The William Wilson effect


“Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned! —to the earth art thou not for ever dead?”

Returning to the Smashing Facebook meme — a meme of my own imagining, I acknowledge — it struck me that Edgar Alan Poe might shed light on the matter. Poe understood the psychology of social media when Mark Zuckerberg’s great-great-great-grandfather was still in short pants.

Just yesterday, an acquaintance of mine let it be known that he was, as he put it, “off the Book.” Translation: he had cancelled his Facebook account. This was not, I immediately recalled, the first time he had made such an announcement. He had gone off the Book, and then back on the Book, at least a couple of times previously. That’s not unusual these days. I’ve met a lot of people who, exhausted with the work of maintaining appearances on Facebook, try to break the habit, only to find, a few days or a few weeks later, that they’ve reactivated the account.

At the start of Poe’s story “William Wilson,” the title character recalls how, in his youth, he met a schoolmate who shared not only his name but his aspect, his tone of voice, his manner of dress, his personality. The very image of himself, this double, this doppelganger, becomes, after a brief period of friendship, William Wilson’s rival and then his nemesis. As the years pass, wherever Wilson goes the other Wilson is there. His presence becomes ever more oppressive.

“From his inscrutable tyranny did I at length flee, panic-stricken, as from a pestilence; and to the very ends of the earth I fled in vain.”

Finally, Wilson can take no more. In a moment of hopelessness and rage, he attacks his double.

“The contest was brief indeed. I was frantic with every species of wild excitement, and felt within my single arm the energy and the power of a multitude. In a few seconds I forced him by sheer strength against the wainscotting, and thus, getting him at mercy, plunged my sword, with brute ferocity, repeatedly through and through his bosom.”

The doppelganger is mortally wounded. And yet William Wilson is anything but liberated. He discovers, after the violent deed is done, that there is no other man in the room with him. He is alone. He looks into a mirror and, aghast, discovers that it is he himself who has been stabbed.

“But what human language can adequately portray that astonishment, that horror which possessed me at the spectacle then presented to view? The brief moment in which I averted my eyes had been sufficient to produce, apparently, a material change in the arrangements at the upper or farther end of the room. A large mirror, — so at first it appeared to me in my confusion — now stood where none had been perceptible before; and as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced to meet me with a feeble and tottering gait.”

I know you see the moral of the tale, dear reader, but indulge me while, like Aesop, I belabor it: One terminates one’s Facebook account only to discover that one has terminated one’s self.

“You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the world and its hopes. In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

Image: still from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.

3 thoughts on “The William Wilson effect

  1. Boaz

    I see two kinds of paths one can take in response to having a perspective like this with respect to Facebook. The first is to help provide people with tools to disentangle themselves. One’s archive outside Facebook needs to be at least of equal depth and meaning. One needs to have ability to contact everyone one wants to without too much trouble, outside Facebook. And one needs to feel one is interacting with others in an adequately deep and rich way outside of Facebook. I think these elements are what may be lacking when one tries to stop. Without some work in this direction, then smashing Facebook does seem to involve a fair amount of self damage.

    Or the other path is to accept that people have a certain amount of dependence, and their identity and many important life actions depend on the site. In this case, one has to analyze questions of ownership and accountability. What if a bug deletes some of your photos? What if the site sends a message you don’t want and damages your relationships in some way? What kind of recourse does one have? Its seems that there is very little.
    I personally believe in government regulation, and think that social media ought to be regulated as a public resource. Details of how to do this are certainly difficult…

  2. Brad

    Yes, but if people suddenly felt torn about their personal library of books and and wanted to throw them away — but couldn’t– it would be for the exact same reason — when one goes to throw away one’s library of books one discovers that he’ s throwing away himself. Of course, the fact that people aren’t torn about books in this way is revealing in itself.

    Remember that Twilight Zone episode where Burgess Meredith played bookworm Henry Bemis? Bemis only wanted to be left alone to read his books. He survives a nuclear explosion in a bank vault. Humanity has destroyed itself but at least he has time to read now. The big, dark joke at the end is that Bemis breaks his glasses and can’t read anymore. But the real dark idea is that the world died to Bemis long before. His “self” had merged with the book ages ago and thus, by all outward apperances, Bemis had completely retreated to the edge of life’s frame. When the bomb dropped, external reality was just catching up with what was already the case for Bemis.

    Bemis breaking his glasses at the end should be especially poignant for us here in 2014. By breaking his glasses, Bemis was locked out of his beloved medium. Today we find ourselves locked in. No broken glasses here though. The view is just fine. In fact, we can see for miles and miles…

  3. Boaz

    Different experiences, Brad. I know a number of people who have had to move multiple times and cut down their possessions to a minimum as a result. Several of them told me how losing their library of books was one of the big losses during this process.

    As for the second point about the twilight zone episode, you are starting from the premise that people are happy with Facebook as a medium. Nick starts from the perspective of those who are not happy with it. I don’t find the general idea of social media software to be problematic (plenty of benefits), but being locked into a platform that may be changed at will by a small group of people controlling the corporation is something I find worrisome and problematic.

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