The virtual unreality?

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“Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” Albert Einstein.

A friend referred me to an article about a woman who spent three months convincing her friends and family that she was backpacking around Asia, when in fact she never actually left her apartment. She said that “My goal was to prove how common and easy it is to distort reality. I did this to show people that we filter and manipulate what we show on social media.”

What’s interesting about the story is not so much the deception of it all but the lack of shock that she could actually pull something like that off. How she did it seems pretty straightforward, why is perhaps another matter.

We all choose to present ourselves in a certain way and make umpteen decisions on how we do this on a daily basis without even thinking about it. For example, we choose what clothes we want to wear when we meet certain people, we retell an event a bit more vividly than we actually remember it or we engage in certain conversations to make a better connection with others. It’s not that we are necessarily misrepresenting ourselves so much as presenting one version of the reality that is us to an audience.

In the same way we might answer ‘I’m fine’ to the question ‘how are you?’ or smile for a photograph we know is being taken even when having a truly awful day. At these times we are more consciously presenting a slightly less genuine version of ourselves. So the idea that we twist the perception of the reality we present to others isn’t new. What is new is how much easier it is to do this on a much larger scale with the multitude of social media options available to us.

If you only took everyone at face value of their facebook pages you’d be led to believe that everyone is constantly experiencing a wealth of fantastic things from amazing parties to random items in supermarkets to adorable pet moments to amazing adventures.

What you don’t always get is that contrary to the smiling party pictures the happy-go-lucky attendee pictured were wishing she’d stayed at home to catch up on the latest Doctor Who. That the fascinatingly shaped carrot amongst the vegetables was the amusing perk of a long and tiring day and an hour trudging around the shops looking, and unable to find, the right kind of flour. That two seconds after the lovely cat photo was posted the owner then spent 40 minutes chasing said cat round the house to get it to give up the half dead mouse it had just brought in. That the amazing adventure mentioned is contrary to all those less than amazing non-adventures, that haven’t been shared as status posts, sat at home in front of the tv.

Not that I meant to say every happy image presented is a lie and secretly we all lead very miserable lives with no real joy to be found anywhere, my point is more that the moments we choose to share have been selected by us to present a certain impression. Not necessarily a happy impression, there’s many a ‘worst day ever’ tweet, but a somewhat distorted image of our reality.

Although most of us don’t go as far as faking an epic adventure abroad over a period of several months. Or do they…? Perhaps I never left London at all and am just hiding out in my Greenwich flat taking pictures of cows pretending they are special Swiss cows and photoshopping myself into pictures with mountains in the background hoping no-one has the geographical ability to identify the mountains pictured as Himalayas rather than Swiss Alps?

Swiss cows or just cows?

Swiss cows or just cows?

If we all know that social media is to be taken with a pinch of salt then it doesn’t really matter if we want to use it as an opportunity to present the kind of person we want everyone to think we are. If we accept that online updates are more qualified than absolute then there’s no real risk provided we make the time to scratch beneath the surface for those we really want to know. The problem is when we get lazy and become content with clicking a like button here and retweeting there without making a real effort to engage with those we care about.

I was talking to my other half the other night about the perils of social media. My argument was that as technology gets ever cleverer and makes our lives easier by doing so much for us including human interaction it may start taking away the humanity from us; in that the easier it becomes to communicate online the harder it is to do so off-line. He was proving my point somewhat, by flicking through various web pages on his tablet whilst trying to dispute this, but argued that social media and online communications were our reality now.

He gave several examples of real friendships he’d forged and maintained in the virtual universe that he was unlikely to have made otherwise, He also pointed out that when living away from many friends and family it’s pretty great that you can still feel connected to them and know what’s going on in people’s lives without having to always try and find time for a lengthy phone call. He also mentioned that without the wonders of modern day technology my blog wouldn’t exist.

I grudgingly had to admit he may have a point. Certainly, without the cyber-sphere my blog would be nothing more than an unread journal or an annoying round robin novel issued once a year at Christmas. So I guess the way we communicate and present ourselves online is a reality. Or at least a very persistent illusion.

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15 thoughts on “The virtual unreality?

  1. Barney

    Definitely a double edged sword. It can be used for the best of purposes – communicating genuinely with friends we’d otherwise have no contact with, self education on any subject we choose, the ability to look at events from various angles, the possibility of earning money from anywhere in the world and often related to something we enjoy and the free sharing of ideas. On the other hand many of the aquaintences we form can be shallow and potentially negative, we might only seek out information that reinforces our world view (or passively take on someone else’s), rather than educating ourselves we may just use the internet as a massive distraction and something that harms our ability to focus on one thing for any length of time. Not to mention- massive rows with strangers, easy access to destructive and addictive things like porn and gambling. Not to mention the horrendous levels of surveillance (for our safety 🙂 ). It seems like I’ve listed more negatives but I think that this technology can be a massively positive thing as long as we use it wisely and with respect, just like anything else in life. I’ll save discussion on the nature of reality for another comment, or better still, face to face conversation 🙂

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    • I agree with you that these developments in technology need to be treated respectfully and I think, like so many things, the internet is best enjoyed in moderation and always taken with a pinch of salt. Problem is so many of us find it difficult to act in moderation and not over-indulge especially when it is so easy to log in and engage digitally at any time and almost anywhere. I love going for walks not only because I live in an extraordinarily beautiful area and exercise is good for me, but because it’s a relief to leave the phones and tablets and internet accessing gadgets at home and focus on the here and now.

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  2. Fantastic post. Though I am new at WordPress it’s posts like these that inspire me to write more. I hope you can take some time and go through my blog. It’s new but your critique can help me hone my art too. 🙂

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    • Thanks very much, it’s always nice to know when the posts you write strike a chord with someone. I’m relatively new to blogging myself having only started a few months ago. I’ve taken a look at your site and don’t think I have much to suggest. Your content is already rich and interesting and you post much more regularly than I so you need no advice there, although try and keep consistent with blogging frequency. Personally, I quite like an ‘about’ section where you can get a quick glimpse into what the blog and blogger is all about so you could think about adding that. But my only real advice is write for yourself and persevere, obviously write with an audience in mind, but if you focus on producing posts that you like and are proud of then if it seems to be taking a while to attract followers that will keep you going in the meantime. Then when more people do start to take notice you’ll have a rich archive for them to investigate 🙂

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      • This completely echoes what I feel too. I also affirm to the post in which you say that strangers are friends that you haven’t met yet. Following you and hoping to keep in touch. It is seldom when you find someone who thinks similar. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The internet is a tool of communication and learning, but some go further to treat it as a tool of vanity, control and fantasy. Critical thinking needs to be applied to anything read on the internet. There is as you suggest on my own blog a need for moderation. The internet has a use to help people communicate and to manifest new opportunities to meet new people but there is the darkside to this tool for those that misuse it.

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    • In that way the internet can be seen as a sort of distorted reflection of the user, in that it mirrors and magnifies the intent of the person using it and whilst sometimes this can be great and can enable all sort of positive developments it also poses all sorts of dangers. It’s hard to imagine life without the internet now but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t need to be questioned on a regular basis

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  4. Great post as always … wish you’d submit some evidence to the Digital Democracy Commission on this subject! Completely agree about that critical thinking comment above. I did an AS level in that at college, just looking at different ways people try and make arguments and how you can see through certain techniques. It was one of the most useful things I’ve ever done and not just applicable to online.
    I certainly wouldn’t keep in touch with as many people as I do without social media (facebook). I’m a terrible keeper of addresses and phone numbers (as well as being lazy). There are always those special friendships however that social media can never change or degrade to just regular ‘likes’. Life always throughs up challenges when you need real friends and whether you ask for help via social media or not – its always these friends who become very real when you need them the most … just thinking back to a certain plea on facebook chat from Bolivia a few years ago to someone in England who instantly and digitally sent me all the love and money I needed at that time 🙂 This friend knew what was beyond the ‘highlight’ pictures and posts of my travels!

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    • Thanks but not sure I’m qualified to submit my ramblings to the DDC. The idea of reality being just an illusion is pretty interesting, we tend to think of it as a fixed constant but I do think there are often lots of different versions of the same reality. Interesting stuff.
      Facebook definitely has its moments and its great that you can be able to connect with others half way around the world especially in times of emergency and that technology can facilitate the provision of help in an instant. It does have its limits though and certain relationships will always be worth investing in beyond the superficial likes and tweets. Just have to try not to be too lazy with the ones that matter 🙂

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  5. Ali

    Excellent blog post Briony- poses a lot of very interesting questions, I especially love the “swiss cows or just cows?” picture. I may start using “swiss cows or just cows” as a phrase. It’ll catch on.

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