All media plays a vital role in the development of the self however social media plays a particularly intrinsic part, allowing us to define who we are in compared to other people and other groups. Social media is a conduit of culture, giving access to endless networks, allowing the user to find out who and what they identify with, and develop interactions with people of similar beliefs.
In the UK there are 51.2 million Facebook users, which is 76% of the population and globally, it is the most used social media platform, with approximately 3 billion users. However, even though it has become a significant part of our daily lives, the interactions that take place on it are not always genuine. What masquerades as communication is too often just self-elevation.
Interactions are easier than ever, and yet people self-regulate their own image and the content they put online
The 21st century individual is compelled to constantly aspire to be the ‘best version of themselves’, to promote themselves, and present themselves as a consistent brand. This process is particularly prevalent on social media, as the absence of face-to-face interaction allows people to create personas, abstractions of their identity, parodies of how they really appear. More than ever, people are pushed to be the type of person they want others to perceive them as. Some might argue that this sort of pressure is confined to corporate platforms such as LinkedIn, but the reality is that from Snapchat to Instagram, users curate their responses to posts and pages they like, even creating specific profile pictures to send a particular message.
Interactions are easier than ever, and yet people self-regulate their own image and the content they put online. Scharff (2016) explains in her study that this online persona that online users are pressured to act in line with the dominant discourse of the groups they belong to. Dubbed ‘group confinement’, she sees it as a fundamental element of Facebook, where groups of people coalesce around similar ideas, allowing advertisers to target specific ads that reinforce users’ perspectives. Users literally fragment into groups bound by common values and ideas and become increasingly sure that their group is objectively true as they are unable to see other alternatives.
These users then become defined by group ideals and accordingly change their real-world behaviour. For example, if a user were to be confined to a group that supports a particular political candidate, they may then choose to wear clothes with the candidates’ name on, or have a bumper sticker to show their support. In this way, the real self is remade in the image of the digital self. This experience is especially visible in Western cultures, where people try to reveal to others their internal thoughts and beliefs through external behavior.
We seek to elevate ourselves, to find groups to identify with, to translate our group belonging to the external world, and to present an image of self-confidence
And what better example is there of the curation of the digital self than the ‘selfie’? According to a 2016 study, there are four motivations for posting selfies: attention-seeking, communication, the archiving of moments, and entertainment. Although I do not disagree that selfies are used in this way, I believe that this model of communication also demonstrates a culture of curated confidence, where our digital selves, like on Facebook, are elevated beyond what we really are. This phenomenon has been called ‘confidence culture’ which particularly affects girls and acts as a new form of self-regulation and governance. This self-regulation is typically seen as a product of neoliberalism – we strive to show others an elevated form of ourselves, to appear marketable and invulnerable. Having said that, vulnerability is ironically curated as a quality in and of itself; each quality is elevated and heightened, interpreted to form part of a cohesive brand which we communicate to others.
To bring this back to the digital self, these modes of communication challenge us to create individualized definitions, even as social media encourages us to conform to group norms and values. We seek to elevate ourselves, to find groups to identify with, to translate our group belonging to the external world, and to present an image of self-confidence.
In every era, aspirations are difficult to achieve: in 2021, we fetishize organization because distractions are everywhere. We fetishize fitness because neoliberalism tells us that we are perfectible, that we are ambassadors for our own personal brands. We fetishize confidence and purpose because social media forces us to locate our identity in amorphous, shifting, pixelated communities; and this is hardly a situation conducive to confidence. We remake ourselves in the images we curate online. We used to make technology. Now technology makes us.