Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short story, “The Birthmark,” in which a young “man of science” named Aylmer marries a beautiful young woman named Georgiana. Georgiana was nearly perfect in Aylmer’s eyes, nearly perfect save for a small hand-shaped birthmark on her cheek. As the story unfolds, Aylmer conceives of a scheme whereby he might remove the birthmark. As you might guess, this being Hawthorne and what not, this scheme does not go well. In fact, it proves fatal to Georgiana.
The story is, on one level, a cautionary tale about hubris and how the quest for perfection can be the enemy of the good. But there is another interesting dimension to the story. It is also a study of human psychology, exemplifying how our desires come to be shaped by others from whose gaze we derive and internalize a particular understanding of who we are and who we ought to be.
Needless to say, Aylmer is awful. Not long after they marry, he brings up the matter of the birthmark, suggesting that something might be done about it. Georgiana innocently confesses that her birthmark “has been so often called a charm that I was simple enough to imagine it might be so.” This self-understanding Aylmer, with monstrous indifference, undoes. “Ah, upon another face perhaps it might,” he tells her, “but never on yours. No, dearest Georgiana, you came so nearly perfect from the hand of Nature that this slightest possible defect, which we hesitate whether to term a defect or a beauty, shocks me, as being the visible mark of earthly imperfection.”
The narrator reveals to us that “Aylmer’s sombre imagination was not long in rendering the birthmark a frightful object, causing him more trouble and horror than ever Georgiana’s beauty, whether of soul or sense, had given him delight.” Not surprisingly, then, “Georgiana soon learned to shudder at his gaze.”
And she was also transformed by this same gaze. Finally, she herself approaches Aylmer about the possibility of removing the birthmark and wonders about the risks entailed. He assures her that he can successfully remove the birthmark with minimal risk, and she concedes. Indeed, she was prepared to concede even if he had said that grave risks would attend his work: ‘”If there be the remotest possibility of it,’ continued Georgiana, ‘let the attempt be made at whatever risk. Danger is nothing to me; for life, while this hateful mark makes me the object of your horror and disgust.'”
I bring this story to your attention because it illuminates an important dimension of our online experience, especially on social media. Put in rather neutral terms we might simply say that the story illustrates the intersubjective origins of our desires, including, and perhaps most acutely, our desires about our selves, and that this intersubjectivity is amplified and refracted by our use of social media (massively intersubjective identity, or MII, if you like).
Put more pejoratively, we are all subject to the deforming influence of the Internet’s gaze, from which we discern the image of who we ought to be. We internalize this image and it becomes the tacit template for our online interactions.
This raises a few questions we might consider. For example: For whom do I perform when I perform online? or What is the nature of the audience whose approval or notice I seek? or Who am I becoming as I modulate my actions and self-representations to elicit the emotional consolations I seek from the reward mechanisms of social media? or To what degree is my project of self-realization co-opted by the structural dynamics of social media?
Another way to approach the matter is to ask why snark is the default dialect of social media. Snark is the style of the all-too-self-aware; it is the easiest voice to assume when earnest straightforwardness is ruled out by the nature of the mediated rhetorical situation.
The nature of social media is such that we cannot forget the artificiality of our situation. The added layer of mediation materializes immaterial internal and social dynamics making them subject to analysis and manipulation. That is to say that social media, like the technology of writing in Walter Ong’s words, “heightens consciousness.” I would suggest that it hypertrophies consciousness. To take another pass at the same idea, we might say that social media grants access to the social unconscious as Walter Benjamin proposed that photography did for the optical unconscious.
Social media platforms inevitably present themselves as a stage before an audience. We cannot but be actors playing the role we believe the audience desires us to play.
There is another wrinkle as well. We are surrounded by other actors on this stage who are likewise playing their parts. We are, however, tempted to forget our co-performers are also acting their part, and we take their performances to be authentic representations of their condition, while we ourselves are haunted by our own seeming inauthenticity. This means that that we are co-ordinating our own performances on the basis of misread and misunderstood signals. The online intersubjective web thus suspends and entraps us. It generates self-defeating efforts to achieve authenticity, and these efforts only manage to spin more of the web that ensnares us.
It is true, of course, that it is not only on social media that we become who we imagine others or Another wants us to be. I would only suggest that the conditions that accompany the online variations of this dynamic are primed for unhealthy outcomes. These condition include the abstract and indeterminate nature of the gaze we encounter, the peculiar psycho-social reward mechanisms social media platforms deploy, the disembodied character of our interactions, etc.