Identity is Social (Media)
November 8, 2018
2.2 billion people are active users on Facebook. 1 billion hold active accounts on Instagram. From those individuals come billions more posts, likes, and comments on the platforms. Every second, people log into their social media accounts and confess who they are. It is compulsive and culturally ordained: the acquisition of a Facebook or Instagram is a rite of passage for a modern adolescent. Share, share, share: “people now think… that honesty therefore requires one to express whatever inclinations or impulses one has,” writes J. David Velleman (Velleman 50). How can we explain this cultural compulsion to confess? Canonical theories of “identity is social” can be mapped onto contemporary social media to reveal the motivation behind online confession. This paper examines five different thinkers’ theories of identity, organized into three distinct theoretical groups. First, Judith Butler and Erik Erikson help explain how people confess on social media to construct their identities. John Hewitt and Jean-Paul Sartre shed light on how posting online makes your identity an object for others’ observation and manipulation. J. David Velleman, in conclusion, suggests that people are compelled to share online in order to assert their identity and master their self-presentation. The thoughts of these five thinkers are each presented in a vacuum, then applied to social media, and elucidated by specific case studies. In aggregate, this analysis reveals how social media is a transformative force of identity formation.
I. The Self is Constructed on Social Media
The first category of identity theories is what we might call “self-fashioning.” Judith Butler and Erik Erikson grant the ego some power in constructing its own identity. In brief, you can pick and choose who you are based on a variety of social inputs. Others validate and confirm your constructed identity; they don’t make it for you. To update their bodies of work to contemporary society: social media is the venue for modern young people to construct their identities.
Judith Butler, in a 1988 essay called “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution,” claims that you constitute your identity by performing it. The stylized repetition of certain actions becomes what defines you. You fashion your own identity based on what you do and how you do it. She presents the analogy of the theatre, where the successful performance of a scripted character depends on the audience’s reception. The performance that she chooses to focus on is that of gender identity: you assume the identity of a man only when you act like one and the audience recognizes you as acting like one. You do your identity. You don’t passively fall into it.
Butler’s performativity paradigm offers one explanation for the confessional impulse on social media. You develop your identity via Instagram and Facebook by the stylized repetition of digital actions: posts, likes, and comments. In particular, your posts are intentional attempts to construct your identity. By liking the page of your favorite band, or commenting on the post of your preferred newspaper, you establish your identity in full view of your online peers. Each square block on an Instagram profile is a building block of your sense of self. You feel compelled to confess and build this persona online because of the eager audience that social media platforms afford. Instead of developing your identity in the privacy of your familial life, you can prototype your identity live in front of the world. Like a theatre, a social media network — a “Feed” — facilitates a feedback loop. The only difference, of course, is the real-time responses to the performance. The digital audience of your peers react and comment to your post and cast real-time judgement on the actions you perform. The speed of this feedback loop enables the impulse and addiction to share. The responses from the digital audience immediately validate or challenge your stylized acts. Your followers either confirm or reject your constructed self.
Take for example an Instagram user who consistently shares photographs of landscapes. The user takes a photo of the Main Green at Brown University, receiving instant praise for the beautiful framing of the photograph. The endorphins they might receive from the tally of responsive likes transfer into the next week, when the user posts another photograph, this time of the view at India Point Park. The positive reception builds on itself as the user continues to repeat this action of sharing landscape photographs. In doing so, the user is constituting an identity for themselves, even if unconsciously. This user is not self-centered or vain; they don’t require validation for their personal appearance. This user becomes focused and in-tune with nature; they seek out beautiful landscapes to share add to their Feed. The user becomes a landscape photographer, someone who appreciates beauty, and is recognized by the online audience as such: they are creating their role in the social environment. Because a digital profile is permanent and constantly accessible, the building blocks of their identity are always on display for audience judgement. These actions don’t fall into a melting pot of identity, they are always discernable. Their first post from December 2014 is only a few scrolls away from their latest content. As young people increasingly judge their peers from these digital presences, users become tightly linked to their constructed identities online. The user has to keep doing their identity in the same way so as to not confuse their followers: a random “selfie” photograph amid the landscapes would noticeably disrupt their constructed identity. Social media networks are theatres for performativity, and the addictive feedback from the digital audience further compels the irresistible impulse to share online.
In a 1956 piece “The Problem of Ego Identity,” Erik Erikson proposes a theory of identity formation which is similarly active and socially defined: the ego fashions the self because the society demands that it do so. As Butler discusses doing identity; Erikson describes organizing identity. The adolescent feels a two-pronged societal pressure to organize their own identity: the adolescent has a private need to “know who they are” and a social necessity to “take a place in society.” In other words, the adolescent works to be both internally continuous and externally recognizable. From a vast dataset of social roles, the young person synthesizes others’ identities and strives to emulate them. Social confirmation then hinges upon whether or not they have successfully filled their selected niche.
Erikson’s model offers a complementary explanation for confession online. In short, the social media user witnesses how others present themselves online and tries to mimic them. At the time of Erikson’s writing, the adolescent might have only witnessed proximate social roles amongst his family and community. On Instagram, the adolescent can be exposed to an unprecedented array of identity options. The scale and diversity of social roles presented to the modern kid is remarkable: the available niches appear limitless. A boy growing up in Westport, Connecticut to Jewish parents can disrupt his echo chamber by “following” and understanding diverse identities of people everywhere from Seattle to Shanghai. And true social models abound: celebrities display their identities for mass consumption and emulation. Out of these novel inputs and models, you can fashion an identity. Moreover, the social pressure to choose a specific niche remains. The only way to claim such a role in a digital world is to post on social media: confess. To emulate Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram posts or mimic Kim Kardashian’s selfie posture. The popularity of the networks has transformed the confessional impulse into a confessional obligation. You are unintelligible, ineligible, and unacceptable if you do not express your identity publicly.
The Facebook profile picture is an appropriate case. For millennials, a profile without a central photo is unintelligible. Your profile picture follows you everywhere: to linked accounts, to Facebook events, groups, pages, and more. Your friends are inseparable from that little thumbnail image next to their names. The pressure to constantly change and update that picture is almost visceral. Let’s say your last profile picture was taken when you were 18 years old. You look different than you do now: in your old photo, your face is younger, filled with acne. You look worse. The temptation to share your current look and your new face is guttural: since the profile picture is such a social determinant and locus for judgement, having an outdated photo is unsettling. In looking to update it, you may draw from the hundreds of other profile pictures you’ve seen, subconsciously looking to your role models to see how they present themselves. The product of that synthesis will be a photo that you feel encapsulates you and emulates those whom you admire. The product is a photo that you feel comfortable being the answer to “Who are you?” The confessional impulse, in this case, is an imperative. You must choose a profile picture: you must fashion your own identity in response to an overwhelming social pressure to do so.
Butler and Erikson both discuss the self-fashioning of identity. They would agree that confessing on social media is a way young people actively construct themselves. They use social media to create their position in a social reality. On the one hand, people use social media to try out different identities by posting, iterating, and determining their own based on follower feedback. On the other, people share on social media due to immense societal pressure to choose their niche and emulate recognizable online identities. Moreover, the fundamental flaw with these applications is the discontinuity between the online self and the offline self. The online self is concocted and by nature artificial: young people can fashion offline and online identities simultaneously but without connection. The result of this discontinuity is that a person’s perception of their own identity might differ from others’ views of it online. The ensuing challenge of identity formation would be to bridge that gap and create continuity between your offline and online selves.
II. The Self is an Object on Social Media
There is another school of thought regarding identity formation that is applicable to social media. Instead of fashioning your identity online, your identity is a pre-existing object. The challenge of identity formation is to answer: How do others see you? How do others conceptualize your identity? Social media is the modern platform for discovering what kind of object you are to others. The instinct to share, according to this second model, derives from the desire to find out how others perceive you.
John Hewitt understands the self as a social object in his 1976 book Self and Society. The process of identity formation is not an active fashioning; instead, it is a gradual realization of who you are to others. As you grow older, you develop an understanding of your race and social class — you learn the attributes that others assign to you. Your identity is an objective fact. You can only realize your identity by imagining how others perceive you, by adopting their perspectives. Others’ interaction with your objective self both constitutes and reveals who you are.
Sharing on social media can be understood as an attempt to discover the objective self. You aren’t born with a Facebook profile, obviously: you make one. Facebook is a modern community that you join voluntarily and deliberately. In the process, you are bringing your established self into a vast online network for judgement. Kids who make Facebook profiles at age 13 have more than a decade of experience under their belt, but only a tenuous understanding of who they are in the social reality. They venture to Facebook and other platforms to see where they fit. But observing how others present themselves online is not enough for a kid: they want to know how their peers see them. So, they share photos of themselves, and in the process learn if they are attractive or not. They post jokes on their friends’ walls, in order to discover if they are funny. In this way, social media interaction reveals identity. But Hewitt is interested, too, in how others’ actions constitute your identity. Hewitt might dub these compulsive confessions as “identity announcements.” In the same way that walking into a car dealership announces your role as a customer, every post is an announcement of the role that the adolescent wants to play. But fulfillment of that role depends upon if others confirm it: in the dealership example, if an employee asks, “May I help you?”. On social media, friends/followers have the discretion of confirming your desired role through “their overt conduct” (Hewitt 87). Others constitute your identity by giving it credence online — every like, comment, and friend request is consequential.
There is a built-in function on Facebook which directly speaks to revealing the objective self. On your personal profile page, in a drop-down menu, there is a button labeled “View As.” You can use this tool for two functions: “View Public Profile” or “View as Specific Person.” In practice, this just means you can test which parts of your profile are available to different audiences. Some photos may be visible to your best college friends which are inaccessible to your grandmother. Some information is reserved for your “Close Friends” but hidden from your “Acquaintances.” You can quite literally embody the perspective of any single one of your Facebook friends — or the public — and see how they see you. This online tool, on the one hand, is just a novelty. But it also demonstrates how Facebook turns the individual’s identity into an object for interaction and analysis. More likes on your profile picture may show you that you’re popular. Fewer comments on your political posts may mean that people don’t respect your opinions. The name of the game is sharing, confessing, and posting. Others reveal and constitute your identity by their interactions with your online content.
Jean-Paul Sartre offers a linked theory of self-consciousness in Being and Nothingness (1943). In Sartre’s view, the moment you feel the eyes of the other is the instant you become self-conscious. He is interested in the phenomenology of “being looked at.” Sartre relates to Hewitt in this vein: to be seen is to understand yourself as an object. The mere feeling of exposure and objectification is unsettling: you are what the other sees, but you cannot see what he sees. Sartre would retort that the Facebook “View As” function is fruitless; there is no way to actually embody another’s perspective toward you. From your most basic stance, you are powerless to understand your identity. The feeling of being looked at it is one of alienation, because you are responsible for something over which you have no control. You are dependent on others in two ways: first, your self-image needs to be confirmed by others. Second, how others see you makes you who you are. This duality parallels Hewitt’s reveal/constitution dichotomy perfectly. All the power to determine your identity, in Sartre’s view, is endowed to others. You do not construct or choose any of it.
Others exert their influence over your identity on social media. For one, to have a social media profile is to always make yourself available to the human gaze. You never know who might be viewing your Facebook profile — in fact, there are paid services that claim to tell you who has recently browsed your page. Under a Sartre model, the fact that you are always being looked at on social media would precipitate constant uneasiness and perpetual self-consciousness. Your reaction to that uneasiness might be a desperate attempt to win control over what you feel you cannot: others’ perception of you. So, you compulsively confess on social media in a blind effort to take control over your identity. To present a certain narrative. To say: this is who I am. But Sartre believes that you will always fail at this task. Contrary to Hewitt, Sartre would see compulsive confessions online not as “identity announcements” but as disingenuous attempts to coerce followers into buying into your self-perception. This argument — that you are powerless to control how others see you — rests on the assumption that you cannot ever know what the other sees. Indeed, social media allows for real-time responses, but Sartre would argue that a like or a comment on Facebook indicates nothing about what the other actually sees in you. Those confirmations are just as illusory as your attempts to coerce your followers in the first place.
For adolescents on social media, there are few more stressful moments than the minutes after you post an Instagram photo or Facebook post. Let’s say you post an Instagram photo from your school dance. You might reflexively look at your cell phone every five minutes to see who is reacting to your compulsive confession. In those moments, your self-perception is on the line. You want people to see you as attractive, cool, well-dressed, and genuinely happy. You are self-conscious; you know you are being examined. You made yourself available to the human gaze, and now are subject to the will of those gazes. If you have 560 followers and only 120 people interact with your photo, the obvious question is: why did 440 people ignore my confession? Within that gap you fall into an abyss of self-consciousness. From an extreme standpoint, your attempt to exert an identity fell on 440 deaf ears. No matter what, your identity is out of your control: there’s no way to coerce all your followers to accepting you as attractive, cool, well-dressed, and sincerely happy. The followers hold all the cards in determining whether you feel confirmed or denied in your self-perception. They run the show.
Hewitt and Sartre grant the individual limited agency in determining their identity. For both thinkers, the self is an object to be viewed by others and discovered by the ego. Identity is social in that it is both revealed and constituted by other people. This an explicitly different framework from Butler and Erikson’s understanding of the self-fashioning of identity. When mapped onto contemporary social media, Hewitt and Sartre’s arguments hold up. The impulse to confess comes from the desire to discover your objective self or make a desperate attempt to claim control over your identity.
III. The Self is Asserted on Social Media
Lastly, J. David Velleman attempts to directly explain the “exhibitionism of our culture” (Velleman 50). Writing about the “Genesis of Shame” in 2001, Velleman mourns the loss of privacy. He observes that people are deluded into thinking honesty means expressing every preference or action that cross their mind. Confessing is a compulsion because you want to take control of your identity, project a public image, and make yourself intelligible to others. Confessing is claiming certain attributes as salient, bringing parts of you into the foreground and leaving other parts behind.
Indeed, confessing on social media presents warped pictures of our lives. Photos have “filters,” accentuating our happiness even when we don’t feel it. But that is not to say that social media should be dismissed as an invalid venue for identity formation. This last understanding of confessions online is one of identity assertion. Contrary to Sartre’s thought that the individual is powerless to control identity, Velleman suggests that people turn to social networks to become the master of their self-presentation. Out of shame and lack of control comes an intrepid desire to assert your pre-existing sense of self on a massive scale. That presentation will not be totally accurate, but the mere act of codifying your identity in front of a public audience helps to solidify it in yourself. Velleman notes: “No one believes that our public faces perfectly reflect our private selves, and so we shouldn’t be tempted to pretend that they do, or to accuse ourselves of dishonesty when they don’t” (Velleman 50). Indeed, the social contract of online media platforms takes peoples’ self-presentations with a grain of salt.
A Facebook profile may not be a perfect, but there is plenty of crossover between your public and private selves. The garden photographer turns to Instagram to share her work with a wider audience who can affirm her identity. The student turns to Facebook to post her newspaper articles to circulate her political beliefs for agreement. Online profiles are not disparate selves; they are appendages to our private lives. You feel privately how people interact with you publicly. Those audience responses may appear trivial, but in the process of identity formation, they can be instrumental in creating or destroying confidence. This is why asserting a strong, coherent public identity online is such an imperative. You confess online in order to yell: “This is who I am.” Take it or leave it.
One counterexample is in order: the person who chooses not to confess anything online. Even this abstention is decisive in identity formation. You identity yourself as a private person, existing outside the social pressure to be on Instagram or Facebook. Having a dormant social media profile is itself a Hewitt identity announcement or a Velleman identity assertion. It is very noticeable or unique in contemporary American society to be absent from search results on Facebook or Instagram. Given Erikson’s understanding of social pressure, resisting the compulsion to confess is all too difficult for most. Those who manage to resist take solace in the fact that they are still publicly asserting an identity as someone who takes pride in their privacy.
This paper has employed five different conceptions of identity formation to explain compulsive confession on social media. The first group — the self-fashioning theories of Butler and Erikson — suggests that people post online to actively constitute their own identity in front of the eager audience and in response to societal pressure. The second bucket — the objective self-discovery of Hewitt and Sartre — demonstrate that confessing online endows the networked audience with the power to reveal and constitute who you are. And finally, the Velleman theory — identity assertion in response to shame — argues that social media users curate public images to become the masters of their self-presentation. All of these theories offer compelling explanations. Arguing for one particular view is beyond the purview of this expository paper. Evidently, the overarching notion of “identity is social” needs to be updated for the complicated influence of social media networks. These platforms erupted in popularity far after these thinkers published their works. Adolescents, which were so often evoked as case studies in this paper, are growing up on social media. Its influence on their adult identities is only just beginning to rear its ugly head; it begs significant clinical analysis. Social media is not a toy. It toys with our identities.
“Most popular social networks worldwide as of October 2018, ranked by number of active users (in millions),” Statista, accessed November 2018. https://www.statista.com/statistics/272014/global-social-networks-ranked-by-number-of-users/
Judith Butler, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” (1988)
Erik Erikson, “The Problem of Ego Identity” (1956) and “Ego Development and Historical Change” (1946)
John Hewitt, Self and Society, chapters 1–4 (1993)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, “The Look” (1943)
David Velleman, “The Genesis of Shame” (2001)