Years ago, when an aging movie star won an Emmy award for something like Best Supporting Actress in a Guest Role — which is a category specifically designed for aging movie stars — she raced to the podium, clutched her award, stared at it lovingly, and then trilled, “I hope you get along with Oscar and Tony!”
Meaning, Please be aware, members of the audience, that I also have an Oscar and a Tony.
Sickening, yes, but also sort of elegant. It was an early version of what’s now called a “humble brag,” or to use the proper new-media spelling, #humblebrag. The idea is to couch a screamingly bald boast (“I am a successful and important person in the movie business”) within a humble or rueful Tweet (“Remind me never to agree to begin pre-production on a project when I’m still doing post-production on another! #stressedoutofmymind”).
The writer Tim Siedell, who Tweets (hilariously) as @badbanana, identified perhaps the most egregious humble bragger of them all. Last December, during the Christmas season, he Tweeted: “Nice #humblebrag, Little Drummer Boy.”
Because, when you think about it, the Little Drummer Boy is a pretty awful humble bragger. “I have no gifts to bring?” That’s just another way of saying, Guess where I am? I am RIGHT NEXT to the manger! OMG! Literally!
Search Twitter for that hashtag, and you’ll uncover a treasure trove of #humblebrags — and they’re not all jokes; a lot of folks on Twitter have no idea they’ve committed a humble brag until someone else calls them on it — each designed to elevate the Tweeter, each a mini self–press release crafted to remind everyone about the fabulous life and exciting times that the Tweeter is living and the Tweetee is not.
And it’s not just Twitter. People post artfully filtered photographs on Instagram of incredible views, spectacular meals, friends hugging and laughing and whooping it up. Facebook status updates are chockablock with superlatives — “Had an AMAZING time this weekend seeing old friends! Luv you guys!!!!” and “My tenth trip to Santorini was actually my first, because I saw it with my beautiful wife and incredible children.” It’s hard to reconcile all of that personal fulfillment and those joyful gatherings of friends and those deeply felt connections to family with a nation that seems addicted to anti-depressants, sugary carbohydrates, and divorce.
Unless, of course, we’re lying. Unless all of those #humblebrags and upbeat status updates are a kind of wish fulfillment, what French literary critics might call a “parallel narrative” to the real narrative, in which our friends are fat and boring and our children complain about the Greek food and our wife announces that she “just needs some time to figure things out.” Real life is almost impossible to Instagram. How we really are, and how we really feel, cannot be tweeted. And besides, if we construct a parallel narrative that’s more attractive and exciting than our real one, who’s to say we can’t just live there, in a cradle made of lies and false smiles and #humblebrags?
I have a friend who is notorious for his Facebook updates. In one day, he’ll broadcast a cascade of gleeful and celebratory messages. Things like, “Amazing breakfast in Malibu with my attorney. Blessed to have such a dedicated and thorough person on my team!” And then later, he’ll post something like, “Great news from my agent. The network loves my script! Fingers crossed we get to produce it!” And he’ll top it all off with, “Quiet glass of Côte-Rôtie with my lady. Life is good.”
One day, though, after a series of glamorous and plummy updates and #humblebrags, I ran into him, in real life, at the E-Z Lube around the corner. “Aren’t you supposed to be at a screening?” I asked, pointing to my iPhone.
#page#He shrugged unapologetically. “I just post stuff that makes a good story,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be real. I mean, real-real.”
Who’s to say, in other words, that serial Tweeter and social-media pioneer Anthony Weiner is more real-real, in his mind anyway, than his ludicrously braggadocio parallel identity of Carlos Danger? We’ve all had a good laugh or a sickened grimace (or both) at his behavior — the shirtless preening, the penis photography, the sexy take-charge talk — but isn’t it basically the same thing as all of those “Amazing weekend!” and “Beautiful wife!!” Tweets and status updates, just the nude version? As Anthony Weiner, unrepentant New York City mayoral candidate, is tireless in pointing out, he never met any of the recipients of his user-generated content. He never even wanted to.
Carlos Danger exists in a parallel world somewhere, to be petted and admired by compliant and (to go by the user photographs) slightly plump ladies all over the Web. They may call it “sexting” but, forgive me, where’s the sex, exactly? The whole enterprise is constructed solely to fuel auto-erotic fantasies. The only one givin’ it up for Anthony Weiner is . . . Anthony Weiner. Though as a prescient Woody Allen has observed, “Don’t knock masturbation. It’s sex with someone I love.”
It’s tempting, of course, to dust off the shrink’s sofa and diagnose Messrs. Danger and Weiner as hopelessly twinned malignant narcissists. And one look at his shirtless profile pic — chest thrust out, leering like a reject from MTV’s Jersey Shore — suggests that there’s something seriously wrong with them both. Only two people with a very loose set of screws could brazen it out on the campaign trail without wilting in mortification. But the animating drive behind career politician Carlos Danger (né Weiner) isn’t just for power and attention — although there’s a lot of that going on — but also a pathetic kind of cowardice. Look at me! he seems to be saying. Look at my worked-out bod! Look at my penis! Pretend we’re having sex together and I will, too. I’ll be Carlos Danger and you be a girl who likes bad boys. And the two of us will never be in the same room together. Anthony Weiner, despite his on-the-prowl twin, Carlos Danger, prefers to do it alone. He’d rather look like he’s doing things than actually do them.
In that way, he’s not all that different from the terabits of megapixels of carefully curated Instagrams floating around the Web, or the zillion words of puffed-up status updates, or the #humblebrag Tweets we’re all — or, at least, many of us are — guilty of uploading onto our friends’ timelines. That, too, is a form of auto-erotic gratification. That, too, is a kind of retreat from the real world and an investment in a parallel identity. Look at me! we’re all saying. Look at my happy family! Look at my adoring friends! Look at our amazing times together! If you pretend to think I’m having an amazing life, I’ll pretend that you are, too. We’ll each be Sancho Panza to the other’s Don Quixote, and I can say that because I’m in Spain right now! And it’s amazing!!! Although I’m sort of bummed that King Juan Carlos and I only had time for coffee. I’ve missed hanging out with him. #humblebrag.