You Are Not You, Online

Are we just becoming impersonal avatars?

Matt Klein
Oct 12, 2017 · 3 min read

Against the grisly backdrop of a Category 5 Hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico, a bubbly cartoon-version of Mark Zuckerberg explained the abilities of Virtual Reality. In an attempt to illustrate the opportunity for empathy, the creator of Facebook modeled himself as a ridiculously optimistic and carefully constructed avatar in a world that did not match his digital smile. A juxtaposition between the physical and virtual generated dismay, and an apology from CEO followed after his “tone-deaf” advertisement.

Personal Life Résumés

The move was par for the course from a platform like Facebook. As a place to showcase our best features, it only makes sense that when we layer our tailored appearances on-top of a darker reality, uneasy juxtaposition occurs. As social media has turned into glossy Personal Life Résumés, we’ve normalized the behavior of sharing the great and concealing the unfavorable. Accomplishments, milestones, brags, and photo evidence continue to over-saturate Feeds around the world.

In a sense, our Facebook profiles and identities have become the hyper-optimistic, partially-ignorant avatars that Zuckerberg publicized “in” Puerto Rico. Our lives on these platforms have become half-truths, ones in which lack the hard edges that make us human and vulnerable. We’ve engaged in a game of both one-upping and hiding, ones where we consciously decide to share the fancy dinner pictures with our audience, but not the job loss. These lives are not genuine, absolute representation of who we are.

The Mechanics

We act this way, not because we’re some type of evil, but because of the structure of these platforms. Facebook is designed in such a way that we must share everything, with everyone. When we consider our audience as we post, we ultimately share just the favorable as we consider the presentation of self. More so, platforms arguably perpetuate this behavior by limiting the spectrum of emotion in which we can express towards shared content. Where are the Reaction buttons to convey more complex emotions such as disappointment, guilt, or envy? One can posit, when opportunities are provided to quickly react with a broadened range of human emotion, users may begin to post more openly.

A solution to this type of online behavior has already been trialed, and the results don’t look promising. Google+ Circles understood that for us to be the most open and genuine online citizen that we can be, we should not be forced to share everything, with everyone. By creating “circles”, users could group their audiences and decide what to share with who. Friends can only see “friend-relevant” posts, while families can only see “family-relevant” posts. Facebook followed with “acquaintances” and “family” audience grouping, but the feature unfortunately never took off for either platform.

What’s Next

Interestingly, what we’re witnessing today is a push towards more private, intimate group communication and expression. Rather than socializing on a global stage, we’re interacting within tighter, smaller networks as studies find messaging apps begin to eclipse more open social apps. More so, with features like live-streaming, ephemeral content and Daily Stories, we’re seeing a rise in lower-quality, intimate content, and a push away from higher-quality, formal content.

If we are to continue to depend upon digital technologies to live, to remain human, we must continue to express ourselves with the range of emotions and stories we’ve done so for decades previously offline. We’re encroaching upon a dangerous future where the cartoon versions of ourselves no longer make sense relative to the reality which exists away from the keyboard.

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Matt Klein

Written by

Cultural Researcher & Business Consultant at Sparks & Honey. Fascinated with the relationships between psychology, technology and culture. []

On Advertising

We’re an open community of Executives, Strategists, Designers, Developers and Students alike, skeptically examining communication, technology and culture.

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