Living in a performative world: The Imaginary Audience and the Personal Fable

by Mark Harvey

I’ve mostly escaped the selfie photo culture, not out of some virtuous modesty, but because I generally look like a confused mouth-breathing moron in photos. So selfies are more of an indictment for me than something I want to post on Instagram. If I photographed like a Benicio del Toro or George Clooney, all bets would be off. And before I offend and get canceled by any mouth breathers, I am part of the mouth-breathing family due to a deviated septum. At full rest, I sound like one of those artificial lungs in hospitals.

But, my God, there are a lot of people roaming the world who are convinced their friends and followers could use just one more shot of them doing the Bon Jovi fingers on a beach in Cancun. Everywhere you go couples, individuals and families are setting up little super-model sets angling for just the right light, just the right 4” jump off the beach, and just the right expression communicating spontaneity or expensive vacations or being included with the cool crowd.

Instead of going somewhere to enjoy the locale, near or far, social media has turned millions into location scouts ever seeking a good post. Maybe that’s why Mark Zuckerberg changed the name of his company to Meta. What’s more meta than dedicating half your awareness to how you’ll look in a photo?

Somehow it’s kind of cute with teenagers who grew up with this stuff and know nothing else. I suspect those born after about 2008 assume a photo looks like a lonely mistake if they don’t include themselves in the frame.

I’ve read enough Thoreau, Emerson, and Power of Now that I could go full sanctimonious crank in a hurry. As in, why can’t everyone just live in the now like me? But I’ve got plenty of vices to escape the now when the now is just too tiresome or unpleasant. Plus virtue signaling is even more annoying than posting hundreds of selfies.

But the unabashed and unabated self-involvment shown by Americans who just can’t get enough of their own image is weird. I have one friend, a beautiful young woman with a sensational body, who must have posted close to 500 photos of herself in a bikini. Granted she looks great, but wouldn’t 200 photos have done the trick? I get exhausted just imagining all the paddle boarding, surfing, awesome friend meetups and sunsets she manages, not to mention keeping track of about 40 different bikinis and sustaining vast quantities of fresh towels.

The self-involvement engendered by the iPhone and social media in a short 15 years has revolutionized how people live in this world. What were people doing in the not-so-long-ago world without incredibly powerful phones and the ability to transmit photos worldwide in a flash?

I almost can’t remember but I think we were having conversations, looking at the scenery, daydreaming, sketching, journaling, and sometimes just drifting off into a reverie. The seduction of social media and the hypnotic grip it has on the world is viral but without the nice part of viruses finally abiding to a vaccine or our immune system.

I have no illusions about Americans en masse considering that wonderful Annie Dillard phrase, “How we spend our days is of course how we spend our life,” and then deciding that staring at a screen four hours a day maybe isn’t a great way to spend your life. The screen is addicting as hell (even to older people).

My sister recently introduced me to the concept of “the imaginary audience,” a term first coined by the psychologist David Elkind. Writing in the December 1967 issue of Child Development, Elkind describes various stages of human development but the thrust of his article is on the egocentric nature of adolescents and how it manifests itself in teenagers.

Anticipating the advent of social media by about 50 years, he writes,

The boy who stands in front of the mirror for two hours combing his hair is probably imagining the swooning reactions he will produce in the girls. Likewise, the girl applying her makeup is more likely than not imagining the admiring glances that will come her way. When these young people actually meet, each is more concerned with being the observed than with being the observer.

 In the days when Elkind wrote that article, in the old days before a person could amass 50,000 followers on Instagram or Facebook, the most a boy or girl could get in terms of swooning reactions or admiring glances would be a few dozen people. But social media has made it fairly easy to get several thousand swooning reactions—usually in the form of emojis—by doing the most mundane things. One thing to win an Olympic medal and get a million well-deserved “likes.” Quite another to be Lady Gaga taking a sip of tea while wearing bright red lipstick and getting 1.6 million likes.

Part and parcel to the imaginary audience is the concept of the personal fable, the idea that a person is unstoppable, omnipotent, and unique. Psychologists attribute adolescent risk-taking to the manifestation of the personal fable. Adolescents deep in the stage of personal fable can’t imagine that any of the billions of human beings before them could possibly have experienced either their woes or their triumphs. Dr. Martha Strauss, a professor of clinical psychology describes an encounter with an adolescent client crying her heart out over a breakup with a boy:

When I nodded knowingly about how devastating this must have felt, she wheeled around and snapped, “What do you know about this? You’ve never been in love!” I couldn’t help laughing, though I’m still sorry that I did. Was there really no love when dinosaurs roamed the earth?

Blue Origin Rocket

I have to think the power of social media and the vast accumulation of wealth among the billionaire class has created individuals with personal fables on steroids, broadcasting their specialness to imaginary audiences in the millions. The other day while browsing the internet, I saw photos of Jeff Bezos and his fiancée taking selfies of themselves on his new $500 million yacht. Posing for a selfie on a yacht that costs more than the value of a 1,000 American homes really is the ultimate in a performative life and the ostentatious display of wealth. Even his kids, deep in the development stage of their own personal fables, must be cringing and thinking, “That’s over the top, Pops.” I’m not sure what I would do if I were in his friend group to respond: post a photo of my over-the top $900 Kamado Joe Smoker grill? Wouldn’t want it to be too obvious I was trying to keep up with the Bezos!

I cringed loud enough to be heard by the neighbors when I watched Bezos get in a rocket wearing a cowboy hat to travel the 60 miles to the Karman line, where outer space begins. It’s the billionaire’s version of a 4” jump on the beach of Cancun.

Turkey Vulture

After reading about the imaginary audience theory, I realized—to my chagrin—that I still have vestiges of the imaginary audience in my own day-to-day work. There are times when I am fixing fence miles from the nearest electrical outlet or wifi connection and while setting a post or building a corner brace, I wonder what the world would think of my slightly out-of-level work. Usually, I’ll attach a frowning face of a critical friend or relative to my imaginary audience and try to finesse the work that literally no one will ever notice. As if to punctuate the remoteness and lack of importance of that piece of work, there is usually a vulture circling thousands of feet above me, slightly interested in what I would taste like as carrion. Or maybe that’s just more of my imaginary audience.