Auden and the Broadcast Self

Subjectively my experience of life is one of having to make a series of choices between given alternatives and it is this experience of doubt, indecision, temptation, that seems more important and memorable than the actions I take. Further, if I make a choice which I consider the wrong one, I can never believe, however strong the temptation to make it, that it was inevitable, that I could not and should not have made the opposite choice. But when I look at others, I cannot see them making choices; I can only see what they actually do and, if I know them well, it is rarely that I am surprised, that I could not have predicted, given his character and upbringing, how so-and-so would behave.

Compared with myself, that is, other people seem at once less free and stronger in character. No man, however tough he appears to his friends, can help portraying himself in his autobiography as a sensitive plant

(W.H. Auden, ‘Hic et Ille’ in The Dyer’s Hand)

“Compared with myself” no one else’s “experience of life” seems quite as rich, flawed, or deep as my own. In one direction, we are always comparing our “twisted-up insides to others’ blow-dried outsides” (to use Mary Karr’s phrase). We do not see our own experience of “doubt, indecision, temptation” mirrored back to us when we look at the lives of others. This sort of inside/outside comparison is a pressure most of us feel with special urgency in a world of constantly-connected social media. In terms of self-communication our Instagram and Facebook feeds are opportunities to broadcast a self, a nicely framed picture of a life rather than the life itself. While we sometimes are tempted to engage in overt deception, more often we struggle with the fact that even when trying to be truthful the smooth medium of the digital interface fails to communicate the strangeness of who we (really) are. Twitter can’t bear the weight of a real human being. I can’t post the me that wakes up at four in the morning panicking about the swiftly vanishing vapor that is my everyday life.

This isn’t unique to social media; social media just exaggerates an already existing reality. We never are able to communicate our real selves entirely, even to those who know us best. Everyone knows this because everyone has felt misunderstood and carried on some sort of internal monologue along the lines of “if only they knew what it is like to be me, they wouldn’t assume/think/do ….” Yet, while everyone knows that the broadcast self, the social media self, is not a real person, it seems impossible to remember this when, from the confines of your gray-walled cubicle, you scroll through photos of your friends’ #blessed adventures in Paris and announcements of “hard work pays off!” promotions.

Social media does not affect only our perception of ourselves, but also our perception of others. We easily forget that everyone else has “twisted-up insides” they wrestle with behind the “blow-dried outsides” they present to the world. It is easy to flatten our view of others, to reduce them to their surface, to discount the difficulties of the choices they make and the struggles that are not shared as easily as YouTube clips. Social media is a highlight (or blooper) reel rather than a documentary, and to forget that when we interact with others is to reduce the complexity and richness of who they are, even if, as Auden suggests, who we are is not nearly as self-determined as we imagine. We are both surface and interior, a self making the best of the circumstances we find ourselves in. We imagine that the story we find ourselves in is the story we have chosen (for better or for worse), that we are authors plotting out the narrative arc of our lives, but the “experience of life” is much stranger (and more wonderful) than this vision of self-definition which too often is just (perhaps unavoidable) self-deception.

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