Simulation & Simulacra begins with a reference to Borges’ On Rigor in Science- a fable of a map of an empire so detailed, and complex, that it covered ‘point for point’ the territory it depicted. Even after the demise of the empire, the map remained, no longer a representation of what once was, but as reality itself.[1]

 Baudrillard introduces the idea that the map, once a representation of a great empire, has transcended its use of being a ‘substance’. Rather, it has become part of the hyperreal; a ‘real without origin or reality […] sheltered from any distinction between the real and the imaginary’.[2]

When Mark Zuckerberg introduced Facebook ‘Timelines’ in 2011, he described them as “a way to share the story of your life on a single page.”[3]Would it then be fair to call these ‘Timelines’, and similar social media profiles maps of our own? Afterall, that seems to be the purpose implied by the creators of the platforms themselves: a unit in which all milestones, achievements, memories are collected and displayed, in a way, cataloguing users.

While studying social media platforms such as Instagram, Leaver and Highfield make a jarring observation: an individual’s presence in the digital space is not confined to their lifespan.[4] While they looked at foetal ultrasound sharing as the ‘start’ of a baby’s online ‘identity’- this seems innocent compared to what Temitope Adesina, a US-based Instagram influencer did. Adesina set up an Instagram account for her unborn baby and used the account to comment on her own photos, making it sound as though the baby itself was communicating with its mother.[5] Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, we have ‘memorial’ profiles for the deceased, where users can continue to interact and engage with the profile, leaving comments on posts, tagging the account- as though the individual is, at least, digitally, alive.

It is not very difficult to liken Zuckerberg’s ‘timeline’ to Borges’ map- in theory, nothing more than a representation of that which exists (the user’s life). However, when this is studied under the light of Leaver and Highfield’s research, you come to realize that perhaps they are more than mere representations. Perhaps, calling them ‘simulations’ – those which initially reflect reality, then mask the absence of reality, and eventually have no relation to reality, might be a more conscious definition.[6] And so, as is the fate of the simulation, the simulacrum comes in to being. The digital profile becomes an entity that is neither real, nor unreal, yet very much present with no explainable origin.

There is no intention of boasting of a non-existent moral superiority that is required to make value judgements on social media profiles. Rather, the point made echoes a similar one made by Baudrillard in 1983- the contemporary postmodern society is dominated by an irrevocable distortion in the boundaries between the real, non-real, and the hyperreal. [7]

This then begs the question: what is our agency in the ever-changing structure of digital society? Or taking it a step further, can we claim agency at all in a structure in which information about us exists before we are born, and after we are dead, where no measure of reality exists? Are we empires doomed to collapse, or cartographers scrambling to keep up with our surroundings?


[1] Borges J. L (1999) “On Exactitude in Science” in Collected Fictions translated by Andrew Hurley

[2] Baudrillard J. (1994) Simulation and Simulacra translated by Sheila Faria Graser, University of Michigan Press p.2

[3] Schulman J. (2011). Facebook introduces the Timeline: ‘a new way to express who you are’ The Verge

[4] Leaver T. & T Highfield (2018) Visualising the ends of identity: pre- birth and post-death on Instagram, Information, Communication & Society, 21:1, 30-45, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1259343, p.33

[5] Zoellner D. (2019) ‘Tell me social media isn’t an illness’ Daily Mail.

[6] Baudrillard J. (1994) p.4

[7] Ibid p.4