Image by Brad Lindert

A couple of weeks ago, my interest was piqued by an article boasting the intriguing headline: “‘Losing yourself’ in a fictional character can affect your real life.” Essentially, researchers at Ohio State University have evidence that suggests very strongly that people who become emotionally engaged with a character in a story are more likely to alter their behavior according to how that character behaves, even if only temporarily. This piqued my interest first and foremost as a writer of fiction because it reflected my own experience so directly: When considering the mannerisms, speech, attitude, and choices of a character, it’s not uncommon for me to find my own behavior changing slightly to reflect those considerations, especially if I’m really trying to get inside a character’s head.

But then the piece piqued my interest in an entirely different way: the headline — if not the study itself — seems to be operating on the assumption that there is a distinct difference between a reader’s experience of a character in a work of fiction and the reader’s embodied experience of their own lives; in other words, that there’s a qualitative difference between the world of the imagination and the “real world”. And I’m inclined to view this assumption as flat-out incorrect.

Furthermore, I think the reasons why this assumption is incorrect have some things to say regarding the problematic assumption of digital dualism.

In order to argue this point I need to dip into literary theory a bit; structuralist approaches to the study of stories are useful in this case because they allow for the deconstruction of the component parts of a story — which I think are relevant concepts when we consider self-narratives, where they come from and how they’re formed, and how that formation is affected by social media technologies.

For structural narrative theorists, the two most basic parts of a story are the story and the discourse, respectively understood as the content of the narrative itself — the plot, the characters, the events that unfold — and the way in which that content is communicated — its structure, its medium (film, TV, print, hypertext), and the tools used to bring it into being. The story is the what, while the discourse is the how.

This is at heart a very simple idea, and even a patently self-evident one, but it’s also a powerful one in that it allows one to conceive of what happens in a story and how that story is told separately but in a way that facilitates greater understanding of just how inseparable these two elements are. You don’t have an intelligible narrative apart from discourse; stories require telling. And how a story is told can have a dramatic effect on the content of the story itself.

But what does this have to do with technology and digital dualism? People here have already written extensively on how social media works to shape our perceptions of ourselves, of others, and of the very world we inhabit — on how social media allows us to essentially “curate reality”, cultivating an environment in which we generally see what we want to see. In the structuralist narratalogical sense, we can understand social media and related technologies as the discourse through we tell stories — about ourselves, about others, about everything. If we recognize that the discourse of a story can shape the content of the story itself, then the idea of a “data self” — a self that is shaped through its augmentation by social media — is a deeply sensible one. Perhaps most importantly, again, one can’t separate the discourse from the story and still have something understandable; the two can be conceptualized separately but must be understood together. This is increasingly — and arguably always has been — true of humanity and technology.

Technologies of documentation and sharing are the discourse through which we tell our stories. From this perspective, the idea of a separate “offline” life that we should somehow privilege as more real, authentic, and meaningful than what happens online makes about as much sense as the content of a story divorced from the method of its telling.

I want to return to the article that initially sparked this line of thinking, because there’s one additional point that I think bears making. I would argue that one of the defining elements of social media technologies is the way in which they facilitate our natural inclination to construct narratives, most particularly about ourselves but about a myriad other things as well. Humans are storytelling creatures and always have been, but because of how the discourse of social media works — and the kind of narrative construction, collection, and constant documentation that it allows for — our understandings of ourselves and the world around us are increasingly story-laden. We don’t just view our present as always a potential documented pastwe view it as a story to be told in a particular way, the content and discourse of which shapes our understanding of ourselves in the present and our imagination of ourselves in the future.

That last point is at the heart of why I think the article at the beginning of this piece was operating on a fundamentally incorrect assumption: that the world of our imaginations is somehow separate from and less authentic then our “real lives”. Our experiences of stories — our emotional investment in them, what we learn from them, why and how they change the ways in which we understand — always shape the other stories that we tell about ourselves and others. This isn’t new; it’s at the core of the persistence and power of myth.

If we want to understand how social media affects our selves, we would do well to conceive of it and the self as an integrated whole, story and discourse in a single narrative. And if we want to understand how and why narratives matter, I think we would do well to conceive of the world of the imagination and the world external to it in similar fashion.