30/07/12
by

The Writing’s On The Wall

Screen shot 2012-07-29 at 5.10.56 PM

Avoiding an identity crisis in the age of social media

 

 

“The whole purpose of places like Starbucks is for people with no decision-making ability whatsoever to make six decisions just to buy one cup of coffee. Short, tall, light, dark, caf, decaf, low-fat, non-fat, etc. So people who don’t know what the hell they’re doing or who on earth they are can, for only $2.95, get not just a cup of coffee but an absolutely defining sense of self. ” Tom Hanks, You’ve Got Mail.

Extremely dated movie reference aside, social media might just be the new Starbucks. We spent an inordinate amount of time online deciding what to upload, what to post, and how to let the world know that we lead lives worth watching. Perhaps then, new technology has made us self-obsessed. Or self-empowered, depending on the way you choose to see things.

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google + and other internet mainstays have allowed average computer users to recreate themselves, editing or over-sharing their way in to public consciousness like never before. Facebook asks what’s on your mind and Twitter wants to know what’s happening. From the new shampoo you’re using to the charity you’re working with, every photo, video, link, and opinion you have can be instantly shared with an ever growing audience of internet peers.

This self-promotion—or 21st century living, as it’s become known—comes at a price. The throwaway comments and bad fashion choices of yesterday aren’t things you can hide away at the bottom a drawer. Instead, every bad decision is forever preserved and easily found with one Google search. The same tools we use to reinvent ourselves online can be used to destroy our images just as easily.

Bearing this in mind, Salient spoke to Kirsty Hitchcock, a web developer and social media expert working for an Auckland based company. Kirsty doesn’t buy in to the idea that new technologies have created a culture that promotes self obsession and narcissism. “Social media is definitely a powerful and easily accessible outlet for self-obsession and narcissism much in the way that McDonalds is an easily accessible outlet for binge eating. It’s not the social media, it’s how we’re using it.” She stressed the importance of education in the changing times. Society needs to be taught how to use these personal advertising mediums and understand the possible negative consequences associated with them. Social media needs to be treated as a tool, an extension of your body and not a mirror image of who you are.”

According to Kirsty,  personal online branding is important because “it’s become expected of us. It’s now common to score a job interview via Twitter and in many industries having an online brand is essential to stay in the loop or stay at the forefront of the industry.” “After all” she says, “we’re now competing with the world”.

Employers are also in on the deal. “As a potential employer glances over your CV they’re busy examining your LinkedIn account, your personal website, your blog, your Twitter account and anything else they can get their hands on”, stresses Kirsty, so it’s crucial to make sure that your online reputation doesn’t bungle your professional one.

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For all the advice, maybe we have fallen in love with ourselves. People with credentials far better than mine have argued that this age of “digital narcissism” has left us stripped of any inner soul. The need to put ourselves online is overpowering and the more we broadcast, the less we realise the extent to which we’re emptying ourselves.

Certain camps have claimed that the ever-present imperative to harmlessly put our lives online has created an atmosphere that encourages over-sharing and destroys the nuances of socially-learned communication. And the exposure is only becoming more entrenched. Because our online and offline lives exist side by side, our sense of identity is more at risk of being defined by how our “friends” see us.  Maybe we have come to rely on constant attention, affirmation, and praise, but at the same time, it’s hard to believe that we let things get that bad.

Salient spoke to Bex Miller, an English Lit/philosophy student, and Ben Fagan, a media and philosophy major, about social media’s imperative to self-brand.  Bex uses Tumblr and Twitter on a regular basis, but checks in with Facebook every day. She keeps a watchful eye on her profiles, being “cautious with pictures in that I don’t post anything sexual on Twitter etc of myself”.

She’s also mindful of her online peers. “I’m pretty conscious of my audience when posting. On Facebook, I’m careful what I say, and Twitter can be a bit more personal sometimes. I’m also managing Legalise Love’s Twitter, so I make sure to check anything I say with the Exec (they seem happy to leave RTs up to me)”.

Ben is signed up to most media sites but mostly uses Twitter for fast news. “Facebook I use daily, I’m one month into a system where I only check it before 8am and after 8pm, which seems to be helping with the time wasting habit of scrolling through posts I’ve already seen.”

Some people create online personas that highlight their best aspects, while others never censor a thought. We posed this to Bex, who tries “not to say anything too controversial or aggressive, as I’m aware of how anything I say online could catch up with me at any point—career, relationships etc—even years from now.”

Ben has the same point of view, and explains Facebook to older generations by comparing it to older forms of media. “You wouldn’t put a compromising photo of yourself or an inappropriate comment in a newspaper read by all your friends, or on a community bulletin board.  Facebook is just as public, despite it living in your computer.”

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What about the idea that social media makes people more likely to over-share and stoke their ego? “I find I’m more likely to express honest opinions in private messages or email”, Bex says, “I don’t often have a chance one-on-one, but again, I don’t want to accidentally offend with a public declaration”.  Ben thinks that “in terms of constructing an online persona, I don’t feel it’s [dishonest] when I represent parts of myself that I think people will find more interesting”.

He’s wary of not posting the “daily minutia” of his life because he “wouldn’t be interested in seeing someone else do the same. But then some people really enjoy that stuff—e.g. gossip mags.” Instagram, Flickr, and Google + have become everyday staples for many people.

Perhaps this means that we’re just becoming more interested in the lives of others. Ben is diplomatic. He reckons that social media “has caused myself and others to actively think about how we portray ourselves. The public CV that you create on Facebook can have real world consequences, and so we’ve learnt to take control of it. I don’t reckon I’ve become more interested in the lives of other people, but because of social media I am more informed about them.”  Bex agrees that there are pros and cons.

“I can be a bit of a hermit. My Dad still complains about me spending too much time alone in my room when I’m home. But while I used to be reading, drawing, etc, now I’m also checking in every so often to see what’s going on with friends/family.” She says that her social interaction has greatly increased, “which is definitely a good thing.”

“As for self-image; I feel more able to be judged on what I say than how I may look at any time. I can be deep and interesting while sitting at home with crazy hair in pjs, and everyone will still take it as seriously as I mean it.” For his part, Ben has been “intimately locked with social media” for the past three years. “It’s like asking someone how the invention of the telephone changed them and their social life.”

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So yes, social media can be a heaven for narcissistic dimwits, but that denies its potential as a source for news and information. When journalist Kosuke Tsuneoka was held captive by the Taliban, he used his one opportunity with a smart phone to send tweets about his location to his followers. Their interest in Tsuneoka’s musings and his technological foresight helped to save his life, while hash-tags propelled his story in to the feeds of others who might never have come across it.

The whole point of something like Twitter is to follow other people, yet despite the sinister connotations, this following is less an attempt to emulate the cool crowd and more about being kept entertained and in touch at any given moment. ‘Brand Me’ might be alive and well, but it’s as much a reflection of who we are as we allow it to be. Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen. ▲

The writer would like to thank Kirsty Hitchcock, Bex Miller, Ben Fagan, and Harry Calverley for their contributions.

How to have a happy online existence:

1. You reap what you post.

As complex and intelligent people are, we’re also magnificently stupid. Internet trolls don’t happen by accident, and it’s a fair bet that the drunk/angry/ miserable version of yourself doesn’t censor themselves properly before hitting that ‘post can be seen by everyone’ button. People also change. You might think that hilarious joke you made about fat people and the costume party you went to dressed as Hitler are buried so deeply in your timeline that they aren’t worth deleting. They, and the flirty comments, reckless statements, and private messages sent in the heat of the moment, will end up resurfacing right before that promotion. Or wedding proposal. Or mother’s birthday party.

2. The online self versus the offline self.

So you want to be a judge someday but you also run a Tumblr called nosesthatlooklikepenises.tumblr.com. You might have 1000 (mostly spambot) friends but can’t get anyone to see a movie with you. You’re mild mannered in public but let your rage-monster roam free on Twitter. The physical disconnect and seemingly endless freedom of the internet seduces everyone in to being a little more relaxed. With each click of the ‘post’ button, people get accustomed to navigating the social network, but that’s when users are most likely to amplify traits (bossiness, bad humour, rudeness) that they usually keep on the down low around the water cooler.

3. Don’t overestimate yourself. 

It’s so easy to connect with other people online. Re-tweeting, liking, and that oh-so-easy exchange of compliments can create the illusion of intimacy and friendship where there is none. Don’t neglect your real-life friends for the change to curry favour with the popular kids online.

4. Misery hates company. This is doubly so on the interwebs.

Though new technology has make it easier to identity depressed individuals and consequently get them help, frequently unloading your everyday troubles online will make you a social media pariah. If most of your updates, blog entries, and tweets are negative diatribes, the people who might react sympathetically in real life will eventually learn to tune you out, or block you from their feeds altogether. If your shirt tag is too itchy or you keep missing the bus, your time might be better spent making ‘first world problem’ memes.

 

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