There is no disputing that social media has had a growing importance in our lives for the last decade or so, in fact, one can argue that various social media platforms have transcended and reshaped their prior functions as tools of entertainment and networking, and now serve as an essential contributor to the construction of new so-called social identities. But with these apps and platforms being spaces wherein we “showcase” our lived experiences, the need to “dress up” or in other ways reinvent ourselves seems ever-present. This development in turn calls in to question whether authentic self-representation can exist online.
Identity construction is an integral part of the human condition, one that we have researched and explored through countless avenues for many years. It involves our personal life experiences, relationships, influences from different milieus, and a brief examination of our many interests. Said another way, our identity is whatever makes us the person we are today, including key factors such as gender expression, religion, race, sexuality, etc. Yet in the digital world of social media, this already convoluted phenomenon is further complicated due to the anonymity that comes with most of us now sitting behind a screen.
We can be whoever we want online
Popular social media platforms often reflect a variety of dimensions regarding our respective positions in both our virtual and physical social lives—and this results in most of us playing a handful of different characters in the social arena. Depending on how many apps and platforms we regularly utilize, we may have just as many online personas. At first, this does not seem that different from how we usually interact with others in the physical world, after all, our behavior does vary in diverse settings. But the sheer quantity of online personas a single individual can have does raise doubt about the quality of these new identities, and their respective uses.
We commodify identity
The commodification of identity has been an ongoing trend in our postmodern society, one that our continued technological advancement only exacerbates. Now, it is not only big corporations who utilize identity to sell their products, but we, the supposed consumers, are also commodifying ourselves. The practice of “self-branding” is a good example of this self-commodification, as it is a marketing strategy based on cultivating an often-manipulated name and image intended for economic gain. The rise of influencers has made it so our online representations are no longer reiterations or reinventions of our “true” physical selves, but an avenue through which we can garner fame and success by selling a relatable image to like-minded people.
Authenticity can be performative
With identity itself being a marketable commodity easily sold and purchased by others online, the issue of authenticity should be discussed. Positioning yourself as a certain type of personality on different social media platforms is simple these days, and many then use this persona to peddle faux relatability to an audience of mostly adolescents, again, in an attempt to sell them something. This, in turn, makes authenticity a useful tool in the world of digital media, one that does not always require sincerity or honesty but just a semblance of either. For a lot of us, this means that we cannot and should not assume that the people we meet in these spaces are their true, authentic selves.
Misrepresentation can be dangerous
The ability to be whoever you want online is simultaneously quite liberating and quite dangerous. It opens a world of possibilities for us to explore various sides of ourselves that we for one reason or another have not yet been able to embrace. But for some of us, it might also be a way to craft an identity that we are not yet able to be fully responsible for. Catfishing and other forms of online self-misrepresentation have gotten more advanced with time, and even the seemingly harmless act of lying about your age when creating a new social media profile has been proven to have some lasting psychological effect on the often-underage individuals entering these spaces.
With social media being an enormous part of our daily lives, it is necessary to evaluate how we use it and learn to opt for social media strategies that fulfill, please, and entertain us and keep us safe from harm. Negotiating the intersection between technology and the complicated issue of identity is a confusing process, one that most of us, no matter our age and social media prowess, will struggle with. So instead of considering our multiple online identities an inauthentic picture of our “true” selves, we should think of them as static representations of an otherwise dynamic personality. Making and/or re-making social media profiles is not always without consequence, so we should be careful about how we choose to portray ourselves online.