Social Media Profiles: A Faithful Reminder of Who We Are, and Who We Can’t Be
“Being someone is all very well for smart parties where everyone is telling their story, it’s all very well for psychologists’ consulting rooms. But isn’t being someone also a social obligation which trails in its wake- for one has to be faithful to the self-portrait- a stupid and burdensome fiction?” -Frederic Gros.
How easy is it to be free when one is constrained by their own identity?
Identity as it is often understood is a performance. The way we perceive and are perceived in social settings vastly shapes the way we interact and understand the world. There is a constant interplay between our mask that we show society, and our ‘inner’ selves. In fact, this performance has been such a topic of inquiry through human history. One mode of coming to terms with identity is creating it, thus you have the birth of the portrait. Portraits exist in numerous ways across different cultures, depending on the cultures own view of identity. These portraits manifest in a wide range of examples such as, DNA, masks, photographs or conventionally, paintings. This article is concerned with a modern phenomenon, the social media profile (portrait).
A Brief Background on Identity and Portraiture
We create identities for ourselves constantly. The history of human portraiture has shown a wide range of ways we have viewed ourselves in relation to others. This progression constantly changes and evolves. It was not long ago when the most important factor of a wealthy individual in the western world was their name. In the past numerous portrait paintings were commissioned by wealthy Aristocratic families. Whilst there may have been disputes over how the individual looked like in the painting, the central aspect of importance, the thing that identified them, was there name in caption below the work. The inclusion of land acquisitions and wealth was just another aspect pertaining to their identity.
Most people on the periphery, peasants, the poor, were part of the masses, nameless. As human life has come to be seen as more valued and time and history progressed so too does our understanding of identity. It has shifted from family names and estates to now encompassing individuals. Soon portraits of your average peasant were a common site, later on photographs of an average family. Nowadays we have the social media profile.
The Social Media Portrait
A social media profile can be viewed as part of the natural progression of the history of portraiture. In our present day portraiture has evolved from paintings and headdresses. Identity has now entered the age of the internet. Look to any single individual and they may have several different profiles each testifying to how they interact and exist in the world, at least the online world. Each social media website is slightly different in terms of what their product is and how they want you to navigate, we could say they express different cultures. The way one interacts on one site such as Facebook may be completely different to their profile on Instagram. These virtual worlds possess room in which an individual can testify to who they are, what are their values and in a sense what makes them, them. No longer is it just a name, there is images, videos, sound recordings or wall statuses. This conglomerate of profiles each attempt to meet at the centre and express an entire history of you. This is a history that is constantly updating and evolving.
Identity is understood in relationship to history. Looking to the way identities act as social constructs bears witness to the way these societies understand themselves. In many western societies identity is centred more around the individual whilst in other regions of the world, identity is strongly rooted in the community you come from. These identity beliefs are cross cultural and differ widely. Now as identity has moved towards the internet these identity beliefs have become globalised and international. People now understand their own identity in relation to a much larger community than was seen in the past. Human beings interacting in one part of the globe are made aware of their own identity in relation to others in another part. We can thank social media for this incredibly connected phenomenon.
An Identity, A Fiction
If identity is understood in relation to history, what is the history presented by our social media websites? It is an immense cloud of information from photos, to wall posts and even sound recordings, each testifying that this is you. People can gather a lot of information about themselves and others from these shared histories to the point where they understand them as realities. As much as this seems the case, isn’t it also a fiction? In Charles Cooley’s looking glass self theory, he concluded that people shape their self concepts on the way others perceive them. We become ourselves through society rather than having an innate sense of self. A profile acts as a constant reminder of the world looking back at you. Identity is constructed through society to the point where it is often fictitious.
This history of you, your social media profile, follows you. No matter where you are on the globe, you can tap into your Facebook feed and be reminded about who you are, where you came from, and what you are interested in. Susan Sontag once said on photography, “today everything exists to end on a photograph”, now everything exists to end on our wall feed. Social media profiles are allowed to grow and evolve with the movements of your own life. By creating narratives through photos and wall posts we construct identities of ourselves. The power of social media has shown to be incredibly valuable for connecting with people around the globe and finding people you may have forgotten about years before. These social media identities have become a huge importance on our daily lives.
With that being said, isn’t an identity also a burden? It is often a romanticised view to go out in the world, get lost, construct yourself anew. Is this still the case with a social media profile of you trailing in its wake? As much as we perform our identities , our identities also inform us in how we act. In that sense it is hard to construct yourself anew whilst being constantly reminded about who you are. Facebook recently began showing past wall posts allowing you to be reminded of what you were like then, or who you were with. Not to mention being able to see friendships or what your relationships were like with other people. Now new job managers may want to look at your profile to get a sense of who you are. Your past acts a constant reminder on your daily life to the point where it can become more debilitating than pleasant. With your identity on display constantly, viewed by your peers or the professional world, how easy is it to construct yourself anew, to get lost?
The value of social media in our day and age has become increasingly apparent. It has acted like a new form of portraiture. Like all portraits, people want to stay faithful to them, to be reminded about who they are. The problem comes down to how immensely vast these portraits become. They grow and evolve with you, people understand them to be realities. The narratives these profiles profess are also incomplete and often superficial. Being yourself can sometimes be a burden, but being someone else, or someone new, is now much harder than it was before. Our relationships supersede the superficiality of social media and the internet, however, now they are sometimes the only ways we can remember people or even ourselves. It would be naive to think of a world without social media, but it would be nice to be able to think of someone without being reminded of the thousands of other things going on in the world. Like most things in the world, there are good points and bad and we have the choice to choose. Now with social media, our ability to choose who we want to be, is left up to Facebook or Instagram, and the list goes on…
What do you think? Leave a comment.