The Mask of Social Media

An Analysis of David Foster Wallace – Infinite Jest

Social media is a facade designed to embellish reality. This phenomenon was discussed in Infinite Jest, a critically acclaimed novel released in 1996. Wallace predicted humanity will choose to misrepresent themselves through video-telephony, and eventually regress to older technology. A synopsis of Wallace’s fiction, how video-telephony’s eradication is contrasted with social media’s success, similarities between social media filters / high-definition masking and the divergence in societal attitudes towards beautification through technology is discussed. Despite Wallace’s foresight not all his predictions became true, as aesthetic enhancement through social media shows no signs of slowing down.

Video-telephony is technology in Infinite Jest that enabled users to video call each other. Initially the product is successful, however after 16 months the market crashes and the demand is non-existent. Following this customer’s regress to audio calls. Why the sudden loss of consumer interest? Why the regression? Wallace provides 3 reasons.

Stress

Vanity

Redundancy

Video calling exacerbated emotional stress, as phone calls permitted an illusion of undivided reciprocal attention. Audio conversations allowed participants to clean the house, wandering aimlessly or make faces at others present. This provided callers with the sense they could do as they pleased to an attentive listener. However, the inclusion of video undermined this delusion. Once callers ‘’bilateral illusion of unilateral attention’’ was discovered to be equal inattention, it revealed an uncomfortable truth that increased stress levels.

Video-Telephony required engagement levels reserved for in person exchanges. Those who continued absent-minded audio habits were considered rude. One is not free to complete chores with a camera on them. Interpersonal social norms were demanded by video-telephony users. The constant vigilance required of users, combined with realities misalignment with consumer fantasy stressed users.

Vanity contributed to the fall of the video-telephony. Audio calls were performed without concern for appearance. However, video communication required scrutiny for ones looks. Video-telephony decreased user’s self-esteem, due to their disdain for their appearance on the device. They claimed their visages were ‘’unflattering, evasive, furtive, untrustworthy and unlikeable’’. The inability to deal with reality and increased emphasis on appearance unsettled consumers, which intensified anxieties.

Mass stress was classified Video-Physiognomic Dysphoria (VPD). How could companies rectify this catastrophe? Consumers used technology to communicate with each other face to face, but despised their own looks. Development of high-definition masking was the answer. An ability to improve appearance through technology. Virtual plastic surgery.

Sound familiar?

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Smoothed skin, pink complexion, larger eyes, thinner jaw and nose (1)

Masks presented an idealized version of oneself and reduced symptoms of VPD. However, consumers became dissatisfied with improved versions and progressively demanded exceedingly unrealistic, beautiful avatars to take their place.  Stronger jawlines, straighter teeth, whatever the consumer demanded the market supplied. Soon realistic, albeit improved masks were obsolete and unable to compete with technologies beautification.

Evolution continued with full body imaging. Users could present heavily edited photographs of incredibly attractive human beings. Six pack abs and model proportions were available to anyone with a wallet. Despite looking nothing like the user. This did not concern consumers as their only focus was quelling anxieties and projecting the most attractive versions of themselves possible.

Optimistically Misrepresentational Masking (OMM) was the result of societies desire for beauty. Users became terrified of interacting in person, to reveal their natural flaws. Instead they preferred online communication, letting masks speak on their behalf. Ironically these enhancements allowed users to resume inattentive audio habits, as they hid behind masks. The video call was now an audio call with two extremely beautiful, avatars conversing. Desire for beauty superseded truth, which continued disdain for realistic portrayal of oneself, elevating stress.

Market compensation for consumer stress eradicated video-telephony. Once consumers reverted to carefree habits behind body doubles, users were free to do as they pleased.  A return to audio calls was heralded by consumer common sense, and became culturally approved ‘’chic-integrity’’.  So called proponents of anti-vanity shunned video-telephony, and those who were ‘’utterly lacking in self-awareness continued to use videophone’’. Societies supposed ‘’enlightenment’’ regarding narcissistic values, was nothing more than a flimsy scapegoat to discard useless technology, granting a free escalator onto moral high ground.

This claim is bolstered by consumer behavior. Despite proclaimed anti-vanity callers still preferred online communication and retained symptoms of OMM and VPD, unable to leave home. If there was truly a shift, why fear real interaction? The non-existent cultural shift was a weak rationalization to circumvent ownership of an absurd technology. The band-aid of moral righteousness did not alleviate psychological trauma inflicted by video-telephony.

The parallels to today may seem unclear, but certainly exist. Instagram and Snapchats main features are presenting an idealized version of oneself, like high definition masking. Enhancement of facial features by widening eyes, thinning face, smoothing skin, reducing noses, improving complexion, contouring and removal of freckles are all available. Instagram is guilty of the same crime, with users being able to embellish reality through a variety of filters. The difference is that instead of stress, vanity and redundancy destroying this technology, it is enhancing it.

While video-telephony died due to a realization of its futility under a guise of moral righteousness, the reverse is true today. Modern social media is a necessity of communication, propelled by our vanity. Stress levels are minimized due to reward systems. Redundancy is impossible with the nature of instantly accessible tech and emphasis on desire rather than efficiency. Instead of a regression to audio calls, technology is exceeding expectations. The statement ‘’Utterly lacking in self-awareness’’ is applicable to phone calls users.  Preferred communication is through Instagram, Snapchat and FB Messenger. This choice is not from a productivity standpoint, as they are inefficient compared with calling.

If productivity isn’t the driving force, what is?

Vanity

Why audio call when you can snap yourself with a message? (Complete with flattering filters and best angles.)

Why call when Instagram lets others see filtered selfies, with the ability to contact you?

Why call when through Messenger a display photo (your best picture) is forever present?

Elevated stress levels are circumvented through cheap gestures. The ‘’bilateral illusion of unilateral attention’’ is manifested with like systems. Perception of uninvested friends is rectified by hearts, likes and 10 second images. Feelings of inadequacy are minimized by meaningless gestures that take seconds to perform. The juxtaposition between how great you feel receiving a like, contrasted with how apathetic are when giving one, is the same naïve belief of commanding complete attention through audio, despite minimal reciprocation.

Video-Telephony was confined to one on one communication, whereas current social media outwardly displays one to a broad audience. Combined with a system that rewards users for displays of vanity it creates a machine that thrives off users abusing aesthetic enhancement, for meaningless rewards that feel amazing. Wallace’s prediction of erratic stress is replaced with irrational highs. Cumbersome products required to enhance oneself are streamlined, while maintaining a semblance of self.

Redundancy seems unlikely due to a disregard for efficiency. Regression to prior technology is a ridiculous notion, with only clueless, poor or old people solely communicating through audio calls. How can something be redundant if it does not need to be efficient to thrive? Or rather it only needs to effectively stimulate human desires. Human affinity for beauty is enacted through these applications. Each offers superficial enhancements to one’s appearance with minimal energy expenditure. Why choose flawed reality over virtual perfection?

The difference between video-telephony and current social media is the extent to which it misrepresents reality. In Infinite Jest technology reached a point where two people communicated through astoundingly unrealistic avatars, complete with body doubles. Current filters do not have this ability, however modern filters are synonymous with high-definition masking.  Will society remain content with slight beauty enhancements, or will they demand more? It depends on their current satisfaction of self-perception; however, it seems inevitable.

Social media and video-telephony have striking similarities. Both enable users to enhance their features virtually with money. However, what destroyed video-telephony empowers current social media. Vanity and stress are cured through easy filters and like systems. Emphasis on feeling good rather than efficiency removes potential for regression. Society is content with enhancing beauty online, and progression seems not only inevitable but encouraged. The fall of social media and a wave of reversion of societal and technological methods of communication is a fantasy, and the desire for more will override truth.

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