[ Note added on 12. 4. 2018: An earlier version of the text reflected a mistake in several early news reports: Nasim Aghdam does not appear to have left behind a husband in Iran, in fact, or to have ever married. ]
Social media giants are entering worrying territory when they interfere with the self-images that people are taking pains to devise online — people not accused of hate speech, aggressive political extremism or terrorism. One obvious conclusion from last week’s nightmare attack on helpless YouTube workers by the would-be assassin, Nasim Khagdam, is that social media sites have to start weighing potentially profound psychological effects of changes in their rules for participation and algorithms.
Another conclusion is that forensic psychologists assisting in the investigation of the 37 year-old Iranian shooter’s motives and state of mind might want to glance at a 1907 painting by the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt. Might. Reader, be warned: most of this post is an exercise in speculation and conjecture intended as an illustration or example. We’d like to suggest a line of enquiry: can social media serve the deeper human needs that some users are trying to satisfy on these platforms when the ‘business model’ of the companies that own them makes attracting advertisers their supreme objective?
As we were watching clips from the fitness-promoting, animal-rights and vegan-advocacy videos Aghdam had been posting on YouTube, in which she is the only human being on-screen, we were overcome by a strange certainty that we had seen her before. Not just her face but the particular dress she is wearing in one clip. Not a face in a crowd or belonging to a fellow passenger in the same train compartment somewhere but in a close-up. After a mysterious flash of association, we found replications of Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer on the net — a picture that last changed hands, in 2016, for $150 million. And there she was. That is, the woman Aghdam seems to have been impersonating in a video — whose topic was exactly what, we cannot say, because she was speaking in Farsi.
Look at the first set of images we have pasted in side-by-side. Aghdam, in the screen-grab on the left, has arranged her hair not unlike Bloch-Bauer’s in the painting on the right, above eyes and eyebrows that are strikingly similar. Now look at the pattern of the fabric clinging to the shooter’s body and note that it appears to have been directly inspired by the mosaic that Bloch-Bauer was not actually dressed in. The garment in the picture was an invention of Klimt’s, and as you might expect of a leading exponent of both the Symbolist and Art Nouveau styles of painting, the motifs on it are heavily symbolic. In The Age of Insight, a present from a friend we suddenly remembered downloading into our Kindle three years ago, we re-read the explanation by its author, Eric Kandel — a neuroscientist who won the Nobel prize for medicine in 2000 — that the ‘small iconographic images on Adele’s dress’ are meant to be ‘symbols of male and female cells: rectangular sperm and ovoid eggs.’ Both women are wearing strappy evening dresses that are not dissimilar, even if Aghdam’s is not dripping gold leaf and has only a velvety hint of luxury about it.
It is unlikely that Bloch-Bauer herself interested Aghdam beyond the curious physical resemblance between them that could have sparked her original interest in the picture and its artist. The portrait’s subject was a rather boring, rich, society woman married to the Viennese banker and sugar manufacturer who commissioned it. She looks vacant, verging on bored. By contrast, anger is virtually the only emotion Aghdam’s face expresses in one video clip after another — when it is not determinedly blank and unsmiling — and she seems intent on cloaking her messages in an aura of deadly seductiveness.
But what could sexuality possibly have to do with protecting small animals like the anxious grey rabbit she is holding in some of her tableaux, or with explaining the joys of veganism to the unconverted? Nothing. What it does fit, though, is Klimt’s obsession with not just seduction but malign feminine eroticism. You do not see this in the portrait Aghdam apparently sought to mimic, but in another painting for which art experts say Klimt borrowed Bloch-Bauer’s face and expressions — and whose subject was a female killer. This was Judith, from the Bible, a pious young widow who deployed her beauty to lure a general in an army bent on conquering her people into sleeping with her, and after he falls asleep, uses his sword to lop off his head. The Wikipedia entry for Judith and the Head of Holofernes (1901) describes the expression on her face as a blend of ‘voluptuousness and perversion,’ designed to convey ‘the greatest degree of intensity and seduction.’
Those words fit the persona Aghdam adopted for her videos — and if there was any actual connection between that choice and the picture, YouTube’s managers could hardly have been expected to perceive or understand it. Did she choose it before or after they enraged her by demonetising her videos — that is, cutting off payments she had been receiving from the company for advertisements that appeared with her productions posted under the user name Nasime Sabz?
Perhaps we have missed the answer in some news report to the question of when she became the chronically infuriated woman in her videos. We suspect that she was angry even before the shock of her demonetisation; and that her fury about her life and fate found an outlet not just in making her videos for the causes she championed, but in the chances her YouTube creations gave her to escape her actual identity and circumstances when she let Klimt’s fixations take over her imagination, what Kandel describes as quintessentially male ‘nightmares about […] the relationship between sex and aggression, life and death.’
YouTube is said to have de-linked her videos from its money-making scheme for users of its site — or ‘content creators’ — because they were not ‘advertiser-friendly.’ The decision apparently followed from a change of users’ terms and conditions by the company in 2016 that distressed a number of other small-scale, independent producers like her, according to Recode. Before that, she does not appear to have been subjected to any constraints on her choice of material. In the weeks before she shot and killed herself at the end of her rampage at YouTube’s headquarters, Aghdam claimed that Google, which owns YouTube, had also made it impossible for her audience to find her web site with some obstruction resembling a ‘page not found’ dead end. In the absence of any statement about their relationship with her by either company, so far, it looks as if her accusation could have been justified.
The managers who effectively shut her down might have had no conception of what separating this YouTube user from her ability to earn money from her uploads and communicate with her audience meant to her — or could mean to someone in a position like hers, about which they are unlikely to have known very much before she died. By various accounts, she had been living in Southern California with her grandmother for some years after she left Iran, where her family was part of a persecuted minority, followers of the irenic Baha’i religion, which teaches that all the world’s religions have a common source. But in America she had soon become at least as unhappy as she was in her homeland.
As no occupation or vocation has been mentioned so far, nor any details of her education, she might not have had the benefit of any of these to anchor her to reality and connect her to embodied — as opposed to virtual, online — fellow human beings, other than members of her family. She could barely speak or write English. The reports that she slept in her car on the nights after she left Southern California for her journey to YouTube’s headquarters near San Francisco suggest that she was acutely short of cash and perhaps had no credit cards.
All in all, it looks as though her small success as a minor YouTube celebrity with a following mostly in Iran could have been the one bright patch in her life. Then YouTube pulled the plug on it, and she was swallowed up by darkness. Several reports quote her brother saying that she had complained endlessly that YouTube ‘ruined her life.’
There are almost certainly millions of other social media users whose internet presence is now essential to their sense of themselves; at least as important as Aghdam’s was to hers. Each presence is an interweaving of personal history, dreams, hopes, personal quirks and the great unconscious, the source of inspiration for the most sublime works in the history of art. Don’t lesser, even strictly aspirational artists deserve respect for what their creations mean to them — and to be free to display them online without consideration of their commercial usefulness?
Several of this tragic shooter’s videos look like crude, unpolished tributes to the more repulsive creations of Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali. Other influences are detectable. The Aghdam persona strongly resembles Frida Kahlo’s in self-portraits by that painter, whose unibrow gives her an even angrier aspect. Would such artists have been permitted to earn whatever revenue they could on YouTube while still struggling to make their names and before the initial public reaction to their visions — intense revulsion — was succeeded by acceptance and even amused affection? Like Aghdam’s videos, the creations of the Surrealists and Kahlo were and still are commonly described as ‘bizarre’.
We doubt that answering the questions in this post should be left to executives at technology companies. They are crying out for public debate. In the meanwhile, policy makers for social media platforms should certainly consult psychologists and psychiatrists when they draft or contemplate alterations of their rules for users. Or, if they already employ these, perhaps consider hiring better ones.