be somebody: tom ripley & the electronic persona

 "I'd rather be a fake somebody, than a real nobody."

-Matt Damon as Tom Ripley
The Talented Mr. Ripley

"I don't care for BS. I don't care to hear it, I don't care to speak it."

-Philip Baker Hall as Alvin MacCarron
The Talented Mr. Ripley

 Do you see a man skillful in his work? He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.
-Proverbs 22:29

In 1955, American author Patricia Highsmith, living abroad in Switzerland, published The Talented Mr. Ripley, a novel of death, assumed identities, and American expatriates living a martini-fueled, sun-soaked existence in Italy. It's all swimming along until Tom Ripley, the awkward, slightly murderous, slightly insane American hits the beaches of Mongibello and wreaks havoc.

The film and the novel raise the ages-old question of identity, and Tom Ripley’s obsession with being “a fake somebody” rather than “a real nobody” is now at play 60 years later within the tendons of online society in the Facebook Era. 

As a smallish nobody figure of American literature, Tom Ripley was a hapless piano tuner, small-time grifter and tax-frauder, who in the dank recesses of a Manhattan bar meets the successful Herbert Greenleaf, who hires Tom to travel to Italy, to convince his prodigal son—Dickie—to return to New York.

Booking Cunard passage to the Mediterranean, he at last feels as if he's on his way. He arrives in Italy, ready to meet Dickie, a 'friend' he has never met but has made-believe he knew at Princeton, a school he never attended. In his stateroom, he begins his meticulous assembly of his new existence.

And of course, it all goes south. Dickie has no desire to return to America. Tom’s vague homosexual attraction to Dickie, along with his warped sense of rightful destiny, drives Tom to kill Dickie in a boat off the coast of San Remo. Further, after dumping Dickie's body in the sea, Tom assumes his identity and absorbs his passport, sport shirts, and pinkie rings. Tom Ripley becomes Dickie Greenleaf—he changes his voice, his posture, and his hair. Even his own inner thoughts become those of Dickie’s. He fashions an identity after watching Dickie closely, and Tom Ripley fades into memory. Tom is now a “fake somebody” and begins the good life he never had as a “real nobody” slumming it in rented rooms and busking small-time schemes in New York.

Spoiler Alert: he gets away with it. Nobody is really the wiser, which begs the question, who made Tom Ripley? How did he become who he became? The ingredients of Tom Ripley are the same things that make all bad men go from bad to monstrous—broken homes, damaged childhoods, abuse, and unfulfilled potential.

Maybe this is why we secretly root for Tom Ripley.

Many of the prime users of the Facebook Era are the children and offspring of the Divorce Age—Generations X, Y, Millennials and later—whose identities were torn asunder after the fabric of their family lives disappeared, starting in the 1960's-70's. Tom Ripley was the same. Orphaned, and raised by an aunt who deemed him 'a sissy,' he embarked upon a young adulthood in which he would fashion for himself an armor, a persona, a mask with which to deal with the pain—the pain of abandonment, of dissolution, of a life without affection. This identity allowed him to become a leech, an ingenuine, a killer, while ever believing he belonged to another class, another strata, another society. He deserved something better. He deserved to be somebody, even if it meant artifice and deception to become that somebody.

 The postmodern, post-industrial world has taught us that we’re all ‘somebody,’ that we all have the chance, the right even, to make a splash in the world. Advertising, luxuries, and Western thinking have cemented this for us. Andy Warhol confirmed that we would make waves, even if the ripples smoothed out after 15 minutes.

 Enter Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. We have the chance, however contrived, for each man (with internet access) to make his splash. Our audience is willing, and cheering for us. They are ‘friends’ mostly, and have an interest in us, but is it friendship, or the parceling out of digestible daily entertainment units? Our online life represents neat pieces of diversion for our followers (i.e. ‘he usually posts something funny, what will he say today?). Similarly, Dickie asks Tom to move in with him in Mongibello because he’s a daily diversion—he’s strange, he’s tidy, and he’s somebody that can fix drinks. Like a good coffee table book, Tom Ripley is a curio, a conversation-starter. Tom and Dickie are ‘friends’ whose friendship is built on a contrivance, yet they both seem okay with it.

 We seem okay with it too.

Yet, what have our online identities afforded us? The idea that our regular homespun lives are infused with wisdom, wit, and excitement? The possibility that we are not just at a dinner party, but that at said party is an audience of 100, 200, even 600 'friends' who are in rapt desire over how our beef was prepared?

 What are our online personas, our electronic alter-egos? While they may not be the outward embodiments of our ideals and dreams, nor Tom Ripley-level deviance, they are toned-down, rated PG modules of the yearning things that lie within. What else would drive a person to photograph their dinner plate as if it's newsworthy?

With Social Media we have at last found a way to make our lives more interesting than they actually are. Further, the beauty of our ‘new’ lives is that they are the same lives we always had, but they’ve been dressed up and made pretty, and been stuck up online for all to see. The theatrics of this process have become addictive to us as a society, and rather than examine the true inner content of our lives and the lives of our friends, we examine the delivery, the packaging, the click-moment, the assumed identity. We see the pinkie ring, not the man.

Are we not, in the electronic age, repeating the weirdness of Tom Ripley—the call of the everyman that longs, just for once, to be thought of as important, classy, valued, and loved?

 "Lying sideways atop crumpled sheets and no covers
he decides to dream...
dream up a new self,
for himself"

"I'm Open"
Pearl Jam