Social Peacocking and the Shadow

I’ve long spoken of the idea that much social media has turned into “social peacocking” — showing yourself in a favorable light online, presenting only the happy moments, a “highlights reel” of your life, so to speak, and how this leads to FOMO in others. Look at me: here I am doing cool things, in interesting places, with beautiful people. This has always given me some pause. When I look at Flickr and Findery, two social media companies I’ve built, they are not, I hope, venues for presenting the air-brushed version of one’s life. So many of the new social networks seem to encourage it. They seem pretty, but shallow.

It occurred to me that the real problem was not the showing off. The eminence grise that was Carl Jung showed us what can happen to those who stay on the sunny side, and only on the sunny side of life. Jung posited the idea of The Shadow, the dark side of one’s character. The Shadow is not only what is evil, but what is petty, selfish, childish, annoying, and usually unconscious. The more a person acknowledges his shadow, and brings it into consciousness, the healthier and more whole the person will be. But if driven underground and sent into hiding, The Shadow will take on a life of its own, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Ursula LeGuin wrote a magnificent essay, “The Child and the Shadow” (which I collected quotes from last year), in which she discusses the fairy tale “The Shadow” by Hans Christian Anderson. In the story a man allows his shadow to leave him, and the shadow goes on to live its own life, without the positive side of its character. Eventually the Shadow has grown strong, and the man has grown weak, and the Shadow come back and murders the man. LeGuin writes:

If the ego “is weak, or if it’s offered nothing better, what it does is identify with the “collective consciousness.” That is Jung’s term for a kind of lowest common denominator of all the little egos added together, the mass mind, which consists of such things as cults, crees, fads, fashions, status-seeking, conventions, received beliefs, advertising, pop cult, all the isms, all the ideologies, all the hollow forms of communication and “togetherness” that lack real communion or real sharing. The ego, accepting these empty forms, becomes a member of the “lonely crowd”. To avoid this, to attain real community, it must turn inward, away from the crowd, to the source: it must identify with its own deeper regions, the great unexplored regions of the Self. These regions of the psyche June calls the “collective unconscious,” and it is in them, where we all meet, that he sees the source of true community; of felt religion; of art, grace, spontaneity, and love.

Social peacocking is life on the internet without the shadow. It is an incomplete representation of a life, a half of a person, a fraction of the wholeness of a human being. It’s the lonely crowd, the network and society, and not the community, as Tonnies would have it. As Jyri Engestrom observed, it’s implied in Google’s mantra “Don’t Be Evil.” That’s the Yang without the Yin. We have to bring The Shadow back into our technology if we are to live there and find our humanity reflected back to us. In our strivings to be better, we must not forget to be whole.

12 thoughts on “Social Peacocking and the Shadow

  1. “The Shadow” has that beautiful quality common in fairy tales: it’s terrifying, but difficult to say precisely why.

    On social peacocking: I’m skeptical that we’re doing far more of this. People have always tried to present themselves in the best possible light, especially when in public or semi-public situations. But it’s unclear that people are doing more of it on their Facebook profiles than they are when going out on dates, attending work events, or even just talking to the barista at the coffee shop.

    It seems like the right question here is: are we spending more time in this kind of semi-public interaction, where we only present our best side? I don’t think it’s obvious that the answer is yes.

  2. I like your angle, but show me someone kept unflattering photos of themselves before life on the internet. Show me someone who highlighted their failures equally along with their triumphs. That does not seem to be how stories are told.

    One could argue that as our lives on the internet mature (and along with them social media), services like snapchat enter and delve into the unflattering and ephemera.

    • Yes, people have always liked “good” photos of themselves, and I agree with that. But someone asked me what I thought would be a healthier way of participating in Social Media and it seems obvious to me: concentrate less on portraying yourself online, and look at the world around you instead.

      • I’ve been giving this post some more thought recently and I agree that social media participation favors the narcissist. I question whether there is a healthier way to participate in it.

        I think that the social peacocking critique is also in itself a narcissistic argument. It’s one that is driven by the power of the narrative fallacy created when we weave our own reality into the artifacts of others. We create ideas of who people are based on a limited quantity of highlights. This isn’t necessarily wrong. This is how our brains work, but we can consciously choose to work against it. I think that’s a healthier approach than the expectation of a broader/different/more open way of sharing our lives with strangers. Our tendency towards voyeurism combined with our brain chemistry heavily favors the former.

        It seems that our own narcissistically sharpened minds blame others for not giving us a broader swath of their lives online so that we can make more informed projections about who they are.

        Can you really know someone?

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  4. Love this post. Seeing it the day after some 30 million adulterers were digitally ‘outed’ makes me think the ‘shadow’ may be online, after all.

  5. Pingback: Caterina Fake | A Person You Should Know

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