Needing the Illusion of Grandeur to Be Real

446970097_9ced5afe58_mIn today’s world, we are bombarded with bad news. Murders, holes in the ozone, wars, people who are starving, people who are homeless, bad unemployment numbers, shaky governments, and so on. It’s no wonder that humans are looking for something grand, something full of affection and validation. What is different about this time period versus times that have passed is that all we have to do to start building illusions of grandeur is create a social media account.

Consider this. If I had gone up to you in say, 1995, and said, “Guess what? There are about 7,000 people who follow things that I say, and often they share or respond to those comments,” would you have congratulated me? Probably not. More likely, you’d have thought I was some crazy drug addict who was riding a high. But today, this is commonplace. Indeed, there are people who can say that they have a million followers on Twitter. There are people who write blog posts and it immediately gets acted on THOUSANDS of times.

In the online world, we can create whatever image of ourselves we want. Our gut reaction to this fact is to say, “Well, I’m authentically who I am.” But that’s not 100% true for any of us, is it? The online world offers us a place where we can get an entire thought out without being hissed at, disagreed with, interrupted, or ignored. In the online world, we can say something and people, if we are lucky, will say, “Wow, that was really smart.” How often do we get that in our real lives? How often do you talk to a spouse, a parent, a co-worker, or a friend and hear in return, “That’s a fascinating way to look at things. I’m going to tell 500 people you said that,”? How many times do you hear, in the offline world, “What you said really made my day?” How many times is your day made by what someone says or does? The online world is a heady place. If we want to, we can believe that having a lot of followers, a lot of connections, means that what we are saying is 100% important all of the time. Everything we are saying has deep meaning. Everything we do is improving the world. Our online world may become more rewarding than our actual lives, though most people would shudder to think of such a thing.

I just watched a documentary by Vikram Gandhi called Kumaré. The story is fascinating and could easily be translated into a parable of the online experience. Gandhi grew up in a family that wanted to instill in him his Hindu roots even though he was growing up as an American citizen, in the “melting pot,” as so many have called it. The more Gandhi was exposed to gurus and other spiritual leaders, the more convinced he was that the whole host of them were rubbish. Although he does not pointedly say that gurus can hurt people in obvious ways, he clearly feels, at the beginning of the documentary, that people put far too much trust into such people.

To help fight this trend, Gandhi creates for himself a Guru character called Kumaré. He sets up shop in Phoenix with two friends acting as his first disciples (and PR associates). Ultimately, Kumaré becomes increasingly real. People start telling him their darkest secrets and their deepest fears, and while he remains fully cognizant that he is not really equipped to help these people, he does not reveal his true identity until the very end, about 4 months after he leaves his enclave and 14 disciples. Through the course of teaching people that they don’t need an external guru, Gandhi, as Kumaré, actually benefits all of the people he has adopted as students. One woman loses 70 pounds. One man starts thinking of ways, every day, to make his wife happy. Another man is working on letting go of his anger. These are all great things. But when Gandhi reveals that he himself was a hoax, you get a sense that even the people who experienced these massive positive changes now feel stupid. They entrusted a person with their hearts, and the person turned out to be a fiction.

Does this, however, mean the improvements in their lives are less real? They may feel betrayed, but if they hold on to their new habits, was it all bad? Was it all imaginary?

If a person who is going through a depression finds comfort in the online world, does that make their comfort any less real? If a person who feels ignored at work gets a lot of responses to their content in the online world, is that confidence boost a bad thing, or is it just a 3D figment of our imaginations? Pragmatism suggests we should not worry about how we find contentment so long as we get there, but if our happiness begins to depend on 2-dimensional avatars of people we will never see offline, is that a good thing? Is online acceptance less real than a high school clique?

Social Media gives us an opportunity to become a guru and to follow gurus. We can define these words however we like. We can manipulate people so easily. It’s easier than what Vikram Gandhi did. He faced people every day for months as he lied to them. All we have to do is find a picture of someone else, someone else’s house, someone else’s family, and say that it’s us, our own. When we get uncomfortable with our hoax, we can turn the computer off till we get our courage up again. Most people, hopefully, do not go to this extent to create their illusion of grandeur, but we know it happens. And it happens in lesser degrees far more than we’d like to admit.

Is social media a help or a danger? Are these feelings of affection and validation good or an evil masquerading as something beneficial? How do we define all of these words? Perhaps it depends on the individual.

Image Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/xerones/446970097/via Creative Commons

11 comments
Spafloating
Spafloating

Guruism has flaws in real life too. The way we perceive any message has a lot to do with our own values and interests. I do agree that there seem to be a number of those so entranced by the reflection of the image they have created that they may drown...o well..won't be the first time..

MZazeela
MZazeela

Margie - 

 

In some sense, the whole Social Media world is the Speaker's Corner of today. Anyone can get on their soapbox and preach whatever they like to whomever will listen. Some will be regarded as crackpots and some as the next Solomon.

 

In both cases it is all about perception and whether, or not, perception is your reality. For some it will be, for others it will not. It is up to us to determine who/what holds sway over our thinking.

 

Cheers,

Marc

Faryna
Faryna

It is worse than you want to suggest. And yet there is also great beauty - a beauty that is deeper and truer than you may recognize or want to admit. Such is the human experience. Why should it be any different online?

 

Are you still caught up in those illusory distinctions that suggest that the online experience is not true? [grin]

 

I don't imagine you are.

 

The grandeur of an online personality need not be a fiction - unless, of course, it is a deception. The heroic leader of a top alliance in World of Warcraft serves the members of his/her alliance with passion - we can presume. And that is not something to shake a stick at. The social celebrity with one million followers must be saying enough of the things that people want to hear - that does not mean, however, that what they are saying is good or true.

 

Social media provides us with an opportunity to connect and share with others - especially those who share common ideas, feelings, interests, aspirations, hopes and prejudice. Some bring more of themselves to their online activity than others. Some express themselves more fully or capably than others. And, yes, there are attention whores too.

 

Social media is as good and evil as the people who come to it. And that is unavoidable and inescapable. 

 

JillKroppManty
JillKroppManty

I don't see that it's any more or less likely for people to deceive one another online than in real life. Cons happen all the time in the "real world". People portray themselves to be something they aren't. The only real difference I see is scale. 

 

Faryna
Faryna

 @Spafloating 

 

None of us have all the good answers - not even a good number of tentative good answers. Some don't have even a few tentative, good answers. But we're all searching - more or less - for something that works for us. Our methodologies, however, vary widely. For all the right and wrong reasons.

 

We all need teachers, mothers and paths. And we will choose them according to where we are. Sometimes where we are is a bad place and we will make the worst choices: follow false teachers, embrace savage mothers and walk dark and broken paths. 

 

I feel great sympathy for those captured in the cunning nets of vampires and sorcerers. 

margieclayman
margieclayman moderator

 @JillKroppManty It's not just about representing yourself to others though. It's what you start to believe about yourself. I think it's much easier to deceive yourself into thinking you're whatever you want to be if you are your definition of successful online. In fact, the last chapter I read of Turkle's book talks about this man whose life is falling apart, and the more his real life falls apart, the more he falls into these games where he can rule the world, save peoples' lives, build new things, etc. He has become so addicted to the fake him that he can hardly stand his real life. It was extremely disconcerting to read. Then you think about that kind of self-deception in social media, which is a little closer to real life than Civilization. It makes me cringe to imagine how some people must think of themselves based on their online success. 

Faryna
Faryna

 @margieclayman  

 

But for all the glory, wins and badges in MMOs, social games, and some online communities, I have no delusions of grandeur. Perhaps, because a confession will remind me, loud and clear, that my struggle against my own lesser nature is constant.  

 

Of course, I have no super powers and I would make a sorry weekend warrior. [laughing]  

 

If anything, I bring much of me into the online game world and other online activities - compassion, conscience and hope among other things. Speaking of Marvel Avengers Alliance (in the previous comment), I went through much disappointment and frustration outing a violent-psycho-pedophile.

 

And the reward for my effort was a death threat from a man with a violent criminal history. But it wasn't the first time. [grin]

 

Do people become absorbed in games or social in an unhealthy way?

 

Some do. 

 

Some come broken, disappointed, and desperate for something more. Some find love, friendship, trust, inspiration, and respect which is lacking in their offline life. Some try to take it by force or deception and that's a shame. Because we all want these things and virtue is the best approach - as Aristotle pointed out so long ago.

 

 

 

Faryna
Faryna

 @margieclayman  @JillKroppManty 

 

Once I was a mighty troll warrior champion that wielded two blood point daggers and wore a flaming cloak looted from the corpse of a mighty dragon. None could fell me in PVP. But my greatest joy, I admit, was in serving my guild and being the first to hit our targets - even though it often meant death and the agony of regaining lost experience and level. And the pleasure of meeting brothers and sisters with a true warrior spirit - was awesome - from the C-suite to grocery store baggers.  

 

In Star Wars Galaxies, I was the richest merchant in the universe. For a time. But I enjoyed most the equipping of worthy companions - beyond their wealth and imagination. Again, I met good people. C-suite people too.

 

In Travian, I pitted my wits against formidable strategists - especially the German industrialists. For years! I commanded the actions of thousands of players - to attack. To defend. For glory!

 

Travian was brutal and exhausting but I learned much that I would apply to online strategy and drive impossible client victories.

 

In Marvel Avengers Alliance, I ranked first in PVP more times than any other player, but I enjoyed most being a player advocate and challenging the game developers and producers to fix the bugs, create a better game experience and live up to their service commitment. 

 

All of which (and more) has contributed to my person and, hopefully, my evolution.

 

 

 

 

JillKroppManty
JillKroppManty

 @Faryna  @margieclayman Thank you for making Marvel Avengers Alliance a better game! I play with my husband and my kids - we all enjoy it. I'm sure you're part of the reason why.