All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.
--Shakespeare, As You Like It
The first duty in life is to assume a pose; what the second duty is no one yet has found out.
--Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Ernest
I always thought it was better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody.
--Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley
Vester Lee Flanagan (aka Bryce Williams) an unsuccessful TV reporter, recently made his final broadcast. His wish to be seen, to have a documented life, was fulfilled. In his last performance he played actor, director, cinematographer, writer, biographer, apologist and assassin.
This very public tragedy has been framed from a variety of perspectives; mental illness, gun control, copy cat crimes and contagion. I will examine the relationship between social media and a specific personality type, the impostor.
The impostor is an extreme form of a false self. The character structure serves as defense against a sense of smallness, inferiority and helplessness by identifying with powerful figures. He is compelled to create a world stage on which he would be the leading actor. Typically one sees an intolerance of authority, no capacity for sustained effort, perpetual pursuit of an identity, emptiness, a prodigious flexibility of conscience and a complete lack of individuality. As true narcissists, to be one of many represents an intolerable fate.
He pretends that he actually is what he would like to be. Through pretending and often under cover of someone else's name, he desperately tries to force his false self upon the world. He expects everyone else to acknowledge this status. Failure here generates paranoid reactions, feelings of discrimination. Hence he is an injustice collector, infuriated at not being recognized as someone special.
An impostor is a special type of liar. All interactions are invitations to a sort of folie-a-deux. The success of this ploy therefore depends upon an audience's collusion. In most of the celebrated cases of imposture it is fueled by the audience's desire to believe.
To be seen is to exist. The construction of identity begins with maternal mirroring, a reflective gaze that gives birth to our sense of self. It confirms a place for us in the world. The need to be seen is compelling. Children who feel unseen may go so far as to provoke parental hate rather than remain invisible. Impostors may do the same with their audience.
The problems of self-hood and what it means to be seen change from era to era. For most of human existence survival outside of the horde or society was impossible. The basic unit was the group. A sense of self, apart from the clan, was unimaginable.
Similarly, in medieval times there was no self apart from the social rank and role assigned by God as birth rite. Family and gender defined destiny. The son of a blacksmith would be a blacksmith. It was unthinkable that he would aspire to anything else. For women, marriage or motherhood provided the only possibility for change in status. Augustine compared the culture to a natural body. One would not hope to change his station, he wrote, any more than a finger should wish to be the body's eye.
As religious acceptance of assigned roles and gratification in the next life were increasingly challenged, a secularization of fulfillment emerged. This created space for the development of a self-crafted identity. Ever since, we have contended with the benefits of being free to define and pursue our potential, as well as the frustration at failing to succeed at either.
The scope of choice has expanded. Our bodily form and even gender are no longer fixed. A life that provides meaning and fulfillment is now the individual's responsibility. The definition of success in this arena has changed dramatically over the last century.
The Romantic ideal of an inner personal journey or spiritual awakening has largely been replaced by a competitive public visibility. In the last 50 years the desire for public recognition has gone from a quest for fame (a status based on some sort of accomplishment) to celebrity (a status based solely on management of self as brand).
The self is inextricably linked to how it perceived. In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959), Goffman coined the term impression management. This selective disclosure of personal details is designed to present an idealized self. Using the imagery of theater he characterized different versions of the self by the type of social interaction. Front stage performances are specifically choreographed for impression management. The back stage is private, "a place, relative to a given performance, where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course".
Goffman draws our attention to the framing devices and strategies through which the self is displayed, maintained, validated or denied. Social media provides a new way of doing these things, a new way of being seen. This in turn has created a new type of self, the microcelebrity.
Social media has radically expanded the front stage. The more social interaction in this space, the more natural it is to create a fictional idealized self. Preweb, face-to-face communication, while vulnerable to deception, had a certain reality testing, right-sizing quality over time.
Any technology can be used productively or destructively. We all slide back and forth between front and back stage, between somewhat different versions of ourself. The ability to manage how we are perceived by presenting an idealized false self is seductive. It is easier than the endless hard work of real accomplishment in love and work.
The impostor is an extreme form of microcelebrity. He believes he actually is who he would like to be. This makes him fragile. He never escapes a sense of emptiness and inferiority. The promise of continual redefinition through changing online self presentations wears thin. Such attempts to curate life ultimately fail. For a growing number of troubled characters, like Vester Lee Flanagan, failure ends tragically.