Social Media and the Hyperreal

Can you properly experience and record a moment at the same time?

This article was originally published by the Sydney Opera House’s ‘Ideas at the House’ program. It was part of a weekly column that explained academic theatre with pop culture.

If you’re a metaphysics student, stoner, or aficionado of The Matrix, you already love the French philosopher Baudrillard. If you’ve ever asked yourself about the nature of reality then you’re about to fall into that category too.

This is our mate Baudrillard:


He looks like someone who’d ponder the nature of reality for a living.

Baudrillard’s 1981 Simulacra and Simulation argued that we’ve become so reliant on models and maps that we’ve lost all contact with the reality that they represent.

For instance, we all know what Times Square in New York looks like. We know what it looks like even if we’ve never been there, because we’ve seen photos. Those photos that represent Times Square stand in for the experienced reality of Times Square. Since we can still differentiate between the representation of the real (the photos) and the real itself, this example is of the lower order of simulacra. As something reaches a higher order of simulacra it becomes more difficult to distinguish the original from the copies, because there are just so many copies out there.

Take this picture of Baudrillard’s face, courtesy of the Tumblr-verse:

Can you tell the copies from the original image? No. You can’t. You can’t assume that the first is the original — any one of those could be the original image. We don’t know which.

But there is an original, and if you were a sleuth or an IT genius, you could find out which one it was. It wouldn’t be easy to separate the real from the copies, but it would be possible.

Once we reach the highest order of simulation though, differentiating is not just difficult, it’s impossible. The original is dead. Only the simulations remain, because the copy has come to actually alter and determine the real.

Take Reality TV. It purports to represent real people in shows like The Real Housewives and My Supersweet Sixteen. But at the same time, Americans get their idea of what signifies success and wealth from these very shows. So while those shows represent the lifestyles and appearances of wealthy, successful people, they also determine the lifestyles and appearances of wealthy, successful people, who take their fashion and lifestyle cues from television. My Supersweet Sixteen might represent the preexisting tradition of lavish sixteenth birthday parties, but it also reinforces the tradition of lavish sixteenth birthday parties, making it a far more entrenched custom then it would have been without the show.

Porn is another example. Porn videos simulate sexual interactions between real people. But porn has come to change and determine the actual nature of real sex between real people. There’s about a zillion articles arguing that men’s expectations of how women will look and perform in bed is changing to resemble how porn-stars look and perform in bed. This is a classic case of the simulation replacing and determining the real. I don’t often mention Baudrillard and porn in the same sentence, but there you have it: simulacra and simulation.

Old mate Baudrillard wrote all this in 1981, but it has become increasingly relevant — particularly with the advent of social media.

Our online profiles present a cultivated and preferred simulation of ourselves.

When social media first became a part of our lives, it was easy to distinguish between our myspace persona and our actual, real world persona. But now that we’re at social media saturation point, can we really say that our online simulacrums are less real than our actual selves, when they help define and affect our real relationships?

How many people do you know who instagram their lives constantly? I know plenty. Let’s call them “gramophiles”. For the gramophile, the act of eating a spinach frittata is not just about eating a spinach frittata — it gets a second layer of meaning from the photo that they instagram of themselves eating that spinach frittata. For some gramophiles, that second level of experience will surpass the first in importance. Gramophiles have more of an experience sharing their experience of eating a frittata than in the actual eating of the frittata itself.

But are gramophiles experiencing the moments they record authentically? Can you properly experience and record a moment at the same time? Or does the very act of observing the experience change its nature?

Photographs are extremely effective in constructing our idea of reality. When we think back on a holiday, we’ll often remember the sites we photographed the most clearly. When we think back on our early childhoods, we’ll often remember the content of photographs even if we can’t actually remember the event that they record. Instagram amplifies this potential for photography to demarcate the meaningful moments of one’s existence.

We use instagram to curate our lives. And through this very act of selecting and editing and sharing the narrative of our lives, we create the narrative of our lives.

The way that people act towards us in the real world is influenced and determined by their interactions with our simulacrums in the virtual world. So as we see, our simulacrum not just represents, but determines our actual, real-world selves. This is trippy stuff. It’s even harder to wrap your head around when you’re not on psychedelics in a yurt.

It is pretty weird to think of ourselves as having fragmented identities that operate on different virtual and actual platforms. But this is 2013.

The question becomes whether we lose something in the transferal of meaning onto the recording of the event rather than the event itself.

Do we lose something in bashing through crowds to snap the Eiffel tower at the “right” angle rather than just being in its presence, in that moment?

Do we lose something meaningful in having drinks with girlfriends if everyone’s too busy facebooking, tweeting and instagraming it to just be present in the moment?

And do we lose something when we value others according to the curated version they put forward of their selves as opposed to warts-and-all version we see in reality?

These are questions for us, the digital natives, to work out, if we value meaningful connection with others.

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