Confessions from My Feed: An Interview or Something, Part 1

In response to the poem I posted earlier about social interactions via Facebook, my friend Neilly and I decided to talk about some of the things it addresses. Below are my responses to her questions. It was a really fun opportunity to fulfill my dreams of a Tin House-/Paris Review-esque author interview!

1. Can you speak more to the distance between the presented self and the embodied self via media?

So, if by ‘presented self’ you mean the way we act around others, and ‘embodied self’ you mean who we really are or who we perceive ourselves to be, I think that the relationship between the two is probably not the way most people perceive it.

I think it’s assumed that people misrepresent themselves online, or even just project a better version of themselves. It’s assumed that there’s this great distance between your presented self and your embodied self. People say you shouldn’t compare yourself to other people’s Facebooks, since you’re comparing your “behind-the-scenes” with their “highlight reel.” It is true that in some cases, the use of social media applications such as Facebook can make you feel inadequate or bad about yourself — it’s not unheard of to stalk some successful acquaintance on Instagram (or worse, LinkedIn) as some kind of act of self-hate. But that’s not the whole story.

Despite all this, we’ve seen that the use of social media applications can actually raise one’s self-esteem through heightened self-awareness. And from personal experience, I get that. There’s a certain pleasure in looking at your own Facebook or Instagram profile, and seeing a nice curation of content about yourself, and I think it does make you feel good. Or, for example, one might post a new profile picture and enjoy seeing the nice things people comment with. Profile pictures tend to not be an accurate representation of reality, but is that such a bad thing? What would an ‘accurate’ profile picture look like?

If there is a gap, its presence might actually be a positive thing. It might produce positive change. According to one study, when people identify themselves as one way online — say, as being more extroverted — they start to think of themselves as that way. That shift doesn’t happen when they just write those things in a private Word doc.

This was all to say that yeah, I think there is a gap. But that gap is so often spoken of as being a bad thing, and that’s not the whole story. I also think it’s often not as wide as it’s assumed to be.

On a somewhat tangential note, this is all not even addressing the fact that there’s a wide gap between the presented self and the embodied self in offline interactions due to constraints such as the futility of language a la Faulkner. There’s always been a gap between our projected selves and our embodied selves. Social media did not create this phenomenon; it just provided a new venue through which to display it.

2. In what ways do you find that specific venues (e.g. Facebook vs. Twitter, vs. LinkedIn) change how a person presents themselves?

People alter themselves to be successful at whatever the specific outlet they’re using focuses on. Take, for example, the differences in content between Instagram and Twitter. On Instagram, all text is connected to a photo, whereas on Twitter there’s more focus on text-based content. So even though you could construct a similar post on Twitter to one you could construct on Instagram, the outcome would be different due to the expectations each of the applications places on you.

On Instagram, the focus on images — other than when you’re scrolling through your feed, if an image has text accompanying it, you don’t even see it until you click on the image — causes users to (surprise) focus on images. The images users post tend to be refined and at least somewhat artistically framed. Text feels like an afterthought, save for some bloggers and media outlets who use it extensively. Users generally interact via liking and commenting, but substantial conversations are rare since they aren’t facilitated well; the comment section is more often simply a repository of admiration,

On Twitter, however, text is at the forefront. Although there is a character limit, it’s very easy to work around by replying to a prior tweet, thereby creating a chain. Because of this, any content that can be posted on Instagram can functionally also be posted on Twitter by just splitting the description content across tweets. Users are able to post photos, but the pictures are generally less beautiful and more functional than those that would be posted on Instagram. Due to the ubiquity of retweeting, users communicate with each other more often and in a more public fashion. The placement of trending hashtags in the sidebar causes users to be cognizant of world events and sentiment, which causes more content on Twitter to be politically-motivated or -affiliated.

So these different outlets facilitate different forms of content — what aspects of the self do these outlets encourage representation of? I believe they encourage representation of whatever aspects of individual identity they highlight in those myriad implicit ways through the user interface. On Instagram, the implication is that words aren’t important, so people use them sparingly. On Twitter, it’s implied that what crowds think at this exact moment is important, so users feel pressure to post content relevant to the climate of that exact moment, taking into consideration the way other users will respond to it. On Facebook, the number of likes a photo or status — really any possible form of content on the website, including RSVP responses — receives is displayed, and therefore the number of likes that post receives matters.

We present whatever a social media outlet encourages us to present in either explicit or implicit ways. We focus on whatever the interface focuses on; we respond to what it tells us necessitates response.

Read the rest of the interview here.

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