Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Something Akin to Charlie Sheen

Next week I'm giving a talk/interview at Awana next week. An old friend asked me to come and discuss my book Deliver Us from Me-Ville, and its implications for the work Awana does (put simply, child spiritual formation). I don't know much about raising kids, not having any myself, so it'll be a bit of an uphill climb. I can use all the help I can get. So lately I've been reading The Narcissism Epidemic, by Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell.

Twenge's earlier book Generation Me was pretty important to me as I wrote Me-Ville; while she generally avoids issues pertaining to spirituality and faith, she has made sounding the alarm about narcissism (from the cultural to the clinical) her life's work. Generation Me was a bit snarky and self-indulgent, as cultural critique goes, but Campbell evens her out a bit in the followup--and besides, when it comes to dealing with narcissists, a little snark can be a good thing.

Today I read about the Proteus Effect, a phenomenon labeled by social psychologists studying people's behavioral changes in a virtual environment. The term alludes to Proteus, son of the Greek sea god Poseidon, who was a reluctant clairvoyant and shape-shifted to avoid telling people the truth about their futures. Researchers noted the malleability of personalities in a virtual environment, not to mention their association of personality traits with certain body types: people operating attractive avatars talked more about themselves and walked closer to other avatars; short avatars lost out in negotiations with tall avatars--because the operators of the tall avatars were more assertive and competitive.

This, according to Twenge and Campbell, extrapolates out into how our use of virtual social media affects our behavior and even blows back onto our personality. This is reflective of philosopher Marshall McLuhan's assertion that "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us." Twenge and Campbell argue that the "brand management" taking place on MySpace (the book's a few years old now) and other social media, and the aspirations put before us there (high friend counts, high comment counts, etc.), are making us something akin to Charlie Sheen.

They don't mention Sheen, of course; at the time of their writing he was still a few years from his most recent freak fest. But we might, if we accept Twenge and Campbell's assumption that as a culture (and thanks to our latest technologies) we're becoming chronically narcissistic, think of Sheen as the chip off our block, the termination point of our flow chart, the nut that has fallen from our tree. We might consider that Sheen, like Proteus, has the capacity to tell us our future, to tell us the truth.

Sheen made the fastest recorded climb to one million followers in the history of Twitter, so he's got the friend count thing mastered. He's been a fixture of all trending topics (perhaps briefly sidelined by the death of Osama Bin Laden) for most of 2011, so in terms of comment counts he's a raging success. Where things get tricky is when we consider Sheen as a case study in the Proteus effect, because Sheen is something of a hybrid. He has seemed to fully embrace the persona he played (till his very public parting of the ways) on Two and a Half Men, and yet his character was (supposedly) modeled after Sheen's personal life. So in a sense there is neither chicken nor egg here: Charlie Sheen is his avatar, and his avatar is him.

Of course, Charlie Sheen (as well as his character on the show), by taking center stage so forcefully, and by wooing us into following his rants and antics--indeed, simply by becoming a celebrity, a TV star--has become our avatar as well. What does that portend for us? A personality too big to fail loudly asserting that he is "winning" even as he appears to be failing. An adrenaline junkie eschewing propriety and self-care and significant relationships. A hedonist drowning in his own self-indulgence, singing as he goes. And the whole world sings with him.

Charlie Sheen may feel, at the moment, like last month's news. But give it a month; I suspect he'll be back. Also give it some thought, because when we imagine something akin to Charlie Sheen, when we allow him (or something like him) to become our avatar--when we shape him as a tool for our amusement--he subtly but unrelentingly goes on to shape us.

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