Social Networking: Playing Sidekick to our Shadows

I was listening to an excerpt of Patricia Bray’s workshop lecture on the protagonist. Bray is the author of The Chronicles of Josan and the Sword of Change series. Although she actually spent more time (at least in the clip) talking about the sidekick, she made some very interesting points that immediately pushed me into a few wild speculations on how social networking and the use of technology might be shifting the way we perceive ourselves and others.

Sidekicks, Bray states, are useful as they can stimulate audience interest in the first person while still acting as chronicler. She uses the Watson/Holmes model as an example: Watson narrates the story, taking care of all of the workaday details, while remaining in first person and thereby creating a gateway for reader identification.

Yet the sidekick narrator, she adds, also allows the reader the cushy position of superiority to Watson. We may identify with the good Dr, but we can imagine ourselves to be more like Holmes, the old “If I were like Watson, I like totally would have figured that out by this point.” And last and most obvious, the appeal in creating creating a sidekick , Bray states, is because multiple characters pick up a larger audience/readership.

So, where am I going with all of this?

Social networking applications also allow us to present a “real” version of ourselves that takes on the dual role of first person chronicler. Take the status update in which we can switch back from first or third person. “I am not happy that my cat has lobbed a hair ball on my lap,” or “Ryan is not happy that her cat has gobbed a hair ball on her lap.” This is both an act of chronicling and a call for identification.

Second, in creating these personas on Facebook or Twitter, its often the case that we try to project someone who is more Holmes than Watson — and this is a very loose comparison, by which I mean the role of a main protagonist — but the irony is that through our labors our real selves play sidekick to our own projection.

Third, no matter how little glamor or mystique our own profiles actually present, our voyeuristic tendencies mixed in with our ability to haze over reality, allow us, like the reader, to feel superior to those other personas that our “friends” project on the web. Think about how many times you’ve curled your lip ever so slightly at seeing your friends misspell a word or hearing that their movie plans include a second viewing of New Moon? That we rarely reflect on how asinine we may in fact look to others, insures that we remain busy pumping air into that puffed up and ultimately phony profile.

And as for attracting a larger audience through multiple characters, can you think of a better example than Twitter, where retweets from our collection of followees spawn an even greater of followers and so on until we can barely make out why we signed up in the first place.

There are arguments that social networking is in fact thinning out our personalities, making us hollower, flatter, and ultimately less interesting. I definitely agree that there’s something to that. But it’s even more unsettling when we remember that it wasn’t Watson who was performing all of those amazing mental feats. It was Holmes who kept his eyes and his mind trained firmly on the world, while we, pale shadows to that series of sparsely worded one liners, fabricate a weak reflection of what was once ourselves.

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