On real mania and its imitations
A piece nominally about how social media drives people mad, or at least superficially so; but also how, instead of that madness being a product of authenticity, it is in fact just another role played by some participants, who are able to induce others into legitimate, real mania while remaining, if not detached, at least unaffected by its worst excesses.
How we communicate has changed dramatically in recent years. It is increasingly defined by the artificial world we have constructed on our phones and our computers. What is said there and, more importantly, how it is said bleeds out of the devices on which such things are displayed.
One phrase, nearly a year old, prompted a new version of this hardly uncommon thought: one issued by Donald Trump via Twitter. The American president was doing his best, as usual, to justify himself and his habits.
‘My use of social media is not Presidential’, the occupant of the White House appeared to concede, before taking it all back. He threw in a dash, then deployed some caps. ‘[I]t’s MODERN DAY PRESIDENTIAL’. This was followed by a perfunctory ‘Make America Great Again’, complete with exclamation mark, to get the point across.
All that would appear to solve things. It’s an effective acknowledgement that this form of communication, which Trump has effectively pioneered – as least so far as it concerns those in pursuit of serious office, and who are duly expected to act in a serious manner – departs so radically from preconceived ideas of respectability and solidity that the phrases associated need to be updated, if not ditched entirely. That’s what modernity is, and what it demands.
That assumption is unfortunate in a number of ways. It means emotional incontinence is not just a by-product of our present moment, but its blueprint. It suggests that politicians who attempt to appear stable will be seen not as people engaged in a Sisyphean battle against their worst impulses, but rather as phonies or, worse, throwbacks.
But even this Trumpian comment is not, itself, authentic. And nor is his social media manner. It may be direct, communicating both to the id of Trump’s supporters and directly into their pockets and palms, but it is not real. The whole thing is a product of the true, and still obscure, nature of the medium on which it was communicated, and for which it was composed.
In these antics, Trump does not look like himself, just as he does not resemble anything which could be called ‘presidential’, modern day or not.
It’s a confected personality he projects, a new and divergent take on his nature.
This is a little amusing. It is, after all, ridiculous. It could not have been dreamt up even after the creation of Twitter had suggested where media and personal communication may lead. Trump’s act is a very specific product of the last few years and the utter degeneration of so many formerly stable things, ideas and institutions.
It would be comforting to imagine a disconnect between Trump’s governing and his Twitter presence. And one certainly exists. Trump manages – just – to hide behind the dignity still invested in his office. In speeches and interviews and broadcasts, he is getting steadily better at sticking to scripts. He is mostly well dressed. His official car still gleams.
Amid this image-management, is his Twitter presence the last remnant of Trump’s unvarnished personality? Or is it instead another thing entirely – a new arena, purportedly demotic, earthy, which has instead generated another script to follow?
Trump’s zaniness has created a new template. It has given him a new pattern of behaviour to sustain.
And the two aspects – the man confined by presidential precedent, tradition, and above all a desire to be taken seriously, and the weird Twitter presence who hates CNN and loves starting one-sided feuds with media figures – coincide and cohabit a large, outsized personality.
Twitter and other social media have for a long time been a strange mixture of things: extreme informality coincides with overstated seriousness and professionalism. Governments and government departments, ministers and diplomats, share an online platform with anime-loving Nazis, people who wear fur suits, people who film themselves bathing in milk, and every middle-aged internet user who can’t spell or punctuate and loves shouting at journalists.
This sort of thing can turn professional Twitter accounts, occasionally government ones, into lame trolling efforts. The Russian Embassy in London is the prime example of this. It exists to bait. It specialises in posting odd image macros emblazoned with the slogan ‘Image used for illustration purposes’. This bears restating. The Russian Embassy in London is a well-known internet troll. How far from sanity and normality we have travelled.
We see this bi-polar situation affecting individuals, too.
The blue ‘verified’ tick can mark it out. The blue tick was meant to convey the authenticity of the definite article, but often guaranteed the stage-management the famous are able to project. Now a blue tick may indicate neurosis. Professionally-shot header images and work-related bios give way to overblown insults and digitised mental breakdowns, which become more visible as one scrolls. Some of these people thread their own posts under Trump’s tweets, supporters and critics. They are screaming into the void and they want us all to see it.
This system leaves egos at risk of collapsing under their own weight. Others are crushed by their own insignificance. These impulses are left operating the same Twitter account on alternative days.
Some people are plainly mad and there is no point taking them seriously. Often, they are the people with a ‘#RESIST’ about their person, who have a marked propensity for using the word ‘Russia’ periodically, almost abstractly. They see conspiracy. They think they are being bullied and silenced. They think the very website they use is against them. Their syntax, their tics, plausibly resemble the worst excesses of online Trump supporters, both before and after the presidential election.
By some cosmic irony, Trump’s palpably, consciously unhinged online presence is not as insane as the craziest of his detractors. How could he be? It would take a great deal of concerted effort on his part; and he is tethered to the ground by the job he does.
Trump’s advisors are said to draft tweets on the president’s behalf, purposefully conforming to a histrionic style guide. They even, it has been suggested, include deliberate errors in grammar and spelling to give his critics something small to froth about.
In this situation, many people appear to be losing their minds. And yet the person whose online presence first brought this style to bear, and who summed it up in the above phrase, seems oddly isolated from it, avoiding the slow decline into insanity which this new form of manners has brought into being. How contemporary, and how modern day.
This piece was originally published on Medium.