in at the time, teaching me to find that balance in how I communicate by objectifying my ideas and opinions to suit an audience through trial and error [through a ranking system of “likes” – the less likes, the less significant] and helped me escape from that repetitive themes of negative thought. I slowly became actively engaged and have forged satisfying and positive friendships by creating an environment of like-minded people. This was based on the decision to remove toxic people from my life and to begin believing that I am worthy and deserve to create my own happiness, removing myself from an environment that once stated how bad I am and how worthless I am where this noise pollutes your sense of self-worth and clarity to be yourself. I was encouraged to feel included by good people.
This socio-semantic web is a platform that enables virtual communication both with words but also with images and these images become symbolic that, viz., Peircean semiotics, is interpreted and given value. According to Pierce, a ‘sign’ which is any object that conveys meaning involves a combination of a ‘signifier’ which is the image but can also include words and sounds along with the ‘signified’ or the mental concept that arises, the latter entirely how the individual addresses and gives meaning to these images. It may be a sign or object – such as a picture of me standing near the Pyramids – but it could represent freedom, a love of travel, passion for history and this enables me to recruit the positive reception from my audience.
But what happens when there is a shift from making positive connections with real people that you know personally to those who you don’t even know? The more likes, the more popular and since it is therefore you in the photo, your value or meaning becomes dependant on the amount of likes you can get and this only alienates you in a different way. The vicious cycle here is that like how people avoid liking photo’s that are not liked by others, they can also like photos because other people are liking and you being in the picture obtain superficial meaning from this; there is no authenticity when they like your photo, it is just people who want to feel part of a community, who want to feel like everyone else and are afraid of being different. And by targeting a particular culture or community in order to garner more likes (i.e. #hashtag), the more likes you have, the more meaning the photo itself has and there the more significant you become. You transform into a product where you start to sell yourself to people rather than sharing your experiences with your friends. The utility or purpose of social media transforms into a mechanism that engineers our imagination into virtual reality, an unreal world of faux interactions.
There are a plethora of studies that show links between social media and depression. The highly competitive “capitalistic” space develops Others or enables comparisons where people become pressured to sell themselves or buy into the selling of others in order to fit in and feel popular. It is indirect peer pressure, telling you that if you do not look a certain way or behave a certain way then you will never be happy, you are different, the Other. Tammy Hembrow, a so-called “fitness” personality who appears to be mimicking the Kardashian mould uses Instagram to display her body and family life and her photo’s can garner up to 500,000 likes. While she is covered in plastic surgery and layers make-up, she pretends to be promoting self-esteem when she has turned herself into a product that causes it. Who she is personally is irrelevant, she could be a complete moron or a lovely person, but what she represents and how she teaches others to be through her images is the problem that is represented as the solution. People then believe they must like her pictures and even be like her in order to be a part of what her images are supposed to represent, despite those liking her photos are likely those that feel alienated and want to feel connected to something that doesn’t even exist.
It becomes a social pathology where virtual reality has offered the medium that hides the evident sickness of this social condition. A pattern forms where the more people behave the same the less it will be seen as a problem. They start to feel at ease in this pattern and normalise what would otherwise be very concerning behaviour. If I were to individualise this pathology – imagine Tammy Hembrow posting but no one liking her photos, or you are an alien wondering what she is doing – the photo clearly shows a crazy woman copying the Kardashians who themselves are crazy. Why is it suddenly acceptable because she has so many followers? And the worst part about this is that when I challenge these very followers and the meaning they have attached to such people in reverence for doing absolutely nothing for humanity, a type of panic forms as though my comments initiate some fear within them. What is that? Is it the fear of exposing their immorality, since what they thought was ‘good’ behaviour – equating goodness as majoritarian – is no longer a good thing and they simply cannot accept that they are wrong or bad in someway? Are they afraid of forming their own identity since they developed meaning through others and when that begins to collapse who they really are becomes visible, which is an empty and separate person from all others? Does that panic amplify the hatred where people like me become the troll or hater to silence me in order to feel secure again?
It calls into question what is real? Is taking a picture with a man and kissing him mean genuine love? Does what the majority approve make something real? Or is everything that we do virtual, a mirror reflection, something that is visible but does not actually exist? Is that the only way we can communicate to one another whether virtually or in reality and if so, is authenticity just an imagined construct? Rousseau stated that our dependence on others diminishes the authenticity of our self-hood and once lost, hierarchies and inequality forms as contrasts from our desire for the approval from others.
Now that I intentionally destroyed my online presence, I saw my life for the first time after years of hiding behind virtual reality, feeling safe and secure but not really forming any real bonds with people. My imagination was shattered and my actual life was suddenly exposed to me where I saw all the future risks and difficulties both present and future, my aloneness and separateness, the panic and the fear of my existence. But, being mature now, accepting this reality, overcoming that panic and fear, I also saw the chance to create happiness and just how outstanding love really was. I was no longer scared. I felt no sadness and all anger was gone. Instead, I felt present, here and now, and a certain relief came over me as though I have finally accepted reality. Social media is merely a utilitarian platform that we must recognise objectively. Authenticity is a choice and gives credibility to our actions and behaviour, whereby it is only in freedom, or free-will, that small part of our consciousness that enables one to discover this contrast and realise her own self-hood.
It is time for me to strengthen real friends and real bonds and be OK at the risks that are associated with that, to feel secure in myself and never escape to virtual reality again.