Looking-Glass Selfie: the past haunts you in HD, the death of folklore and magic

A frame from Junji Ito’s “Uzomaki”.

I am a poor note taker. I look at other people’s notebooks with all of their neatly written thoughts and doodles and I’m stricken with jealousy for beautiful ruminations and ideas that are neatly laid out and cataloged for easy accessibility. My notebooks look terrible, just pages upon pages of random smatterings of symbols and illegible ramblings. It’s a kind of ugly reflection that I don’t like to look back on as the symbols often congeal into half-cocked ideas that were birthed in the middle alcohol, late nights, or meetings at work. But, every once in a while there is gold in there; notebooks demand regular sifting. In one of these recent sift sessions, I found a term that I coined almost a year ago called “looking-glass selfie”.

One of the core concepts you’ll find in most intro to psychology or sociology courses is the “looking-glass self”, the idea that a person’s sense of self grows out of how others see them; how you see yourself through your interpersonal interactions with other people. An obvious example of this is how teenagers often find themselves ugly because some other mean-spirited individual told them so, and that feedback is woven into their sense of identity. For a determinist, it’s one of those uncomfortable confirmations that we’re all just physical and chemical interactions pressing upon each other as we spin through the void. The “looking-glass selfie” is a similar concept, except the reflection is coming out of the data we are amassing everyday about ourselves.

In a recent discussion, my girlfriend and I were talking about how her young niece and nephew are about to grow up in a world where they’ll have had a constant and (arguably) permanent record of themselves since their sonogram: pictures, videos, Facebook anecdotes, digital attendance records/report cards, biometric data from wearables, etc… An entire digital sense of self easily accessed from their pockets 24 hours a day for the rest of their lives, completely devoid of the fuzziness that surrounds bio-dependent recollection (our memories). When you pore through your old pictures, text messages, and Twitter posts, what sense of reflection is coming through the glow of the screen? What are the ramifications of a life long digital record? Even weirder, what really happens in that transition period when parents stop documenting and the child takes up documenting themselves?

The “looking-glass selfie” seems a kind of sterile reflection of self, an empty digital room where the unbiased robots have presented you with your past thoughts, data, and memories and the only judge is yourself; a bizarre, lonely echo-chamber for you to internally FavStar or down vote your identity at will. Your past can now haunt you in HD (at least I could throw away or burn the notebooks).

Even better are the advent of apps like Timehop, where the algorithms rifle through the APIs (application program interfaces) of social media sites digging out what you were doing exactly one year ago, two years ago, three years ago, etc… and wrapping it up in a big bow for you each day to laugh, shrug, cry, or cringe at.

A couple years ago, I went through one of those devastating character shaping periods fraught with heartache and betrayal. I was bitter and broken and airing my emotions out on social media far more than I should have. Mistakes were made and I have to live with that. Timehop is an app that you provide access to all of your social media networks and it will give you a daily summery of what you were doing on this day for each year you’ve resided on those networks. I downloaded Timehop as a mild curiosity: archeology of my online presence. Quickly, I understood this was a mistake; for huge swaths of time between 2012 and 2013, I was a deeply unhappy person making horrible self-deprecating jokes, fighting with close friends, and making vague allusions to my current emotional state. It’s all very cringe-worthy and something I try not to dwell on too much, but Timehop wouldn’t let me. Each day, a dinosaur wearing aviator goggles would appear in my status bar telling me my Timehop was ready, a big, potentially awful box of shit waiting to haunt me. “Don’t feel too good about yourself! You were still that person.” I deleted the app within a few weeks.

Despite an echoing loop of stunted personal growth, the looking-glass selfie has another larger, potential cultural ramification, the death of folklore and legend. My family has a tale about a run-in with a diamondback rattlesnake from when we lived in Florida back in 1992. My 4 year old brother had been playing in some nearby woods and came across the critter, coiled and ready to strike. He ran back to the house, and through tears and jumbled words (he was terrified) pleaded with my dad to come look at the snake across the street. My dad, thinking it nothing more than a garter snake, went out to take a look. He was paralyzed to find a five-foot rattlesnake coiled at the bottom of the small hill. Judgement of my dad’s actions aside, he decided that the animal needed to go and harpooned it several times with a shovel. My hunter neighbor skinned it and ate it and gave us the skin as a gift. Florida!

That story has echoed through my entire family for the better part of two decades now, the size of the snake growing in length each time from five feet to six feet, and eventually seven feet, the heroics of my father glazed with the fuzz of childhood memory. Pull that story forward through time and set it in 2015, pictures of the snake would have been Twittered or Facebooked before it even died, a Vine of my father clumsily harpooning it might follow that up (probably to the scorn of many), and the surreal, suburban-hick atmosphere of my neighborhood would have been revealed when pictures and anecdotes of my alcoholic neighbor skinning the snake appeared in our social networks. Plus, that snake is the same size forever, never changing because there is documented evidence of it that can be pulled up at every family gathering. The grit of the event doesn’t wash away, but lives on in 1920 x 1080 resolution, your actions constantly up for debate against the rich tapestry of your online presence that is being woven daily. Indisputable history doesn’t lend itself to the birth of folklore.

Legends and folklore are hyperbolic stories that slowly embellish the dramatic and heroic elements overtime on societal scales. What was once just a couple of dudes killing a snake, slowly morphs over a thousand years into heroic duo protecting their loved ones from the venomous fangs of death, the snake no longer a snake, but a demonic serpent coiled around my brother, ready to squeeze the life out of him. The tale becomes a pristine distillation of heroism and adventure, allowing a culture of people to reflect on it and think better of their elders and maybe take away important lessons from it.

“Remember compliments you receive, forget the insults, if you succeed in doing this, tell me how.” –Baz Luhrmann

Being able to forget is healthy for the human mind, especially the negative elements that plague our senses of self. We’re all anchored with memories of dumb things we’ve said or horrible criticisms we’ve received, and have probably dwelled on them ad-infinitum while forgetting most of the complements people have payed us. But memories fade, their sharp edges are blunted by the march of time, allowing extraordinary stories to become epics and horrible ones to transform into “not so bad.” Before the looking-glass selfie, we were able to reflect on stories and memories with the positive elements glinting through the haze like jewels. There was magic in this world (there never is magic in this world, always “was”). Now we’re stuck with two guys pummeling a snake on YouTube with 70,000 views.

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