The Virtues of a Virtual Valentine
Wouldn’t we all love to have a virtual girlfriend?
Here in South Bend, IN the death of Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was front-page news. She must have been a special person to have hooked a catch like Manti Te’o – a mythic star in the making. Notwithstanding the national buzz around the Te’o girlfriend hoax, those in the South Bend/Notre Dame community understand the story is amplified by the larger than life persona that Manti Te’o himself embodies.
This exceptional player is, by all accounts, an exceptional person. Supremely devoted to his family and faith, he was a paragon of Notre Dame’s idealized student-athlete. In his four years in South Bend, there were no taints in his rise to a star athlete and leader on and off the field. He certainly had to rank high as any young gal’s idealized love interest.
So unblemished was Te’o’s track record that in many respects he did not seem ‘real’. It’s no wonder there were no ‘real’ girls good enough for him. Evidently, on a University campus filled with young, intelligent, and largely unattached women from around the world, Manti could find none worthy of his affections. Who could possibly be worthy of this young man with a larger than life persona? It is no wonder he had to go to the virtual world to find someone on par with his myth-in-the-making persona.
In Jungian psychology, the persona is a mask or façade presented to satisfy the demands of the situation or the environment that does not necessarily represent an individual’s true personality. While a persona may distinguish one’s public personality from a more private self, it is a mistake to think of the persona as a false identity. We all adopt various personas in our different roles. The ‘persona’ we present at work may be different from the one we present at home. There is nothing wrong with this.
It is no great scandal if someone’s Facebook persona differs slightly from the one they present in other contexts. But where do we draw the line between what is ‘real’ and what is a virtual construct? There are different degrees to which we adopt an on-line identity. Indeed, the phenomenon of the nom de Facebook , in which one adopts a totally fictitious name, is growing. But this is done largely to preserve a degree of anonymity while utilizing the networking resources of social media.
Fabricating a comprehensive identity from scratch, however, takes this game to a completely different level. And having a full-on, all-but-physically-intimate relationship with such a ‘person’ over an extended period of time is worrisome indeed. I am not just partaking in the relish many take in attacking those victimized by on-line scams: Their gullibility is an affront to the sophisticates of the new information age. I am concerned with the siren-like attraction that virtual reality has over the grime and blemishes of the real world. Wouldn’t we all like a virtual girlfriend? One constructed to fit our needs to perfection?So what to make of Manti Te’o’s pathetic long-term relationship with a specter? When word of the hoax first came out, his fans in the South Bend/Notre Dame community held their breaths. The suspicion was that he was in on the hoax. Reports he spent time with Lennay implied complicity in the scam. Subsequent revelations showed he was not the source for these claims. Rather it became apparent that he was just a naïve, young man taken in by a crass but elaborate hoax personally directed at him.
As we speculate on how this embarrassment might taint his nascent celebrity, it is more likely that it will enhance it. After all, we now know that he is not some scripted, public persona, but a real man, seeking his bearings in our increasingly virtual public landscape.