Why social media is leading to a new era of identity

  • Author: Lauren
  • Lauren Fisher,

While we're busy creating new communities around ourselves online, sharing different aspects of our lives and building a visible record of ourselves for anyone to see, we don't often stop to think about the implications of this for the concept of identity. Let me start by saying that this is not an easy concept. It is something that continues, and will continue to, split opinion, with some seeing social media as the saviour and some seeing it as the devil. Though there may be no easy solution for the implications of social media and identity, it isn't something we can afford to ignore, as it is shaping our everyday lives, the world over.

This is me then, and now

There is an issue of identity that is discussed by philosophers, known as the synchronic problem of identity. That is to say, what exactly is it that makes the person we were five years ago the same person we are today. It can't really be explained by space or time; you will only occupy one place at one time once in your life.

So can it be explained through biology? That a person is the same because they contain the same collection of cells; or can it be explained by the mind? That the person before you today has the same memories, experiences and thoughts as the person five years ago? Some may brush this off as too simplistic a problem, but when you distill it and try to find an answer for the 'essence' of you, it's not so easy. What exactly is it that makes us who we are? It's a problem we are (largely unwittingly) exploring and possibly solving through social media.

Social media has afforded us a unique opportunity to build a very visible, permanent record of ourselves, albeit through a digital medium. It is, in a way (though many may argue against it), re-inventing the notion of identity, with far-reaching consequences. Not only is it providing the very tools to (re)create our identities, but it is also speaking to an innate human fear. That we'll be forgotten by others and that our own memories will begin to fade, changing the person that we are. Throw Facebook into the mix however, and our problems seem to be solved. Here is a summation of our lives to this date, for as much as we want to share. And remember that we are just at the beginning since it's a record of our identity for as long as social media has existed.

Fast forward 20 years and try to get your head around the amount of content of YOU that will be available online. And then go back to the synchronic problem of identity. Can the answer be contained within something as seemingly trivial as a Facebook profile? That that is actually who we are? And if it is, what if identity can then be explained in the downloadable self. That the content I've created about myself online could lead to a collection of memories that can be copied into another brain and placed inside another person. If you could have a downloadable you, would you really want one?

Why now?

There is of course the question of why this seems to be happening now, in the way that it is. For centuries individuals have found a way of cementing their identity or guaranteeing a lasting memory of themselves by publishing books, writing plays, creating pieces of art etc. But we have never had the accessibility that we have now. Consider the handful of published authors you may have in one year, vs the vast number of 'published' (i.e. available online) Facebook profiles you have in that same year.

The advancements in technology are colliding with what some argue is an increasingly fragile sense of the self as we are forced to evaluate our position in the world by having increasing access to knowledge of the world itself. This occurring alongside a threat of invasion of our privacy which is the ultimate threat to the loss of the 'self' has made the appetite for social media tools such that they have become an essential way to establish our identity and so form relationships with others.

Is it really worth looking your best in an outfit, eating the tastiest meal or looking at the most beautiful sunset if you can't then share that moment with your friends online, simultaneously creating a record for yourself? It is these actions which are changing the way we approach identity. It is much less about identity through ourselves, and more about the self through others. More so now than ever before.

The rise of pseudonyms

What is worth considering is how the tools of social media have established and cemented techniques for re-inventing our identity, masking it or even allowing for no identity at all. Consider the rather odd rise of the use of pseudonyms online. Why would you want to say something if people have no idea it came from you, or why would you feel the need to create an online persona for yourself that is different to your 'offline' or other self. The fact is that people do, to a startling degree.

Pseudonyms aren't always used to preserve anonymity of course, but the decision to use a type of name other than that printed on your birth certificate is a very conscious one. It is saying that this person commenting or sending a tweet isn't exactly identical to that other you. In something as significant as the very collection of symbols that is used to differentiate you from one person to the next.

As we noted on the blog, Disqus have provided some interesting findings into this. They analyzed the data of commenters within their system and found that the majority were using pseudonyms, accounting for 65%, followed by anonymous commenters at 35% and real identity way behind at 4%

True, the pseudonym used might be little more than a shortening of your name, but this shouldn't be underestimated. Often online I use the name 'Loz Fisher'. Hardly a stretch from Lauren Fisher, but I use this because it's an identity I've come to like. It's what my family and closest friends call me. It is not the name on my birth certificate and this says something about how we approach the construction of our identities online.

Firstly in the very fact that this is a choice we get to make. We don't have to keep the identity that's followed us around up to now, but we get the chance to make a new one. The extent to which we take advantage of this obviously differs greatly. Why, for example, would a middle-aged, married American man pose as a lesbian blogger from Syria? As unethical as many took this to be, here is an example of someone who took the opportunity for re-invention to the extreme. Not for fame, not for fortune but for some unknown reason many of us will fail to empathise with.

Where does this leave us?

What then, does this mean for the notion of identity? On the one hand social media affords us an opportunity to create a more permanent, public version of ourselves, so solidifying the idea of our identity, and on the other it has made identity fragile, to the point where it can be completely 'fake'. Is social media strengthening identity or eroding it? The answer, it seems, is neither. What it is doing is changing the idea of identity to something that we have not quite yet got our heads around.

But we are starting to. Whether we realise it or not, the adeptness we are developing with the use of social media tools, how we know the ways in which we can construct an identity that is either completely true to ourselves, or is in fact a different identity that we want to project to the outside world is evidence of this changing sense of identity. Both are acceptable forms of identity. What we need to do is to begin to understand that these opportunities in social media are not a bad thing. Why shouldn't someone have the chance to use a different name than the one they were given, to project an alternate version of themselves or a completely fake one? It is all coming from you, and is being perceived by others. That is the most exciting sense of self we have had yet.

It is not an easy concept to understand or accept. In 1984, Orwell warned that the electrification of identity essentially made identity vulnerable, that it could be erased at any point by whoever had the power; in this case by the government. And while this may have its merits, it is not the way in which we should view identity. Is there a fragility in an identity that depends entirely on digital technology, that can no longer exist simply at the flick of a switch? Maybe. But to ignore and refuse the opportunities and advantages this gives us is a mistake. Identity will always be fragile because it doesn't in fact, exist. So why not have a go at establishing your identity right here and now, in the media that exists for us at an increasing rate? It is the most real identity you can have, right now.

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