The phenomenon whereby an individual with an attribute which is deeply discredited by his/her society is rejected as a result of the attribute. Stigma is a process by which the reaction of others spoils normal identity.
-Erving Goffman, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity
If the internet is supposed to be an accurate representation of society, it’s one of those funhouse mirrors with a distorted image. In the real world, nobody wants to have what Goffman referred to as a “spoiled identity.” Every individual wants to be “normal” because the normal have the maximum amount of opportunities available to them. Nobody actually wants to be disabled, nobody wants to suffer from a mental illness. Having a stigma such as a disability or a mental illness will make life more difficult. For a generation of millennials, those born after 1990, “normal” is the last thing anybody wants to be. Community sites such as tumblr have given people the opportunity to show just now not normal they are. In places such as these, every kind of stigma is praised as it’s only those “victims of oppression,” that get the attention – because life on the internet isn’t measured by what you accomplish, it’s only measured by how much acclaim you receive. In the real world a person may be white, middle-class and in good health – our society’s definition of “normal.” On the internet, however, they may have a virtual identity where they have some sort of created illness and will get attention as they blog about all the horrible oppression they suffer because of it. Now, this would be fine if the guidelines between playing pretend and living in the real world were clear, which they should be, but that line is rapidly disappearing.
On tumblr you will find things such as “headmates” and “otherkin,” imagined mental illnesses that do not exist in the real world. If you try to tell the denizens of tumblr this, however, you’re the bad guy. In the real world there are things such as schizophrenia and Dissociative identity disorder (DID) and people that suffer from these. Statistically, up to 40% of people with schizophrenia end their lives in suicide, while of people suffering DID, 72% have attempted suicide. These are not conditions people want to suffer from. However, on the internet you find that people have made up new identities where they have these conditions and how much they LOVE it and that since you’re not like them you are OPPRESSING them:
Within Internet Culture, there is an allure to being stigmatized which would never exist in reality. Away from the internet if someone told you there were some sort of bird person and multiple personalities and told you that owning a pet was transphobic, you wouldn’t care and if they persisted you would probably call the police. However, this is a BIG DEAL on the internet. They have sites about how wonderful it is and that hearing voices in your head isn’t an illness and a GOOD thing. They call this “livng plural” or “multiplicity” or “headmates,” but the rest of us, the ones who chose to live within reality, call it BULLSHIT.
Immediately one can see the largest flaw in this whole “headmates” and “otherkin” thing can lead to negative consequences. Imagine there is some schizophrenic or someone ACTUALLY suffering from DID happened across this world of bullshit, where their disorder is something to be praised, and it’s wonderful – everyone is wrong and you’re right to refuse your oppressive medication. There is another problem, however, and that is a growing inability in “normal” to what the online the attention from their imaginary self to carry over into the real world.
A study done in 2015 with regards to the online identities of millennials divided the internet users of “Generation Y” into three sections: The Pre-Millennials (31-35 years old), The Early Millenials (26-30 years old), and The Late Millennials (25 and younger). Pre and Early Millennials were able to divide their online identity from the real world. Pre-Millennials tended to see social media as escapism while Early Millennials saw social media as little more than a database filing personal information – who they are online is a representation of their actual identity, described as social media can describe a person. Early Millenials, however, “equate identity with online image, which is constructed intentionally and strategically as an ideal self.” It is absolutely important to them that who they are online is what’s important and reality must conform to that – the opposite thought of earlier sub-generations who try to get their online identity to match their actual identity. For the digital generation, what comforts them online, no matter how imaginary and impossible it is, must be made reality.
The internet has created an allure of stigma, a need for attention based upon an imagined deviation from the norm. This has crossed into reality where they feel that the attention they get online should carry over as well. In reality, mentally ill people carry a stigma, and for natural reason – they cannot actually cope with certain aspects of normal society. A disability is not a societal inequality, it is a physical one. Race and gender are actual systemic inequalities – they don’t HAVE to exist in order for society to function smoothly; there really is no reason why any healthy person shouldn’t be able to achieve the same level of success as any other healthy human being regardless of race or gender. A disabled person, someone with a physical disability or a mental one will not be able to perform at the same level of function as a “normal” person. A person with a physical handicap will not work at the same level of unaided efficiency as someone without a disability. A mentally ill individual will not be able to perform, mentally, at the same consistent level as everyone else. People do not intentionally put themselves at these disadvantages and hope for success. The disabled who have succeeded have done so by working harder to overcome that disadvantage, and while they feel accomplished they still acknowledge that it would have been easier to do if it was normal. I guess the phrase I’m looking for is “health privilege.” Healthy people, both mentally and physically, have an easier opportunity for success.
The allure of stigma exists online for attention – for likes, for retweets, reblogs and shares as this is how the younger millennials validate their virtual identity. Having a unique stigma grants more attention, and its that which they hope to bring into the real world. This is the reason that people claiming to have these imaginary “disorders” fight against the idea of “normal.” In the real world, one who is not considered normal by society’s standards will encounter disadvantage, either through systemic inequality (discrimination) or natural inequality (physical/mental inability to operate efficiently). By forcing a redefinition of normal they hope to cancel out that disadvantage but still get the attention from their made-up stigma. In other words, they want to have their cake and eat it too, which is impossible. At least it should be…
What happens on the internet needs to remain on the internet. There is nothing wrong with human imagination – if one wants to pretend that they have an imaginary disease that’s fine, as long as it’s understood that it is PRETEND. The moment they try to take that pretend play into the real world they will encounter refusal, they will not be admitted to the same “club” as normal, healthy human beings. – nor will they find acceptance with their imagined “kind” of people with mental health issues; people with real mental problems suffer real indignity and are actually stigmatized from an illness beyond their control. Do you think they would be accepting of someone faking it just for attention?
The goal of each individual’s life is not the quest for attention and acclaim – it’s to live happily and to find the easiest possible way to achieve that. For those who are born with the right circumstances (privilege), achieving that goal will be easier than those with disadvantages that come with race, gender, health, etc. To intentionally prevent yourself from achieving that, to intentionally set disadvantages in your path and set yourself up for failure is an inhuman act. As a society we attempt to help those among us who need it, but we’re not a perfect society, so not everyone who truly needs help gets it. To demand that society bend to your imagined need and self-created obstacles is destructive and selfish. It’s my hope that humanity won’t put up with those tempted by the allure of stigma, as a species we simply cannot afford to.