With the overwhelming boom of social media it has often been said that we now know our friends more than ever. You know how they feel when they wake up, who they went out with on the weekend (and who they got particularly close to…), and the various interests and associates that you may never have otherwise realised you had in common.
But there is an elephant in the room here, which is that we are all crafting our digital identities, in various ways, to portray the us that we want people to see.
After-all, you see the photos from many a hedonistic weekend; but only those which I choose you to see. You can follow my status updates as closely as you want, but don’t expect me to tell you what I really got up to for that week when I was incommunicado. You might see that picture of your friend cuddling up to the stranger, but she isn’t going to tell you about the crabs she picked up after taking him home (don’t worry, I won’t say anything about it on your wall!). These are very simple examples, centred around social rather than intellectual or professional pursuits, but they illustrate a simple truth. What we see, for the most part, are carefully constructed digital identities – and now, more than ever, we are becoming obsessed with the image we portray out to our social peers.
Now, I’m not saying that this activity is in itself a negative one – in fact I’d argue that social beings cannot easily and readily exist without various forms of filtering systems in place – but it’s certainly one that we should become very aware of: both when viewing the profiles of our friends and associates, but more importantly when creating and updating our own. There is a lot to be learned when you take a step back from the process and ask yourself – just who am I pretending to be?
Maybe ‘pretending’ too harsh a word…but then again, maybe not. None of us are as perfect as we want others to view us, all of us have flaws and most of us have quite unsavoury parts of our personalities that we would rather keep hidden away (except for those few special people who get to see the ugly, and yet sublimely beautiful, uncensored truth). The interesting thing is that we are now rapidly progressing towards a future where more and more of our identities will be stored in various digital formats – and believe me when I say that there is a lot of money to be made in successfully catering to individuals based upon their digital identities. If you think that online advertising is well targeted now, you just wait and see what happens as more and more of our interests and day-to-day activities are available (however anonymously) to advertisers…
But I digress, I don’t really want to talk about digital identity as advertising tool. I want to talk about what we can learn by closely examining our own actions when it comes to crafting this digital identity.
Do you strive to look popular, the life of the party? The movie-buff who knows about every release before anybody else? The impresario who can get you into any exclusive club, if only you were part of their inner circle? No? How about sending a message to the ex that who you are hanging around with now is way hotter than they ever were? Or those kind-of-friends from high school who are just dying, no doubt, to hear about how successful you are career wise?
I could keep asking questions in this manner, and eventually one or more of them will stick. Whether it is for reasons of popularity, intellectual achievement, professional success, or whatever else rocks your boat: there will be something. The reason for this is that we all do it (well, there are a few innocent souls I know who really don’t, but bless them for being the exception that proves the rule), and thus we can all learn something from this new toy that our egos get to play with.
The ironic thing is, that even those I know who don’t use social networking platforms at all usually do so in order to make a statement – and are therefore still crafting a, admittedly sparse, digital identity. On the flip-side there are those who it is quite clear are very carefully crafting an image of themselves, and I usually can identify this because I know them well enough and long enough to see when they are quite clearly bending reality towards an ideal. Most of us exist in the middle, generally trying to maintain some semblance of decency and fun for those that can view our profiles or updates.
So do I really have a point after saying all of that? All of those words above which are really quite obvious to everybody, did they really need to be put forward? Well, I’m not trying to say anything earth-shattering other than this: take a step back every now and then to ask yourself, how am I crafting my digital identity, and why? Is it because I want others to think I am more popular, clever or liked? Is it to promote certain aspects or ideals to others? Or maybe hide something from myself?
Asking these simple questions can go a long way towards realising how we do this in everyday life. Social media is just an extension of our day-to-day existence, an extension that in many cases exaggerates our personality traits enough so that even we, ourselves, can see them. Crafting a digital identity can be done in many different ways, and for many different purposes; but one thing that might not cross your mind is that we can also look back in hindsight in order to help improve ourselves, to veer away from our more vain and egotistical constructions and towards those which carry more honesty and openness.
For the most part, those things we worry about aren’t of any real concern to anybody or anything other than our egos (of course, we should all ensure that we are well versed in privacy settings as to avoid your boss seeing you passed out in a ditch on Wednesday evening…). The digital identities we create through these platforms are a new way to play the game of being a social entity, of belonging to different peer groups and networks. The difference now is that we’re starting to – even if subconsciously – play the game more and more often as the thirst for information begins to take up increasing amounts of our time.
The funny thing is that we may never have even realised the game we were playing if our egos weren’t so brazen about it. To the ego, a platform such as Facebook is like giving it a sparkling new mirror; one in which in the reflection you can see all the approving faces of those you know whilst pimping and preening yourself towards ‘perfection’.
To many this is reason enough to deem that these things are psychologically negative, or even spiritually corrosive. But we shouldn’t be so quick to denigrate, rather we should embrace social media platforms not only because they allow us to keep in touch with our friends and associates – but also because they allow us to learn a heck of a lot more about ourselves. Go on, have a close look now and ask yourself in all honesty: how am I crafting my digital identity?