Murder and the Digital Self

Social media have changed us into directors of scripts of our own lives

Posted Aug 28, 2015

Vester Flanagan’s muttered “bitch” was caught as he filmed himself shooting his former TV Station colleague Alison Parker in the heart on live television. Flanagan was not only a murderer enacting a long-nurtured revenge fantasy kindled by a lifetime of perceived humiliation, he was also a film director, actor and soon-to-be grotesque celebrity.

Day-to-day, the extent to which we are conscious of our own self fluctuates. Absorbed in work, game or happy conversation, we are largely unselfconscious. But from time to time, my view of myself – me ­– enters my consciousness, usually when something out of the ordinary, challenging or threatening happens, like the boss telling me I am not performing.

Vester Flanagan’s life was one big encounter with such threat, arising out of an inflated ego trying to cope with the reality of failure in relationships and jobs. This chronic, gnawing discrepancy between his ideal and actual self meant that he would seldom have been unselfconsciously absorbed in the mundane pleasures of life and work. He was an angry, brooding, humiliated man with a mind filled with images of his own wounded ego.

But in a digital universe of social media, wound and ego expand into a new dimension where it is not just “me” filling my conscious mind, it is a vast digital stage in which “me” is both director and heroic actor.  In my fantasies I not only imagine myself exacting revenge on my humiliators,  I visualize the scripted scenes, expertly directed and, most of all, I see in my mind’s eye the vast digital audience acclaiming my celebrity and hence assuaging the hurt of a life’s humiliation.

The way we think of “me” has changed dramatically over the last four hundred years. During the seventeenth century, for instance, mirrors were uncommon in ordinary houses and the notion of “self” was diffuse and rather a collective affair [i] . “Me” was my family, my social position, my role and an ego-inflating sense of individuality was more a feature of the upper classes, though even these egos were heavily circumscribed by notions of “honour”, “duty” and similar group-oriented values. 

Then, post-Second World War, the “me generation” was born, a phrase coined by the American writer Tom Wolfe to describe a generation of people born between 1946 and 1964 in whom “me” as a distinct, unique and needy individual flourished as never before in history, once consequence of which was an enormous increase in rates of depression.

And finally, on February 4th, 2004, something happened that changed the nature of “me” even more dramatically – Facebook was launched. Suddenly, no longer is “me” just a self-obsessed baby-boomer preoccupied with diet, mortality and purpose in life – now “me” is a publisher, a film director, a cameraman, an actor and – we are always hoping – a celebrity.

Immediately this puts me at a distance from the world – how can I do my job as publisher/director/actor if I don’t disengage from the distractions of reality? I am constantly on the search for images to tweet or upload and so when I see a jet plane crash onto cars on a busy road, it is my job to do my job, because isn’t everyone a journalist now?

Or I am a young Muslim in my bedroom in Glasgow, liaising with a brother in Leeds who has been grooming me on Facebook into the true cause. Gradually he gets me to watch increasingly tough films on the jihadi website – first explosions, now the hangings, finally the beheadings. I watch the glamour of the Jihadi John films, am swept away with the music and visualize myself as a hero in these scenes – a someone, a celebrity.

I switch between perspectives in my mind’s eye as I think about travelling to Syria as the brother wants me to. First I am in my own body, my fingers curled round the AK-47, now I switch the camera angle to the brother’s, imagining his smile of approval, then to the panning camera, imagining a vast audience of admiring brothers and sisters cheering me on.  I am the detached and all-powerful director of this film.

Men are much more potentially murderous than women but never before in history has the technology existed to supply so many men with the murderous mental images and detached, film-director stance, required for the cruelty that Vester Flanagan showed yesterday.

Lee Rigby’s killers hung around the scene of the ghastly drama they scripted, directed and enacted, machete in bloodied hand, precisely for the consummation of this terrible theatrical performance on this only-10-year old digital stage.

Social media then – and the 24 hour news channels which so slavishly serve them – are the fuel for a new sort of egotism where you view yourself not from inside your own head, but rather from some imagined camera angle viewed by millions of fans. 

Reality and fantasy collapse into each other: observe those witnesses at the Shoreham air crash whose first instinct faced with burning cars on the road was not to run towards them to offer help but rather to film them on their phones.

We have become directors and actors in our own films in which we can fulfill our fantasies of posthumous celebrity – and hence of digital immortality.

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[i] Anderson, M. 2015. The Renaissance Extended MInd. Palgrave McMillan, London.