‘Dreams of a Life’

Yesterday I finally got around to watching ‘Dreams of a Life’ (still on 4OD as of writing), a docu-drama about a 38-year old woman who was found dead in her London bedsit in 2006. It grimly transpired that the woman, Joyce Carol Vincent, had died almost three years previously and that her body had lain undisturbed since. Remarkably little information on Joyce seems to remain and so the film relies almost entirely on interviews with people who once knew her. Perhaps inevitably, then, the Joyce portrayed ultimately seems less a fully-rounded human being than a romanticised cipher – for the interviewee’s nostalgia, their lost hopes and dreams and their guilt. This in itself is fascinating but, of course, it’s impossible to watch the tragic tale without Joyce becoming a representation of something larger and more general – our own lives, specifically our relationships, and how we conduct them.

This has been on my mind quite a bit in the past year or so. This post in particular summarises some of my thoughts (and concerns) about the current nature and meaning of ‘friendship’, particularly in a post-social media age. An age which was only really just taking off when Joyce died. I suppose the instant assumption would be that Facebook etc would have made it more difficult for her to fall through the cracks but, when you consider how we use it  and how many people we don’t even necessarily like whom we ‘keep in touch with’ via it, this notion quickly dissipates. Indeed, as I’ve written previously, the unexamined use of social media could be said to actively decrease our engagement with others and our understanding of what ‘friendship’ is. It seems to exacerbate the worst impulses within us – the narcissism, the insecurity, the desire to be seen as ‘better’ – and encourages a deadening self-absorption wherein other people become instruments subservient to our own ego. Thus friendships “…are not borne out of any compelling relationship between two people, any curiosity concerning another person’s inner life. Instead, they are extensions of the self – shallow, convenient arrangements wherein we seek to see our own version of our identity reflected back at us.” The more embedded social media becomes in all of our lives the truer this seems to me – it requires real, maintained effort to forge a friendship of any depth and it’s not always comfortable. It’s always rewarding but in the widest sense of the word rather than the ‘this provides quick, pleasant gratification’ one, because in any valuable relationship with someone else you will find yourself challenged and your negative traits will sometimes be forcefully brought to your attention. More than ever, however, there is the urge to recoil from this and instead focus on that idea of ‘friendship’ as one which serves our egos. This all takes place in the lightning fast world of clicks and ‘likes’ and, as such, the ease with which we can get rid of (‘hide’ or delete) those people who challenge our ‘good feeling’ is brutal. People like Joyce, who by several accounts seemed damaged and lived a disjointed life, would surely have been ill-served by this, proving too frustrating and demanding and offering little back in terms of rewarding our narcissism?

Related to this, the film brought to mind a blog I read only last week. The Marginal Utility blog describes itself as “a blog about consumerism, capitalism and ideology” and it frequently addresses the meaning and use of social media. It’s provocative and often brilliant. This particular entry, called ‘Domination’, looks at the debilitating effect of Facebook not just on our relationships but on our very being:

What Facebook makes inescapable, Losse notes, is the transformation of all captured information into cultural capital, into currency in a status game. “Instead of making a technology of understanding,” Losse writes, “we seemed to sometimes to be making a technology of the opposite: pure, dehumanizing objectification. We were optimizing ways to judge and use and dispose of people, without having to consider their feelings, or that they had feelings at all.” Feelings are for the social hackers; for Facebook’s user base, feelings don’t count — they’ve been recast as likes and been dispensed with.

Basically, Losse restates the idea that social media mainly prompts not “openness” but  judgment, poseurdom, defensiveness, and resentment. It serves to guarantee that information is used to articulate hierarchies rather than dismantle them. The best we can hope for is the coexistence online of multiple hierarchies, some of which we might be able to dominate.

It reflects many of my thoughts of the past year (much more articulately) but goes even further, positing that social media is not only encouraging narcissism and self-absorption but replacing authentic personality:

Losse points out how Facebook’s News Feed and like buttons led to a company culture in which personality traits and experiences needed a “proof of concept” through appropriate metrics before being embraced as cool. As social media has become more omnipresent, trying out identity without “proof of concept” has become more risky. It begins to make sense to commit to no particular identity in advance and live from within a sort of beta-testing self to see what sort of self the network tells you that you should embrace. Since News Feed relies on algorithms to narrativize our life experiences in terms of what has proved popular with our “friends,” why not let it tell our life story rather than trying to devise one in advance, before the fact?

What Facebook use may be doing is acclimating users to this post hoc self. Users seize as their identity only what they are told is acceptable after the fact — an algorithmically recommended personality. In other words, social media redefines spontaneity as orthodoxy much like it redefines serendipity as automatically generated recommendations. Spontaneity becomes surprise at what algorithms and tracking tell us we should own as the basis of our identity. Oh! That’s who I am!

Here the idea that people want to have their self-identity reflected back at them becomes more circular and complex as they are actually basing their idea of ‘themselves’ on this feedback loop. As a separate New Inquiry blog argued last week, this lack of space (of urge, of desire?) to actually develop yourself as a person in private leads to the instrumentalisation of that which is viewed as acceptable – popular culture:

Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value{…}There is a problem, though. The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The internet writ large is desperately invested in the idea that liking, say, The Wire, says something of depth and importance about the liker, and certainly that the preference for this show to CSI tells everything.

This is clearly an incredibly bleak view of our relationship with social media and, ultimately, with each other. It’s certainly not without its problems (and the blogs are worth reading at length as they touch on some of them) but it has a pull of recognition. The endless sharing of Youtube videos and adoption of the idioms of certain television shows become inextricably linked with a facile sense of self which is refracted through social media, culture and, yes, through other people. Just as it is impossible to watch ‘Dreams of a Life’ without reflecting on your own life and relationships, then, there is the concomitant urge (duty?) to consider social media, the area where so much of these relationships play out. It’s all too easy to watch the film and shake our heads at the sad denouement of Joyce as a void to be filled in by others (and used in blogs such as this); it’s far more difficult to examine ourselves and consider the ways in which we use people around us in the same way.

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