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Spurred by the series on books our social media age needs, I couldn’t resist writing about The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, probably Russia’s greatest author. Why did a Russian prince–an epileptic perceived in society as “idiot”– spring to mind when I thought of a relevant title to contribute?

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin’s qualification for “dunce” is simply his childlike innocence. His peers, corrupted by vanity and self-interest, cannot see it. All they make of him is a benignly stupid and naïve simpleton, since he cannot follow even the most basic social mores: reveling in gossip, delighting in scandal, and conspiring in tomfoolery.  

This age of social media needs “idiots” like Prince Myshkin because he does not aspire to the theatrics of moving successfully in society. He sacrifices social correctness and so epitomizes originality, which, not surprisingly, makes him a target of scorn.

Reading a novel like The Idiot, we realize that we could never know the true depth or breadth of a person like the Prince through social media. Perhaps for a while we’d flatter ourselves that we would be the one to perceive the profundity of such a character, just as we might claim we would have recognized the abomination of slavery before it was abolished.

Although often considered a marketplace for ideas, platforms like Facebook more regularly act as exercises in group-think. Popular beliefs and viewpoints are slavishly rotated and absorbed, making it a perfect breeding ground for mediocrity.

Like. Swipe. Follow. Tweet. Share. Scroll. Troll. Unfollow. Retweet. These are not ways to foster true individuality or friendship; there’s no time to stop and really think about a post. How could we when it is swallowed in a feed before the day’s out?

Interestingly, it is in intimate settings that Prince Myshkin’s peers abandon their mockery and condescension towards him, allowing themselves to be attracted by his purity. And then a remarkable thing happens– in this scenario they cannot help reflecting his honesty in their own conversation and conduct.

But these acquaintances just as readily betray him by defecting to their old attitudes when again in a public setting– where the highest virtues are wit, sophistication and social domination. They all lack the courage to emulate the Prince’s guilelessness in fear of being likewise branded a simpleton.

Mishkin’s innocence even arouses hatred in some of his companions – he offends them by unwittingly holding them to a higher standard, and making it evident how far they fall below it.

To be fair to those companions, it is easier to follow the crowd than it is to be genuine. And platforms like Facebook facilitate that proclivity so effectively that we can be fully convinced we have something like 400 “friends” we regularly “connect” with. Dostoevsky’s comment may be pertinent here:

“Lack of originality, everywhere, all over the world, from time immemorial, has always been considered the foremost quality and the recommendation of the active, efficient and practical man.” 

Unfortunately, Myshkin’s story doesn’t end well (spoiler alert.) Not one of the characters can hold out against the pressures of the wider social sphere and remain loyal to the Prince. And their inability to deviate from the socially acceptable (also the most expedient) choices ultimately does not serve them well.

As for the Prince, his companions’ fickleness eventually drives him to insanity. He finally breaks under their continuous oscillation between respect for, and derision of him.

Perhaps not much has changed; new studies reveal an increase in teenage suicide being linked to a rise in social media use.

Of course, social media has its value. I signed up to WhatsApp recently and am surprised to see how much it has fostered family communication. But I believe people with Prince Myshkin’s qualities are sooner made into social pariahs than hailed as prophets on social media.

For all our technological sophistication, it seems that we have not moved very far from nineteenth century Russian society in our essential struggle for social survival.

And yet, the movement away from Facebook is interesting to witness. This Goliath of social media lost 1.8 million users in Australia alone this year. Perhaps it will only be a matter of time before the world’s increasing distrust of Facebook Inc. tips over into those other platforms it’s owner, Mark Zuckerberg has secured which include Instagram and WhatsApp. (He failed in his attempt to buy Snapchat for US$3 billion.)

Shouldn’t we be distrustful of someone seeking a monopoly on social media? Dostoyevsky would no doubt see Zuckerberg’s empire as a threat to originality, and he reminds us in The Idiot to prioritize the individual over the group.

Originality is not a virtue in itself, but respecting individual differences puts us in better stead to form authentic friendships, and resist the pressure to chase after every new social trend — even if doing so makes us look like, well, idiots.

Veronika Winkels writes from Melbourne

Veronika Winkels

Veronika Winkels writes from Melbourne. She is the mother of three young children.