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We all know that social media updates aren’t always authentic, but what’s actually happening to our identity as we post that update to Facebook, or send that video over Snapchat?
Social media enables us to control other people’s perception of us. It does this by giving us real time feedback on our posts and comments. If we see people reacting badly to our views on gun control, we may censor ourselves. If we see 40 different friends like our joke, we catch ourselves trying to be funny more often. If people ignore our mundane status updates, but react to our highlights, we hide the boring parts of life, and broadcast only the best parts.
What we’re essentially doing here is altering our identity. Hear me out.
This feedback loop is a very real phenomenon. We publish a post. We receive feedback. We alter how we post in the future. People’s perception of us (and our identity) therefore changes.
But is how people perceive us in this way actually a good thing? Are we actually making ourselves better people in doing so, or are we simply being dishonest?
Constructing Our Own Identity
The packed floors of a new exhibition in my home city of Liverpool, UK suggests the questioning of our online identities is becoming more popular. In the curator’s own words, the exhibition considers:
“How we construct and understand identity within the problematic context of online existence”.
This whole conversation harks back to the issue of Personal Identity: a topic that has intrigued thinkers for millenia. Who are we? What is it that makes us, us?
Coming up with answers to these questions has always been difficult. But the digital revolution has thrown a whopping curveball right into the crotch of the debate. This has caused a healthy, newfound interest in the topic.
This new interest focuses largely on how technological advances are changing the way in which we see ourselves and others. It’s within this topic, that we ask questions such as:
- How is social media affecting how we perceive ourselves, our self-worth, and that of those around us?
- In what sense are we related to our online identities?
- What does it mean when our self-image can be curated and edited in real time?
- What does it mean when our online identities can be renewed, bought, sold, stolen, and deleted so easily?
- Is our online persona any more real, fake, valuable or invaluable, than our “in real life” persona?
When Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, he was probably unaware that he was creating a platform that would serve to hold a mirror up to over a billion people, which they could then use to alter their own identities.
This means that through the photos we choose to post, and the life events we choose to share, we can design our own identities. Perhaps we can create entirely new identities. Delete old ones. Alter other people’s.
Catching Yourself in the Act
We could write volumes in response to each of the questions raised so far. For simplicity’s sake though, we’ll be taking a look at two opposing viewpoints. These viewpoints show distinct ways of looking at what we’re actually doing as we construct images of ourselves on social media.
Neither of these viewpoints is necessarily right or wrong, but should serve as food for thought.
Take them into account before you next post a #Humblebragging photo of that stunning plate of food, while forgetting to mention how mediocre it tasted.
Think about how you might be altering your identity when you write about the fun night out you had, while keeping your inner heartache quiet.
Think about them the next time you decide to have your friend capture you doing something ‘crazy’ simply (but secretly) just so you could post it to Facebook.
“It’s as if the recording of what you do is more important than what you do” (Alan Watts)
When you catch yourself doing things like this, ask yourself these five questions:
- Am I creating an online identity that is different from my ‘real’ identity?
- Has peoples’ online perception of me changed my behavior ‘in real life’?
- Is this adding anything to the situation, or is it taking anything away?
- Is this status update going to change how people perceive me and my life?
- How would people react if I shared the whole truth?
Eckhart Tolle: We’re Deluding Ourselves!
The first theory on what’s actually happening to our identity (to ourselves) and to others as we use social media is from spiritualist Eckhart Tolle. Don’t be put off by Tolle’s mystic-like way of talking. His answer to the question “are we going down the wrong path with social media?” is worthy of note.
Tolle claims that as human beings, we have for millennia been creating our own identities. Culture, feedback received, possessions, achievements; these all bind to offer us a picture of ourselves.
This picture then largely affects how we act, and how we feel about ourselves. As we realize this, we seek things and people that improve our self-image, and avoid those things and people that damage our self-image.
Social media has allowed us, for the first time on a mass scale, to publish an external image of ourselves. We then find ourselves wanting to enhance that image.
“You read other people’s [status updates] and you think that’s who they are. And then you try to compete with that image, [and] you try to polish up your image. [So] it becomes an artificial construct that you add to every day, and everybody else has their artificial construct”.
These social profiles often end up becoming a delusion, like when this man lived a fake life on Facebook. This delusion amplifies only the aspects of us that we want to amplify. This is, what R. Kay Green calls The Social Media Effect, and what Josie Nadaud simply calls a fake version of ourselves.
This critical view of social media is nothing particularly shocking. Deep down, we all kind of know this is what’s actually happening, hence the irony behind the popularity of memes such as Be Like Bill and their quests to showcase the absurdity of the things we actually do in a digital age. It’s also how Olivia Muenter got away with living a lie on Instagram. It’s also why the below short video, What’s On your Mind, went viral.
But not all ideas of how we portray ourselves on social media are so critical.
Žižek: We’re All Monsters. That’s Why Social is Great
Although Philosopher Slavoj Žižek is on record saying “Facebook and Twitter should be prohibited”, his ideas on what we are doing as we create an online persona remain fascinating.
Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead paraphrases the foundation of Žižek’s philosophy in an interview with him as “nothing is ever what it appears, and contradiction is encoded in almost everything”. In that same interview, Žižek claims that “99% of people are boring idiots”.
It’s these two quotes, and the few minutes at 46:25 of the following video that shows us what Žižek’s view on social media is:
Žižek agrees with Tolle, labeling our social media personas as “staged identities”, or “masks”. But he doesn’t see that as necessarily an inauthentic, or bad thing.
He goes on to say that in real life social pressures, norms, and rules often suppress us, forcing us to project a staged identity, or wear a mask. This in real life suppression turns us into one of those “boring idiots”.
It’s only when online that many people can create a different identity This is when they can show a different side to themselves. Žižek believes that often these online-staged identities hold more truth than our offline-staged identities. Many people have darker sides that they would not dare show, apart from under the protection of an online identity. In essence, are we not all monsters to which social media offers a voice?
The polite man may reveal his secret xenophobic ways only when online. The shy girl who hardly talks in front of others can publish her genius ideas only through the veil of a computer screen.
“There can be more truth in the mask that you adopt than in your real, inner self” (Slavoj Žižek)
Who knows whether or not this is actually true? After all, the role of “people like me [Žižek] is not to provide answers, but to ask the right questions”‘.
How to Approach Social Media
Whether or not you’ve learned anything from this meandering of online personas, the questions remain immensely poignant.
Perhaps social media offers us little more than inauthentic, delusional identities (Tolle) Or maybe it offers the ability to show a different, more interesting side to ourselves (Žižek).
Either way, ask yourself the five questions mentioned earlier in this article before you decide to post on social media. Try to understand just what it is that you are doing as you update your profile. You may be highlighting only the good parts of your life. You may be exaggerating certain characteristics. You may be competing with your friend. You may be searching for validation of your self-worth.
What do you think? Are social media profiles are inherently inauthentic? How much truth can they hold? And would we, in fact, be better off without them?
Image Credits:man in front of his mirror by ostill via Shutterstock