It’s a common assumption that we use social media as a tool to project our already formed, static identities to the world (Cover 2014, p.55).
However, contemporary theorists argue that rather than being like a light that radiates from a core ‘self’, identity is formed and shaped by the actions and interactions we have with the world (Catenaccio & Garzone 2009, p.10).
It’s not so much a thing, as a process.
Have a listen to this Prezi if you’re still not sure:
Building on the idea that our identity is something wrapped up in, and made up of, our actions and behaviour, rather than just a static image of a core self, we can see that using social media is also a process of creating an identity.
The way I use social media has gradually changed since my first forays in the late 1990s.
But has it all been performing Kathlene, or have I uncovered and projected a Kathlene that was there all along?
Let’s dive in.
I like to consider myself a failed early adopter of social media.
My first experiences of social digital media use are from early high school. The details are vague in my memory, but basically I discovered a blog-like site where you could add contributors and I was really, really excited.
I imagined a page where my friends and I could leave each other messages. A secret clubhouse that only we could access.
I set up the page, posted some trivia facts (my favourite) as a starting point, sent the link to a few friends, and waited eagerly for them to contribute.
Unlike me, they were not excited at all, and nothing happened.
Years later I dabbled in Myspace, and when Facebook took off my friends finally caught on to this online-communication thing.
I originally used Facebook the same way I had used email and then MySpace: for keeping in contact with friends. The content of my posts might have been different to a phone call or text, but the motive was the same: direct communication.
At the time, anonymity was very important to me. I set my name on Facebook to Kathlene IsCool, and it didn’t matter because all of my friends knew who I was. My conversations were in-jokes with my uni friends which wouldn’t have made the slightest sense to anyone outside my circle (and don’t make the slightest bit of sense to me today).
In short – this profile, or ‘self’ was for a private audience, and I didn’t think too hard before I hit post.
Kathlene is cool?
Time went on and Facebook grew in popularity. It became OK to add not just friends but acquaintances in a way I’d never done on MySpace. Some people started asking me about my name, so, despite some privacy concerns, I changed it to my real one.
When I look back at those early Facebook posts, I cringe a little.
Dr. Syed Murtaza Alfarid Hussain (2015, p.3) compares Facebook to Erving Goffman’s concept of ‘front stage’ – a space where we as actors try to convince others that the character we are performing is real. It’s clear to present-me that past-me was trying to perform a certain character, without being really aware of it.
My posts frequently discuss uni assignments with friends, but just as frequently are broadcasts of my persona, where I was trying to be funny, interesting or quirky. Food came up quite a lot (some things never change), as did song lyrics from bands that I thought everybody should love. I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my posts were probably cryptic on purpose – perhaps I was trying to get some attention.
Facebook’s affordances encouraged me to use the site in certain ways: To share what I was doing ‘right now’, and to write on friends walls. In a quest to prove to the world and to myself that I had friends, and that we did interesting things, I was more than willing to comply.
Since those days, so much has changed.
One major change is that I hardly ever use Facebook now.
That’s not to say I’ve stopped using social media, but today my main platform today is Twitter.
Twitter became a part of my life in 2015 when a lecturer made it a required part of unit participation, pointing out its professional potential. I fell in love with it when I realised I could follow complete strangers and it wouldn’t be weird.
On Twitter, I think carefully about how tweets will reflect my knowledge, my actions, my interests and my opinions. For the first time I am deliberately curating my online identity.
So that makes my online persona less authentic, right?
I think not.
If my identity is a process and not a thing, then the curation of my online self is also a part of my self. And by re-creating my identity online; by following museums and galleries, posting pictures of random walks around the city and re-tweeting passionate pleas for educational funding; I am not projecting an identity that exists, but constantly re-constructing and re-emphasising it.
That is, I am creating it by projecting it (Cover, 2014).
When I look at my social media profiles now, they seem more ‘me’ than ever before. Maybe it’s because as David Marshall (2015) notes:
Monitoring one’s persona has become an essential experience of contemporary life where a constant ritual of editing, writing, connecting and publicising a public persona defines the sense of self.
Marshall 2015, p. 116.
My online persona changed when I stopped chasing likes on Facebook and started looking for connections on Twitter. I stopped trying to persuade the world that I was cool, and took more notice of other people I admired.
As Toija Cinque (2015, p.77) notes, the online self develops within the context of the real world. In the real world, my situation changed – I matured – and my social media profile reflects this.
The future for my online identity is not entirely clear. But as I put more effort into creating media, writing blog posts, making videos or recording podcasts, I can’t help but be reminded of the teenage me that unconsciously decided it would be fun to create a website to share interesting facts with friends.
Perhaps that me has been here the whole time.
Alfarid Hussain, SM 2015, ‘PRESENTATION OF SELF AMONG SOCIAL MEDIA USERS IN ASSAM: APPROPRIATING GOFFMAN TO FACEBOOK USERS’ ENGAGEMENT WITH ONLINE COMMUNITIES’, Global Media Journal: Indian Edition, 6, 1&2, pp. 1-14, Communication & Mass Media Complete, EBSCOhost, viewed 5 December 2016.
Catenaccio, P, & Garzone, G 2009, Identities Across Media and Modes : Discursive Perspectives, Peter Lang AG, Bern.
Cinque, Toija 2015, Changing media landscapes: visual networking, Oxford University Press, South Melbourne, Vic.
Cover, Rob 2014, ‘Becoming and belonging: Performativity, subjectivity and the cultural purposes of social networking’ in A Poletti & J Rak (eds), Identity Technologies: Constructing the self online, University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, US, pp.55 -69
Marshall, P. David 2015, Monitoring persona: mediatized identity and the edited public self, Frame: journal of literary studies, vol. 28, no. 1, pp. 115-133.
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