The Image of Yourself You Always Wanted to See

dostoevsky_double_4The fantasy of an unlived life, a life we imagine for ourselves but never actually experienced, was something Sandie Friedman explored in her essay Warhol’s Last Starlet. But what of the double life we do create for ourselves, the digital personas that we craft with ever more precision?  Here, Rosa Inocencia Smith finds in Dostoevsky’s 19th century novel “The Double” the origins of our many digital, paranoid, and narcissistic selves.

“Enter the double: the curated profile, the version of you that bears all your identifying information—name, clothes, job, appearance, place of birth—but whose social grace is impeccable, whose interests are noble and fascinating, whose biography is impressive yet humbly presented, whose comments are edited for maximum wit. Bound link by link to your real-world self with the ponderous chain of your Google results, trapped by your search and browser history in a fully customized cage, you cannot escape or erase your identity but must find a way to improve it. The avatars of social media—Facebook profiles, Twitter handles, and the like—embrace that burdensome mass of personal data and build on it, creating a version of self that is, if not quite an alter ego, at least an elaborately inflated one. Golyadkin’s double, who appears out of the shadows as he tries to outrun his embarrassment, is like this: physically and biographically indistinguishable from Golyadkin, but more confident, more charming, and more popular above all. Think of it as a deftly cropped, Photoshopped reflection: the image of yourself you always wanted to see. You have the same face, but every angle gets your good side.

Such a digital double ought to soothe your social anxieties, encouraging you to think about your most admirable qualities and take pride in displaying them. For Golyadkin, the double works this way for a single night. Flatteringly humble and solicitously sycophantic, he treats Golyadkin as his social patron, and he lends an untiring ear to Golyadkin’s anecdotal knowledge of Petersburg, Islam, and everything in between—a meandering, insubstantial conversation that recalls a series of clicks through Buzzfeed hyperlinks or, better yet, a scroll down a Facebook or Tumblr newsfeed. The double, in short, poses no social challenge to Golyadkin. His role is simply to receive and support—to empower his original and, like a real live LiveJournal, absorb the narcissistic excesses that other people might discourage if they were physically present and talking back. He provides an outlet without giving a response; he doesn’t criticize, and he doesn’t ignore.

But just as Golyadkin is haunted by the notion that “a good man tries to live honestly … and never has a double,” you can’t help but feel the smallest pang of guilty jealousy each time your digital double makes a friend. You are uncomfortably conscious of the fact that your created, curated self is not really you—you’ve played up a few things, kept a few others hidden, put on a mask for your digital friends. And what would they think of you if they found out about—well, you? Thus the anxieties of digital life return when the double, through its interactions with the friends you hoped to gain, is conceived as yet another separate, hostile social being. You can have fear of missing out on your own double’s activities if the double is more popular than your real-life self.”

read more at The American Reader

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