So much of what we do on social media we do to gain the attention and admiration of others. Every Facebook post is designed to be ‘liked’. Every Instagram is composed to look cool. Every tweet is crafted to sound clever. We do this to make ourselves look good to others, and when we gain their approval through their response, we actually feel good — for a time. Inevitably, however, the newsfeed favours a new story, and the whimsical gaze of followers turns away.
This attention seeking reminds me of a scene in Anthony Minghella’s 1999 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), in which the character of Marge explains the force of Dickie Greenleaf’s regard to a bereft and enamoured Tom:
The thing with Dickie… it’s like the sun shines on you, and it’s glorious. And then he forgets you and it’s very, very cold.
So I’m learning.
When you have his attention, you feel like you’re the only person in the world, that’s why everybody loves him so much.
As the story goes, Tom Ripley is a con-artist who, in his obsession with golden playboy Dickie, seeks first to be Dickie’s favourite and then to actually be him. Highsmith’s novel is a psychological thriller, but one that highlights our human desire to be admired through whatever means necessary, often regardless of whether the identity we assume is substantially our own or not.
In any given social media interaction, we are Tom Ripley, craving audience approval. When we have it, we are sustained by its sunshine; when we don’t, we are lost in the shadows. We post, click and comment to get back in that glorious sun. Eventually, these interactions take on an identity of their own, because they aren’t actually us — our literal, physical or even psychological selves — but rather projections of who we want to be in the eyes of others.
Yes, images and words might be accurate representations of who people really are — but they might not be. Publicity is not authenticity, and attention is forever fleeting. That’s the thing with Dickie.