This is the fourth episode of a series on ego death. Read episode one, two and three.
Jonathan Goodman has a theory about why we share things online. He says we share things that make us seem intelligent, intellectual, interesting, attractive, and/or funny.
There’s truth in that idea, and to demonstrate it all you have to do is ask yourself a question: “When was the last time I shared something with the intention of making myself look dumb, boring and like I have an awful sense of humour? Most people, me included, answer “Never.” And even when we do share something embarrassing or compromising, we do it only to enhance people’s awareness of our integrity, honesty, humility and ability to self-deprecate.
The kernel of Goodman’s point is that all online activity is self-conscious activity. Every update, every post, every share is undertaken with a preconceived notion of how those who see it will respond to it, or perceive us because of it. Of course, the self-conscious censoring that occurs online is just an extension of the processes that occur in our own minds. We self-censor our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram timelines; we do the same for our psychological understanding of our selves and our lives. It’s just a form of egotism, which is defined as follows: “. . . the drive to maintain and enhance favorable views of oneself, and generally features an inflated opinion of one's personal features and importance.”
Your first response might be to say that you’re not an egotist, that you don’t have an “inflated opinion” of your “personal features and importance.” But you do. How can you not? How can I not? We are at the centre of our own universe. We see the world through our own eyes and we interpret it using our own mind. How could we not overestimate our virtues and underestimate our vices? To do so is un-human.
Look at it like this. Rough estimates say that between 80 and 150 billion humans have come into existence and faded out of it. How many of that number are remembered today? Ten million? More? Less? The point is, only the teeniest, tiniest cross-section of the human race are remembered by the records of history and culture. The rest are born and die, and the evidence of their presence barely survives the span of their life.
Looking at it from this perspective, it’s fair to say that there’s not even a minuscule chance that our deeds will be remembered beyond our lifetime. Yet we still act as if our lives are going to be etched into the annals of time past. We all talk constantly of meaning and impact-making and using the time given us, but conveniently skip over the fact that, like most other humans to walk the earth, we will be forgotten. Contrary to all evidence, we still cling to the idea that our actions will have an importance and impact disproportionate to those originating from the rest of the human race through time. Is that not egotism of the highest order?