Constructing my online identity
Facing the Multiple Personas of a Single Identity
People in everyday life construct and move seamlessly between a vast array of personas. The various characters I find myself playing has always found the transfer into digital social networks somewhat of a challenge. For example, the self portrayed to colleagues at work is entirely different from the self I share with my close family and friends. Cover (2014, p. 55) suggests the dominant discourse of a singular use for social media is problematic as different people have both different and changing reasons for digital interaction.
The changing reasons could be part of the real life, everyday natural adaptation that occurs when interacting with different friendship groups, combinations of friends and other atmospheric influences of a social setting. Despite the need for multiple, and often very conflicting, personas they are part of a collective identity. Contemporary culture does not have room to interpret several personas so we find ourselves projecting the one most appropriate. Public identity, such as on a social network, then becomes a complex issue as a single persona is broadcast to all.
Public Image in a Digital World
The desire to construct a particular public image that extends beyond friends and family to a global audience is a recent trend that was previously exclusive to the rich and famous. Analysing my choice of Facebook profile pictures before and after having kids highlights the attempts to construct a very different representation of my own identity. However, at the time the choice of profile picture and greater digital persona was not always given much thought at all. Even more natural profile pictures are considered to be sending a message of self-reflexivity that, consciously or not, is part of an ‘Anti Profile’ presentation (Hills 2009, p. 119). Marshall (2010, p. 35) describes the digital manifestation of this trend as ‘presentational media’ and suggests it shares similarities with celebrity representations. I’m no celebrity but I am blessed to have two sons with my wife. The event of having a baby, especially surrounding the first few days, brings to focus and questions the fabric of a digital identity including its purpose and potential risks such as privacy. It was a conscious decision to protect our baby from the potential unknown motivations of strangers on the internet (ironically, I now share more of my children than I do myself but more on that later). Whilst a concern for protecting the privacy of a newborn may be warranted, it also seems at odds with the expectations of my digital generation (Look at this Instagram (Nickelback Parody) 2012).
My peers are quite confident in their sharing of selfies, food porn and intimate emotions and do so on a daily basis for all the world to see. Indeed, I too was once much more open to sharing what was on my mind as was eagerly requested by the interface of Facebook. However, it seems as though I have both grown comfortable in my more restricted and “secure” online identity as well as have a greater appreciation for the absurdity of my current artificial fabrication and other personalities before it. The very nature of a heightened security and control of audience in a social network built for public sharing is nonsensical. The rational motivations for doing so could only be explained by the need to express different personas to different people. Furthermore, even the best attempts to portray a particular identity can be misinterpreted. Our image, much like all communication, is subject to others making sense of messages to form meaning. For example, when we had our first baby I altered the privacy on Facebook and moderated the audience. Those that were privy to this decision deemed the message to be a form of elitism or desire to exclude individuals from my everyday life.
Social Hierarchy by Convention
Social networks seem to construct a sense of hierarchy amongst friends through the conventions such as the privacy control in Facebook or the ability to set the visual order of listed friends in MySpace that is perhaps unintended. By choosing to share certain information and photos with certain friends I’m ranking my connections with people and judging the quality of friendship. This is of course not my intention, however, one only has to be unfriended to see that actions carried out on new media social networks have direct effects on real world connections. Parenthood has also changed both the type of information I share and the frequency with which I share it. Most of my posts are about my kids and I have lost all desire to even take a selfie. This shift in content has distanced my own personal identity as the space is shared, perhaps even overrun, with my family photos. This is a perfectly natural change as any father will tell you that after having kids conversations will become “How’s the wife? How’s the kids?” and if you’re lucky you will receive a “How are you?”.
Subjective Interpretations of Social Media
My change in an online identity, in combination with real world changes, directly contributed to a misinterpretation from many of my friends that I had ranked them completely out of my life. This of course is not the case and my desire to share less online is not equivalent to a complete disconnection of friendship. However, the collusion of multiple personas in a single online space is one of the many challenges faced with new media communication. It raises the questions as to whether the multi-faceted self can be represented in a digital world and if the result of this limitation is that the digital self is yet another persona. Marshall (2010, p. 38) contends that there is a representational culture where social networks and other new media act as outlets to re-present and re-construct. The notion of such a culture does appear to suggest that an online identity is a fabrication and perhaps different dimension of self. The wider and more philosophical question would be then do these new personas truly reflect our own identity? It would be difficult to measure such a hypothesis given that self expression is open to interpretation. This limitation is frequently abused by the pressures of public scrutiny that expects a singular and convenient model of identity. There are severe limitations to the representation of a digital self in addition to the unpredictable nature of communication in general. As in, the message is interpreted from the subjective perspective of the receiver. Risk of misinterpretation is greater in non-verbal communication as it’s often more ambiguous and I believe that new media shares a similar heightened risk. For example, clicking the ‘Like’ button on Facebook could be interpreted in vastly different ways and even become part of an ongoing fictional narrative. It would be convenient to attribute this element of gossip to the social network that was originally founded to facilitate such social discourse. Whilst these origins may have played a part, the formation of contemporary digital culture should be attributed to a far more complex and wider discourse of identity, communication and human consciousness.
Cover, R 2014, ‘Becoming and belonging: performativity, subjectivity, and the cultural purposes of social networking’, in Poletti, A and Rak, J, Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, pp. 55–69, EBSCOhost, retrieved 11 August 2014. Hills, M 2009, ‘Case study: social networking and self-identity’, in Creeber, G and Martin, R (eds.), Digital Cultures: Understanding New Media, Open University Press, Maidenhead, pp. 117–121, EBSCOhost, retrieved 11 August 2014. Look at this Instagram (Nickelback Parody) 2012, video, College Humor, 10 December, viewed 11 August 2014, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nn-dD-QKYN4>. Marshall, PD 2010, ‘The promotion and presentation of the self: celebrity as marker of presentational media’, Celebrity Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 35–48, retrieved 23 July 2014, <www.tandfonline.com>.