The Protagonist Syndrome
Everyone loves being the main character of their own lives.
The general consensus seems to be that social media is bad. Toxic, even.
We are quick to blame TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and the rest for imbuing our minds with useless yet satisfying content that so often leaves us feeling numb, dissatisfied, and alone. We tell ourselves that we’ll start that social media cleanse next week. Lo and behold, next week rolls around, and like addicts going through withdrawal we hopelessly fall prey to our bad habits of endlessly scrolling through the Internet’s never-ending abyss once again. Our minds remain hardwired to crave external validation in the form of likes as much as we crave our $7 iced green tea lattes. This is exactly what big companies like Facebook want: without even realizing, we churn the gears of capitalism by paying advertisers money in the form of our attention. Corporate America profits off of our collective weak will.
Perhaps, however, there’s something going on here that goes beyond the online platforms we so easily accuse. Only when we take a step back do we consider the possibility that these social media platforms might be simply highlighting the pitfalls of our very own human nature.
Social media is the perfect playground for us to overtly embrace our inner narcissist — and be validated for doing so. Every post suddenly becomes an opportunity to add a new layer to your brand, your idealized self. The platforms we use encourage this behavior, incentivizing you to keep indulging the notion that you are the center of the universe, that everything in the world should cater to your preferences, your tastes, your opinions. Feeds and timelines are fine-tuned and tailored to show you what you want to see, twisting your perceived reality into a gross misinterpretation of the objective reality.
Somewhere along the line, we experience the common plight of the modern, connected individual. An awkward dichotomy between our genuine selves and the versions of ourselves we project onto our social profiles emerges. It begs the question: who are you, really? What remains of you when all the embellishments of your virtual personas are stripped away, when the layers are peeled back and all that’s left of you is your bare self, with nothing left to hide with?
The danger of publicizing your idealized self becomes apparent the more we begin to feel like strangers to ourselves. A certain sense of alienation begins to linger in our psyches as we grapple with the fact that no, we are not our polished online avatars. Nor are we always perfectly in line with our painstakingly cultivated brands. Books on professionalism emphasize the importance of constructing your own brand, but to view yourself as a brand, in my opinion, can also be incredibly dehumanizing. We are far from being perfectly marketable and clean-cut. Human beings are messy and complex beyond understanding. Our desires often conflict and we frequently contradict ourselves; our emotions far too often betray rational thought.
So perhaps social media really is the enemy for inducing such identity crises. Or better yet, maybe it merely perpetuates and exacerbates an issue that has been within us this entire time — human pride that fans into flame our desire to become the rulers of our own lives, to worship and glorify an image of ourselves that can never match up in reality and have others follow suit. The more we add to our social image, the more we risk our necks to uphold the version of ourselves that others deem worthy. The protagonist syndrome strikes again.
As Rick Warren once said, “It’s not about you.”
I think he’s right.