What the Internet Reveals About Ourselves

The promise of the social internet was that it empowered people to start and contribute to conversations that they otherwise would not have access to.

The idea was that as we started experiencing others, we would gain a perspective that was typically denied to us either due to social norms, practical limitations, or the laws of physics.

The perspective that we gained through these interactions was supposed to be beneficial. The more you know about others, the more you know about the world. And the more you know about the world, the better equipped you are to make decisions.

Here’s Mark Zuckerberg at f8 in 2010. (Pardon the Korean subtitles.)

“One of the core ideas of the social graph is that a person or object is really defined by the other things they are connected to and the relationships in the world that they have.”

This is an interesting notion, and one that seems both in line with our experience of people offline, and fundamentally at odds with the promise of the social internet.

Because yes, as Jim Rohn said, you as an individual reflect the traits of the people who you choose to interact with most. You are defined by the other nodes you connect to, whether they are people or places or abstractions. You are what you eat — and where you eat it.

But on the other hand, that’s a very static view of the self. Does it represent you, in totality? Does it take into account the things you wish you were? The things that the internet promised you that you could be?

I remember AOL chat rooms very well. I remember my very first username, musicwiz1. I remember the cute little nuances of conversation — a/s/l, afk, bbl, 11. Some of them have survived, many have not; I feel both nostalgic and grateful for that.

We were a tribe. We were creating our own language. There were emoticons, and dialects like l33t, and unassailable social norms enforced by god-like admins.

And we lied a lot, too. We bolstered our own cred by fabricating complex back-stories; whether that meant lying about our age, or our careers, or even our gender. Anything could have been true in a chat room or a forum.

That was part of the allure of the internet. You could be anything.

Games, of course, played into that. You want to be a troll or an orc? An elf or a tentacled space-critter? A transvestite transmission transporter from Transylvania? Sure, go nuts. No one cares. Haters get blocked.

Likewise, you want to nerd out with a thousand randos in a deep sub-forum about that one weird, quirky thing that you thought only you cared about? There’s a thread for that.

Eventually you stopped lying in chat rooms, partly because you figured out you didn’t need to. The internet wasn’t a competition. You weren’t losing, and you could never win. You just existed, in all of your fetishistic nerdiness.

And it’s in this way that the social internet has fulfilled its promise to allow us to be whoever we want to be, shamelessly (if not proudly) and openly (if sometimes anonymously).

The question that has persisted, though, is this: is that the real me?

Fast forward to the present. Facebook requires you to use your real name. You hook everything you use — your music service, your photo sharing service, your payment service — to your Facebook account. Unless you’re paranoid, you probably link to one of these from even your “anonymous” accounts, like Twitter.

That means I’m probably two clicks away from knowing your real name, at any point in time.

And you know this. You’re fine with it. Because being non-anonymous makes it easier to buy things and consume things and get recommendations for things. And that’s pretty cool.

British photographer Robbie Cooper photographed real-life people alongside their digital avatars. Read more on The-Other.info.

It also makes it easier for friends to find you. It makes it easier to construct tight little spheres of the things that you love the most.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Open Graph turned you into a magnet that attracts the things that are core to your identity. It surrounds you with you-ness.

What have you been in the past? What might you become in the future? No, no time; eschew all that for the present moment.

You care about this news, and you’re into this kind of music, and you hang out with these people at these places.

What you just did, what you’re just about to do. That’s who you are right now. That’s who is you, in the Facebook era.

But that 14-year old who squatted on the family phone line until 2AM chatting to SteamEngines4Life about turn-of-the-century locomotion? That kid is gone. And so is SteamEngines4Life. And so are many of the places that allowed both of you to exist.

Facebook isn’t for sharing nerdy passions. It’s for posting pictures of the kids, or painstakingly lit photographs of food. Facebook is for showing the world the best of who you are right now.

AOL, by comparison, was for figuring out who you could become.

The question, then, is this:

Who am I, after all?

Am I Matt Shaw? Or am I musicwiz1? I can’t be both; they are wildly different people.

Am I the person whose passions were enabled by the anonymity of the social internet? Am I my desires, fulfilled or otherwise? Am I my potential? Am I my avatar, inhibited by these pesky IRL social constructs?

Or am I the person who is defined by his interactions? Am I a node surrounded by the things that I love, curating my outward-facing self to reinforce what others believe to be true about me, and what I believe to be true about me?

Is my online self my real self?

I think I know the answer for me. But what about you?

Who are you?