Tweets from underground: How Dostoevsky anticipated social media

To understand the narcissism and paranoia that pervades Twitter and Facebook, one need only reread "The Double"

Topics: The American Reader, Dostoevsky, Narcissism, Social Media, The Double, , , , ,

Tweets from underground: How Dostoevsky anticipated social media
This piece originally appeared on The American Reader.

The American Reader In the opening chapters of “The Double,” Dostoevsky’s 1846 novella of social anxiety, Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin crashes his boss’s party. Walking nervously “through two rows of inquisitive and wondering spectators,”  “our hero” finds that

“Yes! every one in the room, all had their eyes fixed upon him, and were listening in a sort of solemn expectation. The men had crowded a little nearer and were all attention. A little further away the ladies were whispering together. The master of the house made his appearance at no great distance from Mr. Golyadkin, and though it was impossible to detect from his expression that he, too, was taking a close and direct interest in Golyadkin … it all made our hero feel that the decisive moment had come for him.”

He’s wrong, of course. The other guests are involved in their own conversations, connected with Golyadkin only by proximity—the spotlight on him is completely imaginary. His anxiety beneath it, though, is real. Golyadkin’s voice trembles; tears form in his eyes. Speaking boldly and grandly and a little too loud, he delivers his best attempt at an eloquent speech to the butler who has come to discreetly remove him—and is crushed when no one in his supposed audience reacts. Golyadkin is a paranoid narcissist, believing fearfully and hopefully that he is being watched, and staking the whole of his self-worth on the prospect.

Today, to Internet users, such feelings are all too familiar. Much discussion and criticism has already been devoted to the elevation of personal trivialities by the likes of Twitter, Instagram, and other self-published and self-promoting media; certainly, the immense variety of resources available—and used—for documenting daily life suggests for every social media user an epic as narcissistic as that of which Golyadkin is the “hero.” But the element of paranoia is just as important as that of conceit. We are warned that everything we put online could destroy our careers and relationships; that Google and Amazon read our emails, and so does the NSA. And in a social context, we are constantly visible—at least potentially so—to an entire network of friends and acquaintances, which gives every offhand comment the potential weight and reach of a manifesto. It’s as if we are standing in the center of a roomful of people, but we don’t know where they’re looking, and we can’t help but feel, both excitedly and uneasily, that they may well be looking at us. Paranoid narcissism—the mixed desires and fears of being watched by unknown others—thus defines virtual society, giving rise to numerous related anxieties such as the sense of exposed insignificance and the fear of missing out. And with its self-consciously self-involved hero, who happens to suffer from all of these woes, The Double describes—and aptly explains—the experiential anxieties of modern social media.



Set over a three-day period in nineteenth-century St. Petersburg among a fairly unremarkable group of civil servants, The Double deals with a man who meets a man who looks exactly like him, and the trivial, tragic humiliations that result. With no grander goal than to be popular among his coworkers, the protagonist—titular councilor Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin—fits remarkably well within the digital landscape. He may not tweet the dire struggles of his morning commute, but he delights in the idea of playing the hero. Though unburdened by the threat of indiscreet, unguarded uploads, he feels the weight of surveillance: any pleasure he might take in his own performance turns quickly to anxiety as he searches among passersby for people who may know him, “at once assuming a decorous and sedate air when he thought any one was looking at him.” For Golyadkin, as for any composer of funny tweets and pithy statuses, there is effort involved in maintaining an image for the world—and online, under the scrutiny of a hugely expanded community, these efforts become even more exhausting.

Still, with the social world filtered through screens and fiber optics, it can be comforting to fantasize that friends are keeping tabs on us. That is, until that particularly good photo or well-crafted tweet or link shared to catch the interest of a certain interesting person just doesn’t get noticed—not a like, not a comment, not the tiniest tick upwards in our Klout Scores. All of our unanswered, paranoid wonderings—Do they see me? Are they watching? What must they think of me now?—conspire to expose us in our shameful unimportance, driving home first the realization that no one is watching and none of them care, and then the embarrassment of having assumed that they were and they did. Nothing pains Golyadkin more, at the “decisive moment” when he speaks and expects his audience to embrace him, than the fact that the party goes on—that “suddenly the ruthless orchestra, apropos of nothing, struck up a polka. All was lost, all was scattered to the winds.” With a sense of self thus fluctuating between extremes of vanity and humility—from the certainty that everyone must know of your opinion, to the certainty that sharing it was presumptuous and foolish—the social media user’s experience of the Internet is one of being at once utterly visible and utterly insignificant. Golyadkin’s name, which translates roughly to “little naked one,” applies equally well to us.

Meanwhile, as our feverish scrolling confirms, everyone else seems to be doing perfectly well. Our paranoia over being watched or not is compounded by the paranoia fed by our own watching, the fear that we are always missing out. Dostoevsky invokes FOMO in the first third of “The Double,” which centers on a party to which Golyadkin is not invited. As he hides in the hall and attempts to sneak up a back staircase, the other guests’ enjoyment is elaborately described in a passage that inflates the status of the event and its participants while making it clear that Golyadkin and the reader are excluded from knowing its intimate details. “I could not do justice to the solemn moment … I could not, I positively could not, describe the enthusiasm that followed,” declares the narrator, amid a breathless account of sparkling wine, beaming guests, blushing beauties. “Oh, why do I not possess the secret of lofty, powerful language, of the sublime style, to describe these grand and edifying moments of human life … !” The grand and edifying moment in question, of course, is nothing more than a bureaucrat’s toast at a dinner party—which the narrator can and does describe in rapturous play-by-play. Yet there is always one more thing the narrator cannot put into words; the things that are described only highlight the things still unknown, and the things left unknown only heighten the grandeur and mystery. It’s the kind of wistful jealousy brought on by minute observation, familiar to those of us who flip through our friends’ vacation photos, read the liveblogged accounts of events we can’t attend, and Facebook-stalk our crushes and our exes. We know so much about what happened that it’s as if we had been there—yet the fact that we were not is inescapable, and so is the knowledge that we can’t know what we missed. Why, we wonder, do we too not have such busy social calendars, such quantities of friends and such opportune lighting? Why are our mundane adventures not so wittily encapsulated? The question of Dostoevsky’s narrator comes to mind: “Oh, why do I not possess the secret?”

To live so nakedly in the spotlight of your own skewed perceptions gives rise to a painful, pervasive embarrassment. You despise yourself for your public excesses and failures—oh, why did I post such an embarrassing, personal status?—and for your lack of compensating public success—oh, why did no one like that embarrassing status of mine? You wish to erase your tracks, but feel strangely nonexistent when undocumented; your mistakes remain glaringly public, but your good qualities refuse to go viral. Some kind of escape becomes necessary, and yet there is nowhere to go. You might as well be the eternally embarrassed Golyadkin, who, following his humiliation at the party, “looked as though he wanted to hide from himself, as though he were trying to run away from himself! … to be obliterated, to cease to be, to return to dust.”

Enter the double: the curated profile, the version of you that bears all your identifying information—name, clothes, job, appearance, place of birth—but whose social grace is impeccable, whose interests are noble and fascinating, whose biography is impressive yet humbly presented, whose comments are edited for maximum wit. Bound link by link to your real-world self with the ponderous chain of your Google results, trapped by your search and browser history in a fully customized cage, you cannot escape or erase your identity but must find a way to improve it. The avatars of social media—Facebook profiles, Twitter handles, and the like—embrace that burdensome mass of personal data and build on it, creating a version of self that is, if not quite an alter ego, at least an elaborately inflated one. Golyadkin’s double, who appears out of the shadows as he tries to outrun his embarrassment, is like this: physically and biographically indistinguishable from Golyadkin, but more confident, more charming, and more popular above all. Think of it as a deftly cropped, Photoshopped reflection: the image of yourself you always wanted to see. You have the same face, but every angle gets your good side.

Such a digital double ought to soothe your social anxieties, encouraging you to think about your most admirable qualities and take pride in displaying them. For Golyadkin, the double works this way for a single night. Flatteringly humble and solicitously sycophantic, he treats Golyadkin as his social patron, and he lends an untiring ear to Golyadkin’s anecdotal knowledge of Petersburg, Islam, and everything in between—a meandering, insubstantial conversation that recalls a series of clicks through Buzzfeed hyperlinks or, better yet, a scroll down a Facebook or Tumblr newsfeed. The double, in short, poses no social challenge to Golyadkin. His role is simply to receive and support—to empower his original and, like a real live LiveJournal, absorb the narcissistic excesses that other people might discourage if they were physically present and talking back. He provides an outlet without giving a response; he doesn’t criticize, and he doesn’t ignore.

But just as Golyadkin is haunted by the notion that “a good man tries to live honestly … and never has a double,” you can’t help but feel the smallest pang of guilty jealousy each time your digital double makes a friend. You are uncomfortably conscious of the fact that your created, curated self is not really you—you’ve played up a few things, kept a few others hidden, put on a mask for your digital friends. And what would they think of you if they found out about—well, you? Thus the anxieties of digital life return when the double, through its interactions with the friends you hoped to gain, is conceived as yet another separate, hostile social being. You can have fear of missing out on your own double’s activities if the double is more popular than your real-life self.

And so Golyadkin’s double, far from soothing his paranoia, exacerbates it. For one thing, he seems determined to embarrass Golyadkin in public; his practical jokes of mistaken identity range from taking credit for Golyadkin’s work to forcing him to pay (and take gluttonous credit) for eleven pies eaten by the double at a restaurant. Online, this is the problem of indiscriminating likes, unfortunate photo tags, ill-advised emotional status updates—things that make you look vindictive, or obsessive, or sloppy, when really it was only a bad camera angle, or a poorly punctuated bit of sarcasm, or an unfortunate YouTube wormhole at three in the morning. But the profile, the double, purports to represent you, and how can you prove that it’s lying? On the other hand, the double seems to leave you out of its more enjoyable adventures. In Dostoevsky’s novel, the ability of the socially confident double to ingratiate himself with his coworkers is both enviable and mystifying to Golyadkin, who expresses textbook FOMO in his desire “to know, too, what he keeps whispering to every one—what plots he is hatching with all these people, and what secrets they are talking about? … If only I could…get on with them a little too…”

All in all, the double’s betrayals add up once again to a painful exposure of Golyadkin’s insignificance: his behavior, no matter how public, no matter how embarrassing, or no matter how admirable, seems never to make people care about Golyadkin himself. The double is supposed to help Golyadkin make friends and impress his boss; instead, he makes Golyadkin look more awkward and incompetent. The double is supposed to put Golyadkin in the spotlight; instead, he steals the spotlight for himself. You’d think that with something like five hundred “friends” you would be busy all the time with things to do; instead, you’re sitting staring at a screen on Friday night, repeatedly refreshing the page where your digital double smiles out at you, perfectly happy and infinitely distant.

And yet, you still keep hoping. In spite of all the ways in which the double acts against him, Golyadkin persists in thinking that he and his double will one day be a team, that “there might even, perhaps—who could tell—spring up a new, close, warm friendship … so that this friendship might, in the end, completely eclipse the unpleasantness of the rather unseemly resemblance of the two individuals.”  That is, the double would ideally become such a valuable source of social and emotional support that nothing else it does will matter. Gain enough friends with your digital double, and you might as well be just as cool as you say you are. Get rid of your digital double, though, and you could lose all chance of connecting with those friends. Thus, even in Golyadkin’s most deliberate confrontation with the double, the letter he writes to scold him and demand an explanation with his behavior, he is so anxious to preserve a cordial relationship that he feels the need “to soften him, flatter him, and butter him up at the end” so that the double “will not take my letter in a sense derogatory to yourself.” Resentment for the pain the double causes is mixed not only with intense admiration, but also with the fear of losing his friendship forever.

It’s no wonder, with so many self-conscious anxieties, that we should feel paralyzed among our active profiles; no wonder that we should feel lonely, despite our many friends. Perhaps the best summation of the double’s isolating tendencies appears in the dream Golyadkin has after sending the letter to his double. Here, the more he tries to escape the double, the more doubles appear to pursue him, “so that at last a terrible multitude of duplicates had sprung into being; so that the whole town was obstructed at last by duplicate Golyadkins, and the police officer … was obliged to seize all these duplicates by the collar and to put them into the watch-house.” The watch-house full of selves is a fitting metaphor for the imprisoning constant watchfulness of paranoid narcissism, and the image of obstruction is telling in light of the hopes for social connection that the double has a chance to fulfill. Like the duplicates filling the town and blocking Golyadkin everywhere he goes, social media becomes not a means to experience, but a rather inhibiting filter to it. Paranoid narcissism haunts our online interactions and feeds our social anxieties, and when we try to fix the problem with a better profile picture, a trendier iPhone app, yet another account for more access to friends and a wider broadcast of wit, it only makes things worse. Our digital selves multiply and surround us, to stand in the way of the very relationships they are designed to create.

Dostoevsky, writing in 1846, was of course not thinking of the Internet. Yet he saw people lonely and paranoid and vain, isolated and beset by their imaginary selves, and he wondered, perhaps, over human beings’ chances for connection. At the time, societies across Europe were becoming increasingly urbanized, and the crowded, anonymous life of the city increased each person’s encounters with others, just as the Internet has today. Social lives became structured by passing impressions and sharp divisions between public and private spheres. And just as it has today, this sudden expansion of social worlds must have brought the fears attached to living under the eyes of others into sharp relief. Say that each encounter with another person conjures a double: an impression of you inside someone else’s mind. It is a version of you that is separate from you, a self that you cannot quite know. Paranoia comes from recognizing the existence of that double self, and narcissism comes from dwelling on what it could be. Communication, meanwhile, works to control it, shaping the impression that those you encounter receive—so that each of us now, through the digital doubles we build, may speak to strangers across the world in an effort to tell them who we are.

Yet the problem expands with the reach of the message: The double you create engenders doubles of its own and, as your much-more-powerful surrogate, grows ever more distant from you. The more a letter, a recording, a YouTube video endures and is valued for its content, the more it takes on a life of its own apart from its author; the more messages can be transmitted over great distances and to many people, the more possible it is for people to live apart; and thus, our capacity for connection increases in tandem with our capacity for loneliness. There is a painful catch-22 in our efforts to communicate: It is when we are most successful in transferring ourselves to pixels or paper that our whole and human identities start to seem most obsolete.

There is an impulse, then, to remain isolated—to “keep myself to myself,” as Golyadkin often announces his intention to do. But try as we might to avoid face-to-face interactions, to send phone calls to voicemail and put off writing emails, the digital double calls us back in the end. We can’t help but scroll through and wonder what others are doing, can’t help but do something to show them we’re here, and this irresistible impulse, perhaps, is not evidence of our addiction but of some deeply human kind of courage we can’t quite give up. We keep trying to connect and keep inventing ever more elaborate tools to do it because for each of us, mixed in with all the doubled impressions, is a self that we know is worth knowing and a hope, however slight, that we can be understood.

Even Golyadkin knows something about this. Close to the end of “The Double,” driven to exhaustion and near insanity after chasing his double through the city, he plans at last to beg for the protection of the privy counselor, Olsufy Ivanovitch, whose approval he has been craving since he tried to crash his party in the first chapters of the novel. True, there isn’t a great deal Olsufy Ivanovitch can do, but all Golyadkin really wants is to explain himself, and to have someone listen: “I am really myself by myself, your Excellency, really myself by myself,” he plans to say. “I cannot be like him.” Such a supplication is intimidating, humiliating.  In this case, it doesn’t even work: Golyadkin can hardly get the words out, and Olsufy Ivanovitch, busy with visitors, has no time to listen and turns away. And yet, Golyadkin tells himself, his effort is a worthy one—“There’s something chivalrous about it.”

Which is true. In the attempt to make this real and human connection, to reach out in spite of his anxieties and self-loathing, Golyadkin risks a great deal—and so do all of us who put our imperfect selves on display. We’ve been trying to be ourselves by ourselves, trying to make those selves knowable to others, since long before Dostoevsky sent his hero running in shame through the streets of St. Petersburg—and still, after centuries of failure, we keep trying. It’s ridiculous, painful, embarrassing, scary. Still, as Golyadkin says, there’s something chivalrous about it.

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