Ego Uploaded

December 20, 2013

The arrival of the internet has dramatically changed the way we access information and interact with each other. The last 15 years or so have witnessed an explosion of (mostly) unrestricted information; facts, documents, and images on virtually every topic we can conceive of. Sacred or profane, beautiful or ugly, creative, destructive, and everything in between is accessible on the internet. The volume of knowledge is so seemingly endless that the term “Information Superhighway” barely hints at the sheer amount of content at our fingertips within each browser session.

Now add to the largely objective body of knowledge contained within the internet a relatively new subjective experience – social media. Social media consists of websites and applications that are used to create, share, and exchange information in online networks and communities. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Instagram to name a few are popular social media sites in which users can interact with other users or friends and build a personalized online environment.

So what? Who doesn’t know that, right?

True. But in this post I’d like to take a closer look at what I believe to be an interesting psychological byproduct of our online social media lives. With over 1.11 billion Facebook users and 250 million active Twitter accounts, it’s clear that a huge portion of the population invests time in social media. As an active Facebook user for the last 4 years I have been both a participant and witness to the way in which we as individuals have integrated ourselves into the social media culture. During a recent conversation with my good friend Marcus, I made an off the cuff comment that Facebook has become our “digital ego”, an idea that has been percolating within me ever since that time. The more I thought it over, the more I saw the somewhat disconcerting truth of this notion. Since my personal experience has been with Facebook, I’ll use it as my common denominator as we go forward.

Before I go into the concept of a digital ego, let me define what I mean by ego. Psychologically, the ego is the sense of a separate self that is unique to each of us. The ego is the conscious, subjective sense of I, me, and mine. It is the boundary between my personal self and the extended reality. It is the line of distinction that separates our individuality from the world and others. In the language of Vedanta, the world’s oldest and most comprehensive science of spirituality, the ego is known as the Ahankara, or the part of the mind known as the “I-former”, in which we are most deeply identified with possessions, positions, and self-image. We all have an ego, and that’s not a bad thing. Some spiritual traditions talk of destroying or getting rid of the ego as if it is an enemy that needs to be vanquished. That is not the purpose of this post, as if that is something that could even be realistically achieved. I believe we need to perhaps tame the ego, manage it, make it a potential friend rather than an enemy, but not destroy it. Ram Dass, the great spiritual teacher once wrote that the ego should be like the house you live in, which you are free to step out of as you choose; not a prison that keeps you trapped.

So anyway, back to the idea of a digital ego. Think about it for a minute. Now that we understand what our ego is, when we consider social media, isn’t what we define as our Facebook or Twitter profile really the equivalent of a digital ego? In many ways, by interacting on a social media site, we are uploading our ego to share with the internet audience. If you find this notion mildly disturbing (or downright alarming), you probably have good reason to think so. Take a moment to consider the content that you routinely post or upload to a site like Facebook:

About You – Basically a summary of who you are; your story, background, where you’re from, education, where you work, where you live, relationships, ideology, and beliefs.

Photos – Some might describe social media in a nutshell as being an online photo album; snapshots and frozen moments in time from childhood, relationships, vacations, major (or not so major) life events, images of family, meals, memes, and even mundane glimpses into an ordinary day are displayed for all our friends (or more, depending on your security settings) to see and comment on.

Friends – Whether they are real people you personally know offline or online faces you’ve never shared the same air with, much can be learned from those we call our friends. To quote Miguel de Cervantes, “Tell me what company you keep and I’ll tell you what you are.” The people we friend on Facebook or follow on Twitter spin a complicated web of relationships that reflect a great deal about who we are and what we stand for. To invoke some more Sanskrit terminology, Tat Tvam Asi – which means, I am that, you are that, all this is that, and that’s all there is. More simply, we can think of it this way – though the mirror of relationship, I discover my true self. This may be not as true with online relationships, where some users have hundreds or thousands of friends, all with varying interests, beliefs, and perceptions of the world. But to some degree it still applies. Your friendships are a window into some of your deeper qualities that you may not even realize are out there for others to see.

Likes – These are the ideas, people, and websites that you are passionate about. They continue to round out the picture of your digital self-image, showing others those things that you’re really into; be they a political party, a public figure, a sports team, public policy, a celebrity or musician.

Other Stuff – The ever increasing categories on Facebook that further detail out the unique bits and pieces of your online ego; Places you’ve been, Sports, Music, Movies, TV Shows, Books, Events, Groups, Notes, and an Activity Log. All these things in the study of consciousness can be referred to as qualia, or the raw elements of experience that add even more depth and detail to the ego upload.

Posts – Posts consist of your regular, perhaps daily uploads. Thoughts, musings, joys, sorrows, gripes, complaints, rants, selfies, daily activity, quotes, poems, links to articles or videos all fall into this category. If the other online content is the equivalent of your digital ego, posts are your online thoughts.

So, with all these things on display for the world to view, we can see how social media can truly be thought of as your digital self-image, a projection of who you are into cyberspace. Social media isn’t inherently good or bad, it simply is. However, thanks to the insidious nature of the human ego itself, the digital ego can go awry, often leading to some less than productive results. Let’s take a look at how the digital ego can go bad.

First, as an extension of the personality into the virtual realm, the ego often views social media as another realm to conquer, a land over which to assert its strength. The ego loves to feel powerful, so it will rarely pass on an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of its position. It wants to show off, whether that’s with possessions or knowledge. It always has a point to prove and can’t resist making sure everyone knows it. The ego craves attention, so even if it’s losing a battle in a comment section of a post, it would rather fight on and get the attention than back down and feel small and insignificant.

Second, the ego loves to talk about itself. A lot. The ego can go on and on and on about its exploits, no matter how inane. It’s what drives the countless uploads of mundane images, a rundown of daily events, details of a workout, or mindless ramblings that seem to have no real point other than to draw attention to the self. The ego is incredibly self-indulgent and believes that everything it does to be of earth-shattering importance. Desperate to be heard in its search for significance, the ego will use any excuse it can find to insert itself into a conversation and co-opt it for its own uses.

Third, as an offshoot of the previous point, the digital ego loves to use the social medial environment as its own personal Roman Forum. Climbing high upon its soapbox, the ego loves to make speech after speech, pontificating on what it believes to be wrong with the world. It rants and vents away tirelessly, as if its endless complaining will change the state of the world. Even if it’s in the minority or a voice of one, the ego wants to make itself heard so it can maintain its authority and self-importance.

Finally, and perhaps the most insidious aspect of a twisted digital ego comes out in the form of rampant negativity, sarcasm, cynicism, and trolling. In a last resort to get the attention it craves, the ego sinks to its lowest level and blasts away at indiscriminate targets for sheer pleasure of irritating others and evoking a response. When another person flames back in an act of internet self-defense, the ego feels justified; if it can’t have your acceptance, it will settle for your hatred. Attention is attention, after all.

Fortunately, my experiences with these types of distorted digital egos have been very few and far between. Most, if not all of my Facebook friends seem to be wonderful people who aren’t ruled by their ego. But on occasion, on another’s wall or in a thread I’ve seen some of the behaviors described above. Perhaps you have as well. Perhaps, like me you’ve had times when you’ve felt the pull of an inflated digital ego. If that’s the case, here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help avoid the digital ego traps.

1. Is it kind, is it necessary, it is true? This question from the Indian saint Sai Baba eloquently simplified the idea of what Buddhists would call right speech. If the three criteria of kindness, necessity, and truth are being met by what you’re posting or sharing online, you’ll most likely be keeping the ego in check.

2. Is it snark? This term is a colloquial combination of the words snide and remark. It often consists of biting cruel humor or wit, commonly used to verbally attack someone or something. If something you post falls into this category, it’s a safe bet that your ego is running the show.

3. Are you having a reactive response? Not far removed from the Fight or Flight Response, the Reactive response is a biological response to a threat, not to your body, but to your ego or self- image. A reactive response is just what it sounds like, an automatic, Pavlovian, knee-jerk type of behavior that is an unconscious retaliation to a perceived threat to an ego boundary. Unfortunately, it’s often difficult to recognize this type of response until it’s over, but if you identify a comment or post that fits into this category, chances are high that your ego was at the helm.

4. Are you making the world (or internet) a better place? There’s a ton of negativity in the world, and it seems there’s even more on the internet. Is what you’re saying, posting or sharing making the world better off in the process? I hate to be blunt, but if you’re not helping to make things better, you’re part of the problem.

5. Is this post the result of a conscious choice? This question is the byproduct of a deep understanding of the Law of Karma that encourages us to make conscious choices in each moment. If you’re paying attention to your gut and asking if your actions will be helpful and nourishing to everyone impacted by this choice, you’re choosing consciously. If not, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an ego-based choice, but the less awareness you bring to the table, the more likely you are to fall back into reactive behavior.

6. How can I help, how can I serve? This question is the internal dialogue of spirit. It wants to help others, to bring happiness and fulfillment into the world. The internal dialogue of the ego is, “What’s in it for me?” If you’re asking this question instead, your ego is calling the shots.

Although the digital ego clearly can run amiss at times, it can also be a great opportunity for increased self-awareness and the ability to help others. Through our social networking we can make the conscious choice to help make the online world a better place. I think the most important question we can ask ourselves if we choose to embrace social medial is “What do I stand for?” This question might sound simplistic and obvious, but I believe few of us recognize the way its answers lay the groundwork for how you define your online persona.

Your online presence is a unique opportunity to share your thoughts, ideas, beliefs, pictures and more with the whole world. And I mean the whole world. Just as a personal sidebar, I believe the notion of internet privacy* to be a complete and total illusion. Gone are the days of my childhood where a lone wolf hero could go off the grid without someone finding clues to his whereabouts or bits of his past to catch up to him. We live in a technologically rich society where information is the most prized commodity there is. If someone wants to find out about you, they will find a way to do it. Anything you upload to the internet, no matter how secure you believe it to be can always be found and exposed. Our lives are open books to anyone who digs deep enough with enough tenacity. Between the internet and cell phone technology, the idea of personal secrets that no one knows about is rapidly becoming a distant memory. But I digress.

The way you conduct yourself online is a powerful responsibility. With it you can create happiness or joy, anger or sorrow. The words and images we share with others affect their thoughts, state of mind, levels of happiness, and on a more subtle level, their overall wellbeing. When I created my Facebook account, I wanted to be a mindfully aware and responsible contributor to the world of social media. So I chose to apply the yoga principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence to my online presence. In this case, non-violence refers to the intellectual violence caused by hurtful speech or images. I made the decision to make a positive contribution to the world rather than increasing the surplus of negativity in the world. If I was going to say anything, I wanted to make sure that first and foremost, I did no harm.

This continues to be my goal, but it’s not always easy. I occasionally find myself wishing to unleash some “wrathful compassion” on someone who I think needs a little shake up to their Facebook status quo. Whenever I feel this urge though, I try to remember to stop and consider how my words or post will be received and the impact it will have on others. As one of my meditation teachers is fond of saying, “You can’t un-ring the bell”. Once that vibration is released, there’s no pulling it back. Or more appropriately one might say, “Pain is temporary, but posts on Facebook are forever.” In addition, my reaction is a lesson in and of itself. My need to defend my own point of view says something about how secure I feel in my beliefs. The more secure I feel, the more defenseless I can become. It also brings to mind a teaching from Dr. Wayne Dyer who reminds us that when an orange is squeezed, only orange juice comes out because that’s all that’s inside it. By analogy, we are all being squeezed by life’s challenges – when that happens, what comes out of you?

Ultimately our uploaded ego can bring peace or it can bring war. Just like the electricity that lights either a kindergarten or a torture chamber, we can allow our digital persona to wield social media for good or ill. The choice rests with us and that choice begins in awareness.

* or global privacy, for that matter