My uncle Howard killed himself in college. He was a grad student in Ann Arbor, engaged to be married, and, according to my family, well-liked. He suffered from depression worsened by tensions with his father. My grandmother knew this, yet she struggled to understand her son’s suicide for the rest of her long life. When Howard committed suicide in 1968, he did it in private inside a school chemistry lab, but he clearly wanted to be found, because he was sending a message. When 18-year-old Océane ended her life in May, 2016, she streamed the incident in real time, jumping in front of a suburban Paris subway train while strangers watched and commented.
At The Guardian, Rana Dasgupta tells Océane’s story and tries to understand why a young ailing woman could both criticize social media and use social media to communicate her message. Océane was wounded by trauma and haunted by the sense that no one cared, a fact that social media only amplified. Examining this central contradiction, Dasgupta teases out the allure of escape in the depressed Parisian suburbs, the way disconnected youth seek connection, and the way celebrity, even internet celebrity, drains people of life.
For a generation so fully embedded in social media, celebrity was not remote or atypical. It was latent in everyone. Schoolgirls debated with each other how they would deal with its burdens – paparazzi, extreme wealth, film-star boyfriends – when they grew up. And this was not surprising. Social media, after all, supplied a publicity machinery with a reach and power previously available only to truly famous people, and now the condition of the celebrity was everyone’s condition. Suddenly everyone was broadcasting their life to the world, and measuring their worth on the basis of the libidinal pulses that came back – as only celebrities had before. Suddenly, the celebrity’s grief over privacy was everyone’s, and everyone was afflicted by her insecurity: do people realise there’s nothing behind it all except my own frail and disappointing humanity?
Océane was wired like everyone else. Like many other teenagers, she had often tried to make her image conform to that of the triumphal media funster: there were images of her on Twitter V-signing in a short skirt and sunglasses on a rooftop in Los Angeles, the Hollywood sign glowing in the distance (“You’re a real film star,” her friends commented, obligingly). This did not stop her being judgmental of everybody else’s online affectations, but that, of course, was the inherent paradox. Surveying the great online pageant of self-promotion and superficiality, social media users were led to believe they were the only ones in the world to have authentic feelings and opinions. “Fakes” was an English word imported by Océane’s French generation, which they used to describe, essentially, everyone other than themselves. On Facebook, Instagram, Periscope, there are only fakes. All the same, there was also no question of opting out. Océane was very much in – she had several Twitter accounts – and even as she railed against what happened on social media, it was on social media that she chose to do it. The only true significance came from mediatisation, and even discontent, if it was to have any meaning, had to be liked and shared.
The problem was that, for the most part, it did not matter how widely broadcast your discontent was: no one cared. The great majority of celebrities – in this new world where even nobodies were celebrities – were lacking in that basic attribute of the celebrity, which was fame. They were half-creatures – unfamous celebrities, anonymous superstars – and unlike their fully-formed counterparts, their thoughts and feelings were lost in the infinite cacophony. This was why there was a constant inflation of strategy and contrivance; for even those whose message was “Authenticity!” found themselves inventing stunts of their own in order for it to be heard.