Boing-Boing.net blogger and internet “celebrity” Xeni Jardin went to get her first mammogram, and live-tweeted the experience to her thousands of followers. At the end of her doctor’s visit, she learned she may have cancer.
That is a frightening and sad conclusion to what I can only assume she thought would be a routine examination. But by publicizing her experience this way, she highlights the poignant limit of the connected world, and that limit is this: we all face death alone.
Early in the day, Xeni tweeted that she “decided the experience of getting a mammogram would be less scary if I tweeted about it, mocked it, or turned it into a game.” In other words, she turned to twitter as a real-time escape from an unpleasant experience. People have always done this, and escape from reality when reality is uncomfortable is a common, and effective, coping mechanism. This is why grown-ups will with full concentration and furrowed brow, struggle their way through the hidden picture puzzles in Highlights at the dentist’s office.
What is interesting about Xeni’s tweet is that it highlights the true role of “social media” in our world. Social media are not really about connecting us with others, they are about mediating our experience of reality. Social media, by allow us to comment reflectively and reflexively on real-time events allow us to distance ourselves from those same events.
Susan Sontag wrote a now famous book about photography that everyone should read called On Photography. Sontag remarked that taking a photograph meant putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge and therefore like power. That photography was a way to alienate oneself from the world, to abstract it and make it emotionally and cognitively manageable.
She also rather famously said that “the camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own.” I would argue that social media have had a similar effect. Twitter and Facebook make everyone a tourist in our own lives, and make us tourists in theirs. And the act of tweeting or updating our status, that act of constantly reflecting on the unfolding of our experiences right in front of us make us tourists in our own lives. Like Sontag said with respect to photography, we abstract it away to give us the illusion of understanding of these events and therefore to give us the illusion of power over them.
But more importantly, and unlike photography, social media validates our own mistaken belief that our lives are worth visiting, that our private joys and tragedies somehow play out on a grander scale than is actually the case.
Psychotherapist Otto Rank wrote that the fear of life is the fear of separation and individuation. The fear of becoming an individual. Conversely, the fear of death is the fear of the loss of individuality.
When we mediate our reality, through twitter or photography or a diary hidden under the mattress, what we are doing is abstracting ourselves from life because to experience it directly in that moment is too personal, perhaps too intensely stressful or too intensely joyful. We run from the truly unique and personal experience in to the waiting arms of the masses. In Xeni’s case, she started by sharing with the twitterverse her understandable anxiety over a mammogram, a procedure which is always routine for everyone except the patient. Being a patient means being an acutely vulnerable individual, small, bewildered, and powerless completely at the mercy of biological forces and medical sciences you don’t understand. When patients want to escape from this aspect of life, through a waiting room magazine, a hospital TV that only gets horrible channels, or through Twitter, it is completely understandable.
But when Xeni learned she had cancer, her temporary flight from life became a flight from death. Her feed instantly shifted from “let’s go through this together” to “help me through this.” Again, completely understandable, but fascinating to play out over the course of hours.
If we consider what Sontag and Rank together imply, that social media allow us to abstract from our individual lives whenever life or death become too real, we realize that social media whatever their social or political benefits may be, are fundamentally symptoms of a greater neurotic condition-the fear of being absolutely present in one’s own life.
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